Kenneth Anger, 96, Dies; Experimental Filmmaker Left a Pop Culture Legacy

Kenneth Anger, a child of Hollywood who became one of the most important experimental filmmakers of his generation and whose influence can still be felt in popular visual culture, from movies to music videos, died on May 11 in Yucca Valley, Calif., a town bordering Joshua Tree National Park. He was 96.

His death, at an assisted living center, was confirmed on Wednesday by Spencer Glesby, a spokesman for Sprüth Magers, a gallery that has represented Mr. Anger since 2009. He said an announcement of the death had been delayed while matters involving Mr. Anger’s estate were being put in order.

Mr. Anger embodied the love-hate relationship between underground art and mass culture. Few other avant-garde filmmakers borrowed so liberally or so subversively from popular iconography. And with his sensuous, mystical imagery and pioneering use of pop soundtracks, perhaps none saw their work so readily absorbed back into the mainstream.

Mr. Anger’s best-known film, “Scorpio Rising” (1963), a fetishistic look at a gang of Brooklyn bikers with a wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop hits — sung by Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Ray Charles and Little Peggy March, among others — proved that sound and image could be combined to create something more potent than the sum of their parts. It is widely considered a precursor of the music video, and its influence can be felt in movies as varied as Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” (The Bobby Vinton hit that gave the Lynch film its title is also heard in “Scorpio Rising.”)

Hailed in his later years as a progenitor of remix culture, Mr. Anger prided himself on being an outsider who belonged to no particular movement. Asked in 2004 about his stature as a godfather of queer cinema, he responded, “I don’t like being put in a cubbyhole.”

He was comfortable in the company of the famous. His acquaintances, some of whom collaborated with him, included the poet and artist Jean Cocteau, the playwright Tennessee Williams, the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, the writer Anaïs Nin and members of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

But he also scandalized the celebrated in his lurid tell-all book, “Hollywood Babylon.” That book, rife with Tinseltown scandals and rumors about the sexual habits of stars like Rudolph Valentino — Mr. Anger’s grandmother was a wardrobe mistress in silent films — was first published in France in 1959 and widely bootlegged before its official publication in the United States in 1975.

Mr. Anger’s reputation as a filmmaker rested on a relatively small body of work: nine short, wordless films, totaling under three hours and made between 1947 and 1972, that came to be known as the Magick Lantern Cycle. Some of them, like “Puce Moment” (1949) and “Kustom Kar Kommandos” (1965), were fragments of longer works that were never finished for lack of money. Mr. Anger often abandoned and restarted projects, and he sometimes revised his films and presented slightly modified versions of them.

He was intrigued by the interplay of ancient myths and pop culture. Several of his films simultaneously portray and enact rituals, using sound and editing to create trancelike, incantatory works, such as “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954), which depicts a party whose guests are dressed as pagan deities. Mr. Anger likened the making of a movie to the casting of a spell.

Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer was born on Feb. 3, 1927, in Santa Monica, Calif., to Wilbur and Lillian (Coler) Anglemyer. His father was an electrical engineer at Douglas Aircraft. Many details of his biography as he told it — much like the scandalous stories in “Hollywood Babylon” — are hard to corroborate. (He claimed to have had the role of the young prince in the 1935 movie “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” though Mickey Rooney, a star of the film, said the part was played by a girl.) He said he started making films as a child.

Mr. Anger’s earliest surviving film, “Fireworks” (1947), made when he was 20, is a cinematic landmark in both form and content: a dreamlike psychodrama and an autobiographical coming-out movie, shot in his parents’ house while they were away for a funeral. Mr. Anger appears in it as a young man who has a sadomasochistic encounter with a group of musclebound sailors, one of whom undoes his pants to reveal a Roman candle.

According to Mr. Anger, the guests at the film’s first screening included Alfred Kinsey, who he said bought a print of “Fireworks” for his collection, and the filmmaker James Whale, best known for “Frankenstein.” In 1950, encouraged by an admiring letter from Jean Cocteau about “Fireworks,” Mr. Anger moved to Paris, where he spent much of the following decade and worked as an assistant to Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque Française.

Mr. Anger completed one film during his time in Europe: “Eaux d’Artifice” (1953), shot in the fountain-filled gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy. The footage for another, “Rabbit’s Moon,” which features characters from the commedia dell’arte theater tradition, was left in the vaults of the Cinémathèque Française for two decades; two versions of the film were released in the 1970s.

He shot “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” while on a visit home to Los Angeles. With financing hard to come by, he supported himself by writing “Hollywood Babylon.”

Back in the United States in the 1960s, Mr. Anger entered a productive phase that resulted in some of his most admired works. “Scorpio Rising,” one of the best-known experimental movies of all time, shows leather-clad bikers tending to their motorcycles, fueling a raucous Halloween party and desecrating a church. Mr. Anger included provocative juxtapositions: Nazi imagery and excerpts from a life-of-Jesus movie.

The manager of a Los Angeles theater that showed “Scorpio Rising,” which contains frontal nudity, was arrested on an obscenity charge, and an indecency case against the film went to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in Mr. Anger’s favor.

As the counterculture movement crested in the mid-1960s, Mr. Anger moved to San Francisco, where his associates included Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, and Bobby Beausoleil, a musician who became a member of the so-called Manson family.

Mr. Anger spent much of this period developing and shooting a project called “Lucifer Rising,” which envisioned Lucifer not as the devil but as a god of light and “the patron saint of movies,” as Mr. Anger put it. A disciple of the occultist Aleister Crowley, Mr. Anger referred to cinema as an “evil force.” He had the name Lucifer tattooed on his chest.

Much of the original footage of “Lucifer Rising” was said to be lost — Mr. Anger accused Mr. Beausoleil, who played Lucifer, of stealing it — but some salvaged material made its way into the orgiastic “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969), which features a synthesizer score by Mick Jagger.

Completed in 1972 and revised several times, “Lucifer Rising,” with its theme of rebirth, stands in contrast to Mr. Anger’s death-obsessed work of the previous decade. Mr. Beausoleil, by then serving a life sentence for murder, wrote the score from prison.

The film concluded the Magick Lantern Cycle, and afterward Mr. Anger withdrew almost entirely from filmmaking for about 20 years. He published “Hollywood Babylon II” in 1984, but this was otherwise a period of relative inactivity for Mr. Anger, though it coincided with the arrival of the music video and the rise of quick-fire editing in mainstream cinema, and he came to be recognized for his influence on both.

Many would agree that his pseudonym was aptly chosen: Mr. Anger’s volatility is the stuff of many an anecdote. Friendships and collaborations were known to end with Mr. Anger threatening to put a curse on the offending party, as happened with Mr. Beausoleil and the Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who was originally hired to produce the “Lucifer Rising” score.

Mr. Anger returned to filmmaking in 2000, producing a flurry of short films, including “Mouse Heaven” (2004), about the cult of Mickey Mouse; “Elliott’s Suicide” (2007), an elegy to the singer Elliott Smith; and “Ich Will!” (2008), a short assembled from archival footage of the Hitler Youth movement. The critical response to the new work was generally lukewarm, and the focus remained on his earlier movies. The Magick Lantern works have been issued on DVD in restored versions and installed in gallery exhibitions in New York and London.

Mr. Anger left no immediate survivors. Before moving to the assisted living facility, he lived in Los Angeles.

In an essay for a 2007 DVD release, Martin Scorsese extolled the poetic rhythms of Mr. Anger’s films and what he called their “inevitable” logic.

“The structure, the form, the feel of these films,” Mr. Scorsese wrote, “appears to be less invented than received from a source hidden from the rest of us.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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