Scorpio Rising - Symphonic Cinema

Thoughts On: Scorpio Rising (1964)

A mishmash of music video and montage explores gay Nazi biker culture (... I know).

Scorpio Rising is probably the most iconic of films by Kenneth Anger, a gay filmmaker focused on the depiction of homosexuality in cinema with interests in the occult who worked from the late 30s to this very day. The style Anger developed over his many decades of work has strong formal links to silent cinema. In such, there is no dialogue in his films, but still a dependence on music. One of the most blatant films of his that showcase this relationship with silent cinema must be Rabbit's Moon.

In this short film, a format that Anger has solely worked in, we see overly expressive, pantomime-esque, acting, surreal imagery with nods to Un Chien Andalou...

... and a montage that produces an incredibly ambiguous narrative. This, bar the acting, finds its way into many of Anger's films. The strongest of these elements we see in a film like Scorpio Rising is certainly the montage. This is a film shot with an abundance of close-ups that all mean to characterise figures through their surroundings, their actions and their possessions. We cannot forget, however, that there is further characterisation imbued into this narrative with a long list of songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s by artists such as Ray Charles, Elvis and Bobby Vinton.

This infusion of music and selective close-ups ultimately creates a hypnotic effect whereby you can't help but be drawn into the narrative. And this is something you see in many of Anger's films, particularly Scorpio Rising, Puce Moment and Kustom Kar Kommandos. But, I've often wondered how and why this approach is so immersive, and there seems to be an answer in the idea of symphonic imagery.

The most famous examples of cinematic symphonies would have to be City Symphonies of the 20s - films like Man With A Movie Camera...

But, also Disney's experimental Fantasia...

Both of the narratives (if you can call them that) in these films are hugely supported by music. With Man With A Movie Camera, the music would have to be performed live (and so there was no music that Vertov and Svilova edited to), but this was certainly compensated for with the camera work and the rhythm of the edit. Both of these elements are so strongly musical that you may watch Man With A Movie Camera without sound and recognise a symphonic beat. What this then says about cinema is that it has a quality that music also seems to have; a strong hold on time.

If cinema is sculpting in space and time, then music must be the tunneling through time alone. And that is to suggest that cinema means to contort spacetime (movement) into something that is supposed to be observed and visibly absorbed whilst music on the other hand doesn't have that static prominence, perceptually speaking, in someone's mind. That seems to be why we can listen to the same songs over and over again, day in, day out; they take us through time, they let us forget its passing, they do not necessarily show it to us or make us concentrate on and experience it (albeit in another realm) like cinema means to. As a consequence, music seems to tunnel through time, taking us on a roller coaster ride in which we feel the thrills and pleasures of seconds and minutes passing without necessarily feeling the friction of moving through them. Man With A Movie Camera, with its cacophonous editing, gives us so much information about Soviet Cities that we simply can't draw a linear, temporally cohesive story from each and every juxtaposing image, that it begins to embody this paradigm. What we then do when experiencing this narrative is clump all of the information provided by hundreds of images into a collage of, or sense of, Soviet Cities (as guided by Vertov). This is what makes the imagery, as it is editing together, symphonic. So, instead of perceiving a static sculpture that you must observe in a linear manner, as you may with other narrative films, you must observe a city symphony with a loose grip on space (the information it gives) and let time take you in a ride.

To further explain, let us look to Fantasia. With surreal imagery and camera movement, especially in the Dance Of The Sugar Plum sequence, Fantasia reduces the information given by the images down to their most basic form. In such, it doesn't really matter so much what the fairies and flowers are saying, what their purpose is, what they are trying to achieve and why. All we care about is the process of their movement and the colours, shapes and patterns this produces. This is the substance of this sequence and it clearly reduces the spatial element of cinema. To expand, cinema is 24 pictures a second. As looking at photography and painting makes clear, still images can tell complex and profound stories. Cinema, because it is 24 pictures buzzing by every second, has the capacity to do this. But, because of that 'buzzing', there is also time. And time can alleviate the artistic burden of having to say or do something for an audience from the image. So, with a film like Fantasia, which is a particularly pertinent example because it is a hand-drawn animated feature, each frame means less because it only has substance when juxtaposed with thousands of other frames to produce the allusion of time. In such, every frame in Fantasia is arguably less of a painting than in other narrative films in which mise en scène, composition, framing, acting, dialogue and plotting are so important in terms of narrative information. However, Fantasia is still a complex cinematic experience. Where does this complexity and power come from if not the image? The answer is simple; time and the movement it allows.

This seems to be why symphonic cinema, whether it be Man With A Movie Camera, Fantasia, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Scorpio Rising, is so hypnotic and formally immersive. Through these films and other movies alike, cinema is allowed to explore the time in 'spacetime' - just a song may - and so will take us through time more than it will freeze it for us to observe.

The reason we are focused on Scorpio Rising is Anger's management of this divide between space and time; the informational power of the image and music. Unlike Man With A Movie Camera or Fantasia, Scorpio Rising doesn't reduce its images to their basic parts. In such, we don't see characters as just a factory worker, or flowers as just bodies that will produce pretty patterns. Anger's characters, whilst they are not individually explored in the depth that narrative films like Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and There Will Be Blood would allow, are given more complexity than what we see in the films mentioned thus far. This all comes down to Anger's application of montage and the concept it explores. To explain, in Rocky, the montage serves the idea that Rocky is getting stronger, faster, smarter, and is gaining more heart as a boxer.

In Man With A Movie Camera, the montage tells us that Soviet Russia is a highly industrialised and progressive empire; it is, in many respects, propaganda.

But, the montage of Scorpio Rising does not build towards a concept that can't be so easily nailed down.

This film explores ideas of materialism, gay, Nazi, and biker culture, the occult, religion, youth, teenage icons and probably a lot more. In such, it re-interprets the power of montage. Instead of moving a narrative forward or painting a picture that is too vast to be caught in a wide shot (metaphorically and literally speaking), Scorpio Rising produces a poetic narrative that relies on association. This is all materialised because Anger experiments with the amount of information each of his images conveys...

His shots aren't then reduced to their most simplistic parts like in Fantasia where we only focus on movement, patterns and colours. Whilst we are largely just absorbing small pieces of tonal and aesthetic information, there are many moments within the narrative, like in the bedroom sequence depicted, where you have to work a little harder to make sense of things.

Moving towards a concusion, this all differentiates a film like Scorpio Rising from other symphonic films, producing an informational scale. On one end, we have the pure spectacle of imagery in Fantasia, moving away from this we come towards Man With A Movie Camera and later Scorpio Rising. We could push things further to see things like Un Chien Andalou and the beginning of Persona, but, once we reach this point of complex montage, the symphonic element of this kind of cinema has almost been abandoned. This is what I feel occurs in another of Anger's films: Lucifer Rising.

This narrative is far less immersive and enjoyable that Scorpio Rising because the music and imagery do not interact so well. You also see this in a film such as The Colour Of Pomegranates. There isn't such a strong sense of musicality in any of these films because the informational content of imagery is simply too complex for you to approach it like you may do the mentioned cinematic symphonies; willing to absorb imagery like you may do a song.

This adds significance to Scorpio Rising in my view and ultimately makes it an incredibly interesting representative of a particular side of cinema.

To find out why this film is apart of the Perish Series, check out...

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