The Eyeball #37: Kenneth Anger

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Are there some films you have to take drugs to enjoy? I asked this question toward the end of this week’s session of the class on experimental films I’m teaching at Richard Hugo House, after spending two hours with the films of Kenneth Anger. To recap, in the first session of the 6-week class we watched Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and in the second we watched a number of Stan Brakhage shorts. This week I wanted to screen films that fit into the spirit of Halloween, so I immediately thought of everyone’s favorite occultist/Hollywood gossip monger.

Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger in 2008

We started with Lucifier Rising, a 29-minute film informed by Aleister Crowley’s belief that we live in the Aeon of Horus, an era of deep spirituality and child-like wonder. The film was shot partially against the backdrop of pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt and just exudes a strange sort of cheap grandeur. This opening section is interspersed with mesmerizing footage of an erupting volcano. Before long the film changes location, to the British aisles, where Marianne Faithful makes an appearance as a sort of pilgrim figure. The film alternates between scenes set in Stonehenge and Egypt, with a middle freak-out section featuring a wizard running in a circle in a fog of incense. In the end, flying saucers show up, to which I say: rad. What makes the film truly remarkable, however, is the soundtrack, supplied by Bobby Beausoleil, the convicted murder and Manson family member. It’s an inspired, atmospheric acid freakout, with shades of Mahavishnu Orchestra and a ripping solo in the middle. You read that correctly: convicted murderer. I believe Beausoleil was the one who wrote “Political piggy” in blood on the wall after the Hinman murders.

The film elicited a few chuckles, and the class seemed to enjoy the writing prompt I provided after the film, to “invent a ritual.”

Then we moved on to Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and the class started to squirm. Where Lucifer Rising seems to encompass the whole world and its history, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome gets claustrophobic very quickly. A multi-hued progression of shots of mythic figures doing little but posing and drinking from a goblet, then laughing hysterically, the film began to test our patience about midway through. We did get a laugh when Anais Nin appears with a birdcage on her head. After the film when I pointed out that this figure was Anais Nin, I was met with some blank stares. You know, Henry Miller? Tropic of Cancer? Delta of Venus?I was starting to feel like a jackass.

The writing prompt I provided after this film was to write about a room in which characters behave unexpectedly. They gave it their best shot and those who offered to read their work came up with some cool surrealist material. But overall I got the feeling that I hadn’t done that great a job with this session of the class, that I’d basically given them all a bad trip. So I promised them that next week I’d bring something that wasn’t quite so heavy.

Which brings up an interesting question. I tend to be attracted to a certain darkness in cinema and I suppose I associate “experimental” film with this darkness. The three filmmakers we’ve considered so far have all been drawn to the subject of evil in some capacity. In coming weeks I’m going to approach the question of what experimental cinema that isn’t drawn to darkness looks like.


Ryan Boudinot is the author of the short story collection The Littlest Hitler (2006) and the novel Misconception. He was a DVD Editor at Amazon.com from 2003 to 2007. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Seattle and teaches creative writing at Goddard College's Port Townsend MFA program. More from this author →