Kenneth Anger, best known for telling no-holds-barred tales of Tinseltown's seamier scandals in his books "Hollywood Babylon" and "Hollywood Babylon II," showed a kinder, gentler side Friday as he paid homage to Jean Cocteau.
The French poet, artist, film maker and choreographer was "a very lovable man," Anger told a luncheon audience of about 40. His talk was part of the Cocteau Centenary Festival at UC Irvine.
Anger's fascination with Cocteau was sparked when he was growing up in Santa Monica. His mother took him to a screening of the artist's 1930 film "The Blood of a Poet," which was paired with Luis Bunuel's 1924 Surrealist masterpiece "Un Chien Andalou" ("An Andalusian Dog").
The budding film maker said he remembers telling himself, "I can make something like that," and he began to make short films with the family's 16-millimeter home-movie camera. At 15, as a student at Beverly Hills High School, Anger refused to go to the funeral of an uncle he disliked--"My first act of independence," he recalled. Finding himself alone in the house for 3 days, Anger invited some friends over and made "Fireworks," a short film inspired by "The Blood of a Poet."
In 1949, he heard of a festival in France of \o7 film maudit\f7 --"damned films"--and entered "Fireworks." To Anger's surprise, he received a personal letter praising the film from Cocteau, who was on the jury.
"I had no idea that Cocteau had anything to do" with the festival, Anger said Friday. "Fireworks" won first prize in the 1949 Biarritz festival's "poetic film" category and Anger was invited to Paris to show his films.
Anger, who had studied French in high school and read much of Cocteau's poetry, went to Paris against the wishes of his parents--but with the blessing and financial support of his grandmother, an artist who had been a costume mistress in silent films. The star-struck teen showed his films to a private audience that included Cocteau, Jean Genet and other writers and artists.
The films, which often contained violent and disturbing imagery, upset Surrealist painter Leonor Fini "quite a bit," but Anger said Cocteau understood the young film maker's "need to shock."
Anger later went to a performance of Cocteau's 1946 ballet "La Jeune Homme et la Mort," and was transfixed by the work. "I told Cocteau this would make a wonderful movie," Anger recalled, and to his surprise he was given the film rights.
In 1951, he made a 20-minute black-and-white film of the ballet, shot in a garden on a cold morning with the performers' breath coming out in clouds of steam. "We needed the space, and we didn't have the money to rent a theater," Anger explained.
It was Anger's intent to make a color version of the film, but he never received the backing. "It's been to my eternal regret that I didn't try harder and come back to the U.S. to get some sponsors," Anger said. The black-and-white film remains the only record of the ballet's original choreography.
Anger stayed in Paris for 12 years, working at the Cinematheque Francaise, and had contact with Cocteau a number of times before the Frenchman's death in 1963. In 1954, while temporarily back in the United States for his mother's funeral, Anger made "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" and dedicated it to Cocteau. It was Cocteau who suggested that Anger use Leos Janacek's "Slavonic Mass" as music for the film.
The film maker recalled attending a performance of Stravinsky's oratorio "Oedipus Rex," which Cocteau narrated and Stravinsky conducted. Cocteau arrived in a black tuxedo--with a jacket made of fluffy black Angora. "He looked like a very exotic pussycat," Anger recalled. "I noticed when Stravinsky saw this outfit, he tensed up."
During the performance, Cocteau further annoyed the maestro when he began to twirl his glasses in counterpoint to the music. "Cocteau did catch his eye and stop," Anger said.
When Anger wanted to visit Egypt, it was Cocteau who arranged for his hosts, and later the two discussed Anger's hopes of making a film there. They shared an interest in mythology, Anger's sparked by his grandmother, who taught him about ancient myths "when she wasn't telling me some gossip about the silent days of Hollywood."
Although Cocteau considered himself a Parisian first, Anger characterized him as an Egyptian. "There was something of an old Pharaoh about him," Anger said. "His mysticism was the mysticism of ancient Egypt."
Anger returned to the United States and created such '60s underground films as the influential "Scorpio Rising" (1964) and "Psychedelirium" (1969). "Every once in a while, I write a book on Hollywood scandals to make some money," Anger said, provoking chuckles from the audience, but he said he thinks of himself as a film maker first.
At the beginning of his talk, titled "Cocteau and the Magic Mirror," Anger displayed a treasured possession given him by Cocteau, who called it a "magic mirror." Slightly convex, the rectangular mirror condenses a wide vista into a small frame and is of the type often used by landscape artists. Anger said he has taken the mirror to Egypt, India, Iceland and other places around the world.
"The eye takes in too much," Anger said. But with the mirror, "suddenly, it is contained within a frame."
Anger said of Cocteau: "He wasn't a snob. He wasn't an elitist." He took an equal interest in all people--even a high school kid from Beverly Hills.
"I'm very grateful for that," Anger said, "and I'm very grateful that he is remembered on this planet."