Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising (US 1963)

"A conjuration of the Presiding Princes, Angels, and Spirits of the Sphere of mars, formed as a “high” view of the Myth of the American Motorcyclist. The Power Machine seen as tribal totem, from toy to terror. Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans. Part I: Boys & Bolts: (masculine fascination with the Thing that Goes). Part II: Image Maker (getting high on heroes: Dean’s Rebel and Brando’s Johnny: the True View of J. C.). Part III: Walpurgis Party (J. C. wallflower at cycler’s Sabbath). Part IV: Rebel Rouser (The Gathering of the Dark Legions, with a message from Our Sponsor). Dedicated to Jack Parsons, Victor Childe, Jim Powers, James Dean, T. E. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Kurt Mann, The Society of Spartans, The Hell’s Angels, and all overgrown boys who will ever follow the whistle of Love’s brother. Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed, and Edited by Kenneth Anger. Cast: Bruce Byron (Scorpio); Johnny Sapienza (Taurus); Frank Carifi (Leo); John Palone (Pinstripe); Ernie Allo (The Life of the Party); Barry Rubin (Pledge); Steve Crandell (The Sissy Cyclist). Music: Songs interpreted by Ricky Nelson, Little Peggy March, The Angels, Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, The Crystals, The Ron-Dells, Kris Jensen, Claudine Clark, Gene McDaniels, The Surfaris. Filmed in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Walden’s Pond, New York, on Ektachrome ER."1

In Scorpio Rising (US 1963) Kenneth Anger turns to the growing subculture of outlaw motorcycle clubs nine years after the hypnotizing Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (US 1954), which had garnered him international recognition as a distinct voice in underground filmmaking. Among his Magick Lantern CycleScorpio Rising is arguably one of the more accessible works. The filmmaker’s previous and later works are much more hermetic in their iconography and symbolisms, mostly drawing from the religion of Thelema (founded by Aleister Crowley) and occultism. Although more muted, Crowley's theology still constitutes the driving force behind Scorpio Rising. At its core, the film tells of the initiation of the Age of Scorpio, brought to effect by the protagonist peeing in his bike helmet and offering it to his audience (a clear reference to the body/blood of Christ). This is, however, superimposed by the relationship Scorpio-Marlon Brando/James Dean-Jesus Christ, which creates a triangular scheme with the fetishizing eye of the observer at its center. Ping-ponging between these figures, Anger shows their similarities. A web of reflection, imitation, and irony is revealed with increasing absurdity as the violence bubbles over in the background. As these dynamics are explored, the screen is overcrowded with fetish objects.

The motorcycle is the central fetish, somewhat elevated from a pure fetish of the commodity through the work invested by its owner. It is, in fact, its status as a cultural artefact, more than a consumer good, which at first glance unites all the elements of the film. Upon closer inspection, however, its chrome body is merely a reflection of the masculine subject. It is a subject with a fascist body, going beyond any binary because it only knows one, absolute paradigm: destruction. And it is this destruction, motivated by Nietzschean “Wille zur Macht” and “Umwertung aller Werte” that determines Scorpio's agency in the film.

The tragedy of the plot is made digestible through Anger's use of pastiche and camp, always undermining and undercutting whatever statement is made by its content through its form. Jesus Christ is represented through a low-budget, grotesque Sunday School movie; Scorpio's hard-nosed masculinity is cracked at different points, for instance when he burns his lip trying to light a match, or when fantasizing about giving an illegally-parked bike a ticket. Brando and Dean, present as posters and on the television screen, are at once the transcendent ideal of masculinity and merely products of the culture industry. The soundtrack, composed of thirteen popular songs, makes these juxtapositions the more explicit. The latent violent and gruesome lyrics of the love songs are exposed through Anger's new contextualization. Coming into dialogue with the images on the screen, the dissonance between Eros and Thanatos is wholly destroyed, showing how the culture industry presents love and death as comparable and even, equivalent.

1 Anger, Kenneth. 1966. “Magick Lantern Cycle” Film-Makers Cinemateque. New York, p. 3-4. Cited in Adams Sitney, P. (1974) 2002. Visionary Film : The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press., p. 103.

Text: Fedra Benoli