Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger will create a nomadic sculpture for Station to Station.

Interview by Doug Aitken with Kenneth Anger

Doug Aitken: 
One thing unique about you is that you started making films as a native of Los Angeles, a city captivated by the mythology of film, as you attested to in your legendary book Hollywood Babylon (1975). You grew up around the industry, as opposed to migrating here as so many others have. When did you make your first film?

Kenneth Anger: With a home movie camera when I was seven.

DA: Your films have always made strong use of graphics but have very little dialogue. Why is that?

KA: Actually, I don’t use any dialogue. I have always loved silent movies. I used to watch a lot of them when I was younger because my grandmother was a silent film costume designer. I made my first film using my family’s 16mm Cine-Kodak that you had to spring-wind by hand and that wasn’t able to record any sound. This was before portable tape recorders. So I basically just began making silent movies with musical accompaniment. And I’m still doing that.

DA: It sounds like you broke free really early on from the idea that film has to have an overall storyline and concentrated instead on creating an atmospheric impression without using traditional narrative. There can be something incredibly powerful about watching moving images without dialogue.

KA: I’m glad that you think I’m trying to break away from narrative in my films. That’s what I’m aiming for.

DA: The films are atmospheric yet voiceless. Do you see similarities between your films and the visual language of dreams?

KA: My dreams are like films played over and over again without any dialogue and totally unrelated to anything else in my life. As I’ve gotten older, I have finally gotten rid of the nightmares — or at least, have gotten tired of them. Or maybe they just don’t scare me anymore.

DA: After watching your films, they seem to rearrange themselves in my memory. I can never remember the exact sequence of the images, but I can remember certain impressions vividly. Your films are like pills — tight and compact — that suddenly expand into atmospheric space affecting your sense of rationality and relation to time, and the meaning of symbols.

KA: That’s okay by me! I think watching film can be very similar to dreaming. That’s why it’s a fascinating medium. Although according to some psychologists, you can apparently think that a dream lasted hours when really it took place over a few minutes or even seconds. But I don’t know, I think science is just a bunch of bullshit. To be an authority, they have to say something definite when they really do not know. That’s why I like myths. With myths you’re never imposed on from the outside. You can come up with your own.

DA: It’s interesting you’d say that because even though your films are short, they have certain primal qualities to them that you might find in myths. Even Scorpio Rising (1963), your film that has the most candy-coated pop culture feel to it with its hot-rod protagonists, seems more like a portrait of an archetypal age-old myth rather than a contemporary phenomenon in the way the narrative works purely through the use of symbols.

KA: Well, mythology is important to me personally. I studied it as soon as I could read. I love it and feel part of it.

DA: Your early films like Tinsel Tree (1941–42) seem to want to tap directly into the subconscious. When I first saw Tinsel Tree, I was 15 and it blew me away. It’s obvious that you’re not just going through the motions of figuring out the craft of filmmaking or scriptwriting. It’s incredibly raw emotionally being both violent and beautiful. Where did this come from?

KA: My family had a German ritual of burning the Christmas tree. That was the origin of that film. I felt the tree was being treated like a goddess and dressed up in fancy finery, but then violently burned. We had these fabulous 19th century hand-blown glass peacocks from Germany we’d hang on the tree along with the strands of tinsel and electric lights. And then, when the tree had done its bit of show business for us and the holiday was over, my family would haul it outside and set it on fire. It only took a few seconds for the dead tree to go up in a beautiful pyramid of fire.

DA: That’s a really primal experience to have had as a kid: to stand in front of a blazing tree in your own backyard. But it’s interesting because many of your other films seem to agitate the viewer in a similar way, you know? It’s like you’re trying not only to seduce the viewer but to attack the viewer visually to send things up in fire in front of them.

KA: I hope so. Kick ‘em in the nuts every now and then.

DA: I recently watched Scorpio Rising again and it struck me how much of it is about surfaces.

KA: It’s very much about surfaces — shiny surfaces and hard surfaces, about the reflective quality of things.

DA: And that film in particular completely abandons storytelling. There’s no narrative entry point, but you’re still able to create a sense of progression and space without character development. The focus is on the surface, on its reflection, on the sensuality of an inanimate object, on an impenetrable aesthetic form.

KA: I do introduce a character, Scorpio, but he’s just a device. I don’t follow him from beginning to end.

DA: It’s a portrait of American motorcycle culture, but the film is made up almost entirely of details of textures: chrome, shiny metallic paint and leather. It seems to foreshadow the obsession with hot rods and customized cars in Komandos (1965). You abstract the surfaces to the same degree as Stan Brakhage’s films abstract the actual raw film stock, but your subject is a fetishized image: a perfect abstraction lit to the nth degree like a television commercial. The difference from a commercial, however, is that you’re delivering a philosophical question instead of a product. The subculture and its fetishes are being examined and its power is being revealed in its simplicity and surface.

KA: The simplicity comes from the limitations I face working alone. I don’t have a crew. I do everything myself. I do my own lighting, my own camerawork, my own cutting. The whole thing is a one-man show.

DA: I’m sure you’re aware of this, but your work has had a huge influence on music videos, especially the way you fragment time in your editing and condense the imagery down to its essence.

KA: People have copied me outrageously in MTV music videos. Should I sue or not? Fuck ‘em. They are the ones making the money. I don’t give a damn. No one has offered me a job to make a video. I bet the budget would be more than the budgets for any of my films. I resent that, but I don’t advertise myself. It’s much easier to rent my films than to hire me. I see the logs for who has rented what and when, so I know when someone keeps a copy for a couple of weeks, which is unusual. But you know, I wouldn’t make a music video if it were offered to me unless I was absolutely wild about the music. I couldn’t be a fucking whore and make some wallpaper concoction to go with a piece of music that I thought stinks.

DA: Yeah, for you to make MTV wallpaper would probably not be the best idea. One of the ways that I think your work has most influenced music videos, though, is its approach to time: the nonlinear sequences, the intercuts and jump cuts.

KA: It’s sort of like the art of the mosaic, like Antoni Gaudí piecing together bits of colored broken pottery.

DA: I think there is a link between your work and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, particularly El Topo (1971) and The Holy Mountain (1973) in that they work on a very mythological level and the stories are often told through symbols alone. Would you agree?

KA: I admire his films, but I don’t approve of the killing of the animals. I have a thing about cruelty to animals. I know him quite well and I’ve really taken him to task for it. But Jodorowsky comes from a Catholic background. Like Luis Buñuel, his work has that heavy martyred-saint bloodbath aspect to it which is a different aesthetic from mine. Mine is German Protestant, and I rebelled against it very early.

DA: What do you think of today’s films?

KA: Commercial films are still too fucking long. Some features go on for nearly three hours. I could cut them down to 70 minutes and they’d be snappier and better.

DA: Your films tend to all be short films. Why is that?

KA: I appreciate short forms like the sonnet or the haiku. You can express things better with a few lines of text or by using images over a short duration.

DA: Your legacy is incredibly far reaching. It’s helped invent the blueprints for the way moving images are used in mass culture today.

KA: If I had it to do all over again, I don’t know if I would choose to be such a maverick and such a loner. As I get older, life does not become easier. It becomes more difficult, and I have no safety net.

This interview originally appeared in Broken Screen: Expanding The Image, Breaking The Narrative.