LOOK BACK TO ANGER a night with KENNETH ANGER including a retrospective of his films and a new documentary about him, ANGER ME, at the Bloor Cinema, Tuesday (October 17). For details, see Indie & Rep Film, page 101. Rating: NNNNN
Kenneth Anger doesn't have a phone and for the past year he's been living in a Los Angeles hotel that doesn't take messages.
"I've managed to do all my various things without one," he informs me on a cellphone handed to him by his assistant after much muffled talk about how to operate the bloody thing.
"I got so irritated with people calling me when I was meditating or writing. If you want to get me, try mental telepathy!"
Those aren't the irritated words of just any cranky old septuagenarian with a mystical streak. This is the visionary writer and director who helped create the U.S. avant-garde film scene and pioneered many techniques that later became ubiquitous in commercials and music videos.
"My cutting techniques were copied by MTV and infomercials," he says, blasé and tired. He's just come back from Vienna, where there was a tribute to him, and he hated taking off his shoes for customs agents.
"I'm not bitter about the copying. The human race is essentially parasitic. We take from other people. Including me. I'm grateful to Leni Riefenstahl and D. W. Griffiths."
Those influences are clearly outlined in Anger Me, Elio Gelmini's documentary on Anger, which screens Tuesday along with a retrospective of all the filmmaker's major works at the Bloor.
Born in Santa Monica in 1927 and briefly a child actor (he appeared in the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream), Anger immersed himself early on in silent films by the masters, poring over 16mm prints from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
He made his first major film, Fireworks, at 17 during a weekend when his parents were away. It's become an experimental film classic, full of homoerotic imagery and cheeky humour. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey later requested a copy. Cocteau, after seeing it, invited Anger to Paris, where he moved a few years later and worked under film archivist Henri Langlois.
"It's much easier to do things when you're young," says Anger about that early start. "You have so much focus and energy. Look at the poems Rimbaud wrote as a teenager. At 30 he became an arms dealer in Africa and never wrote another poem."
It's appropriate that Anger's frame of reference includes Europeans, for his aesthetic is wide-ranging. He admits to a love-hate relationship with Hollywood.
"Some of my favourite films were made in Hollywood," he says. "Josef von Sternberg made six films there, all magnificent. Griffiths made a lot. Ford, too. They could only have been made in Hollywood with a significant budget. I love Busby Berkeley, those mad dream fantasy things. But the 1950s were the wrong period for me to go into the industry."
In Anger Me, he says he refused to work in Hollywood because of anti-Communist blacklisting, but he tells me he never thought he'd fit into the studio system.
"I hated the odd left-wing idealism that suggested everybody should just love each other," he says. "I've never believed it and think all evidence is against it. It's amazing that we've gone on as long as we have without blowing everything up. But it may happen yet."
His best-known works, the two volumes of the gossip-filled Hollywood Babylon series, started out as anecdotes he told to friends like Franois Truffaut. Early sections of the book appeared in of all places the highbrow French journal Cahiers du Cinema. Published years later in America, the first Babylon book ushered in a new kind of writing chronicling the excesses and secrets of hidden Hollywood.
Anger has finished a third volume but for legal reasons doesn't think it will be published in America.
"At least not until I die," he says. "It may come out in a German translation."
In it he chronicles many of the latest scandals, like the Hugh Grant affair, the O.J. Simpson trial and the influence of Scientology on some of the industry's biggest stars.
"The Scientology people are very litigious," he says. "They're bulldogs who bite your ankle and won't give up, harassing people to death with lawsuits that go on and on. A friend of mine who said something true but injudicious about them got a live rattlesnake put in his mailbox."
As for Tinseltown's latest demigods, he's not buying any of it.
"You may think I'm just seeing the past through this rosy glow," he says. "But everyone's so boring. There's no glamour left."
ANGER ME (Elio Gelmini) Rating: NNN
Elio Gelmini's doc about one of filmdom's most cryptic artists is a straight-ahead affair. It's essentially an extended interview with the lively, acid-tongued septuagenarian director, punctuated by generous clips from films like Fireworks, Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising.
Many of the best moments come from Kenneth Anger's recollections of the early U.S. underground film scene and reminiscences of legends as varied as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and Jean Cocteau, both fans.
He's also a good critic of his own work, and rightly blows his own horn about his years-ahead-of-their-time technical innovations.
The film lacks any insight into Anger's personal life. He confesses that he was the black sheep of the family and leaves it at that. No mention is made of his own sexual orientation. Strange for a man who is so intrigued with the private lives of others.