A swift and dense Eisensteinian montage of leather-clad bikers and hustlers, road accidents, Hollywood stars, comic strips, Christian icons, Nazi imagery, and a simulated orgy, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (screening at the Walker this week) stands as one of the most widely seen and influential masterpieces of American cinema. Anger completed the film in late 1963, only a few weeks before the Kennedy assassination. He would later summarize Scorpio Rising as “a death mirror held up to American culture,” and as society seemed to unravel in the years that followed, audiences flocked to peer into Anger’s morbid looking glass.
In the 1960s, Anger was one of a number of avant-garde filmmakers who received national attention as part of mainstream fascination with “the underground” and all things counter-cultural. Scorpio Rising garnered special attention after a Los Angeles theater manager was found guilty of obscenity in 1964 for screening Anger’s film, which includes brief flashes of nudity and unabashed homoeroticism. The ruling was later overturned, and by 1966, Variety reported that screenings of the film at the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village (on a double bill with Jonas Mekas’s The Brig) “started racking up more money than the proprietors had ever seen,” encouraging a subsequent national release. This same year, Scorpio Rising unspooled for the first time at the Walker, as part of what was seems to have been the museum’s earliest series devoted to American experimental film; atypical of the Walker’s film screenings at the time, the show was billed as “not suitable for children.” Elsewhere across the country, canny theater owners promoted Anger’s work as a biker exploitation flick and/or “all-male” pornography, and black-and-white 16mm bootlegs of Scorpio Rising are rumored to have circulated in West Coast gay bars of the time. The film’s hip notoriety was such that a 1967 New York Times profile entitled “From Underground: Kenneth Anger Rising” even attributed the fashion trend for leather jackets and biker gear to Scorpio Rising’s success. The film’s debut “drew a crowd that included in-the-groove psychoanalysts, artists and art critics, and a representation of what the inflamed imaginations of news-magazine editorialists see as ‘the homosexual Mafia’ of hairdressers, dress designers and decorators,” the Times stated. “Almost overnight, display windows of elegant uptown boutiques had wicked motorcycle chains thrown over plush velvet couches, and models in couture dresses, poised between the handlebars of motorcycles… Leather and goggles became standard gear for both sexes for doing the galleries on the upper East Side, as well as the bars on the lower West.”
One of the groovy art critics the Times spotted at Scorpio Rising’s debut may well have been Gregory Battcock, who discussed the film in a 1967 essay on “New Experiments in Cinema,” calling it “perhaps the most famous” experimental title of its day and an “apt contribution toward the understanding of film and the ‘pop’ image.” Indeed, Scorpio Rising’s images of James Dean and Lil’ Abner funnies wouldn’t be out of place in the Pop paintings of the time, but the most prominent artifacts of commercial culture used in the film are the needle-drop recordings of rock and roll 45s than Anger employed as Scorpio Rising’s soundtrack. In the film, Anger uses thirteen songs—an appropriately occult number for a professed follower of Aleister Crowley—laid down back-to-back over its 26 minutes. None of the songs would have been obscure to American audiences of the time: all placed highly on the Billboard charts, with 10 titles ranking as top five singles. “It was pop music that was playing the summer of 1963, when I was filming,” Anger explained to scholar Scott MacDonald in 2004. The lineup includes three girl groups (The Angels, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Crystals) and three teen idols (Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley), eight songs by white artists and five by African-American performers. The mix now captures the spirit of rock and roll at the trailing end of its first decade, when Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” aesthetic dominated the radio, just before the British Invasion arrived to rearrange the musical landscape.
While rock and roll had been used in the movies as far back as Blackboard Jungle (1955) which featured Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits to add an air of juvenile delinquency, Scorpio Rising was the first film to use pop music for advanced artistic effect rather than mere youth appeal, harnessing its emotional powers through enigmatically contrapuntal editing. As Carel Rowe notes, the songs “serve not only as a means of organization but also as an ironic narrative.” Scorpio Rising’s long influence can be seen and heard in the rock soundtrack of Easy Rider (1969), the pointed use of pop music in the films of Martin Scorsese (who cites seeing Scorpio Rising in college as a formative event), and the quasi-narrative design of the music video. Anger himself continued to employ pop music and its performers: The Paris Sisters’s haunting “Dream Lover” plays over Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965); Mick Jagger’s Moog noodlings provide the background noise to Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969); and Anger commissioned Jimmy Page to create a soundtrack for Lucifer Rising (1980), subsequently replacing it by a guitar-driven prog rock composition by imprisoned Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil.
Anger’s technique of pairing sound and image has been traced both to Eisenstein’s theory of “chromophonic” editing and Crowley’s theory of occult “correspondences” between disparate elements (the latter being most thoroughly explored in Rowe’s writings on Anger). For Anger, magick and cinema are the same art—“Making a movie is like casting a spell,” he told the Times in 1967—and music has a special role to play. “It may be conceded in any case that the long strings of formidable words which roar and moan through so many conjurations have a real effect in exalting the consciousness of the magician to the proper pitch,” Crowley wrote in Magick in Theory and Practice (1929), “that they should do so is no more extraordinary than music of any kind should do so.” Anger includes this quote in his notes for Scorpio Rising, published in 1966. We might also consider a technological influence. As film historian Juan A. Suárez has noted, Anger cites one inspiration for Scorpio Rising’s soundtrack as a visit to Coney Island in 1962, where he first encountered teenagers playing pop music on the beach from little transistor radios. Portable music added a soundtrack to the world, making everyday life that much more like the movies. At the same time, the rise of the 45rpm single allowed for the same song to be played over and over again, its lyrics sinking into a lonely teenager’s soul.
What follows are annotations to each song used in Scorpio Rising, listed in order of inclusion. They are written after weeks of repeated listening.
1. “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread),” Ricky Nelson, 1963
By the time Ricky Nelson released this song, he was already well-known to American audiences as one of the stars of the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which first began on radio and then ran on television from the early ’50s to 1966. His music career began with a 1957 cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking,” made when he was 16. Like many pop songs of the period, “Fools Rush In” is also a cover, written in 1940 and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and numerous others: only a week after Nelson’s rockabilly rendition hit the airwaves, Lesley Gore released her own bossanova-inflected take.
Like all the songs featured in Scorpio Rising save the last, “Fools Rush In” is a love song. The smooth sound of Nelson’s voice and its attendant twangy instrumentation plays over opening shots of motorcycle parts, boots, and chains laid out on a grimy garage floor; the voice of America’s ultimate clean-cut, middle-class, suburban kid curiously clashes against images of an urban, working-class milieu. But as the song reaches it conclusion, Anger adds the roars of a motorcycle engine over Nelson’s words; a scorpion icon zooms in and out quickly, like a transition from an old Flash Gordon serial, and we see the title of the film written in silver studs on the back of a leather jacket. The man wearing the jacket turns around and we witness his bare chest, with the ends of the jacket’s belt flapping phallically at his waist. “Open up your heart,” Nelson begs, “and let this fool rush in,” as the figure walks towards the camera, the flesh of his hairy stomach coming to meet the lens. Nelson’s lyrics are thereby intensified: mere romantic urgency becomes a base, sexual desperation.
The astrological sign of Scorpio, ruled over by the planet Mars, has long been associated with sexual virility, excess, and violence. For example, Alan Leo, whose work forms the basis of modern astrology, wrote in 1899 that individuals born under the rising sign of Scorpio are “bold and warlike, inclined to rush into quarrels” and prone to “many secret love affairs.” Anger has stated that his own astrological sign is Aquarius with Scorpio rising. One might imagine that not just sex and violence but death, too, creeps into “Fools Rush In,” through the figure of Nelson, who grew, in the public eye, from a boy to a teenager to a man. Anger likewise claims to have been a child actor (often stating that he appeared at age eight as the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream ) and completed his earliest extant film, Fireworks (1947), at age 20. The aging of celebrities prompts the contemplation of our own mortality: an inadvertent memento mori plays out upon the face of every star. In 1963, Anger, once an enfant terrible, was now a 36-year-old man. It seems impossible that he would not have considered the inexorable passage of time while hanging out with street toughs a generation younger and adding teenybopper tunes to their images.
2. “Wind-Up Doll,” Little Peggy March, 1963
One of the more obscure and disturbing cuts in Scorpio Rising, “Wind-Up Doll” was released as a B-side to Little Peggy March’s enduring “I Will Follow Him,” which appears later in the film. These are the only two songs by the same artist on the soundtrack, one the flip side of the other. In the lyrics, sung plaintively by March, a girl compares herself to a mechanical doll in an extended metaphor. “Wind me up I really walk, wind me up I really talk,” she sings, echoing the language of advertising, with herself as the commodity: “Wind me up and I’ll come straight to you.” Nothing could be farther from the spirit of Lesley Gore’s proto-feminist “You Don’t Own Me,” released the same year. Here, the young woman voids her own inner being for the sake of a boy’s love, promising to become a plaything for him, a mere automaton who can only respond to his actions. “You can see what makes me tick, little springs and gears,” she sings. “I can show you one more trick: break my heart, I’ll cry real tears.”
March’s voice plays over a montage of bikers fixing motorcycle engines intercut with footage of wind-up toy bikes. The sound of a tiny clockwork motor being wound by a key—a clever bit of nontraditional instrumentation used in the song—matches perfectly to shots of a biker twisting a wrench as he works. Thus a correspondence emerges between the woman, the toy, and the machine, all subject to male manipulation. Motorcycles are just big boy’s toys, fetish objects that play the role of the beloved. “The Power Machine seen as tribal totem,” Anger writes in his notes for the film, “from toy to terror.”
3. “My Boyfriend’s Back,” The Angels, 1963
The segment set to this girl-group classic begins and ends with a close-up of a skeleton clothed in a purple robe. After the song begins, we soon see that this ghoulish figure decorates part of a garage, overseeing a young man in a black t-shirt and jeans as he fusses with a motorcycle. The bike is an incongruously feminine mauve, repeating the color of the skeleton’s royal robes. The viewer is left to ponder whether the “boyfriend” of which The Angels speak is the young man, his motorcycle, or indeed Death itself. This context heightens the sense of sexualized violence in the song, underlying its schoolyard-taunt lyrics and rhythmic counting-rhyme clapping: if one listens closely to the narrative, it is about a girl telling one of her male classmates that her boyfriend is going kick the living shit out of him for spreading rumors about her. “‘Cause he’s kind of biiiig and aw-ful strong,” she sings, drawing out the words with coquettish innuendo.
4. “Blue Velvet,” Bobby Vinton, 1963
In Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney relates an anecdote by Anger about how Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” came to be used in Scorpio Rising: “Anger once described his finding the fourth song as an example of ‘magick,’” he writes. “He said that he had completed the selection for all the other songs and needed something to go with this episode, in which three cyclists at different locations ritually dress themselves in leather and chains with the montage continually jumping from one to the other. Anger turned on his radio and exercised his will. Out came Bobby Vinton’s ‘She wore blue velvet,’ which when joined to the episode created precisely the sexual ambiguity Anger wanted in this scene.” The sexual ambiguity Sitney describes is produced immediately by the segment’s first shot, in which the camera pans slowly up the legs of biker’s jeans, settling on his waist as he buckles his open fly beneath a bare torso. Blue velvet becomes one with blue denim; Vinton sings of her satin dress as we see a young man in a leather jacket. In these lyrics, clothing becomes both a sexual fetish and a trigger for memory of a lost love. “She wore blue velvet,” Vinton sings, placing his beloved in the past, “precious and warm, a memory.”
5. “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise,” Elvis Presley, 1963
In perhaps the most typically Pop segment of the film, we see a biker (named Scorpio in Anger’s notes) lounging in a messy apartment with two Siamese cats, his walls covered with pin-ups of James Dean like a teenage girl’s bedroom, as he smokes cigarettes and reads the Sunday comics. A Dick Tracy panel reveals a pile of skull and bones; Lucy clobbers Charlie Brown. Anger begins to intercut shots taken off a television screen of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), in which he plays the leader of a motorcycle gang. Fans of Dean and Elvis would have known that both stars were famous for loving motorcycles; all three idols had, at various points, been rumored to have had homosexual leanings. Here, again, an address to a female lover seems to map onto a male figure. “You look like an angel, walk like an angel, talk like an angel,” Elvis sings. “But I got wise. You’re the devil in disguise.” In occult traditions, the invocation of angels or devils provides the source of a magician’s power, and in this case, the two forces of good and evil have become indistinguishable.
6. “Hit the Road Jack,” Ray Charles, 1960
Anger employs “Hit the Road Jack” in a relatively unambiguous manner, playing it as Scorpio dresses and gets ready to leave his apartment, with a great deal of engine rumblings laid on top. The images switch quickly between shots of Scorpio donning a leather bracelet, grainy documentary-style footage of bikers riding around Coney Island, and more images of Brando on his motorcycle in The Wild One. A newspaper headline reads “Cycle Hits Hole & Kills Two” as Charles’s backup singers chant “Hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more.” Writing of this scene, critic Parker Tyler remarks that the journey from the “Leather Boy’s bedroom den … to the open road is also symbolic in that, according to Anger, it involves a death wish—final release into infinite space.”
7. “Heat Wave,” Martha and the Vandellas, 1963
So far, the songs have spoken about desire in terms of longing, loss, and rejection. But in this episode, Anger switches gears, and we are thrown into a musical celebration of the intoxicating euphoria of love. As a stomping backbeat opens the song, Scorpio tips his finger into a vial of white powder and raises it to his nostril, snorting a bump with a quick backwards nod. The film flashes a few frames of pure red, followed by a rapid close-up of a toy bike rider with shocked hair framing its Kewpie-doll face. “Whenever I’m with him, something inside starts to burning, and I’m filled with desire,” Martha Reeves belts out. “Could it be the devil in me, or is this the way love’s supposed to be?” Anger adds a bizarre set of animalistic sounds to Reeves’s vocals, reminiscent of a hyena’s jittering laugh. In “Heat Wave,” pleasure’s sweeping intensities can’t be distinguished from pain. “I don’t know what to do. My head’s in haze. It’s like a heat wave, burning in my heart. I can’t keep from crying. It’s tearing me apart.”
Scholars and critics have variously described the powder Scorpio insufflates as either cocaine or methamphetamine; the latter is more likely, given the relative popularity of the drug at the time. In either case, this moment serves as a prelude to the lysergic adventures of Anger’s later work, in which the effects of narcotics, art, and sorcery become one.
8. “He’s a Rebel,” The Crystals, 1963
As this Spector-produced paean to bad boys opens, we follow a boot-level view of Scorpio trudging through a grimy alleyway. “See the way he walks down the street,” the girls intone, functioning as a Greek chorus by way of Motown. To this Anger adds blue-tinted bits from a cheesy Bible picture, often cited as Family Film’s The Road to Jerusalem, which was likely a home-movie version edited from the 1952 television series The Living Bible. As with the magickal discovery of “Blue Velvet” on the radio, Anger claims that he found the 16mm reel of Road to Jerusalem sitting on his doorstep one day, mistakenly delivered to him instead of a nearby church. When Jesus heals a blind man’s sight, Scorpio, dressed in policeman drag, leaves fake tickets on motorcycles, and Anger throws in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a penis emerging from a pair of jeans for fully profane effect. Scorpio’s gait matches that of Jesus trudging through the Holy Land with his disciples in tow. Through this montage of sound and image, the rebel merges with the savior, Scorpio with Christ, the hero with the lover, the cop with the criminal.
9. “Party Lights,” Claudine Clark, 1962
One-hit wonder Claudine Clark’s exuberant “Party Lights” opens what Anger has dubbed the “Walpurgis Night” episode, referencing the folkloric belief that, on the last evening of April, hordes of witches gather to worship their dark gods. Christmas lights shine in the spokes of a parked motorcycle as Clark and her backup singers testify: “Party lights, I see the party lights. They’re red and blue and green.” A gang of young men arrive in various demonic Halloween costumes and states of undress. One beefy biker shoves a pal’s head towards his tighty-whitey-clad crotch; another swishes past in what seems like a Mickey Mouse outfit. More images of Jesus and his crew propose blasphemous parallels, but also draw out the spiritual intimations of Clark’s language of revelation. In Theosophical literature, “Lucifer” is imagined as the “Bringer of Light,” an etymology that Anger has frequently cited; here, Lucifer melds with Jesus, “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Critic Tony Rayns has praised this sequence for its complex use of editing. “Eisenstein’s ideal … is startlingly achieved in the ‘party lights’ sequence,” he wrote in 1969. “where [Clark’s] hard, dense arrangement of the song … is matched by a thickening in the terms of reference in the montage, while at the same time lyrics relate explicitly to the film’s development of its color scale … and produces film-making as rich in resonance as anything of Eisenstein’s own.”
10. “Torture,” Kris Jensen, 1962
11. “Point of No Return,” Gene McDaniels, 1962
“Torture” and “Point of No Return” are two largely forgotten songs, and the lowest Billboard charters of the bunch. Kris Jensen never saw another hit; Gene McDaniels would later work primarily as a producer and formidable songwriter, most notably for Roberta Flack, inserting Black consciousness and jazz rhythms into pop with songs like “Compared to What.” Here Jensen intones “You’re torturing me” to an unseen lover as more literal acts of fraternity-style torment appear: hot mustard poured precariously close to a man’s crotch as his buddies wrestle him to the ground; a subliminal shot of a bare ass scarred from abuse follows an image of Scorpio pointing downward at his boot, as if to command obedience. Anger adds the noises of men shouting, porcine squeals, and more engine rumbles as the film segues into McDaniel’s smoother, more upbeat number. But as we see footage of a motorbike rally, we think back to James Dean and his high-speed demise, and McDaniel’s lyrics take on a grim irony: “I’m at the point of no return and for me there’ll be no turning back.”
12. “I Will Follow Him,” Little Peggy March, 1963
By now, Anger’s montage reaches a fever pitch: images of Hitler appear with those of Christ, Anger’s purported co-star Mickey Rooney as Puck from A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and Scorpio waving a death’s-head flag, then pissing into his helmet on a darkened church’s altar. The sounds of zooming airplanes, explosions, and screams mix with March’s voice as she sings of her desperate and abject worship of “him.” Naziism is equated with Christianity, and the rebel is a dictator in disguise. Our familiarity with March’s canonical pop song evaporates as its lyrics reveal themselves for what they truly are: a hymn to masochism and the complete dissolution of the self. As she chants the song’s climax, each word is powered by the brutal thrust of violin strings. She yelps these words in clusters of three, as if to summon “him” through an incantation:
I LOVE HIM
I LOVE HIM
I LOVE HIM
AND WHERE HE GOES
HE’LL ALWAYS BE
MY TRUE LOVE
MY TRUE LOVE
MY TRUE LOVE
FROM NOW UNTIL
Since at least its 1964 obscenity trial, Scorpio Rising has been interpreted an “anti-fascist” film. Rowe has quoted Anger as saying, “I find ridiculous the idea of anyone being The Leader,” and, indeed, Crowleyan philosophy does endorse a radical individualism. But if Scorpio Rising provides a critique of fascism, it only does so by evoking the perverse intensities of its pleasures, drawing out the erotic appeal of both domination and submission.
13. “Wipe Out,” The Surfaris, 1963
A breakout B-side to The Surfari’s now-unfamiliar hit “Surfer Joe,” this extended instrumental begins with a crashing sound followed by a drawn-out, echo-chambered stoner cackle that leads into the song’s only words: “Hahahahahaha … wipe out.” Nighttime footage of bikers careening through Brooklyn streets flips into a red-and-black firestorm of skulls, chains, go-go girls, gleaming chrome, and a flashing siren, culminating in the appearance of a biker prone on the ground, met by the sounds of arriving cops. On the biker’s arm we might barely read the Beatnik slogan of his tattoo: BLESSED, BLESSED OBLIVION. With the death of the biker, his subjection to the machine goes all the way to the point of self-destruction.
“Wipe Out” is the single track in Scorpio Rising that isn’t a love song. Instead, it celebrates courting danger on the ocean waves. But also marks a coming sea-change in American music, and the youth culture who supported it. “Wipe Out” portends the end of pop music’s coy innocence, announcing the coming reign of guitar-driven garage rock. The gnarly rhythms of “Wipe Out” would lead to other forms of oblivion—teenage wastelands thick with purple haze—that would in turn evolve into the nihilism of heavy metal and punk. Thus Scorpio Rising’s finale can be read as either heralding the death of American pop, or conjuring its occult transformation.
Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising screens at the Walker August 20, 2015, as part of International Pop Cinema.