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Kenneth Anger, gay film pioneer and unreliable Hollywood chronicler, dies at 96

Kenneth Anger attends MOCA's 35th Anniversary Gala in March 2014 in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Leibson
Getty Images for MOCA
Kenneth Anger attends MOCA's 35th Anniversary Gala in March 2014 in Los Angeles.

Filmmaker and author Kenneth Anger was a legendary Hollywood character, a visionary inheritor of an international avant-garde scene. But he also reveled in the vulgar and esoteric and essentially disappeared from the public eye for nearly a decade before his death.

Anger's death was reported Wednesday by the Sprüth Magers gallery, which has represented Anger's work since 2009. Spencer Glesby, who was Anger's artist liasion, told NPR that the filmmaker died on May 11 in Yucca Valley, California, of natural causes.

A child of sunny southern California, Anger achieved notoriety as an irreverent chronicler of its shadows. He made pioneering underground movies for decades, and claimed to have gotten his start in the industry as a child actor in the 1935 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that starred James Cagney and Mickey Rooney.

In 1947, when he was still a teenager, Anger directed a short gay art film that got him arrested for obscenity. Fireworks, which has no dialogue, shows men flexing for each other in a bar, unzipping their trousers, lighting cigarettes with flaming bouquets of flowers, and a little surreal sadomasochism. Fireworks and Anger's other experimental movie are now revered as counterculture classics.

The director of Scorpio Rising was also notoriously fascinated by the occult. Kenneth Anger was friends with the Rolling Stones, enemies with Andy Warhol and author of a bestselling book, Hollywood Babylon, which spawned a sequel, a short-lived TV series and a season of the popular podcast You Must Remember This. Many of its since-debunked stories purported to expose scandalous secrets of dead movie stars from the silent and golden eras.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.