a piece by Eric Hehr


“Nobody in America, in the modern generation, has read their own mythology or legends." - Kenneth Anger



     Motorcycles. Sadomasochism. Methamphetamines. Leather. Homoeroticism. Nazism. Occultism. Pop music. Christianity. Hollywood. Death. These are just a few themes and motifs in Scorpio Rising’s half-hour runtime. 

     Shot around Coney Island in 1962, the film’s voraciousness is still startling by today’s standards. A hyper-stylized refraction of the American mythos born from rock ’n roll and the “live fast die young” mentality, Scorpio Rising is a visual assault, projected through a kaleidoscopic lens of masculine bravado, emblematic popism, and a sexual desire for flesh and gear. In its thematic ambiguity and graphic visuals, Scorpio Rising evokes a sinister feeling - this film is dangerous. But it’s dark-tinted precariousness is nullified by the gritty modernism and fashionable aestheticism it employs in its objectification of sexuality and machinery. It’s as alluring as it is alarming.

     Prior to its filming, Scorpio Rising’s director, Kenneth Anger, had just returned to the US from France. While Anger already had a handful of self-financed films that were well respected amongst the avant-grade film community, he was not a bankable commodity. His prestige in the underground film world did not translate to financial stability, prompting him to relocate to Paris - a place where Anger felt his films had a better chance for success. 

     During his time in Paris, Anger would become the toast of the French art scene, kissing cheeks and drinking cognac with the likes of Anais Nin and Jean Cocteau while working for film archivist, Henry Langlois, at the prestigious Cinematheque Francais. Despite being an ornate socialite, Anger’s endeavors as a director proved unfruitful. To make ends meet, Anger begged local art publications to pay him to write editorials about old Hollywood. Creatively and geographically, he was a far-cry away from where he wanted to be: a successful director, working inside the bustling studio system of Hollywood. 

     To understand Anger - as well as Scorpio Rising - it’s important to trace his origins, which is no easy feat. The investigation into Anger’s past is littered with half-told truths, conflicting timelines, and an ever-changing cast of sentinel characters. This starts with Anger’s birth date, which changes from year to year depending on which interview he’s giving (according to most sources, Anger was born in 1927). It continues to his first brush with Hollywood filmmaking, which also may or may not have ever happened. According to Anger (as well as his unofficial biographer, Bill Landis), Anger was a child actor, his credits including the “Changeling Prince” in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 screen adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starring opposite James Cagney (Bottom) and Mickey Rooney (Puck), this would be the first and last time Anger would ever work within the Hollywood studio system. “I was a child prodigy who never got any smarter,” Anger would later say.


Portrait of Kenneth Anger taken by Charles Kessler


     Anger’s inability to penetrate the commercialism of Hollywood would serve as his achilles heel: it forced him to work outside Hollywood, allowing him the creative freedom to explore the fabric of cinema as an auteur as opposed to a contractor. But it also left him with a chip on his shoulder (best exemplified by his decision to change his last name from “Anglemyer” to “Anger” early in his directorial career - a nod to his artistic temperament) and a perpetual sense of artistic inadequacy. To compensate, Anger would often lie about his accomplishments. He would embellish his past, creating his own folklore. Like the Mark Twain quote, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Anger would sensationalize the details of his own life just as much as he did the tinsel-town icons he wrote about.

     Anger viewed himself as an outsider from a young age. He was forthcoming about his homosexuality at a time when being gay was considered both a mental illness and a punishable crime. He was highly creative, attracted to art and music in a straight lace household that was distinctly middle class and unintellectual. Anger found it difficult to form friendships with his peers at Beverly Hills School. He found solace in his grandmother and her live-in friend, Diggy. During his frequent trips to his grandmother’s house, Diggy would regale Anger with stories from her past-life working on film sets (in subsequent interviews, Anger would often contribute these stories to his grandmother, negating the existence of Diggy in favor of a more personalized, family-sourced narrative. Again, another conflicting detail in Anger’s checkered past). Diggy’s half-remembered reminiscences - tarnished by passing decades and soaked in endless gin martinis - were meant as cautionary tales for young Kenneth. But they fueled his growing appetite for the mysticism of Hollywood. These tales of drug abuse and sexual exploits from the damaged lives of silver screen sirens like Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow took on epic proportions; the stars themselves becoming pagan gods and goddesses, and Hollywood - an enchanted kingdom ever on the verge of crumbling beneath the weight of its decadent occupants - becoming the modern-day equivalent of ancient Rome. It was a place of endless sunshine, casting dark shadows across Tudor-style mansions and penthouse suites where glamour and luxury spawned hedonism and mystery. In these shadows, Anger found inspiration and a career-long rapport with the dark side of the Hollywood sign.

     These second-hand fables of Hollywood would become the basis of the editorial articles Anger peddled in Paris. They would eventually be compiled into a coffee table book before making their way to America in 1964 in the form of a bootleg paperback. In 1975, a publishing division of Rolling Stone would publish the definitive version that we know today: Hollywood Babylon. The publication would secure Anger as a scholar on the tawdry side of the entertainment industry. 

     By the time Anger returned to America in 1961, he had begun pairing his star worship with the teachings of Aleister Crowley, a famed English occultist who had founded the religion of Thelema. Crowley’s teachings were loaded with symbolic imagery that would become insignia’s for occultism, iconic onto themselves as a shorthand for black magick. A fan of iconic symbols ranging from the Coca-Cola logo to the swastika, Anger was drawn to the cryptic imagery associated with Crowley’s teaching. But he was also drawn to Crowley’s message of magick. Crowley believed magick to be the act of creating change with one’s own will. This was something that deeply resonated with the frustrated Anger, who carried resentment that his foray into child stardom didn’t open up the pearly white gates to the majestic kingdom of Hollywood. Anger was driven to continue making films, with or without the recognition he craved from the entertainment industry. With the occult teachings of Crowley, a plethora of taboo sexual fetishes, feelings of being an outsider, and a love/hate relationship with Hollywood for supplying him with the iconography he adored but keeping his career at bay, Anger set off to make Scorpio Rising.



     “Scorpio Rising is a death-mirror held up to American culture,” Anger would later say, “It’s Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans.” The name of the film refers to the eighth astrological sign in the zodiac: Scorpio, the god of sexuality and machinery. Coupling Anger’s sexuality and his mystical belief in the occult with the fierce machoism of its subjects, Scorpio Rising is a quasi-documentary that plays out as “a day in the life” of a Coney Island motorcycle gang. We follow members around as they prepare for a night out: they tune up their bikes, prepare their outfits, attend a party where they “initiate” a new member, and break into a church. The film concludes itself the following morning at a motorcycle race, ending in tragedy. Outside of these events, there is seemingly no plot to the film, no fleshed-out characters, and no dialogue. Instead of a comprehensive narrative, we get a visual tone poem centered on iconography, identity, and male pageantry. 



     The documentary feel of the film largely comes from the fact that its subjects weren’t actors - they were real-life members of a Coney Island motorcycle gang. After befriending Anger, they allowed him access into their garages, apartments, and workshops, most likely underneath the guise that Anger was making a straightforward film about their subculture. They had no way of knowing that Anger was positioning his camera lens in a way that sexually objectified them - more focused on eroticism than on documentation. Throughout the first half of the film, we gaze at male torsos draped in leather through a distinctly furtive lens. We watch the epitome of masculinity - the “devil may care” biker - engaging in full out pageantry: meticulously selecting skull rings, trying on silk scarfs, and zipping up freshly oiled leather jackets. More feminine than masculine, these sequences are soundtracked by bubblegum pop hits of the early sixties. While the lyrical content vaguely plays into the action occurring on screen, their specific selection is enhanced by the homoerotic nature of the film’s cinematography and editing. While the abrasiveness of Link Wray or Duane Eddy would be more indigenous to the subjects on screen, Anger uses music that - in context of the time period - would feel most at home in the cotton candy wallpapered bedroom of a teenage girl. These needle drops, coupled with Anger’s seductive lens, create a kind of kitschy, homoerotic daydream. This is best exemplified by the choice of Bobby Vinton’s 1963 hit, “Blue Velvet,” which serves as the score to a surreal montage of bikers adorning themselves and their motorcycles with leather, denim, and chains. What is supposed to be aggressive and destructive comes off as sexy and seductive. We’re bearing witness to hyper-masculinity through the lens of a flirtatious on-looker, enraptured more by the sexuality of the male physique than the heterosexual “tough-guy” costuming it’s dressing in.



     The subjects of Scorpio Rising did not know that their candid exploits were being framed to invoke sadomasochism; that the 16mm footage of their day to day existence would be cross-cut with footage of Jesus, Nazi flags, and Marlon Brando. One of the film’s main subjects is a biker named Bruce Byron (dubbed “Scorpio”). As Byron reads comics in bed, we notice his walls are filled with photos of James Dean and posters of skulls. His bedside table is a mess of Lucky Strike soft-packs and viles of methamphetamines. The Wild One plays on a tubed television. In-between bumps of meth, Byron suits up for the evening: aviator sunglasses, chain belts, and steel tip boots. During this sequence, Anger cross-cuts to inserts of Brando in The Wild One and Bela Lugosi in Dracula, using pop hits such as “You’re The Devil In Disguise” by Elvis Presley and “Heatwave” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas to score Byron’s ceremonial routine.

     We follow Byron as he leaves his apartment, making his way to the party. Decked out in leather and denim, Byron’s journey to the party is cross-cut with inserts of Jesus Christ and his disciples, set to the tune of “He’s A Rebel” by The Crystals. When he arrives at the party (it was later revealed by Anger that this was a Halloween party for the gang. This is never explained in the film, so the skeletal masks and gothic decorations only add to the film’s esotericism), Byron helps initiate a new member into the gang. The initiation is nothing more than frat-boy antics, but it’s never given context. Because of this, the tone seems vile and threatening. Through Anger’s camera lens, the precariousness of the party also takes on a definitive homosexual edge. 



     As the initiation continues, we follow Byron into an empty church. Lit only by flashlight, Byron scales the church’s altar, frantically gesturing as he makes an impromptu speech. Instead of hearing what Byron is saying, “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March plays, and we’re shown inserts of both Nazi memorabilia and religious paraphernalia. Again, Anger does not give context for any of this.

     So what is Anger doing here? What do we make of all this? Is Scorpio Rising an extreme case of style over substance, or is there a deeper meaning to Anger’s intentions? By juxtaposing a motorcycle gang with the early disciples of Christianity and the Nazi party of World War II, Anger is drawing comparisons about the aestheticism of identity and iconography. In the world of Scorpio Rising, the avatars of death and danger - James Dean, Adolf Hitler, Dracula, Jesus Christ, The Grim Reaper - occupy the same space. They all have a uniform, a mythos, symbolic imagery, and followers who obsess over their iconicism. The motorcycle gang in Scorpio Rising are disciples of American pop culture, followers of Brando and Dean. Their hymns come from the FM dial, their bible the Sunday comics. Like any form of groupthink, there is a signature fashion that supersedes the ideology and correlating symbolic imagery. The robe, the cape, the leather jacket. The cross, the swastika, the smoking skull. The inherent sense of badass masculinity in biker subculture becomes so amplified, so fetishized, that it becomes homoerotic. Scorpio Rising weaponizes this eroticism and turns it into total fascism. Brando becomes Christ and motorcycles become a religion and straight becomes gay and death becomes a lifestyle. The parallels between the archetype of the rebel, the prophet, and the fascist become jumbled. Regardless of being a Nazi, a homosexual, a vampire, or a biker, these identities all share symbolic imagery that resonates with a perceived sense of self. The irony of the quest for individuality is the predisposition to classify within a group - to dress the part, to use the language, to promote the same symbols. The church, the garage, the television set - these are all places of worship, depending on who we perceive ourselves to be - what uniform we decide to costume ourselves in. A devoted Christian. A hell-raising biker. A glamorous Hollywood star. Scorpio Rising doesn’t judge any specific ideology, favoring aestheticism over dogma, and in the process fetishizes them all as a shared collection of symbols, iconography, and fashion - bound together by the ability to influence identity. 



     Anger’s sexual objectification of biker subculture in Scorpio Rising was met with heavy backlash, especially from the motorcycle gang who appeared in the film. Byron, who was never paid by Anger, was known to show up at screenings of Scorpio Rising, demanding that the film be pulled from the theater. Other members of the gang would spend years trying to distance themselves from the films political and religious overtones, vehemently denying any involvement with Nazism or occultism. The film would also be chastised by the Hell’s Angels, furious over the homoerotic depiction of their culture. This would be written about by Hunter S. Thompson in his 1967 book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs: “Scorpio Rising played in San Francisco in 1964 at a North Beach theater called The Movie, where Anger was living at the time, upstairs, which advertised the film with a side-walk montage of Hell’s Angels newspaper clippings. The implication was so obvious that the Angels made a pilgrimage to check it out. It didn’t groove with them at all...they were genuinely offended. ‘It didn’t have anything to do with us,’ said Frenchy, ‘Man, it was a bummer, it wasn’t right. A lot of people got conned, and now we have to listen to all this crap about us being queers? Shit, did you see the way those punks were dressed? And those silly goddamn junk wagon bikes. Man, don’t tell me that has any connection with us. You know it doesn’t.”

     The Los Angeles Vice Squad would seize the film, leading to a jury trial that would result in Scorpio Rising being banned. The State Supreme Court would later overturn the decision, and Scorpio Rising would be released once again - this time to an even larger audience who wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

     In an ironic twist, Scorpio Rising would go on to become one of the most influential pieces of art in the commercial world, despite never being a commercial success itself. The film is credited as the first “music video,” as Scorpio Rising marks the first time popular music was employed as the sole audio for a film. Its use of juxtaposition and graphical editing would serve as a new kind of template for commercial advertisement, specifically in the fashion world. It would have a major influence on artists ranging from Marilyn Manson to Dennis Hopper to directors such as Martin Scorsese, who claimed that Scorpio Rising’s use of music was the catalyst for his decision to use pop songs in films such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. Photographer and fellow ascending Scorpio, Robert Mapplethorpe, used Scorpio Rising as a reference point while shooting some of his most famous and controversial work in the underground BDSM scene in New York City. "He was a genuine pioneer,” claims director Elio Gelmini, “People are influenced by him who don't even know they're influenced by him. When David Lynch uses the song “Blue Velvet,” Kenneth did that in Scorpio Rising. Kenneth was the first person to use pop music instead of a score." He laughs. "Or at least he'll say he was first.”


Kenneth Anger on the set of Lucifer Rising, London 1970


     After the release of Scorpio Rising, Anger would continue to make films, straddling the line between high and low culture while pushing the envelope of occultism and sexuality in filmmaking. He would exist outside the mainstream, ever conflicted and frustrated by the trajectory of his career: “I reject this term underground,” Anger would tell The Guardian in a 2006 interview, “I don't live underground. What am I, a gopher? These labels! Avant-garde - do you know what that is? It's a military term for soldiers who are sacrificed, who die for the risks they take going first. I’m independent. I have never worked for another company, never had a boss my whole life. I am not beholden to anybody. Call me independent.”

     Anger would spend the rest of the sixties into the seventies cultivating his mythos and folklore, leaving behind some of the most bizarre and star-studded rumors to ever circulate through the Hollywood hills. They include - but are most certainly not limited to - Anger claiming that he put a curse on Bobby Beausoleil, who he cast in his film Lucifer Rising. Bobby would later go on to join the Manson family, famously committing the first murders. During a protest march on Washington, Anger unsuccessfully attempted to use his magick powers to levitate the Pentagon, which lead to a fight with Norman Mailer. Anger became close friends with Mick Jagger - who would score Anger’s film Invocation Of My Demon Brother - and would claim to be the inspiration for the song, “Sympathy For The Devil.” The stories go on and on, featuring the likes of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, actors such as Marianne Faithful, scientists such as Jack Parsons, and pop culture oddballs such as Anton LaVey, the founder of The Church Of Satan.

     Anger would continue to perpetuate his loner, rebel without a cause demeanor. He constantly battled acceptance from anyone and everyone: "If the gay community wants to make me an icon, fine, but for years, I've never got any help from them. Oh yes - wait. I received an award from something called 'Outfest' - that's a 'gay' festival, gay in quotes. I never use that word like they do. I like the original meaning better - joyful. Anyway, it's a life achievement award, a hunk of plastic. You could kill someone with it. I use it as a doorstop. I don't need a piece of plastic. I need money. I need some raw film. I need anything that will help me make movies.”

     One can’t help but wonder if Anger - now 92 years old - is satisfied with his sense of identity and the post- modernistic iconography he created by his distortion of pop culture. Is he content with his cult status, or is he still the angry young filmmaker who never got his shot at the mainstream - still romanticizing the sordid lives of Hollywood ghosts while fictionalizing his own narrative arch, forever drawn to symbols and insignias that help him better understand who he is.



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          - Eric Hehr, Jan. 2019

a piece by Eric Hehr


“Nobody in America, in the modern generation, has read their own mythology or legends." - Kenneth Anger



     Motorcycles. Sadomasochism. Methamphetamines. Leather. Homoeroticism. Nazism. Occultism. Pop music. Christianity. Hollywood. Death. These are just a few themes and motifs in Scorpio Rising’s half-hour runtime. 

     Shot around Coney Island in 1962, the film’s voraciousness is still startling by today’s standards. A hyper-stylized refraction of the American mythos born from rock ’n roll and the “live fast die young” mentality, Scorpio Rising is a visual assault, projected through a kaleidoscopic lens of masculine bravado, emblematic popism, and a sexual desire for flesh and gear. In its thematic ambiguity and graphic visuals, Scorpio Rising evokes a sinister feeling - this film is dangerous. But it’s dark-tinted precariousness is nullified by the gritty modernism and fashionable aestheticism it employs in its objectification of sexuality and machinery. It’s as alluring as it is alarming.

     Prior to its filming, Scorpio Rising’s director, Kenneth Anger, had just returned to the US from France. While Anger already had a handful of self-financed films that were well respected amongst the avant-grade film community, he was not a bankable commodity. His prestige in the underground film world did not translate to financial stability, prompting him to relocate to Paris - a place where Anger felt his films had a better chance for success. 

     During his time in Paris, Anger would become the toast of the French art scene, kissing cheeks and drinking cognac with the likes of Anais Nin and Jean Cocteau while working for film archivist, Henry Langlois, at the prestigious Cinematheque Francais. Despite being an ornate socialite, Anger’s endeavors as a director proved unfruitful. To make ends meet, Anger begged local art publications to pay him to write editorials about old Hollywood. Creatively and geographically, he was a far-cry away from where he wanted to be: a successful director, working inside the bustling studio system of Hollywood. 

     To understand Anger - as well as Scorpio Rising - it’s important to trace his origins, which is no easy feat. The investigation into Anger’s past is littered with half-told truths, conflicting timelines, and an ever-changing cast of sentinel characters. This starts with Anger’s birth date, which changes from year to year depending on which interview he’s giving (according to most sources, Anger was born in 1927). It continues to his first brush with Hollywood filmmaking, which also may or may not have ever happened. According to Anger (as well as his unofficial biographer, Bill Landis), Anger was a child actor, his credits including the “Changeling Prince” in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 screen adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starring opposite James Cagney (Bottom) and Mickey Rooney (Puck), this would be the first and last time Anger would ever work within the Hollywood studio system. “I was a child prodigy who never got any smarter,” Anger would later say.


Portrait of Kenneth Anger taken by Charles Kessler


     Anger’s inability to penetrate the commercialism of Hollywood would serve as his achilles heel: it forced him to work outside Hollywood, allowing him the creative freedom to explore the fabric of cinema as an auteur as opposed to a contractor. But it also left him with a chip on his shoulder (best exemplified by his decision to change his last name from “Anglemyer” to “Anger” early in his directorial career - a nod to his artistic temperament) and a perpetual sense of artistic inadequacy. To compensate, Anger would often lie about his accomplishments. He would embellish his past, creating his own folklore. Like the Mark Twain quote, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Anger would sensationalize the details of his own life just as much as he did the tinsel-town icons he wrote about.

     Anger viewed himself as an outsider from a young age. He was forthcoming about his homosexuality at a time when being gay was considered both a mental illness and a punishable crime. He was highly creative, attracted to art and music in a straight lace household that was distinctly middle class and unintellectual. Anger found it difficult to form friendships with his peers at Beverly Hills School. He found solace in his grandmother and her live-in friend, Diggy. During his frequent trips to his grandmother’s house, Diggy would regale Anger with stories from her past-life working on film sets (in subsequent interviews, Anger would often contribute these stories to his grandmother, negating the existence of Diggy in favor of a more personalized, family-sourced narrative. Again, another conflicting detail in Anger’s checkered past). Diggy’s half-remembered reminiscences - tarnished by passing decades and soaked in endless gin martinis - were meant as cautionary tales for young Kenneth. But they fueled his growing appetite for the mysticism of Hollywood. These tales of drug abuse and sexual exploits from the damaged lives of silver screen sirens like Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow took on epic proportions; the stars themselves becoming pagan gods and goddesses, and Hollywood - an enchanted kingdom ever on the verge of crumbling beneath the weight of its decadent occupants - becoming the modern-day equivalent of ancient Rome. It was a place of endless sunshine, casting dark shadows across Tudor-style mansions and penthouse suites where glamour and luxury spawned hedonism and mystery. In these shadows, Anger found inspiration and a career-long rapport with the dark side of the Hollywood sign.

     These second-hand fables of Hollywood would become the basis of the editorial articles Anger peddled in Paris. They would eventually be compiled into a coffee table book before making their way to America in 1964 in the form of a bootleg paperback. In 1975, a publishing division of Rolling Stone would publish the definitive version that we know today: Hollywood Babylon. The publication would secure Anger as a scholar on the tawdry side of the entertainment industry. 

     By the time Anger returned to America in 1961, he had begun pairing his star worship with the teachings of Aleister Crowley, a famed English occultist who had founded the religion of Thelema. Crowley’s teachings were loaded with symbolic imagery that would become insignia’s for occultism, iconic onto themselves as a shorthand for black magick. A fan of iconic symbols ranging from the Coca-Cola logo to the swastika, Anger was drawn to the cryptic imagery associated with Crowley’s teaching. But he was also drawn to Crowley’s message of magick. Crowley believed magick to be the act of creating change with one’s own will. This was something that deeply resonated with the frustrated Anger, who carried resentment that his foray into child stardom didn’t open up the pearly white gates to the majestic kingdom of Hollywood. Anger was driven to continue making films, with or without the recognition he craved from the entertainment industry. With the occult teachings of Crowley, a plethora of taboo sexual fetishes, feelings of being an outsider, and a love/hate relationship with Hollywood for supplying him with the iconography he adored but keeping his career at bay, Anger set off to make Scorpio Rising.



     “Scorpio Rising is a death-mirror held up to American culture,” Anger would later say, “It’s Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans.” The name of the film refers to the eighth astrological sign in the zodiac: Scorpio, the god of sexuality and machinery. Coupling Anger’s sexuality and his mystical belief in the occult with the fierce machoism of its subjects, Scorpio Rising is a quasi-documentary that plays out as “a day in the life” of a Coney Island motorcycle gang. We follow members around as they prepare for a night out: they tune up their bikes, prepare their outfits, attend a party where they “initiate” a new member, and break into a church. The film concludes itself the following morning at a motorcycle race, ending in tragedy. Outside of these events, there is seemingly no plot to the film, no fleshed-out characters, and no dialogue. Instead of a comprehensive narrative, we get a visual tone poem centered on iconography, identity, and male pageantry. 



     The documentary feel of the film largely comes from the fact that its subjects weren’t actors - they were real-life members of a Coney Island motorcycle gang. After befriending Anger, they allowed him access into their garages, apartments, and workshops, most likely underneath the guise that Anger was making a straightforward film about their subculture. They had no way of knowing that Anger was positioning his camera lens in a way that sexually objectified them - more focused on eroticism than on documentation. Throughout the first half of the film, we gaze at male torsos draped in leather through a distinctly furtive lens. We watch the epitome of masculinity - the “devil may care” biker - engaging in full out pageantry: meticulously selecting skull rings, trying on silk scarfs, and zipping up freshly oiled leather jackets. More feminine than masculine, these sequences are soundtracked by bubblegum pop hits of the early sixties. While the lyrical content vaguely plays into the action occurring on screen, their specific selection is enhanced by the homoerotic nature of the film’s cinematography and editing. While the abrasiveness of Link Wray or Duane Eddy would be more indigenous to the subjects on screen, Anger uses music that - in context of the time period - would feel most at home in the cotton candy wallpapered bedroom of a teenage girl. These needle drops, coupled with Anger’s seductive lens, create a kind of kitschy, homoerotic daydream. This is best exemplified by the choice of Bobby Vinton’s 1963 hit, “Blue Velvet,” which serves as the score to a surreal montage of bikers adorning themselves and their motorcycles with leather, denim, and chains. What is supposed to be aggressive and destructive comes off as sexy and seductive. We’re bearing witness to hyper-masculinity through the lens of a flirtatious on-looker, enraptured more by the sexuality of the male physique than the heterosexual “tough-guy” costuming it’s dressing in.



     The subjects of Scorpio Rising did not know that their candid exploits were being framed to invoke sadomasochism; that the 16mm footage of their day to day existence would be cross-cut with footage of Jesus, Nazi flags, and Marlon Brando. One of the film’s main subjects is a biker named Bruce Byron (dubbed “Scorpio”). As Byron reads comics in bed, we notice his walls are filled with photos of James Dean and posters of skulls. His bedside table is a mess of Lucky Strike soft-packs and viles of methamphetamines. The Wild One plays on a tubed television. In-between bumps of meth, Byron suits up for the evening: aviator sunglasses, chain belts, and steel tip boots. During this sequence, Anger cross-cuts to inserts of Brando in The Wild One and Bela Lugosi in Dracula, using pop hits such as “You’re The Devil In Disguise” by Elvis Presley and “Heatwave” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas to score Byron’s ceremonial routine.

     We follow Byron as he leaves his apartment, making his way to the party. Decked out in leather and denim, Byron’s journey to the party is cross-cut with inserts of Jesus Christ and his disciples, set to the tune of “He’s A Rebel” by The Crystals. When he arrives at the party (it was later revealed by Anger that this was a Halloween party for the gang. This is never explained in the film, so the skeletal masks and gothic decorations only add to the film’s esotericism), Byron helps initiate a new member into the gang. The initiation is nothing more than frat-boy antics, but it’s never given context. Because of this, the tone seems vile and threatening. Through Anger’s camera lens, the precariousness of the party also takes on a definitive homosexual edge. 



     As the initiation continues, we follow Byron into an empty church. Lit only by flashlight, Byron scales the church’s altar, frantically gesturing as he makes an impromptu speech. Instead of hearing what Byron is saying, “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March plays, and we’re shown inserts of both Nazi memorabilia and religious paraphernalia. Again, Anger does not give context for any of this.

     So what is Anger doing here? What do we make of all this? Is Scorpio Rising an extreme case of style over substance, or is there a deeper meaning to Anger’s intentions? By juxtaposing a motorcycle gang with the early disciples of Christianity and the Nazi party of World War II, Anger is drawing comparisons about the aestheticism of identity and iconography. In the world of Scorpio Rising, the avatars of death and danger - James Dean, Adolf Hitler, Dracula, Jesus Christ, The Grim Reaper - occupy the same space. They all have a uniform, a mythos, symbolic imagery, and followers who obsess over their iconicism. The motorcycle gang in Scorpio Rising are disciples of American pop culture, followers of Brando and Dean. Their hymns come from the FM dial, their bible the Sunday comics. Like any form of groupthink, there is a signature fashion that supersedes the ideology and correlating symbolic imagery. The robe, the cape, the leather jacket. The cross, the swastika, the smoking skull. The inherent sense of badass masculinity in biker subculture becomes so amplified, so fetishized, that it becomes homoerotic. Scorpio Rising weaponizes this eroticism and turns it into total fascism. Brando becomes Christ and motorcycles become a religion and straight becomes gay and death becomes a lifestyle. The parallels between the archetype of the rebel, the prophet, and the fascist become jumbled. Regardless of being a Nazi, a homosexual, a vampire, or a biker, these identities all share symbolic imagery that resonates with a perceived sense of self. The irony of the quest for individuality is the predisposition to classify within a group - to dress the part, to use the language, to promote the same symbols. The church, the garage, the television set - these are all places of worship, depending on who we perceive ourselves to be - what uniform we decide to costume ourselves in. A devoted Christian. A hell-raising biker. A glamorous Hollywood star. Scorpio Rising doesn’t judge any specific ideology, favoring aestheticism over dogma, and in the process fetishizes them all as a shared collection of symbols, iconography, and fashion - bound together by the ability to influence identity. 



     Anger’s sexual objectification of biker subculture in Scorpio Rising was met with heavy backlash, especially from the motorcycle gang who appeared in the film. Byron, who was never paid by Anger, was known to show up at screenings of Scorpio Rising, demanding that the film be pulled from the theater. Other members of the gang would spend years trying to distance themselves from the films political and religious overtones, vehemently denying any involvement with Nazism or occultism. The film would also be chastised by the Hell’s Angels, furious over the homoerotic depiction of their culture. This would be written about by Hunter S. Thompson in his 1967 book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs: “Scorpio Rising played in San Francisco in 1964 at a North Beach theater called The Movie, where Anger was living at the time, upstairs, which advertised the film with a side-walk montage of Hell’s Angels newspaper clippings. The implication was so obvious that the Angels made a pilgrimage to check it out. It didn’t groove with them at all...they were genuinely offended. ‘It didn’t have anything to do with us,’ said Frenchy, ‘Man, it was a bummer, it wasn’t right. A lot of people got conned, and now we have to listen to all this crap about us being queers? Shit, did you see the way those punks were dressed? And those silly goddamn junk wagon bikes. Man, don’t tell me that has any connection with us. You know it doesn’t.”

     The Los Angeles Vice Squad would seize the film, leading to a jury trial that would result in Scorpio Rising being banned. The State Supreme Court would later overturn the decision, and Scorpio Rising would be released once again - this time to an even larger audience who wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

     In an ironic twist, Scorpio Rising would go on to become one of the most influential pieces of art in the commercial world, despite never being a commercial success itself. The film is credited as the first “music video,” as Scorpio Rising marks the first time popular music was employed as the sole audio for a film. Its use of juxtaposition and graphical editing would serve as a new kind of template for commercial advertisement, specifically in the fashion world. It would have a major influence on artists ranging from Marilyn Manson to Dennis Hopper to directors such as Martin Scorsese, who claimed that Scorpio Rising’s use of music was the catalyst for his decision to use pop songs in films such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. Photographer and fellow ascending Scorpio, Robert Mapplethorpe, used Scorpio Rising as a reference point while shooting some of his most famous and controversial work in the underground BDSM scene in New York City. "He was a genuine pioneer,” claims director Elio Gelmini, “People are influenced by him who don't even know they're influenced by him. When David Lynch uses the song “Blue Velvet,” Kenneth did that in Scorpio Rising. Kenneth was the first person to use pop music instead of a score." He laughs. "Or at least he'll say he was first.”


Kenneth Anger on the set of Lucifer Rising, London 1970


     After the release of Scorpio Rising, Anger would continue to make films, straddling the line between high and low culture while pushing the envelope of occultism and sexuality in filmmaking. He would exist outside the mainstream, ever conflicted and frustrated by the trajectory of his career: “I reject this term underground,” Anger would tell The Guardian in a 2006 interview, “I don't live underground. What am I, a gopher? These labels! Avant-garde - do you know what that is? It's a military term for soldiers who are sacrificed, who die for the risks they take going first. I’m independent. I have never worked for another company, never had a boss my whole life. I am not beholden to anybody. Call me independent.”

     Anger would spend the rest of the sixties into the seventies cultivating his mythos and folklore, leaving behind some of the most bizarre and star-studded rumors to ever circulate through the Hollywood hills. They include - but are most certainly not limited to - Anger claiming that he put a curse on Bobby Beausoleil, who he cast in his film Lucifer Rising. Bobby would later go on to join the Manson family, famously committing the first murders. During a protest march on Washington, Anger unsuccessfully attempted to use his magick powers to levitate the Pentagon, which lead to a fight with Norman Mailer. Anger became close friends with Mick Jagger - who would score Anger’s film Invocation Of My Demon Brother - and would claim to be the inspiration for the song, “Sympathy For The Devil.” The stories go on and on, featuring the likes of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, actors such as Marianne Faithful, scientists such as Jack Parsons, and pop culture oddballs such as Anton LaVey, the founder of The Church Of Satan.

     Anger would continue to perpetuate his loner, rebel without a cause demeanor. He constantly battled acceptance from anyone and everyone: "If the gay community wants to make me an icon, fine, but for years, I've never got any help from them. Oh yes - wait. I received an award from something called 'Outfest' - that's a 'gay' festival, gay in quotes. I never use that word like they do. I like the original meaning better - joyful. Anyway, it's a life achievement award, a hunk of plastic. You could kill someone with it. I use it as a doorstop. I don't need a piece of plastic. I need money. I need some raw film. I need anything that will help me make movies.”

     One can’t help but wonder if Anger - now 92 years old - is satisfied with his sense of identity and the post- modernistic iconography he created by his distortion of pop culture. Is he content with his cult status, or is he still the angry young filmmaker who never got his shot at the mainstream - still romanticizing the sordid lives of Hollywood ghosts while fictionalizing his own narrative arch, forever drawn to symbols and insignias that help him better understand who he is.



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          - Eric Hehr, Jan. 2019