Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Scorpio Rising (1964)

Scorpio Rising (1964) ***
Directed By: Kenneth Anger.

When it was released, Scorpio Rising was considered a groundbreaking film in the underground movement. Upon its initial screening, it was reported to the LA Vice Squad, who raided the theater and confiscated the print as pornography – because of a few blink and you’ll miss it shots where you may be able to see a penis or two. A legal battle, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court, ended up correctly ruling that Scorpio Rising was not pornography and should be allowed to be shown because it had “redeeming social merit”. The film itself remains important – but mainly because of what it inspired. You can see the roots of films like Easy Rider here, as well as why the film served as an inspiration for filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Nicolas Roeg and John Waters. Watching the film now, the shock value is pretty much completely gone, and the film mainly serves as a time capsule – a perfect product of its time and place.

Scorpio Rising is a wordless half hour long film that uses happy pop songs as an counterpoint to his film about nihilism and death in a motorcycle gang. He uses montage style filmmaking, in a definite homage to Sergei Eisenstein who perfected the style in films like Battleship Potemkin, to equate the bikers working on their machines to silly little children playing with their toys. Later, he will equate they way these men feel about their machines, with the way Christians feels about Jesus – in that they worship them. Finally, in the last segment, which is full of nihilism and death, he will equate them all to Nazis. That Anger pushed his point so far, and did so in just a half an hour, and without a word of dialogue being spoken, is truly an achievement on his part.

And some of the images in the film are truly memorable – especially as the film descends into chaos and violence and death. Anger’s film pokes fun at this homoerotic death cult by looking backwards in time – the bikers seem to worship James Dean and Marlon Brando as much as anyone. And ultimately, I think that is the point of Scorpio Rising. Anger is picking a subculture – biker gangs – who are predominantly known for being masculine and subverting it – making it queer for lack of a better word, to try and break down the barriers between gay and straight, or at least to get gay cinema into the conversation. Remember, this is a time where you still couldn’t have an openly gay character in your movie – just a few short years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had to make cuts so that it wasn’t as obvious that Paul Newman’s character was gay (it didn’t work, he was gay, and I think everyone knew it). That is why Scorpio Rising was so shocking in 1964 – people hadn’t seen something as in your face as this before.

However, in the 47 years since Scorpio Rising has been released, we have seen a lot more than what Anger did. Having said that, Scorpio Rising remains a fascinating film – it predates the music video by decades, and yet many videos use the same basic structure that Anger applies here. Martin Scorsese would take using pop music as a counterpoint to his violent opuses to a new level. John Waters would push the envelope of gay cinema much further a decade later. And yet on a certain level, it all comes back to Scorpio Rising.

I don’t think Scorpio Rising is a great film. A great film never really ages no matter how old it gets, and that is not something you can say about this film. It has aged a lot in 47 years. One of the challenges of a film like Scorpio Rising is to try and see it the way people saw it when it was first released – something nearly impossible for someone like me, who was not even close to being born in 1964. And yet, when I try, I understand why this film felt so dangerous, so liberating back when it was made. Now, it seems almost quaint compared to what we are used to seeing. In 1964, Scorpio Rising was dangerous. There are few films of its time that has cast a bigger shadow over modern film than Scorpio Rising has. So, no matter what its shortcomings are as a film in 2011, its place in cinema history is assured – and should be respected.


  1. Scorpio Rising, Wavelength, and Zero for Conduct. I'm not the most avid reader so I may have missed you mention it, but are you trying to watch the films from the "1001 Movies To See Before You Die" book?

  2. Not really. I am going off of the They Shoot Pictures Don't They? website's top 1000 list - of which I had seen about 625 when I started this. However, I am also looking at the 1001 movies to see Before You Die book (where I've seen about 725), and Roger Ebert's Great Movies. Any movie that I haven't seen that made one of those three lists are ones that I will eventually try to see.