Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising (US 1963)


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Online, 2022



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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 Cycle, Scorpio 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.

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Published By: Fedra Benoli | Universität für Angewandte Kunst Wien | Publication Date: 01 October 2023, 14:26 | Edit Date: 01 October 2023, 14:26