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Review: Scorpio Rising (1964)

Scorpio Rising (1964)

Directed by: Kenneth Anger

Premise: An experimental short film documenting a Brooklyn-based motorcycle club. The film includes footage of the bikers maintaining and racing their vehicles intercut with non-sequitur visuals and a soundtrack of pop songs from the 1950s and 60s.

What Works: When movies are spoken of as being “important” to cinema history that label is usually associated with the prestige and glamour of Hollywood. Titles such as Citizen Kane and Stagecoach are certainly deserving of their place in that discussion but there are a lot of movies that are not so esteemed and yet are very important to cinema history such as Mondo Cane and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Among these important but less esteemed titles is Kenneth Anger’s 1964 short film “Scorpio Rising.” Anger was an experimental filmmaker whose work used avant-garde techniques and documented the underground aspects of American culture in the 1960s and 70s. “Scorpio Rising” was the closest Anger came to making a full-fledged documentary. The filmmaker spent time with an east coast motorcycle club and he filmed their lives and routines and gatherings, including a racing contest in which one of the bikers was killed. As Anger has admitted, some of his subjects may have exaggerated their behavior for the sake of the camera but the film nevertheless captures a particular subculture in a specific time and place. But what is important about “Scorpio Rising” was its style and techniques. The film has striking visuals which it captures in unusual angles that are assembled with creative use of editing and composite cinematography. It also juxtaposes the rough looking footage of bikers with other images such as a dramatic recreation of Jesus Christ and his disciples from the film The Last Journey to Jerusalem as well as clips of Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Even more important and influential was the use of music. “Scorpio Rising” included a tapestry of pop songs such as “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, “Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles, and “He’s a Rebel” by The Crystals—among many others—and played them for irony. No one else was doing anything quite like this in 1964 and “Scorpio Rising” became a popular feature in the underground and art house circuit of its day. Even now, in the age of YouTube and Snapchat, the film remains instructive for experimental filmmakers. Although it isn’t a narrative motion picture, “Scorpio Rising” does have a shape and it creates meaning through the wild combination of sound and image. The film’s techniques, especially its use of music, was influential on such diverse filmmakers as David Lynch, John Waters, and Martin Scorsese.

What Doesn’t: “Scorpio Rising” is an experimental film from the 1960s and although it is an important movie much of its significance or impact will probably be lost on contemporary viewers. The movie includes images of nudity and homosexuality that were shocking to audiences of 1964 and it used an unusual editing style that ironically juxtaposed insert shots and pop music. At the time it was revolutionary but today these same techniques are employed frequently in commercials and on amateur videos posted online. That doesn’t diminish the quality or impact of “Scorpio Rising.” The fact that the film’s style and techniques have become so ingrained into today’s media only speaks to its importance as a cultural artifact. The one relevant criticism to make against “Scorpio Rising” is that some of the insert footage is included out of whimsy. Kenneth Anger has stated that the footage from The Last Journey to Jerusalem was a happy accident. The footage is intended to suggest a parallel between the motorcyclists and Jesus Christ as his apostles but that link is tenuous at best.

DVD extras: “Scorpio Rising” can be found on the second disc of The Complete Magic Lantern Cycle DVD release by Fantoma. This edition includes a commentary track with Kenneth Anger as well as a restoration demo.

Bottom Line: “Scorpio Rising” may only be of interest to viewers with a curiosity about experimental moviemaking, gay cinema, and motion picture history. But that’s reason enough to seek out “Scorpio Rising” which remains an impressive and impactful piece of filmmaking.

Episode: #655 (July 9, 2017)