With its blistering rock and roll soundtrack, Kenneth Anger’s 1963 film Scorpio Rising – his twelfth short in 23 years – could be seen as a prelude to the music video. Its stress on stimulating and engaging imagery – at times only marginally related to the music – further builds on the correlation. Yet few music videos, if any, have achieved this type of widespread admiration, or expressed this type of analytical potential.

In its 28-minute running time, the experimental film ostensibly follows a group of young motorcycle aficionados as they prepare for a night on the town. A race, which seems to take place after the nocturnal events but could just as likely have happened before, concludes the picture. While there is no strict narrative to speak of, nor even remotely fleshed-out characters, there is a sense of forward progression: motivation, preparation, getting ready for something, rising, ascending. Anger has explained that the zodiac sign of the Scorpio rules sex organs and machinery, so the title of the film, and its sexual and mechanical content, is fitting and significant. According to astrological interpretation, Scorpio ascendant individuals also demand attention. They are intimidating, with a determined, naturally powerful presence that provokes respect and fear.

Indeed, in Scorpio Rising, appearances are everything. But appearances can be deceiving. What starts as a sort of reconstruction process, where we see the mechanics of the bikes, their various intricate parts and elements, their makeup and their structure, then broadens to a wider representation of individual creation. In this, the film becomes preoccupied with objectification, with a focus on certain tools, embellishments, or articles of clothing, often to the point of attaining significance beyond a mere existence.

Shot in and around Brooklyn garages and workshops, this theme starts with the bikes built, owned, and savoured by the young men – Anger dubbed their hobby of building up the bikes “American mechanical folk art.” Then the camera pans left from the bikes and lands on a pair of leather boots. A new form of gear is discovered, and we follow a further personalization of the men. From the title of the film, printed in silver studding on the back of a black leather jacket, to tight blue jeans and tucked-in white T-shirts, the male bodies, like the images of the bikes, are shown in lingering fetishistic close-ups, particularly as they dress and groom. This focus goes beyond attention to just the physicality of the body though. It extends to the features that adorn it: zippers, snaps, belts, chains, dark sunglasses, and cigarettes dangling from mouths (even, in one case, cigarettes holstered by dark sunglasses). The men are vain and very deliberate; everything is carefully arranged and, like their bikes, carefully constructed. They strike poses of intentionally stylised machismo, commonly derived from the icons of a brooding, troubled maleness like James Dean and Marlon Brando, shown via photos on the wall and movies on television.

The amount of associative imagery in Scorpio Rising ranges from phallic (a traffic cone between the legs of one man) to Nazi symbolism. The images of Hitler and swastikas (including Anger’s own collection of authentic Nazi flags) point to implications regarding regalia and custom, with an emphasis on the importance of uniforms, ideology and camaraderie. This, in turn, connects with the clips from a movie showing Jesus Christ, as well as an additional sequence when some of the men break into a church, invoking Christianity and analogous ceremony, iconography, dogma and congregation. Skulls and a noose connote pervasive death, and the former likewise recalls an outlaw spirit. This again circles back to the Nazis and Christ. Anger draws these diverse and provocative parallels, and with each reveals extensions, confluences of image and sound, and meaningful linkages.

As seemingly destined for intellectual interpretation as the film is, its actual genesis was generally happenstance and not at all as calculated as it may seem. Anger thus considers Scorpio Rising something of a documentary, in that much of what is filmed actually existed just as we see it. The orgiastic gathering near the end of the film (actually a Halloween party) expresses an exhibitionist and suggestive homosexual revelry… still intercut with Christ. But this is where visual deception comes in – the straight men had their girlfriends just off camera, apparently not wanting them to be filmed. Similarly, despite their significance as death-related imagery, the grim reaper statue and the noose were actual possessions of the bikers, not necessarily inspired symbolic ornamentation. Furthermore, it was purely coincidental that The Wild One (1953) happened to be on TV while Anger was filming, though now that connection seems clearly premeditated. Even the tragic race footage at the end is shockingly genuine ­– we see a truly fatal crash, not one fabricated for the film. In the end, this is merely how these men were. This is where they lived and this is what they did, and Anger just recorded it, albeit creatively and with tremendous verve.

For most of the film’s early portion, the colours are bold but subdued: dark purples, blues, deep reds. By the end, more fluorescent hues appear, along with illumination via indistinct light sources and chrome reflections. The static shots and slow tracks that started the picture, slowly caressing the bikes and men, build to meth-induced swirling movements, blurred lights and quick cuts, a kaleidoscopic crescendo with energetic, occasionally impulsive imagery.

Anger proposed that the men in Scorpio Rising were drawn to the raw power of the aforementioned symbolism, specifically the Nazi insignias. The same could be said of the film itself. Despite the fact that some of what we see is not a result of Anger’s manipulation, one cannot help but draw conclusions about its arrangement and its inclusion. This even goes as far as the music. The songs that make up the oldies soundtrack will occasionally bear some correspondence to what is seen – the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” played over the initial images of Christ; “Wind-Up Doll” by Peggy March as we see wind-up toy motorcycles; the Surfaris’ “Wipeout” near the catastrophic conclusion ­– but just as often, the pop hits simply form a contemporaneous background score.

Perhaps not surprisingly given its content, an initial screening of Scorpio Rising in Los Angeles met with protest and denunciation. The police were called and a case against the film as being obscene went to the California Supreme Court, where the judge ultimately ruled in Anger’s favour. Today, the avant-garde short stands as a groundbreaking modernist work of filmic art, a pop-culture infused assembly of masculine bravado, pulsating passion, and a distinctly American mythos born from rock and roll music and a live fast-die young mentality. Like its astrological namesake, Scorpio Rising makes quite an impression, and has had quite an impact.

Scorpio Rising (1964 USA 28 mins). Prod Co: Puck Film Productions. Prods: Ernest D. Glucksman, Arthur P. Schmidt Dir: Kenneth Anger Scr: Kenneth Anger, Ernest D. Glucksman Phot: Kenneth Anger Ed: Kenneth Anger Art Dir: Jeremy Kay Cast: Ernie Allo, Bruce Byron, Frank Carifi, Steve Crandell, Johnny Dodds, Bill Dorfman

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.