Fools Rush In: On Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising”

Kevin Gonzalez looks back at Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” as a biker and a present-day political subject.

Fools Rush In: On Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising”

IN HIS 1947 book Magic and Myth of the Movies, American film critic Parker Tyler describes filmmaking as being akin to mythmaking. Hollywood films, in his estimation, deal in archetypes, skating the lines of the popularly understood and pushing up against the intimate. It’s a position not dissimilar to that of director and author Kenneth Anger, who would describe moviemaking as analogous with spell-casting, dealing in the shaping of what people believe to be possible. The principal difference between the two positions, however, is telling. A myth may shape the contours of the world through human action, but on its own, it is flat—only imbued with power in its use as a cudgel or a lure, in the shadow it can cast. A spell, which can work in a similar fashion, does a bit more than that. It is operative. It moves, and it forces, at times, the person under its power, sometimes against their will. Spells operate somewhere between manipulation and magic.


I was similarly entranced when I first discovered Kenneth Anger’s 1964 film Scorpio Rising, sandwiched on my YouTube homepage between videos titled “Death Valley Chopper Run,” “How to Rebuild a CV Carburetor,” and “[Biker Girl] Harley-Davidson.” The man in the thumbnail image, wearing a leather motorcycling cap with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, fit with the usual bric-a-brac of motorcycle videos that the algorithm feeds me, a kind of morphine drip, knowing that I’ll gladly click on nearly any grease-stained, chrome-plated, or self-aggrandizing chopper motorcycle footage soundtracked with rock ’n’ roll.


It’s an obsession of mine, born out of a kindergarten career-day presentation by a motorcycle cop, whose knee-high leather boots and Harley-Davidson Road King made an impression. The videos are assuaging tidbits, something to smooth over the peaks and valleys of rolling on the ground with a wrench and having 30-year-old motorcycle parts turn to irreparable junk in my hands. A very typical experience for any owner of a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle.


Anger’s film, which I would later find out has been hailed by directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino for its use of music, delivered. Featuring a man in a torso-hugging T-shirt alongside another sanding a motorcycle fender among grease splatters, chains, and engineer boots on a garage floor, Scorpio Rising follows the conventions of the motorcycle music videos that I watch religiously and that have become increasingly popular online. Stars like chef Matty Matheson and actor Jason Momoa are featured in sleekly produced videos for publications like Dice and in promotional videos for Harley-Davidson corporate. But with Scorpio Rising, as I was unaware of on my first viewing—being totally unfamiliar with Anger and the film—something was different. The opening song warned: “Fools rush in where wise men never go.”


¤


By 1964, Anger had already proved himself as a yarn spinner and a caster of spells, at least to French audiences with a taste for smut. His 1959 book Hollywood Babylon, put out by the publisher (Jean-Jacques Pauvert) known for printing Marquis de Sade through the 1950s, was a tell-all about the seedy and lurid past of Hollywood’s elite. Its printing bookended Anger’s decade-long stint in Europe, which began with an encouraging letter from director Jean Cocteau, an apparent admirer of Anger’s surreal 1947 film, Fireworks.


Hollywood Babylon is filled with speculative tales of Rudolph Valentino’s sexuality, acerbic accounts of Charlie Chaplin’s first wife, painted as a predatory “nymphette,” and a story about a starlet’s corpse being chewed up by a dog after a lonely demise. Anger would cite “mental telepathy” as his principal research method, earning the book a prompt banning after its first run in the United States. It’s a ridiculous and unserious portrait of the entertainment industry’s elites in the Golden Age of Hollywood, telling us stories of murder, lavish parties, and cover-ups, a move that he would pull decades later with Hollywood Babylon II (1984) and in interviews, like in 2014, when he got Esquire to print that the Paramount Pictures studio lot is built on an old part of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. This unfounded claim would send Paramount scrambling; the studio issued a statement that Anger’s claims were basically a lie, a problem at the root of many Anger projects and statements throughout the years.


Scorpio Rising began with a lie too: Anger told the Brooklyn biker gang who were its stars that he was filming a documentary. This is how he was able to capture their days, including private scenes of a biker party, their garages, and one home’s bedroom, all of which would inevitably be edited to make the surreal and homoerotic Nazi biker film that it wound up being. Anger cut up footage of a bodybuilder hired from a Los Angeles health club and spliced it with footage of the film’s star Scorpio, played by Bruce Byron, taking bumps of meth and preaching from a Nazi flag–draped pulpit. He also included scenes of Jesus Christ pulled from an episode of The Living Bible (1952), which was purportedly delivered to him by chance in the middle of editing (a claim that has also been disputed), to construct this otherwise plotless experimental film.


Anger’s ability to craft stories by way of their proximity to the truth, rather than a concern for accuracy, is an exercise that, in this case, played on the vanities of a small biker gang. This vanity is a major part of the spell that’s being cast, both on his unwitting actors and on audiences, which serves at least one major function: to put Anger square in the center of the story. It makes the production of Scorpio Rising as relevant as its visuals, its use of music, and its plot.


When it was released, the Brooklyn biker crew was furious, as were the Hells Angels, who whined to Hunter S. Thompson that everyone would think they were a bunch of “queers” after the film’s premiere in San Francisco. But much like the Paramount story, the bikers’ proximity, at least, is supported by John Waters’s recollection of that period: Waters has noted that in the 1960s and ’70s, outlaw motorcycle clubs and gay men often rubbed shoulders in the same leather shops, donned similar looks, and patronized the same bars.


Scott Zieher’s Band of Bikers (2010), a book collecting gay motorcycle club photos found in a Manhattan basement, corroborates Waters’s statement—the men in the collection don the same looks as the stars of Scorpio Rising, in all their denim-draped and leather-wrapped glory. The look carried on for the next 20-plus years, as evidenced by the numerous biker rags of this period like Choppers Magazine and Easyriders. Where it goes from there is perhaps murkier.


This is not to suggest there was sex happening between the two “camps,” but even if facts are fuzzy, then, as Naomi Klein has written, conspiracies “get the facts wrong but often get the feelings right.” Anger’s lies animated the bikers’ images against their wishes, toward ends that bore, in their minds, no semblance to their reality, or at least one they would acknowledge. The gangs were done in because of their willingness to rush in, as the director teases in the opening scene with the soundtrack’s use of Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In.” It’s hard for the bikers to blame it on the edit.


Scorpio, when he is introduced to us, is watching The Wild One (1953) on TV and reading comic books. Photos of Steve McQueen and James Dean are tacked up above the bed, the same one Byron shared with his wife in their (real) daily lives. He presents an embarrassing picture of arrested adolescence, as do the rest of the gang, who are filmed smearing an inductee’s genitals with mustard and dancing with their dicks flopping out of their pants. Had the documentary been made as purported, it was likely to be thrown onto the pile of 1960s biker kitsch where rebels on the fringes of society show off for the camera, playing the toughs in a screenplay with the usual accoutrements of a Jack Nicholson cameo or a Rolling Stones song.


The characters of Scorpio Rising are made all the more compelling by how Anger weaponizes their yearning to be seen. Their images move as if compelled by a spell, animated against their wishes to tease out a specter of homosexual desire. Anger conflates sexual tension with symbols of death, evidenced by the Grim Reaper figures and skull masks peppered throughout, alongside a coquettish pop music soundtrack. The coy music adds a disjunctive layer of danger to the sight of a biker with a gun or chain in his hand.


The biker loses something of himself by giving in to the need for recognition. His image swallows the spectator up in turn, as we are meant to fawn over the rugged Scorpio, fall into the abyss right with him as the film goes from dreamy to nightmarish: even in salvation, with images of Jesus cut between the scenes of the hunks, we’re also under the thumb of a tyrant. A lockjawed motorhead literally points a gun at us from the pulpit, but what can we do? Anger hazards an answer with Little Peggy March singing, “I will follow him / Follow him, wherever he may go.”


With a mug like that, how could you say no?


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This sort of helpless enchantment is given similar treatment by Jean Genet in his 1947 novel Querelle of Brest. The title character, a gay sailor, spends the length of the novel moving drugs, killing, and fucking. He runs roughshod over other characters, enticing them with his rugged good looks and criminal’s wit, and is worshipped for his beauty by bikers who are as beautiful and vain as the man himself.


Querelle battles his need to be seen and be known. He pines for the intimacy rendered through the recognition of others; he conflates pleasure with death, following on the themes of the biker flick. But Querelle, unlike Scorpio, is armed with secrets. The sailor tells himself, “If you want to be somebody, you have to be what does not meet the eye,” recognizing, as Anger does, that once everything is out there, you expose yourself to be read as what you are. A forfeiture of the self lends itself to be animated by others toward their ends—essentially what Anger did with these bikers’ images in Scorpio Rising.


Because they tread along these fault lines, with Querelle dealing in a personal and narrative vein and Scorpio more occultist and psychedelic, both fall into what Jean-Paul Sartre describes as a simultaneous yearning for and loathing of metamorphosis. Anger’s visual mysticism and Genet’s interpersonal one offer complementary forms of grace. Scorpio is transformed from a Brooklyn biker into an image to be deified, while Querelle’s strategic opacity keeps him from being read or seen as “just a sailor.” However, the latter’s success depends on obfuscations and others’ willingness to commit an act of faith for him, opening the possibility that they may have their will seized with vampiric zeal. Querelle can only be more than what he is with the belief and love of others, while the submission of his victims is admittedly in bad faith—his relationship with them as close as with a parasite, not as a confidante.


This formulation brings to my mind former US Representative Anthony Weiner’s comments on his (failed) bid for mayor of New York City. In the 2016 documentary Weiner, he wonders aloud if he got into politics so he could be close to others without ever having to feel close to them. But whether it’s rooted in a fear of intimacy or a disregard for the needs of others, what we ultimately have is his repudiation of the world that is, in fact, a will to power.


All these men are driven to push others away while demanding that they bear witness. It’s a spell that is cast to keep objects in orbit, a bid to keep them from crashing down; Anger successfully cast that spell, and it stuck long enough.


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Even after Anger’s death last May, and in the 50 years since Scorpio Rising’s release, the film remains a mesmerizing spectacle, made at the expense of those who never delivered his comeuppance. Scorpio and Querelle never got their comeuppance either. It’s not clear what happens to Scorpio, and Querelle avoids being hauled off to jail, while others pay for his crimes and indiscretions.


Maybe it’s liberating, the notion that everything might have a secret of its own, that truths are just under the surface, waiting to be unveiled behind a curtain or unearthed in a story. Revelation may also be dangerous. Just look at the film's final scenes, where we find our star waving a gun from a church pulpit in full leather: a symbol of death on the stage of salvation. In the end, Anger, like nearly everyone involved, fell prey to the same trap: the desire for immortality itself spawns vulnerability; the need to be seen lays us bare to the broader spectacle beyond our control. It’s an inescapable paradox, a sort of death, that to be animated in film is to be frozen forever in the image.

LARB Contributor

Kevin Gonzalez is a writer based in New York City whose work has been featured in The Reservoir, Guernica, and the New York Review of Architecture. He is currently working on his first novella, which is about a cowboy addicted to television. 

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