Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

kenneth anger

los angeles 
underground

interview with KENNETH ANGER 

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM and BRIAN BUTLER
photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

Experimental filmmaker, actor, and writer Kenneth Anger filmed the homoeroticism, occultism, phantasmagoria, glamour, demons, and ghosts through a seemingly surrealist lens. Short films like Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Scorpio Rising would influence filmmakers Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and John Waters. His book Hollywood Babylon was about scandal and created a scandal itself. An underground legend, he’s described himself as pagan, yet he is a softspoken one. An extremely private person, he is clearly open to what the dark side of life can offer.

OLIVIER ZAHM — New York became too commercial, and full of anger and fear?
KENNETH ANGER— Yeah. It became Trumpland.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see America today? Is it darker than ever?
KENNETH ANGER — No, I don’t see it that way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — America is scaring the whole planet.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not scared? [Laughs] Are you scared by anything, Kenneth?
KENNETH ANGER — Scared? No.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve been dealing with death all your life, in your movies. And now, as a man, how do you see death?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, it would be a crowded world if we didn’t have death to re-arrange the scenery.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] It’s already a crowded world. Too many people, maybe — how many billions?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, apparently the world can sustain that number. But not for long.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you moved to San Pedro recently? When did you move here?
KENNET HANGER — I’d say more than a year ago. I like it — it’s quiet. I like being close to the water.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a massive port and very industrial at the same time. Plus, it’s full of sailors!
KENNETH ANGER — I don’t know if it’s full of them. I think it may just be empty. [Laughs] They have a battleship that you can visit here, called the Iowa. It’s worth a visit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a beautiful industrial landscape?
KENNETH ANGER — Definitely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you left Hollywood?
KENNETH ANGER — I got tired of inner city life. Too many stupid people. It’s quieter here.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you never really liked Los Angeles, right? You like London, and you like Paris.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah.

OLIVIER ZAHM —Do you hate LA?
KENNETH ANGER — I don’t hate it, no. The section that I know is called Hollywood — which is only one district in Los Angeles.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How has Hollywood changed? Because you’ve known Hollywood since the ’50s, right? The ’40s, even.
KENNETH ANGER — Yes, I actually grew up here, in Hollywood.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s changed so many times, I guess. It’s a different world.
KENNETH ANGER — Well, yes. But it was always show business.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s true. Yeah, here it’s really peaceful. It’s beautiful to see the boats. You could be in Tokyo here, you could be in Hong Kong or in Le Havre. Is it a poetic place for you?
KENNETH ANGER — Yes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And if you’re tired of life, you could always just go in the water and disappear — like Le Corbusier, the architect.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah!

OLIVIER ZAHM — He had a little cabin in the South of France. He was a very good swimmer. I think every day he was going further and further out, and one day he couldn’t come back.
KENNETH ANGER — Did they find his body?

OLIVIER ZAHM — They did find his body, but we don’t know if he decided to commit suicide or if he really died by accident.
KENNETH ANGER — I never heard that story. That’s too bad. He was very talented.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I agree. You always liked architecture and houses. In your films, beautiful houses always appear. Do you remember a particular house in LA or London that you shot and which you were particularly fond of?
KENNETH ANGER — I love mysterious houses. Well, there are so many. I really can’t.

BRIAN BUTLER — There was Samson De Brier’s house in Hollywood, where you shot Puce Moment [1949] and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome [1954]. Do you want to talk about Samson?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, Samson De Brier was a good friend of mine, and he had a wonderful overstuffed house with so many things in it that you could hardly move.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] Did he have a lot of furniture?
KENNETH ANGER — Furniture, artworks, books.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you always had great personal style.
KENNETH ANGER — [Laughs]

At that time of my life, I thought, “What’s the point in me having pitch-black hair?” I was born in 1927, so that makes me 91. So, I might as well face the facts. I’ve survived my generation. I mean, most people my age have died. My personal friends. And they’ve gone before me. So, I could stop dyeing my hair black and let it turn white.

BRIAN BUTLER — Well, you designed a lot of clothes, right? The Scorpio Rising jacket and the Lucifer Rising jacket.
KENNETH ANGER — Well, who else would do the costumes? I don’t like to use a costume designer.

BRIAN BUTLER — For the Lucifer jacket, it was the woman who did the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s cover. What was the story?
KENNETH ANGER — That’s right, Jann Haworth. She was American, but living in London. She was married to Peter Blake, the famous Pop artist.

BRIAN BUTLER — Were you around when they did the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s?
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah. I was living in London at the time.

BRIAN BUTLER — And they put Aleister Crowley on the cover.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah, a photograph of him is among the living people. [Laughs] It’s a famous cover.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you like London in the ’60s?
KENNETH ANGER — Oh, yeah. I had lots of good friends at the time. Unfortunately, they died, one after another. Anita Pallenberg was a good friend of mine. She recently died [in June 2017].

OLIVIER ZAHM — She was very close friends with Kate Moss. And I photographed the two of them, with JuergenTeller, for Purple, 15 years ago. She was wild.
KENNETH ANGER — [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — And she influenced Kate a lot — to not care and just be herself. But Mick Jagger is still around.
KENNETH ANGER — Yes. You don’t hear much about him at this stage of his life. I mean, I don’t.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s on tour now. I’ll show you pictures. And he’s still singing and dancing like a madman.
KENNETH ANGER — Really? And he’s in his 70s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes! So, he’s the real devil, this guy!
KENNETH ANGER — Right!

OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s such a good dancer. He’s still dancing as if he’s 22. Maybe he’s like Dorian Gray?
KENNETH ANGER — A little bit.

BRIAN BUTLER — He recorded the soundtrack for Invocation of My Demon Brother [1969], right?
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah, it’s a short film. He recorded the soundtrack and gave it to me, as I certainly couldn’t afford him if I had to pay for him!


BRIAN BUTLER — How did he end up doing the soundtrack?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, we were just friends at the time. He knew I had this film project, so he did an improvisation while he watched the film and then gave me the track.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did he sing, too? Or was it just musical?
KENNETH ANGER — No, just music.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet Mick Jagger in London?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, there was a crowd of people, and I was friendly with all of them, at the time — Keith Richards… Marianne Faithfull was a close friend of mine. She’s still around.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yeah, she did a book about herself — with beautiful pictures. I did an interview with Marianne two years ago, when she launched her book.
BRIAN BUTLER — You filmed her in Egypt, right?
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah.

BRIAN BUTLER — Do you remember much about the shoot?
KENNETH ANGER — Well it was in the ’60s. I took them to Egypt, and I was a little bit concerned that her open use of drugs could get us all arrested and executed. Because Egypt would try to scare people from using drugs. They’d line them up on the wall and shoot them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Whoa. The easy way.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — And everything was okay in the end?
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah.

OLIVIER ZAHM — At the time, people weren’t afraid of using drugs, of sex. People were pushing the limits, right? Today it seems like this freedom will never happen again.
KENNETH ANGER — Well, I guess nothing ever happens again. I mean, life evolves in mysterious ways.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s pretty unpredictable, yes. And it seems to evolve faster and faster.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah. Time marches on.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Will it end in a big apocalypse?
KENNETH ANGER — I don’t think we’ll see it in our lifetime.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see the future, Kenneth? Dark or spiritual?
KENNETH ANGER — No, I don’t have a dark vision of the future. It’s always change — change, change, change.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s true. It doesn’t necessarily change for the better, but it’s changing all the same.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah.

BRIAN BUTLER — Do you recall when you first went to Paris? When you brought Fireworks, and your involvement with Jean Cocteau at the Films of the Damned Festival [Festival du Film Maudit, 1949]?
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah. Cocteau was always very friendly. And luckily, I’d studied French at Beverly Hills High School, so at least I could converse in the language because he wouldn’t speak English.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know you studied French. This is why the French people love you!
BRIAN BUTLER — You wrote your book Hollywood Babylon [1959] in French, right? The first edition.
KENNETH ANGER — No, the first version was written in English, and then I adapted it.

BRIAN BUTLER — You did the translation.
KENNETH ANGER — I had some help. [Laughs]

BRIAN BUTLER — Well, it started with an article in the Cahiers du Cinéma.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah, and then the publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert thought it would be interesting as a book, and he offered me a contract to do it. So, that’s how that happened. Luckily, he’d seen the article in Cahiers du Cinéma, which was a prestige film magazine at the time.

KENNETH ANGER IN FRONT OF THE SAN PEDRO PORT

BRIAN BUTLER — Is there a connection between your filmmaking and you as a writer?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, I wish I’d had enough money to do more films, but I did what I could with what I had available.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you can be proud of what you did. Because we can still watch your films again and again, you know?
KENNETH ANGER — Okay, thank you!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Also, the connection with music, the soundtrack is important in your films.
KENNETH ANGER — That’s true, yeah. Often the images are built around the sound.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But the music is inspiring for your images, right? For the filming? It’s not an illustration— it goes with the picture.
KENNETH ANGER — I hope!

BRIAN BUTLER — Are the rhythms of your editing influenced by the soundtrack?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, they just mesh together.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still listen to new music? Or do you like old music? I like old, personally. [Laughs]
KENNETH ANGER — Well, I must confess, I think I like old, too. [Laughs] Very old music.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What could you tell us today that we don’t already know about you?
KENNETH ANGER — Ah, well, I have my mysteries and my secrets, and I will keep them, thank you very much!

OLIVIER ZAHM — I have a very personal question to ask: you stopped dyeing your hair black, and now you have beautiful white-gray hair. What happened?
KENNETH ANGER — At that time of my life, I thought, “What’s the point in me having pitch-black hair?” I was born in 1927, so that makes me 91. So, I might as well face the facts. I’ve survived my generation. I mean, most people my age have died. My personal friends. And they’ve gone before me. So, I could stop dyeing my hair black and let it turn white.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, they won’t witness that you have white hair, right?
KENNETH ANGER — I don’t care, one way or the other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay, I understand. I was always wearing dark glasses, and I turned 55 and said, “Fuck it.” I have transparent glasses now, like everyone.
KENNETH ANGER — Yeah.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?
KENNETH ANGER — I never met him personally. I was at an event in New York at Radio City Music Hall, and he was there, and I saw the white wig, but he was so surrounded by people that I said,“To hell with it.” I wouldn’t try breaking through to get to him. That was as close to him as I ever got. But he was a character.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you like his films?
KENNETH ANGER — A little bit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A little bit, yes. Like everyone. [Laughs] Not so much. Let’s come back to Cocteau — how did you meet him? How did you happen to be friends with him?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, it wasn’t difficult at all. In 1950, I moved to Paris and was working for the Cinémathèque Française. Henri Langlois [who cofounded it] was a good friend of mine, and that’s how I met Cocteau at the Cinémathèque. I didn’t speak French very well, but at least I spoke some French — because he spoke no English! He had a certain snobbism about only speaking French.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque, speak English?
KENNETH ANGER — Yes, he spoke English. And he was an incredible character. His companion was named Mary Meerson — she was a good friend of mine. She was the widow of Lazare Meerson, who’d been the set designer for René Clair [the French filmmaker].

OLIVIER ZAHM — You always liked set design and interior design. That’s an obsession for you.
KENNETH ANGER — Yes, absolutely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you design your own interiors, in your house?
KENNETH ANGER — Who else?! [Laughs]

BRIAN BUTLER — Christopher Gibbs was a very interesting person you knew, who did interior design and sold antique furniture. Do you want to talk about him?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, Christopher was a close friend of mine, and he was quite an important person in the ’60s, in London.

BRIAN BUTLER — Did you go to Morocco with him?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, no. But during that period, I went to Egypt, and I was there during one of the worst riots. The mob got into a very anti-British mood because of something that happened, and so they burned down the main tourist hotel.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Ah … you’re a bit Egyptian.
KENNETH ANGER — [Laughs] Well, I’ve been to Egypt five times, and I feel a very strong connection with the whole culture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And at the time, it was a very intellectual place — with Alexandria, which had a lot of writers in the ’50s and ’60s.
KENNETH ANGER — I did visit Alexandria, but mostly I was in Cairo and Upper Egypt — in Luxor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What did you like so much about Egypt? What attracted you to it?
KENNETH ANGER — Well, it’s a fascinating culture, and one of the oldest still surviving. It goes back thousands of years. I’ve never been interested in the future.

END

[Table of contents]

Los Angeles issue #30

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