The Sordid Secrets of Babylon
Filmmaker Kenneth Anger—the guy who literally wrote the book on Hollywood debauchery—talks with us about the strange and dark realms of celebrity.
Portraits by Mike Piscitelli and Jason Henry
A few days before I was set to interview Kenneth Anger, I started feeling weird. I kept imagining a terrible scene: sitting across from the 85-year-old filmmaker in a dimly lit, very old room while he grows increasingly frustrated with my line of questioning. And while I don’t believe in such things, I began worrying that if I annoyed him enough he’d cast a Thelemic curse on me. He’s done it before.
Whether or not I’ve been doomed is still unclear, but regardless, I got what I came for. I wanted to speak with Kenneth because, as I see it, he has transfigured the Hollywood aesthetic into some of the most emblematic and striking short films ever made. Much of his work—especially Rabbit’s Moon, Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, Lucifer Rising, and Mouse Heaven—runs along a twisted continuum of American iconography, societal norms, and belief.
Kenneth also wrote Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, books that detailed hushed celebrity scandals from the silent-film era through the late 60s. Some critics have cast doubt on claims made in the book, but who are they to say they know better? They weren’t there. And before the existence of societal scourges like People, TMZ, and Us Weekly, it was much easier for famous people to get away with sordid deeds.
Six years after its initial publication in France, the book was released in the US in 1965. Within days it was banned and pulled from bookstores until a new edition was printed in 1975. A review in the New York Times famously stated: “If a book such as this can be said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without one single redeeming merit.” In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.
During my visit to LA to interview Kenneth, his name kept popping up seemingly at random. When I visited the Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard and mentioned my upcoming interview to the nice couple who run the place, they told me they’d been friendly with “Ken” for years and that he had cursed them no fewer than three times (in one instance via their answering machine). He also continues to send them all sorts of mail on an almost daily basis—letters, notes, books, and other packages—apparently because he likes the post office and enjoys mailing things to people.
Another strange occurrence happened during a free afternoon when I made the poor decision of taking the Dearly Departed Tour, a bus excursion to locations around LA where infamous celebrity scandals and deaths took place. The guide kept angrily referring to Kenneth, calling him a “tyrant” and a “liar.” He even accused him of fabricating the circumstances surrounding the death of 1920s starlet Marie Prevost.
During a lunch meeting with author John Gilmore (see his piece, “This Is Hollywood, Isn’t It?” soon on VICE.com), Kenneth became a point of conversation yet again. John put it more eloquently than anyone when he said the director has been “the iconoclastic, ancient, experimental filmmaker and thorn in Hollywood’s groin since childhood, a self-proclaimed spiritual magician who predates the glamour days.” He went on to recount the time Kenneth showed up at fellow director and mutual friend Curtis Harrington’s funeral at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery wearing a black raincoat, eyeliner, and fingernail polish. His shirt was opened to his navel, revealing the giant lucifer tattoo emblazoned across his chest, and he was accompanied by a boyish photographer who took pictures as Kenneth kissed Curtis’s corpse before its cremation. Before he was ejected from the premises, Kenneth handed John a small plastic vampire figurine that contained mint candies inside, clarifying its original use by saying, “It’s actually a dispenser for tickle-ribbed rubbers.”
But in the end, our interview did go well, or at least I thought it did. Kenneth was very polite if somewhat reserved, and throughout our chat, the only awkward moments were when he would pause after answering a question. A few times he had something to add and would pick up again, but mostly he would just look at me in the eyes and say, “OK?” to signal that he was ready to move on. By the end, it was clear that he is truly a walking treasure trove of history; he has lurked at the core of Hollywood longer—and knows her better—than anyone else.
VICE: Would you say that you lean more toward loving or disdaining Hollywood?
Kenneth Anger: I have a certain amount of ambivalence about it, but basically I am fond of it. And so whatever vices it has I appreciate; it is colorful. And it used to be a lot more colorful than it is now. This is sort of a mellow period, but there were days in the 20s and the 30s when it was having a different scandal every week, practically. I appreciated that as a historian, but we haven’t had any juicy scandals recently.
Does this have anything to do with the way the press covers celebrities? Are too many people famous nowadays?
No, it was the personalities, sort of larger-than-life personalities. And they were genius. Like Charlie Chaplin, for instance. At the same time, they had a propensity for pushing the boundaries and getting in trouble. In his case, he liked young girls, and that still is sort of a no-no.
Have there been any recent scandals that particularly interested you?
I have a pretty good antenna about what is happening in Hollywood, and it has just quieted down. In the 60s there was a flare-up with the Manson crowd and all that, but that has all quieted away.
And you would know because you lived through most of it. You were making films before you were even a teenager, right?
I was a kid, yes.
When was the last time you watched anything you filmed from that era?
I haven’t looked at them; they are filed away. I do have most of them, and I was working on 16 mm. Now I prefer to work in digital.
Why short films? Have you ever been tempted to make a feature?
Well, I could manage a shorter film with my own personal budget, and I compare my films to poems—I consider myself a poet of films. And something like 15 minutes or half an hour, I can manage that myself quite well as far as the budget goes. I have made films of up to 40 minutes, but oddly I never felt attracted to going into feature-length films.
Kenneth poses in the elevator at the swanky and impeccably art deco Cicada Restaurant in Downtown LA. As soon as he walked into the place, he started detailing its history as a fancy clothing store where some of the biggest stars used to shop. Photo by Mike Piscitelli
Does your use of digital cameras mean that you’ve also embraced the internet as a distribution method?
Unfortunately, it makes piracy very possible—that is easy—and I consider us to be living in the age of piracy. And I object to it a lot. I try to hold on to my things as carefully as I can, but it is not always possible to protect everything.
Recently, there have been attempts by the government to more narrowly define how copyright laws apply to the internet—SOPA, PIPA, and the like. Do you follow these developments or have any sort of opinion on what’s happening?
[curls up his face] Well, I wish them luck. The commercial-film people are much more concerned about being ripped off big time, and so they really have something to fight for.
It seems that today the major stumbling blocks for filmmakers have to do with distribution rather than content. This wasn’t always the case. Back when you made Fireworks, your first publicly released film, you ended up facing some legal troubles.
Minor legal troubles; it was considered a little over the edge for the time, 1947. It was a pioneer film, and it was made in one weekend, so times have changed, but it was kind of exciting not knowing what would happen. For instance, when it was made I had a problem with finding a lab to print it. But finally one of the places decided, “Oh well, it is just a little film, we will print it.” That was Consolidated Lab, which at that time was a branch of Republic Pictures. One of the technicians was an ex-navy man, and because I have real sailors in my family, he was a bit concerned over [the sailors] in the film. But in the end, nothing came of it.
Still, you were facing allegations of obscenity, and at the time that was a very serious charge.
It never came down to it. There was the possibility, but it never amounted to that.
But it did attract the attention of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, whom you befriended. Did he encourage your work?
Yes. Kinsey was doing interviews for his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and I don’t know… What if you are not human? The title is kind of awkward, but that was what he called his research book. He was basically a biologist, an expert on wasps, of all things. When he came to LA to do interviews, I met him. He came to see Fireworks at the Coronet Theatre at a midnight showing, and he wanted to buy a print for his collection at Indiana University. I agreed, and that was the first copy I ever sold. But I remained good friends with him until the end of his life.
Did he serve as a sort of foil during this period, a time when it was difficult to openly discuss sexuality as it applied to society, or were your interactions more casual?
When Kinsey came to visit Europe and Italy for the first time, I had done intense research on the villa of Aleister Crowley because he had this 18th-century farmhouse, which he called the Abbey of Thelema. He was inspired by Gauguin and painted all of the walls with murals, but they were explicitly erotic in a humorous way and so he was kicked out of Italy. It was the first days of Mussolini, who didn’t like the English anyway. It was an excuse to kick him out, and Crowley’s paintings were covered with whitewash. I spent a summer scraping off the whitewash and photographing [the murals]. That was an interesting archaeology.
Many of your films feature homoerotic imagery, yet they were made at a time when homosexuality was technically illegal. Did the government’s interference with sexual preferences affect the way you approached filmmaking? Did that even enter the equation?
I just always did what I wanted to do. It never bothered me, and I never had any specific problem. There is nothing explicit in my films. Even though you could say that Fireworks is kind of explicit, it is so symbolic that it got by.
Do you believe that censorship can sometimes be an inspiration for creativity? That perhaps some things are more poignant when left unsaid?
We are in a time now where practically anything goes. There was a time when anything that had to do with sexuality, you had to tiptoe around it.
It makes mystique impossible.
The fact that one can practically do anything one wants today means there is no kind of censorship that can cease you from making films and maybe result in being thrown in jail or something. In the early days, back in the 40s, it was actually possible that something like that could happen.
Yet many of the stars you write about in Hollywood Babylon were involved in off-screen, real-life activities that were far more scandalous. And while I’m sure it didn’t, at the time the book seemed to come out of nowhere. You hadn’t released a film in almost five years, and here you were airing all sorts of dirty laundry about the entertainment industry.
I never stopped making films, but yeah, I was working on the book, traveling and living in Europe. I’m finishing one right now on zeppelins, a fascinating obsolete form of transportation with sometimes explosive results if not handled right.
That seems like a natural progression, but I have a feeling it will be a lot easier to find a publisher for it than a book that made some of the most famous people in the world look like maladjusted deviants. How were you able to get Hollywood Babylon on the shelves? I know the French were involved.
When I went to live in Paris, I met the people at Cahiers du Cinéma, which was the main film magazine. I told them stories I knew—colorful, odd stories about Hollywood—and finally they said, “Why don’t you do a book about it?” And so the first edition of Hollywood Babylon was written in French and published in Paris in the late 50s. And then an expanded version was published in English.
Did most of the stories come from your own knowledge, or did you rely more on research and interviews?
It was basically my knowledge. By the time I went to Paris I had absorbed all of this, all I could about Hollywood history.
Because of your photo selection, it reads like a magazine in many ways—what a gossip magazine should look like.
That was on purpose. It is a picture book, almost like a documentary film. I’ve been collecting stills of old Hollywood all my life, so I literally have thousands to choose from. It’s a selection of my photographs, which are almost as important as the text.
I’m staying at the Beverly Hilton while I’m in LA, and out in front of the hotel there’s a memorial to Whitney Houston—balloons and candles and all that. I’m sure they’ll have been removed by the time this interview goes to print, but even now, a couple weeks after her death, everything is business as usual. She’s already out of the media cycle. Do you think the public has become desensitized to extreme celebrity behavior, or are things a lot less interesting than they used to be?
She fell asleep in the bathtub, and I guess she drowned. But she had considerable drugs in her, so I don’t think it was suicide. I think it was a mistake.
Sure, but my point is that it seems the shelf life of these types of stories has shortened since you wrote Hollywood Babylon. The entertainment-news industry is a well-oiled machine now.
It depends who it is and what happened. Like, before my time there was the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, and that resonated all through the 20s, it kept being referred to. In the case of Whitney, it’s just that there is not any intrigue. It was just an accident, and it is too bad it happened, but I guess it was her fault.
Fatty Arbuckle is the perfect example of someone whose private life was diametrically opposed to what he did on-screen. Obviously him being an obese actor nicknamed Fatty who allegedly crushed a girl to death while raping her at a party in his hotel room, and the ensuing trials, made it prime newspaper copy for more than a decade. But I feel like celebrities publicly admit to and get away with worse things these days. Have they just become better at feigning remorse and using teams of publicists to spin stories?
Well, it is the craft of acting, after all, and so they have a right to act. But the present group of people in Hollywood are not scandalous, in the sense that they were. There was a flurry of drug use in the 60s, and if it is still there, it is very quiet. Cocaine caused a number of problems.
Looking back at the films of the silent era, the way they were shot and cut make it seem like everyone was snorting massive lines right up until the director yelled, “Action!”
I find film style reflects it, particularly the Mack Sennett [the director largely responsible for the popularity of slapstick] comedies. And my research proves that they were taking cocaine. You can see a sort of hyper-influence there.
There are lots of tales that make reference to “joy powder” in Hollywood Babylon, which makes it seem as innocent as taking one of those 5-hour Energy shots. Another phrase you use in the book, in the first few pages, is the “Purple Epoch.” What is that? It sounds nice.
That was when there were very talented people who also had extravagant tastes and money. It was the 1920s, a reflection of the Jazz Age. And the Hollywood version of that was pretty wild.
Kenneth poses for his adoring fans after accepting accolades at an Anthology Film Archives benefit in 2010. Photo by Jason Henry
Another topic you cover early on in the book is the circumstances surrounding the death of Olive Thomas, which is perhaps the first instance of “Hollywood scandal” as we know it. You write, and it’s long been rumored, that she was very fond of cocaine, which was apparently a fatal flaw when combined with alcohol and ingesting her husband Jack Pickford’s topical syphilis medication.
She was one of the earliest beautiful stars to die in grim circumstances. And so her name became associated with lurid [behavior]. Things going on in Hollywood.
Her death also seemed to pull the wool from everyone’s eyes. Olive Thomas’s image was so sweet and pure. It caused Hollywood’s reputation to snowball into something far darker than how it was previously perceived. People must have thought, “If Olive’s doing it, everyone else must be too.”
There were other ones too, like Mary Miles Minter [who was accused of murdering her lover, director William Desmond Taylor, at the height of her success]. She was a kind of version of Mary Pickford [Jack Pickford’s sister], but the great stars like Pickford were never touched. These scandals swirled around, but there were certain stars that weren’t implicated in any way by this sort of thing.
Do you have a favorite star from this era? Someone whom you continue to research exhaustively?
I love the career of Rudolph Valentino, who died at 31 and had an amazing trajectory in that short time. His life continues to fascinate me.
Do you continue to find new information? I can only imagine how extensive your archives must be.
I have plenty of information on him. There are facts, and then there is gossip. I go for the facts, but I will listen to the gossip. [smiles]
Your willingness to sift through the gossip was a point of contention with some people when Hollywood Babylon was published, especially after its second printing. Some have accused you of muckraking, and others have even gone further and claim that it contains factual inaccuracies.
Well, I’ve never been sued…
In other words, your detractors can’t prove it.
No one ever came up to me and said, “Well, you made the whole thing up.” Because I definitely didn’t.
I believe filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow once said that you had told him most of your research relied on “mental telepathy.” Why do you think some have tried to undermine the book?
I don’t think they do. This is news to me. I haven’t had any trouble like that.
OK, we’ll move on. I find the connection between Hollywood and the occult to be very fascinating. Do you think one begets the other?
There have been a number of slightly bizarre cults and things like that [in LA], and they lead to little flickering interests among some people in Hollywood. For instance, there has never been a massive devotion to Satanism or things like that.
That’s true, but what about Scientology? It seems that half of Hollywood is involved with it in some way. Which reminds me: I believe you’ve stated in interviews that you have almost a complete draft of Hollywood Babylon III, but it will never be released to the public because much of it is about Scientology. Is that true?
I do have it in rough form, but they are quite litigious and I don’t want to tangle with them. And they have certain people like John Travolta and Tom Cruise who have gotten hooked into it and made it their belief system, so I am leaving them alone.
Your interest in the teachings of Aleister Crowley has influenced your work greatly. What first drew you to him and his philosophy of Thelema?
He is a fascinating character, and if I were making feature films I would be tempted to make something on Aleister Crowley. Luckily, no one else has. Various people have threatened to. I sort of hoped that it didn’t happen, and it has not happened [yet], so I have been saved that.
The uninformed might not see much difference between Crowley’s disciples and Scientologists. They are ignorant, of course, but may we humor that line of thinking for a second? Can you help them understand?
There have always been people interested in Aleister Crowley, who died in 1947. His followers are in the OTO, Ordo Templi Orientis, which is kind of a cult society. It has hundreds of members, but it is almost invisible, it is low-key. It is not like Scientology, which is basically a business. I have nothing to do with them.
Can we wind it up?
OK, can I maybe ask you three more questions?
[eyes widen as he purses his lips] No.
Not even one?
If you only have a few more…
Just one, maybe two, I promise. Werner Herzog is fond of saying that LA is the only truly American city because a lot of the other major cities in the US are European-influenced. In other words, LA is the only place that has a true American culture. What do you think of that?
Well, that is because he is a foreigner, and he is making a judgment from outside. So [to him] LA seems like some sort of strange beast, or it has certain bizarre elements that are characteristic of California, but at any rate I live here, so…
You still love it?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Otherwise I wouldn’t live here.
Watch Rocco interview Kenneth in the flesh in a new episode of VICE Meets...