Around the screen, in London's Sprüth Magers gallery, a bunch of 21st-century trendies and stoners are watching this film, called Invocation of My Demon Brother, in awe, their ages ranging from late teens to late 80s. Next door, hallucinogenic photographs eyeball you from the wall. You walk in, you walk out – and the show's all over in a flash. It can only mean one thing. Kenneth Anger is back in town.
Anger is a Hollywood legend. He has created some of the most disturbing, gorgeous, crazy and influential films ever, even if he has yet to make a feature. This great avant-gardist is also a writer, best known for Lalaland's two most scurrilous gossip digests: Hollywood Babylon 1 and 2; the first was published in 1965, banned immediately and not published again until 1975. Among the books' more scandalous passages are allegations that Lucille Ball started Hollywood life as a prostitute; that James Dean had a "disconcerting interest" in a 12-year-old boy; and that Bette Davis killed her second husband.
We meet at a London hotel that smells of cabbage. Anger is 83 years old; his hair is jet black, his shoes red, his trousers tan. One eye is bigger than the other, and his face is unlined. He is both beautiful and grotesque: Warren Beatty meets Frankenstein's monster. Anger wasn't always an outsider. He trained as a dancer, and as a boy danced with Shirley Temple. He was handsome enough to have been a leading man. But he did not want to be part of the system. "There was a possibility of going into the industry, but there was a very unpleasant atmosphere in the early 50s, the ridiculous witch-hunt of reds. I wasn't a communist, I just found it very unpleasant." His voice is a cat's purr.
Although he made films as a boy, Anger's earliest surviving work is 1947's Fireworks. This appeared three years before Jean Genet's groundbreaking homoerotic prison masterpiece, Un Chant D'Amour. Fireworks features a young man (Anger) wet-dreaming a sequence in which he is seduced/gang-raped by a group of sailors after he tries to pick one up. As with all his films, there are no words, and the story, such as it is, has a dramatic music score. The camera lingers on his apparent erection – which turns out to be a model of an African soldier. Blood pours from his eyes as he is pulverised by the sailors, and a firework explodes from his zip. His heart is ripped apart to expose a ticking time-piece. It's not only surreal and scary, it is devastatingly beautiful.
Astonishingly, it was made in the McCarthy era. Anger was arrested on obscenity charges following its release. The case went to the California Supreme Court, which declared the film to be art. Anger made it in his parents' Beverly Hills home when they were away at an uncle's funeral. "I just put the furniture in the garden and the living room was the set. Luckily it didn't rain."
How did public screenings go? "Well, it was shown to an elite audience," Anger says. "Among the people who came was James Whale, the British director of Frankenstein, and I became friends with him. Dr Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher, also came. I became friends with him, too." Did his parents see it? "Um, no. My grandmother saw it. She was like my sponsor: she bought my camera for me. She said it's terrific. She was a painter." Did he know what he was trying to do with films? "Well, I knew all about French avant garde, so I was the American avant garde."
Six-packs, scorpions, swastikas
Anger was born Kenneth Anglemeyer in 1927. His father worked for Douglas Aircraft and his brother went into the airforce, but it was his grandmother who was his inspiration. She took him to exhibitions, introduced him to art and film. At Beverly Hills High school, he remembers looking out of the window watching The Song of Bernadette being made at 20th Century Fox next door. He was friends with Harry Brand Jr, son of Fox's head of publicity. They would swap Hollywood gossip during break.
In his teens, he founded his own film society to screen obscure European movies. By the time of Fireworks, Kenneth Anglemeyer had disappeared. The sole opening credit reads: "A film by Anger." Was it a name that reflected how he felt? "I just condensed my name," he says. "I knew it would be like a label, a logo. It's easy to remember."
It is Anger's use of music as a substitute for dialogue that marks him out from other film-makers of his time. He set 1954's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, inspired by Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan, to Janácek's Glagolitic Mass. His most famous film, Scorpio Rising (another sadomasochistic montage of bikers, beatings, six-packs, scorpions and swastikas), has possibly the greatest pop soundtrack in movie history: Fools Rush In, My Boyfriend's Back, Blue Velvet, Hit the Road Jack, He's a Rebel. Scorpio Rising would later encourage Martin Scorsese (in Mean Streets) and David Lynch (in Blue Velvet) to use pop songs to help tell a story.
Lucifer Rising, a celebration of pagan ritual featuring Marianne Faithfull, had a soundtrack written from prison by Bobby Beausoleil, a convicted murderer and an associate of the Manson family. Wasn't Beausoleil a boyfriend of his? "He was a friend. We lived together." Has he known a lot of bad boys? "I seem to be attracted to bad boys, but I never let it go too far. In other words, there's always, 'OK, it's time for me to move out.'" I ask Anger if he was a bad boy. He smiles. "I was a smart boy. Too smart to be involved in badness." He has always preferred badness by association.
Anger was also a friend of Anton Szandor LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in the 1960s. Is he a satanist? "No, I am not a satanist. I am a pagan. Satanism is another thing." But, I say, people look at your dystopian films, with their myriad references to the devil, and assume you are a devil-worshipper. "Well, I can't help what people see in them," he says. Were you playing with ideas or was it your belief system? "Well, I suppose, a belief." In what? "Underneath it all is an appreciation of nature."
In Lucifer Rising, Faithfull plays Lilith, a demon. It was Anger's most expensive film because it involved a trip to Egypt. "I said to Marianne Faithfull, don't bring any drugs because they'll execute you. So she hid her heroin in her makeup box underneath her face powder. I think she was powdering her face with heroin."
'Hollywood is a dried-out prune'
Anger often found it hard to finance his films. This is where the Hollywood Babylon books came in useful. Although it took him years to get them past the lawyers, they became bestsellers. Many of their stories are still disputed. For years, we have been waiting for Hollywood Babylon 3. Anger says it is written, but it's on hold. "The main reason I didn't bring it out was that I had a whole section on Tom Cruise and the Scientologists. I'm not a friend of the Scientologists." He says today's Holly-wood is a dried-out prune of a place, its stars not even worth gossiping about. "I covered most of the people who were interesting to me in the first two books."
Not only is Anger still filming in his 80s, he tells me he is in the middle of a purple patch, having recently made a number of shorts: one about military uniforms called Uniform Attraction; another about football warmups called Foreplay; and a third, Elliott's Suicide, about his friend, singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, who killed himself in 2003 at the age of 34. "He stabbed himself in the heart after a quarrel with his girlfriend. It's the most ridiculous reason to kill yourself."
Although Smith's songs feature in Elliott's Suicide, it is a film without dialogue. After all, why change a winning formula? Actually, there is one thing I have always wondered: does Anger ever watch, say, Lucifer Rising and wonder what the hell it's all about? He smiles for a long time, casting his mind back over all those years, all those films. "They are close to being dreams – and in dreams, you don't have to analyse what everything means."
Kenneth Anger is at Sprüth Magers, London W1, until 27 March. Then touring. Anger appears in person tomorrow at Tyneside cinema, Gateshead. Details:avfestival.co.uk