I just recently finished reading Kenneth Anger’s infamous Hollywood Babylon, something of a sensational gossip rag in book form published in the mid 1960s. There is no denying it makes for an entertaining read; Anger’s writing style is thrilling, if not exploitive. He seems to channel a very strong catty, kitschy voice of a jaded Hollywood columnist. It is important to note though, that this book is highly fictionalized. Though some facts here and there are true, most of it is pure fantasy passed off as Hollywood scandals and secrets from a golden age. Anger also pushes the envelope of “decency” by including many images of dead celebrities, or at least, death scenes… something that is ethically questionable. Many have successfully debunked many of his claims (then again, that shouldn’t be too difficult, anyone who knows anything about Anger is probably aware that he is a little kooky… apparently his research method was “mental telepathy”). Still, I’d argue that some of the debunking is just as entertaining as Anger’s exposé itself, if not a little too serious.
This one in particular is a well researched and exposed analysis of Anger’s claims (the blogger also tackles the sequel Hollywood Babylon II);
It is especially impressive as some of what Anger says is so outrageous and so clearly fabricated, that you might as well be arguing with a Holocaust deniers… or someone who claims that yellow is actually blue. The strength of her argument comes in exposing the very basic facts that Anger muddles, he is constantly using the wrong dates, names, and omitting or twisting facts to suit his purpose… (or more likely, the fact muddling is just a demonstration of his carelessness). Facts don’t seem to be of interest to him. Also, the blogger’s great knowledge of silent film history actually makes her tearing apart of Anger’s claims quite educational. That’s as much a warning as it is a recommendation, learning can be a dangerous thing indeed.
I would be interested in knowing some of the sources for the facts she presents though, something like this jumps out at me (not that I doubt the validity);
Then Anger claims his lawyers were bad for portraying Rappe as ‘loose’ having slept around all around the world. Umm…she had no less then 6 abortions by age 16 and a botched abortion is likely what killed her. She wasn’t the virginal saint Hearst made her out to be.
How does one actually know how many abortions someone has had, especially during an era where there would be no medical record? It is anecdotal evidence, and even if Rappe herself is that one to claim this, Hala Pickford (blogger), also establishes her as a con-artist.
Also, some of the sly moralizing and insinuation of Virginia’s sexual promiscuity strike me as being in somewhat poor taste. Not even necessarily because she died at such a young age, it just strikes me as being nearly as exploitive in nature as Anger’s own writing style. It’s really nit-picking though, it doesn’t bother me all that much.
There is a brief discussion of Louise Brooks, which I find interesting, since she has always been a favourite of mine. Brooks is generally an interesting case of comparison, because in her later years, she also wrote a book about Hollywood. It’s not as outrageous as Anger’s, but I wonder how far she stretches the truth. I personally find her essays fascinating, notably her discussion of Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo… in Brooks’ case though; I don’t think it’s as much a twisting of facts or truths, but an attempt at a persuasive essay and an examination of changing cultural trends within the industry. The book in question is called Lulu in Hollywood, and I think it’s worth reading. From what I do know of Brooks though, she is somewhat questionable as a source for facts.
Hala Pickford only really debunks the silent stories and stars, but it does not take a rocket scientist to assume that the stories about talkie stars are just as exaggerated and falsified. I can’t say I found Anger’s book as offensive as she, and many others claim to, but perhaps that is because I think it has a strange kind of value.
I am actually unsure as to why I feel this way, because Hollywood Babylon has perpetuated some very nasty rumours about some good and talented people over the years. Maybe that’s why I find it fascinating. Is there any value in the book? It is essentially a book of veiled illusions, just nasty ones, rather than the sweet sugar and spice ones that we tend to associate with “yesteryears”. Though my interpretation is probably detached from Anger’s intention (I can only speculate as to why he’d want to write and publish this book), I think its cult status speaks volumes for the values of our society. Even assuming most people approach it as fictional, why the appeal? Why do we still read it? Why do we relish in the debauchery and exploitation that he presents?
Anger’s approach actually reminds me, in part, to Haneke’s filmmaking. It may seem like a stretch, but for anyone who has seen or read about Haneke’s work, it is obvious that he is constantly attempting to deconstruct the lies and manipulation of the various artistic mediums.
Manipulation is constant in the media. Even the images of ‘reality’ on television are manipulated. The difference in this film is that the manipulation is there to make you aware that you are being manipulated, that you can be manipulated.
Though Haneke’s work can be somewhat forceful, his ideas are sound. I think we underestimate the power of medium, and while we may be wary of what we read on the Internet or on Fox News, we are often far too accepting of most of what is said. Somehow, if it has been published in a book it is more respectable than if it was simply published in a magazine. Or a documentary is always to be preferred intellectually over a work of fiction. These ideas are inherently flawed, and it is essential that we be critical of the world around us.
Then again, we must never forget the value of kitsch. What a miserable world we would live in without the seedy and tasteless. I don’t personally take much joy in such outlets as TMZ or Perez Hilton, though I occasionally find them perversely entertaining. To ignore to dismiss exploitation and immoral arts would be to deny ourselves both pleasure and insight.
What do you think of Hollywood Babylon?
How do you feel about Anger’s use of “death” images?
What do you think of Kenneth Anger, as both a writer and filmmaker?