Director / Screenplay / Cinematography / Editor: Kenneth Anger
Music: Little Peggy March, The Angels, Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, The Ran-Dells, Kris Jensen, Claudine Clark, Gene McDaniels, The Surfaris
Scorpio: Bruce Byron
Taurus: Johnny Sapienza
Leo: Frank Carifi
Pinstripe: John Palone
Joker: Ernie Allo
Fall Guy: Barry Rubin
Blondie: Steve Crandell
Back: Bill Dorfman
Kid: Johnny Dodds
Scorpio Rising is one of the most significant American films of the last fifty years, and it is practically the sole representative in our collection of one of the most important film movements of the sixties. The sixties were a fairly exciting time in world cinema. Films by young filmmakers challenging norms of commercial filmmaking formed the 'new waves' of many nations (France, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Brazil) and other countries enjoyed similar movements at around the same time (Britain, Poland, eventually Germany). Even in places where no equivalent 'movement' could be found a vanguard of new or revitalised directors were active (Antonioni, Fellini and Pasolini in Italy; Tarkovsky, Paradzhanov and Ioseliani in the U.S.S.R.). The obvious omission was Hollywood, which continued to churn out increasingly irrelevant repetitions of fading genres. In the early seventies a brief period of innovation roughly analogous to the European New Waves snuck up on the studios, but left little mark on Hollywood in the long run.
However, there's more to American cinema than Hollywood, and the real New American Cinema of the sixties was more radical and exciting than any European movement, for this was the golden age of underground cinema (and, in documentary circles, of direct cinema). Of the filmmakers involved, only a few names are likely to be recognised by the average filmgoer (try your luck: Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, George Kuchar, Robert Breer, Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Bruce Baillie, Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Andrew Noren, Tony Conrad, Yoko Ono, Hollis Frampton...), but it is their films that have ensured the continued artistic viability of film as a medium. Some of the radical innovations of underground film have become a part of commercial film grammar through a bizarre trickle-down process (a typical route: experimental film, music video, television commercial, narrative cinema), but generally such films are more closely aligned to the visual arts than to narrative-based mainstream cinema. One of the reasons that the U.S.A. became the site for this flowering of innovation was that they were the only nation with a fairly continuous tradition of experimental filmmaking. Abstract, surrealist and other radical film forms had enjoyed something of a vogue in Europe during the late silent period, but the people behind these films (Cocteau, Buñuel and Clair, most famously) had ceased production or moved into commercial filmmaking. Their films, however, became cult objects in America and inspired isolated, but persistent, emulation from such filmmakers as Maya Deren (q.v.), James Broughton (q.v.), Gregory Markopoulos and Kenneth Anger - all of whom began making decidedly anti-commercial films in the forties. By the early sixties, Broughton was inactive and Deren deceased. Anger, however, was entering his most productive and provocative period.
Any consideration of the work of Kenneth Anger inevitably has to deal with an inordinate amount of biographical baggage - Aleister Crowley, Jean Cocteau, the Rolling Stones, Charles Manson, the Hollywood Babylon books... - and in the case of some of his films (notably Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)) this baggage eclipses the film itself. Scorpio Rising (and possibly also the enchanting Eaux d'Artifice (1953)) is the film best equipped to be considered purely on its own merits: the magickal implications are there for the initiated; the gay and blasphemous subtexts are rather more readily accessible, but the formal brilliance of the editing and the potency of the imagery cannot fail to impress viewers willing to take the commensurate risks. The film still boasts one of cinema's most subversive and superb soundtracks and presents audiences with a disturbingly complex miasma of contrasting elements. The film's arcane violence would be compounded in Invocation of My Demon Brother; its camp humour hilariously distilled in the gentle Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965); and its carefree deconstruction of found materials (including cows as sacred as James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ (Hollywood version)) would be taken up by countless filmmakers-to-be, though seldom with such panache. And none of them would be sued by the American Nazi Party for desecrating the swastika...
Anger's most justly famous work is the extraordinary Scorpio Rising, a film that contributed more to the iconography of rock 'n' roll than any other. Among fetishistic shots of chrome motorbikes and their leather-clad riders, Anger creates his own mythic hero, Scorpio the biker, a conflation of James Dean, Jesus Christ, Marlon Brando and Adolf Hitler, whose sexual and political charisma Anger ambiguously celebrates with wit, inventiveness and a great rock 'n' roll soundtrack.
- Ian Johnston, 'Going Underground', 20/20, 2/90
Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising is an intoxicating stew of imagery and iconography, set to a soundtrack of thirteen pop records of the time (the early '60s), which are linked by the vrooms of motorcycle engines. The movie has no scenario to speak of, but if you insist: Various bikers groom themselves and their machines for a costume party which degenerates into an infantile homosexual orgy and then a quasi-Nazi rally; ultimately, one of them runs his cycle off the road and is killed. This 'story' is told through an endless stream of masterfully montaged flotsam and jetsam: Nazi souvenir-shop kitsch, motorcycle paraphernalia, rough-trade motorcycle garb and gear, necrophilic symbols (including skulls and scorpions galore), clips from The Wild One and an old Jesus bio-pic, wax figures of Bela Lugosi as Dracula and of Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, comic-strip panels, and even a shot of Mickey Rooney as a crowing Pan, an image that is inserted to rhyme with the Sunday-funnies Puck logo and epigraph ("What fools ye mortals be") that begin the film.
That the whole is so much greater than its paltry parts is due to Anger's astonishingly advanced sense of cinematic rhythm. So sound, indeed, is his cinepoetic pulse that the pop singles he appropriated to accompany his imagery have taken on new stature and even different meanings than they had possessed pre-Anger; before I first saw Scorpio Rising, Ricky Nelson's rockabilly version of 'Fools Rush In' struck me as a catchy, pleasant, but essentially bland rendition of the Tin Pan Alley standard, but now, thanks to Kenneth Anger, I can't hear it without feeling a buzz of excitement and expectation. Some years after the movie was released, Anger, a notorious eccentric, accused George Lucas of ripping off Scorpio Rising's pop-music soundtrack conceit in American Graffiti. That's a little like Ray Charles getting ticked off at David Clayton Thomas. American Graffiti is rock and roll as innocuous nostalgia; Scorpio Rising is rock and roll as narcotic and nightmare.
- Dale Thomajan, From Cyd Charisse to Psycho: A Book of Movie Bests, New York, 1992
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.
- Kenneth Anger