Kenneth Anger, the artist and film-maker whose work offered a distinctively radical mix of paganism and homoeroticism, has died aged 96. Art gallery Sprüth Magers confirmed his death, saying: “Through his kaleidoscopic films, which combine sumptuous visuals, popular music soundtracks, and a focus on queer themes and narratives, Anger laid the groundwork for the avant garde art scenes of the later 20th century, as well as for the visual languages of contemporary queer and youth culture.”
Anger’s films, which included Fireworks (1947), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1963) and Lucifer Rising (1972), made him a key figure in the counterculture over four decades, and later a hero to subsequent generations of film-makers grappling with similar themes. While he never found commercial success through his films, his book Hollywood Babylon – a compendium of often sleazy and largely unverifiable gossip about the film industry – became famous after first being published in 1959; it was followed by a sequel in 1984.
Born Kenneth Anglemyer in 1927, Anger grew up in Santa Monica and claimed to have appeared in the 1935 film of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Having moved to Los Angeles, he met avant garde film-maker Curtis Harrington, who introduced him to the occult writings of Aleister Crowley. In 1947, having made films at home for years, Anger completed Fireworks, a surreal, experimental short combining Crowley’s ideas with homoerotic imagery. It became notorious for a shot of a sailor unzipping his fly to reveal a Roman candle, and setting it alight. A decade later, distributor Raymond Rohauer was convicted for obscenity for showing Fireworks in a Los Angeles cinema in 1957; it became a civil rights issue and the California supreme court, in a landmark judgment, overturned the ruling, saying that reference to homosexuality in a film was not obscenity.
Anger would go on to make a number of shorts that would garner him celebrity on the underground film circuit. In 1953, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome saw him go deeper into Crowley’s “Thelemite” spiritual philosophy, while Scorpio Rising (1963) was a surreal exploration of American leather biker culture with an influential pop soundtrack. As the counterculture became more popular in the late 60s, Anger became friendly with Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Jimmy Page and John Paul Getty Jr. Jagger appeared in Anger’s 1969 film Invocation of My Demon Brother (along with future Charles Manson acolyte Bobby Beausoleil and satanist Anton LaVey), while Faithfull starred in Lucifer Rising, which Anger finished in 1981.
Chronically short of money, despite the success of his books, Anger largely gave up making films in the 1980s. But he came out of “retirement” in 2000 to make a number more, including Patriotic Penis, Mouse Heaven, and Uniform Attraction. He told the Guardian in 2010 that he had a third instalment of Hollywood Babylon completed, but was unable to publish it due to a chapter of material on Tom Cruise and Scientology.