About the Author
When was the last time a filmmaker was the topic of this column? Was it recently? I can’t remember after having done so many of these, and frankly it’s getting difficult for me to remember other stuff too. What day is it? Where am I? Whose pants am I wearing?
Those are all questions for another column, though. I’m here to talk about underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who you probably haven’t heard of, but that’s okay because he influenced a bunch of people you’ve definitely heard of: David Lynch, John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, and even Martin Scorsese. He was also, without intending it, a huge influence on the concept of music videos due to the clever and ironic use of pop music in his films.
Anger’s film legacy is notable for two reasons. The first is that he was one of the first openly gay filmmakers, and Martin Allen Svede claims that he was “the first [filmmaker] whose work addressed homosexuality in an undisguised, self-implicating manner.” In layman’s terms, he was the first serious filmmaker to include straightforward gay imagery in his movies, and did so before homosexuality was even legal in the United States, let alone the cinematic treatment of same.
His 1947 short film Fireworks is a good example of what a pioneer he was. While the film’s salacious, homoerotic content infuriated censors, its use of visual irony and sophisticated editing kept him from going to prison on obscenity charges in 1959; the California Supreme Court ruled that Fireworks, however distasteful it may have been, was art, not pornography.
Anger had similar problems with film development labs, which would often destroy his negatives in fits of Puritanical pique. And if they liked his work, some of them would show the films in nightclubs without his permission. Such is the lot of an artist ahead of his time – people who aren’t trying to sabotage your work are trying to rip it off.
Now, I realize that some TSB readers might be put off by all this gay stuff, but I encourage you to be more open-minded. Gay or not, Anger was a guy who believed in what he was doing and was willing to take on enormous personal risk to do it, and used the aesthetics of a then-underrepresented demographic to make social commentary. He was a brave man, and a clever one (even if he did get a little weird about the occult in some of his movies), and those are more important testaments to his character than his sexuality.
Oh, and he also tried to put a hex on Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, for what that’s worth.
Anyway, Anger’s second major contribution to film is one that people have been ripping off for decades since – the ironic and anachronistic use of pop music. Kenneth was the first to pair innocuous pop music with violent, sexual, or otherwise “lowbrow” imagery. The scene in Reservoir Dogs where the cop gets his ear cut off to “Stuck In the Middle With You” would have never happened without Kenneth Anger paving the way, and the same could be said for Martin Scorsese’s blending of classical music or opera with graphic violence. Hell, the entire concept of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was arguably lifted from Anger’s work (he sure thinks so, anyway), which just demonstrates his influence on both mainstream and avant-garde film.
I’ll leave you with this interview Anger did about Satanism and the occult at UCLA. Yeah. I’ll just leave it at that.