Unless you’re a serious film buff, you probably haven’t seen the work of. Kenneth Anger(below), whose short films have profoundly impacted cinema, advertising, and pop culture. Since 1947, when he was 17, he has been experimenting with difficult and obscure subject matter, using his own milieu as his inspiration, and his cast.
I first saw Scorpio Rising almost 30 years ago at the behest of my pal Madeleine Leskin, who went on to work at the Berlin Film Festival; she urged me into a late-night screening… I’ve never forgotten the disturbing/alluring quality of the film.
You’ll see Anger’s visual influence on later movies like Easy Rider (1969), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless (1981), George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) and Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets (1973). Specifically, his camera gazes adoringly at material objects, weighting them with an iconic, erotic power. Although never discussed as such, this camera work probably had it’s greatest impact on TV advertising! His films remain almost unknown to a broader audience, and ironically his book ‘Hollwood Babylon’ (1974), detailing the sordid underbelly of the movie industry, is his most famous work.
His movies are difficult, non-narrative, and certainly non-literal, almost dream-like (in fact the soundtrack of his ode to SoCal automotive culture, Kustom Kar Kommandos, is the Paris Sisters’ ‘Dream Lover’).
Scorpio Rising was completed in 1963, and its central character, Scorpio (Bruce Byron), is symbolic of the mythos of post-Wild One American Bikers. It’s hardly flattering, as he projects a homoerotic, sadomasochistic aura, snorting methamphetamines from a salt shaker, humiliating a man at a party, and defiling a church. Through jump shots to clips of other films (including The Wild One and a very bad black and white Jesus biopic), comic strips, and nazi imagery, Scorpio is alternately compared to Jesus, Hitler, and the Devil. Pop culture icons like James Dean and Lucky Strike cigarettes wallpaper the scenery.
It was considered obscene in the day, but now we’re all horribly jaded, and it merely seems shocking! Try to put yourself in the mindset of 1963 – Anger is a sly one and it’s difficult to tell if he’s celebrating Scorpio, or if he considers Scorpio a figment of a frightened citizenry’s imagination – everyone’s fantasy of what Bikers are Really Like. Using such imagery doesn’t constitute an endorsement!
Scorpio Rising is 28 minutes long, and requires a bit of patience; its an avante-garde piece by a filmmaker who is way out on a limb. It still has the best ‘title sequence’ of any biker film, hands down. With its great period soundtrack (referencing the action of course), it’s really the very first Music Video, predating the genre by a full 15 years, although no Music Video was ever quite like this again…