From a poster for Anger’s 1967 equinox performance. | NYPL
Elizabeth Horkley,  October 11

An Evil Medium

Kenneth Anger, cinematic psychic

From a poster for Anger’s 1967 equinox performance. | NYPL
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For the autumnal equinox of 1967, avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger performed an Aleister Crowley ritual at a theater in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The ceremony, intended to conjure the Egyptian deity of Horus, was filmed, eventually appearing in Anger’s 1969 short, Invocation of My Demon Brother.

In Invocation, the rite plays at an exaggerated speed, suggestive of a silent film’s frenzied pacing. Anger races across the stage, sets things on fire, waves a swastika flag, and commands convulsions from his audience. Watching the ceremony, you have to wonder: Were parents right to be worried about their flower children? Was the hippie pose, as they’d feared, just a disguise for Satan worshippers and acid-heads? Famously described as “an attack on the sensorium” by its creator, Invocation makes a case for the affirmative by forcing its viewer into fearful agreement with a torrent of psyche-searing documentary footage.

With its debut in the immediate aftermath of the Tate-LaBianca murders that August, the film features Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil smoking a skull-shaped pipe in one sequence, and, later, emerging as Lucifer himself. Mick Jagger appears both onscreen and off, as the film’s composer and via scenes from a concert at Hyde Park. Twisting the knife to its hilt, Anger also splices in reels from a Hells Angels gathering, focusing his lens on the back of one man’s festooned jacket in case his affiliation isn’t clear. At that time, the Rolling Stones’ Free Concert at Altamont, that, along with the Manson Murders, would come to connote the end of the “Age of Aquarius” in the latter half of 1969, was mere months away. The fatal stabbing of Meredith Hunter, a black concert attendee high on meth, by Hells Angel Alan Passaro, hired by the Stones as “security,” was the most high-profile death associated with the concert (as the AP noted, “another concert-goer drowned in a canal and two more died after being run over by a car” while “doctors treated 850 people for bad ‘trips’”)—no doubt because of its inclusion in the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter (1970). The Maysles may have caught the murder as it happened, but Anger, by his own means, captured the violence of that December night months earlier.

Watching the ceremony, you have to wonder: Were parents right to be worried about their flower children?

Invocation of My Demon Brother is part of a body of work known as the “Magick Lantern Cycle,” a highly personal turn of phrase that neatly summarizes Anger’s relationship to filmmaking. “Magic Lanterns” were optical projectors that presaged the very first films; the extra “K” was a nod to Aleister Crowley and his religion of Thelema. (“Magick,” as defined by Crowley, is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”) Anger is a devotee, and the majority of his films reflect a belief in the occult, in theme and execution. His interest in Crowley developed in harmony with his fascination in old Hollywood. Born in 1927, Anger had a close relationship with his grandmother, who was a designer during the heyday of silent filmmaking. (Anger’s biographer Bill Landis insists it was actually his grandmother’s same-sex partner.) She regaled a young Kenneth with gossip that was meant to be cautionary, but Anger heard something holy in these tales of debauchery and listened.

In its early years, cinema was attacked by reformers who worried about its influence over children. They believed that film had a hypnotic effect on kids that could compel them to act in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise. As one psychologist argued in 1916, “the sight of crime may force itself on the consciousness with disastrous results.” This logic skirted superstition: a notion that Anger embraces. “I have always considered movies evil; the day that cinema was invented was a black day for mankind,” he told British film critic Tony Rayns, shortly after the release of Invocation.

From his grandmother’s stories, Anger spun two tomes on Hollywood’s “darkest and best kept secrets:” the Hollywood Babylon books, in which he sneers at the stars’ indiscretions, exaggerating and outright inventing details with a flourish akin to fanfiction. But Hollywood Babylon isn’t limited to the fate of onscreen stars. It also focuses its telescopic lens on behind-the-scenes industry heavyweights: director/choreographer Busby Berkeley, financier William Randolph Hearst, and, most memorably, beloved actor/director Charlie Chaplin. Though many of the claims made in the books have been disproven, others serve as reminders of serious crimes that have faded from newspaper headlines and public discourse. Anger’s writing recalled that Chaplin, who was still alive when the first book was reissued in English in 1975 (it was quickly banned when it was first published in the United States in 1965), had a long history of courting underage girls.

Anger has compared himself to this seedy set with a chilling candor, admitting to Rayns: “My films are primarily concerned with sexuality in people. My reason for filming has nothing to do with ‘cinema’ at all; it’s a transparent excuse for capturing people, the equivalent of saying, ‘Come up and see my etchings.’” Upon meeting Bobby Beausoleil in 1966, Anger asked the handsome, nineteen-year-old musician to “come up and see his etchings.” In her podcast, You Must Remember This, film historian Karina Longworth devotes an episode to their relationship. She reports that Anger wooed Beausoleil with grandiose promises. “You will become the beloved,” he told him. “And through me you will rise to be feared and held in reverence.”

Beausoleil moved in with him. Ostensibly, they would begin filming Anger’s next project, Lucifer Rising, with Beausoleil in the eponymous role. Plied with acid and adoration, Beausoleil came to believe that he really was “the Angel of Disobedience.” But Anger was less successful in bedding his protege, and tensions mounted between them. When canisters of film containing Lucifer Rising disappeared, Anger was quick to accuse Beausoleil of theft. The filmmaker salvaged what was left, using the remaining material in Invocation of My Demon Brother. (He’d later completely rework Lucifer Rising, releasing it in 1980.)

Beausoleil had little choice but to leave town. Anger evicted him and publicly announced that he’d placed a hex on him, so Beausoleil headed south for Los Angeles. Gary Hinman, a musician and music teacher with an open-door policy for transients, took him in. Around this time, Beausoleil also befriended Charles Manson, at whose behest he’d go on to murder Hinman in July 1969. Arrested and charged shortly after the killing, Beausoleil was found guilty and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison when California temporarily outlawed the death penalty in 1972, and Beausoleil remains in prison today.

So, did the hex work? It’s an absurd question. But Anger invites us to speculate on his mystical powers.

The program notes for Invocation of My Demon Brother are uncharacteristically sparse, like Anger himself wasn’t up to the task of summarizing the helter-skelter, eleven-minute film. He provides two sentences describing the design of the invocation ritual, followed by a quote from Crowley: “The True Magick of Horus requires the passionate union of opposites.”

Invocation opens with a static image of three yellow circles arranged in a pyramid against a black background. They fade to red before the film “begins.” A young man with albinism is the first figure we’ll encounter. Anger cues us to consider this man’s eyes as our own. He sleepily stares into the distance, and we see the naked torso of a man holding a knife to his chest. He looks left and sees two nude young men splayed on a couch in a dimly lit blue room. He looks right and sees more of the same. After flashing a tattoo of an esoteric symbol, he holds a glass wand to his forehead. Peering forward, he watches as a pair of twitching, blue-jeaned legs dangle over a flat red backdrop. Then, the first of several Vietnam newsreels appears: soldiers disembarking from a helicopter, awash in red. Anger has claimed that this image overlays the entire film; with infrared glasses, we could see it throughout.

The helicopter footage is followed by a blast of light and a close-up of the eyes of the “Wand Bearer,” which seem to vibrate. Anger told film scholar Scott MacDonald that he cast the actor because of this condition—he was fascinated by the way his eyes moved when exposed to artificial light. As a proxy character for the audience, the tremble of his eyes echoes the chaos that we’ve already witnessed and that will continue to tailspin into a climax of bewildering special effects.

Throughout the short, Jagger’s simple and maddeningly repetitive score plays antagonist to Anger’s frenetic images. Using a Moog synthesizer, he created a sound bite like an ambulance wail compressed to three whining beeps, followed by a record scratching in reverse, looping this roughly two-second tune with little variation for the film’s entire duration.

Amid the pandemonium of the film’s final moments, a Golliwog doll dressed as a voodoo priestess confronts the audience with a sign that reads:

ZAP
YOU’RE PREGNANT
THAT’S WITCHCRAFT

The figure seems at first like a self-effacing joke, reducing Anger’s known reputation as a “Satanist” to caricature. (Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey’s cameo as “His Satanic Majesty” operates similarly.) But considering Anger’s complex system of beliefs and his Hollywood heritage, the scene can also be taken as a declaration of intention. Invocation concludes, after all, with a shot of the eye of Horus, followed by one of a shirtless man raising his hands above his head to form a pyramid in imitation of the introductory arrangement of three circles, then unclasping them to make a “Y.” The same three circles end the film, this time inverted. If the conjuring of Horus is predicated on a union of opposites, then we can conclude that it has been successful. “Spellbinding” is a word often used in film criticism. Anger drags hyperbole into a literal realm with Invocation.

Working in the underbelly of a superficial counter-cultural movement, Anger was in a unique position to expose its contradictions.

In doing so, he takes on a mantle bequeathed by Georges Méliès. An illusionist by trade, he later took up filmmaking and pioneered special effects in cinema that stoked rumors of sorcery in the early twentieth century. But by the time William Hays was appointed president of the MPAA (then called the MPDAA) in 1922, those rumblings had been superseded by a less magical moral panic about cinema—and Hollywood—as a corrupting influence. Anger describes the designer of what would come to be known as the “Hays Code” in Hollywood Babylon as “a prim-faced, bat-eared, mealy-mouthed political chiseler” who “paraded in with a barrage of hogwash.” Hays decried the industry’s state of affairs, acknowledging movies’ influence on children and vowing to make good. The puritanical system of censorship he established reigned until 1968.

Anger’s catty characterization of Hays is typical of Hollywood Babylon. Though he idolizes figures like Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino, he also paints them as promiscuous adulterers and emasculated masochists, respectively. Establishing himself as a filmmaker at the height of the Hays Code’s power—his debut feature, Fireworks, was made in 1947—Anger’s unapologetically queer oeuvre, with its explicit depictions of sex, violence, and the occult, needed Hays’s strictures in order to transcend them and enter into an immortal sphere of significance. The fact that Hays’s Hollywood unfurled a red carpet for Anger’s alchemical agenda was another union of opposites. 

For the first decades of his career, Anger operated outside of a studio system that was forbidden from releasing pictures like his. Working in the underbelly of a superficial counter-cultural movement, he was in a unique position to expose its contradictions. Invocation is ultimately a testament to the power of Anger’s vision. He didn’t predict the Manson Murders by casting Bobby Beausoleil, nor the deaths at Altamont by filming the Hells Angels. But Anger recognized the subliminal forces that compelled people to act in ways that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Elizabeth Horkley is a freelance author based in Brooklyn, New York. Combining critical analysis with historical perspective, her work aims to excavate cultural artifacts that have the power to enrich our understanding of contemporary art and current events.

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