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A longtime film provocateur keeps tabs on the new taboos

October 13, 2002|REED JOHNSON

If President Bush is really serious about this business of fighting the Evil One and the Evil Axis, he might want to chat first with Kenneth Anger, who's been on a first-name basis with the Prince of Darkness for decades.

How else to explain the Mephistophelean imprint on Anger's cult-classic movies like "Lucifer Rising" (1981) and "Invocation of My Demon Brother" (1969), which co-featured future Charles Manson disciple Bobby Beausoleil and boasted a groovy Moog-synthesizer score by his satanic majesty, Mick Jagger? Then there's Anger's latest mini-opus, "The Man We Want to Hang," an 11-minute hommage to the paintings of occult master Aleister Crowley.

Forty years ago, some cultural bluenoses regarded Anger himself as the antichrist. But without his wayward oeuvre, it's hard to imagine David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" or Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets."And his baroque fixations oddly foreshadow the moralistic dialogue swirling around American politics, though Anger's judgments are more often rendered in puce than black and white.

Lately, the former enfant terrible of American independent cinema, who once famously declared that he considers movies "evil," is spotting demonic influences practically everywhere -- in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and among the mammon- worshippers of the U.S. entertainment industry.

"In Hollywood, Israel isn't talked about," says Anger, a boyish septuagenarian, padding around his cryptic $600-a-month Echo Park apartment. "The situation is so painful over there that it's largely avoided by people that should be talking about it, because a lot of them have a Jewish background. I call it 'Sharon's War.' "

Anybody wanna slice and dice a few holy cows? Who better to wield the obsidian blade than a filmmaker whose 29-minute montage masterpiece "Scorpio Rising" (1963) probed the formerly underground worlds of male homoeroticism and neo-Nazi biker gangs? The L.A. Vice Squad was so upset with this subversion of middle-class decency that it seized the print, sparking a landmark California Supreme Court free-speech ruling in Anger's favor. That was back when sex could still shock Americans. The next round of culture wars, Anger believes, will be waged on different battlefields.

"I think there's plenty of other subjects that are edgy besides sexuality," he says. Illegal immigrants in California, for instance. "I hope it will never get to the point of race riots or things like that. But it certainly has explosive possibility."

You might say that Anger, the subject of a just-concluded retrospective presented by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture L.A. in collaboration with USC's School of Film and Television, has been lobbing Molotov cocktails ever since he started making movies as an adolescent.

Imagine if Beach Boys impresario Brian Wilson had been born 12 years earlier, with a knack for making short Symbolist films instead of surfer ditties, and you have Anger, a Santa Monica-bred, cinematic Charles Baudelaire proffering a beautifully arranged bouquet of evil flowers.

Like Wilson, the youthful Anger was obsessed with America's postwar juvenile culture: its pop icons, car fetishism, tribal gangs, sexual experiments, boundless appetite for self-destruction and altered states of consciousness. Wilson picked up the good vibrations. Anger channeled the bad.

His reputation as a cult figure was cemented by two wittily written, gruesomely illustrated collections of Tinseltown dirty laundry, "Hollywood Babylon" and "Hollywood Babylon II." "Hollywood Babylon III," is on the way, though today "it's harder to find stories that are titillating," Anger says.

Gracious and gossipy, Anger wears a neat blue-and-white check shirt, baggy green trousers and sneakers. His hair, a shade of auburn, is sparse but assertive. He says he finds contemporary movies "too long, too loud and too shallow," with happy exceptions like the widely panned "Death to Smoochy," a satire of kiddie TV shows that Anger saw four times.

He loathes hip-hop and is "waiting for it to die." "How many cops can you kill on your record?" he asks. "How many women can you call whores?" He also refuses to learn his way around cyberspace. Computers unleash "Abramelin demons," he says, "electronic sprites that are enslaved to make all that machinery work. And I don't want them in my house."

Better to work with the devil you know than the devil you don't.

Today, Anger believes that the most diabolical threat to free artistic expression worldwide is radical Islam, citing the goons who blew up the giant buddhas in Bamian, Afghanistan, a few months before Sept. 11.

As for the prospect of a desert dust-up with Iraq, he thinks that getting rid of Saddam Hussein is "unfinished business from 1991 that Bush Sr. should've taken care of."

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