Devil's Spawn

The MTV legacy of Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising
by Kevin B. Lee and Brandon Soderberg  posted August 14, 2009
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

Lucifer Rising (1972) took Kenneth Anger a decade to make—and remake—after the Manson Family stole and destroyed the original print. What survives is an incantatory envisioning of a sacred rite that spans the world and traverses centuries of occult history. Despite having its copious array of montage and staging techniques pilfered by hundreds of music videos and commercials over the years, it retains a hypnotic spell untouched by its imitators.

The film opens with documentary footage of a seething volcano, paced so patiently that it threatens to lull the viewer into a passive spectacle of the picturesque. But that trance is swiftly dispatched by the stunning title sequence: the film's title in flames scrolling up over a body of water. When thinking of the influence Anger's films have had on music videos (a legacy so widely acknowledged that it's become something of a cliché), people are more likely to recall braggadoccio fluorishes like this title sequence than the more subdued footage that precedes it. But one cannot appreciate Anger's filmmaking in total without acknowledging its full range of modes and techniques in the service of a singular organic vision, something that most music videos could stand to learn from.

Whether due to their short form, their commercial orientation or their catering to an audience that typically has a small attention span, music videos have chained themselves to a compulsive need for sensory hyperbole. In doing so they take their cues from the flashier elements of Anger's cinema. The opening sequence of Lucifer Rising can trace its legacy to similarly over-the-top credits of hip-hop music video directors, especially Hype Williams, as in the opening of Jay Z's "Big Pimpin,'" or Gil Green (i.e. DJ Khaled's "We Takin' Over"). These stylistic excesses amount to a parody as well as an appropriation of Hollywood blockbusters—staking claim to the signifiers of big budgets, exaggerating them, and then, bizarrely, using them to celebrate hip-hoppers' aspirations to affluence.

Subversion and appropriation of Hollywood is also found in Anger's film, with its exotic sets and globetrotting locales subsumed into a thoroughly non-mainstream celebration of demonic power. But there remains a key distinction between Anger and his hip-hop video descendants. The latter works, in their appropriation of blockbuster aesthetics, betray a desire to make the hip-hop lifestyle legible to and legitimized within the mainstream. They want to one-up the movie stars whose glamorous big-screen presence they covet. Anger works in the opposite direction. Whether it's the Egyptian incantation sequence suggesting Cecil B. DeMille on LSD, or a wizard operating a psychic dynamo wheel, recalling lab experiment scenes in sci-fi and monster movies, the production values and narrative tropes of Hollywood are absorbed and transformed by his worldview into something so different from their origins as to be almost undefinable. They exist in their own space, on their own terms.

Another distinction can be made along the lines of stylistic innovation. Anger's film has no shortage of editing and camera trickery: sped-up film, looped images, and shock cuts. And yet each technique has its assigned place in the overall design of the film. A stream of images builds toward a vision of mounting apocalpyse. In contrast, look at Stephane Sednaoui's video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away," one of the most popular art music videos in the history of MTV, which parallels Lucifer Rising in its joyful, dynamic depiction of desert ritual. It's visually inventive and delightfully bizarre, but next to the organic buildup of Lucifer Rising, it amounts to a grab bag of gimmicks. When guitarist John Frusciante spins in reverse in synch with his guitar solo looped backwards, it's a cool but overly literal visual match to an audio effect in the song.

It doesn't hold a fraction of the mystery found in the seemingly random flashes of nature footage that slip into Lucifer Rising: a tiger swimming through turquoise water, bubbles and steam emanating from a mud spring, an elephant crushing a cobra underfoot. These images have no literal connection to the ritual staged by the film, but Anger taps into the viewer's primal associations with these animals to evoke a consciousness of the natural world, seething with life and death, that encompasses his film.

But even with this interpretation in mind, these images defy description; it's the very definition of the uncanny. Anger's cinema thrives in an interzone of meaning. It's not nearly as consumable or disposable as MTV videos, but neither is it willfully obscure or any less accessible than the intense sensations it elicits. Markedly different from the grab-and-go instant wow of most MTV videos, the experience of Lucifer Rising is a slow-build that forces the viewer to probe deeper into the nature of images, to tap into their dark energies.

The menacing, cool quality of Anger's filmmaking certainly hasn't been lost on many music videos; next to Anger's trademark practice of setting action to pop music, it's his chief legacy for the medium. That sense of menace fits especially with the '90s alternative rock that made angst and obscurity fully mainstream, but videos like "Give It Away" or Mark Romanek's clip for Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" still only get it half right. "Closer" grabs some of Anger's brilliance for building odd imagery atop itself, in an attempt to unearth a Pandora's Box of uncanny dread. But there's a core sense of nihilism and disgust that Anger's work opposes. Lucifer Rising may be shocking or disturbing, but those effects are applied toward a remarkably organic worldview that celebrates death and destruction as part of an eternal process of change and rebirth. As scary as it seems, one can actually visualize people inhabiting the demonic dwelling spaces that Anger stages: Isis and Osiris' Egypt, Lilith's Mesopotamia and Altamont. Not only are they vividly realized worlds, but each of them converges upon one climactic moment that transfixes their separate spaces and times into a communal experience. None of this is present in Trent Reznor's basement freakshow. "Closer" amounts to a series of disjunctive shock images that don't build toward much more than a brief sensation of transgression that its intended audience presumably finds cathartic, or just plain cool.

Not all music videos suffer from comparison to Anger. The Wu Tang Clan's video for "Triumph," directed by—of all people—Brett Ratner, depicts a biblical plague as a visual metaphor for the Wu's mainstream music takeover—inarguably, that's Kenneth Anger territory. "Triumph" is full of CGI but the special effects enhance mythical chaos, not glamour and glitz. Moving past the six-minute mark, the video is an affront to MTV attention deficit sensibilities. Typical posse shots manifest themselves in stirring, unorthodox ways. The Clan stomp around in a tomb-like Egyptian beehive. Wu acolytes hang upside down ready to strike. The RZA's larger than life, then he's fitted with black wings and stages a jailbreak—a dark angel there to set everyone free.

The locations, that beehive, a city (and world) in panic, a nightclub, and even the cosmos break apart video expectations and put them back together as something that may genuinely kick off the "Wu Revolution." This is a journey toward rebirth, rolled up inside of tough-guy rap video signifiers.  The climax, as striking as Anger's UFO arrival, is Wu fans gathered in a nightclub mutating into a swarm of bees and converging as one in the shape of a W blasted above the New York skyline. The video dramatizes street-rap peril while pushing a transgressive belief system (Five-Percent Nation meets kung fu Taoism). It's a worldview as unorthodox and cleverly rendered as the one anchoring Lucifer Rising.

A more direct homage comes from director Kris Moyes, in his video for Hercules and Love Affair's "You Belong." "You Belong" takes cues not only from "Lucifer Rising" but also from a decade's worth of urban gender-bending audiovisual culture, much the same way the song reaches into '80s house music for its pulse. Moyes's video is a fever dream of '80s drag voguing re-envisioned as a kind of sacred rite, replete with incredible visual patterns and clever references to Isaac Julien, crystal meth, and cocaine. Like Lucifer Rising and "Triumph," the implicit theme is communal convergence. Figures and objects amount to pieces in a puzzle slowly coming together, referenced outright in the Rubik's cube-like device held by one of the characters. This danceclub phantasmagoria culminates in the crystallization of several characters into a mirrorball, whose dazzling, from-out-of-nowhere appearance is akin to the arrival of the UFO at the end of Lucifer Rising.

"You Belong" explicitly engages itself with Anger's work, while "Triumph" infuses pop-mysticism into hard-edge reality rap. Both videos carry on a vital struggle evident in Anger's work: a constant battle between the immediate pleasures of pop culture and a revolutionary transcendent spirit found outside the mainstream, that builds to an improbable fusion of the two. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Mystic Fire Video
Myriam Gibril in Lucifer Rising, directed by Kenneth Anger
Photo Gallery: Devil's Spawn


February 22-September 14, 2009 Kenneth Anger


video essay  |  television  |  Kenneth Anger  |  Lucifer Rising  |  MTV  |  Hollywood  |  hip-hop  |  music video


Kevin B. Lee is editor of the Keyframe journal at Fandor and programming executive at dGenerate Films.

More articles by Kevin B. Lee

Brandon Soderberg is a critic and writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He writes regularly on his blog No Trivia and has contributed to Baltimore City Paper, The Village Voice, and The House Next Door.

More articles by Brandon Soderberg