film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Scorpio Rising (1964)

So this was interesting. This avant-garde short uses much of the same technique as did the earlier film Limite the 1931 Brazilian experimental film which I really didn’t get; it doesn’t really tell a story in the conventional way so much as it presents a sort of slice-of-life window into a thing. We are introduced to characters by seeing things they own, or things they read, or things they do. There’s no clear “plot” – stuff just sort of happens. But for whatever reason, I found this much more comprehensible; maybe it was shorter, or maybe director Kenneth Anger was a better editor. Or – maybe the references he was dropping in 1964 were still accessible to someone in 2021.

Anger is notorious for playing a little fast-and-loose with the truth, so the history of this film’s production is murky. Most accounts agree that Anger made this film after befriending some Hells’ Angels members in a neighborhood near Coney Island; he convinced them to let him follow them around with a camera for a while, filming them repairing their bikes and hanging around at home and dressing for nights out on the town and having a party in their clubhouse. He might have specifically set up a couple shots or encouraged a couple of actions – there are a couple of blink-and-you-miss-them shots of exposed genitals or buttocks during the party scene, and one man has an extended sequence where he’s at the lecturn of an abandoned church, passionately declaiming an unheard speech while a Nazi flag hangs behind him.

But then Anger assembled the clips in such a way that played up a homoerotic subtext, scoring the whole thing with pop songs – saccharine ballads by Ricky Nelson or Bobby Vinton, or candyfloss songs by girl groups like The Crystals or Martha and the Vandellas – that further pushed his point. A sequence where we jump between three men painstakingly donning blue jeans and leather jackets and adjusting their hats just so is set to the dreamy song “Blue Velvet”, and one sequence where a man is repairing his bike is scored by a singer named Little Peggy March singing her song “Wind-Up Doll”. “You can see what makes me tick, little springs and gears,” she sings, as we watch the man lovingly checking the gears of his motorcycle.

Sometimes Anger really draws a line under the subtext, interspersing his work with clips of Marlon Brando in The Wild One or scenes from a low-budget Bible film Anger found. This latter bit gets put to especial use in the scene in the church – clips of our purported lead, a man named Bruce Byron, speechifying in front of a Nazi banner are mixed in with still images of Hitler and clips from the Bible film depicting Jesus – and all of it scored with Peggy March’s song “I Will Follow Him” (“I love him! I love him! I love him! And where he goes I’ll follow! I’ll follow! I’ll follow….”)

The Hells’ Angels were reportedly not pleased by Anger’s final work. And, amusingly, so were members of the American Nazi Party. Both were outraged at the implication that there was any hint of homoeroticism in their cultures – why, all the bikers Anger filmed were straight! Their girlfriends were even at the party where Anger was filming – the bikers just wanted to keep their girls off camera, that was all! ….And those clips he got of guys with their dicks out? That was just guys screwing around, of course….! Personally, I believe the bikers – but I’m also surprised they didn’t know that their look was being embraced by a second subculture. I also don’t think that the bikers honestly embraced Naziism – it’s possible Anger just threw that in there to play up the transgression, or if it was something the bikers did, it was likely more of a transgressive symbol they were doing themselves. It’s like the kids in the 1980s who would wear pentagrams and spraypaint “Satan Lives!” on the side of a building – they only did it because they knew it would freak people out.

Anger did several more films after this, but these days is better known for his gossipy book Hollywood Babylon (although much of his claims in it have since been disproven). But he is still alive, and still making films; many of them have this same theme of playing up the homoeroticism lurking just below the surface of conventional society. While watching this, I kept thinking of a song from 1982 by the singer Joe Jackson, “Real Men”, which also plays with this tension:

“See the nice boys, dancing in pairs
Golden earring, golden tan, blow wave in their hair
Sure, they’re all straight, straight as a line
All the gays are macho, can’t you see the leather shine?”

If Anger were making Scorpio Rising in 1982, I imagine he would have considered including it – but may also have rejected it for being a little too on-the-nose.

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