Scorpio Rising (1964)

reviewed by
Jerry Saravia

Part of the "A Look Back" series
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
January 9th, 2001

Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising" is one of the most revolutionary films of the past forty years. It set a whole new precedent to filmmaking in general, in terms of its fast cutting style, rock n' roll montages, rebellious allure of motorcyclists, sex, death, and so on. In fact, I may be so bold as to say that this is the first sex, drugs and rock n' roll movie ever made. And Anger did it all in less than half-an-hour of film time.

As director Anger recently explained about his most famous (or infamous) short film, "Scorpio Rising" is an ironic take on "The Wild Bunch," the latter being a fairly tame motorcycle movie next to this one. In fact, "Scorpio Rising" is all about irony, and yet it says something rather disconcerting about the world in America before the love generation and the decadence of the 1970's set in. At times, "Scorpio Rising" seems to be an ironic take on the 1950's yet commenting on the growing motorcycle cult of the late 1960's. Anger even dedicated the film to the Hell's Angels.

"Scorpio Rising" begins with average men in their late teens or early twenties polishing and fixing their precious bikes (or as Anger referred to them as "Christmas tree versions of motorcycles".) They are inside their garages, and we hear lovely pop songs in the background as the camera tracks back and forth between the bikers and their bikes, wind-up toys of motorbikes, and a prominent visage of a skull in the background. Later, we see the bikers dressing up in their uniforms, a combination of leather jackets and straps to the tune of Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet." The irony begins again, as the song has the lyric, "She wore blue velvet," yet we see a blonde biker dressing up wearing a blue shirt and a black leather jacket. As photographed in close-up, along with subliminal shots of a barechested biker, there is a definite homoerotic subtext occurring here, as there was with Anger's first film "Fireworks" where Anger played a 17-year-old kid who dreams of being sodomized and beaten by Navy officers. There is one shot in "Scorpio" of the barechested biker standing over a cone pointing to his crotch. Most of "Scorpio Rising" has sexual connotations in every shot, especially the Halloween party where costumed, masked guests stand around having sex with their genitalia clearly exposed (the version I saw had such moments blotted out since it was from a Japanese laserdisc).

"Scorpio Rising" combines elements of teen rebellion, popular culture, Nazi ideology, the motorcycle cult, sex, rock n' roll, religion, and death and it twists such elements around to form a rather haunting collage about the inevitable decline of the western civilization as we know it. And every sequence has a rock and roll song or some sentimental ditty playing on the soundtrack. "Scorpio Rising" is the first film to ever build a montage of shots with songs, and to do so ironically. If you are wondering where Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and any filmmaker since, not to mention MTV, got their ideas for their famous use of ironic pop songs as subtext or montage, look no further back than "Scorpio Rising." Another ironic fact is that the film was brought up on obscenity charges back in 1964, yet no one noticed the use of songs in the soundtrack which Anger had no permission to use. Since then, the film has been tough to find in video stores because the rights to such songs are still in a legal tangle.

"Scorpio Rising" is a frenetically charged, highly potent piece of cinema and it is guaranteed to still provoke anger (especially the use of the swastiza symbol). It was a sign of things to come, long before the advent of the post-60's youth rebellion in films such as "The Graduate," or youth violence in "A Clockwork Orange." There is of course the nineties equivalent of both, "Natural Born Killers." It all began with Anger's film, and we can either be grateful or unforgiving.

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