Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1964)
With Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger found a way to embed his preoccupations and ideas into a contemporary context with which it is possible to relate directly. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome features characters from history and mythology (and even a character modeled after Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)), and with this and the often-sparse background, we seem to be watching a ritual unfold in a space located out of this world. Scorpio Rising is constructed out of the material of its world (1960s America), and at times, its tone is similar to that of a documentary or home movie (with which it has more than a little in common). Thus, the film feels very familiar in its imagery and setting, but Anger works this material in order to make it strange, “queer.” After watching the film, one notices, for instance, that though the men in the film dress in clothes that would not be out of place even now, the way they dress and wear their clothes is fundamentally different from the way we do so. Putting on clothes is one of Scorpio Rising‘s most prominent rituals, and Anger films these acts with a reverence and tenderness that is unavoidably striking. The centrality of clothing is suggested from the beginning, during which the title of the film is spelled out in studs on the back of one biker’s leather jacket.
The donning of clothing in Scorpio Rising is a key ritual that transforms the bikers and gives them power. The main character is named Scorpio and was played by a real biker named Bruce Byron, who actually did call himself Scorpio after his zodiac sign. (Anger has commented that Scorpio is the zodiac sign that rules the sex organs and machinery.) The scenes depicting him actually draw much of their material from his real life and were not staged in the conventional sense. We watch Scorpio/Bruce Byron get dressed as we would watch a priest don his garments; this act reconfigures the world to a different order. The Sabbath in Judaism is often described as involving a process of stepping out of normal, everyday time and stepping into “sacred time.” This concept of “stepping out” of the mundane and ordinary is at the core of rituals and of Anger’s cinema. We get the sense that Anger revels in capturing the process by which ordinary people and objects can become charged with a kind of power or significance that transcends the purely rational and positivist. Scorpio Rising‘s characters (though we lose something in referring to them this way) are charged with a potency and power that is sexual and virile. Later in the film, after dressing, Scorpio delivers an impassioned speech in a church. As it is throughout the film, we don’t hear the sound of this speech, as the film’s soundtrack is comprised of pop songs from the time, but the images of this scene–such as the one above–project the power and presence imbued by the ritualistic preparation for this moment. If Anger seems reckless in showing Nazi iconography, it’s only because his primary concern is raw power and not in judging or evaluating it, which would undermine our immediate engagement.
Another aspect of the provocative imagery relates to Anger’s editing strategy with this film, which truly shows that he is a master of montage. Scorpio Rising is Anger’s first exploration of the power editing can create. Anger is not concerned as much with the meaning creates by juxtaposing two particular images as he is by creating a rhythm and momentum through his editing, which culminates in Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969). By foregoing traditional narrative, Anger is able to generate a type of speed and fluidity in his presentation of images that bypasses our rational minds and our censors. There is never any tension in an Anger film around the expectation of seeing a disturbing or explicit image. The tension is always connected with the way our attention is focused on the present moment, on the successive revealing of one image after another. As we watch the film, each new image is a surprise, as we have no narrative to give us a context to what exactly is happening. Thus, Anger’s disturbing imagery–such as the Nazi iconography or the shot showing a man being initiated into the biker gang by being stripped and having mustard rubbed onto his stomach and genitals–sneak into our minds without warning; there is literally no gatekeeper to defend against them. And so for some, the homoeroticism of Scorpio Rising is not only disturbing but also violating; in Anger’s work, we sometimes feel like the images are happening to us. The cinema is often referred to (sometimes disparagingly) as a passive art form, but Anger’s films can be some of the most passive. He uses this quality of the medium to his advantage by flooding our minds with a rush of undiluted images (some lasting only a few frames) of power, eroticism, and the ever-present threat of violence and death.