In a sense, film productions are the perfect thing to romanticise in terms of expenditure. But then, the materials and labour that go into them are still real, even if they are expended in the creation of fictions. The crux of this for me is the play between symbolic expenditure, as in the images and narratives on screen, and the real expenditure behind them. The spectacle of expenditure on big budget films might seem to offer an alternative to a strict capitalist system, a glamourous way out of ‘normal’ production. I find that this is a kind of trap that I fall into very easily, particularly when looking at early films, which often seem to me to have a kind of exuberance that acts against the idea of them as industrial products.
In his 1975 book Hollywood Babylon, underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger picked over the sordid debris left from 60 years of notorious hedonism, egotism and extremely lucrative business in Hollywood. Kenneth Anger started his career as a child star, with his given name, Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer, before eventually becoming infamous underground gay and satanist filmmaker Kenneth Anger.
The ‘Babylon’ of Anger’s title refers to the setting of part of DW Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance. Anger employs the Babylonian set as an allegory against the wasteful business of making mainstream films – a system that simultaneously revolts and infatuates him. Griffith, supposed originator of the ‘Hollywood Film’, is for Anger a sort of fetishised Father figure; director as self-made deity in ‘Illusion City’:
“WHITE ELEPHANTS – the God of Hollywood wanted white elephants, and white elephants he got – eight of ‘em, plaster mammoths perched on mega-mushroom pedestals, lording it over the colossal court of Belshazzer, the pasteboard Babylon built beside the dusty tin-lizzie trail called Sunset Boulevard […] Griffith – the Movie Director as God – was riding high, high as he’d ever go, over Illusion City, whooshing up a hundred-foot-high elevator camera tower.”
The above is an illustration that Anger uses in the introduction to his book, of Griffith’s set as a ruin, after the film was finished.
And here is a production still from the film. Intolerance shakily spans most of civilisation’s history through four narrative strands, lashed together with the theme of man’s intolerance of man.
It includes a contemporary story and also the life of Christ, but by the far the most famous strand is that of King Belshazzer and his court in ancient Babylon – unaware of its imminent, inevitable destruction. Richard Schickel, Griffith’s biographer writes
“We are in the presence of an artist who is, as never before or later, simply drunk on the power of his medium and his own powers over it…It is the kind of intoxication that frees one of inhibitions, that gives one a sense of mastery over self and world.”
However, it is the sets that Griffith had built that now overshadow the rest of the film – by far the most ambitious and extravagant structures to have been built for a film at that time.
The court set became the icon of the film; the set that outlived the shoot – all the others having been demolished to accommodate it, and after the release of the film stood for a further four years, romantically mouldering away, cracking and dissolving into a ruin in its own right.
Intolerance as a spectacular and career breaking failure is actually a story written later by Griffith himself. Schickel portrays Griffith as an incorrigible self-mythologiser and a knowing exploiter of other’s fascination with the tragic figure of the artist fallen from grace:
“Griffith set about converting it from what he had hoped it would be, a turning point in film history, into something it was also not quite, a turning point in his personal history, that moment in his personal mythology at which visionary genius was thwarted by an uncomprehending world.”
In a famous letter to Lillian Gish, his favourite star, subsequently quoted in her autobiography, Griffith apparently describes himself walking through theatres full of empty seats, his creation playing to no audience – “I don’t know where to go or where to turn since my great failure”.
So to return to where we started, Kenneth Anger is just another example of the same idea, merely of a different generation: post-Hollywood, staunchly financially independent but still defined by economics. This image shows him recently, as an appropriately parodic version of an aging Hollywood star, with Lucifer tattooed on his chest.
I’ll end with this image, which is part of Griffith’s set design, immortalised as part of a new shopping mall in Hollywood.