Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kenneth Anger in conversation

Kenneth Anger, Copenhagen 2008 © Carl A
In the autumn of 2008, I was invited to host an evening with filmmaker, writer and magician Kenneth Anger at Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark. In between showings of his key films, we talked, together with other invited Anger fans (Danish director Nicolai Winding Refn, Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Danish journalist Lars Movin). This was followed by a performance by Anger’s musical project together with Brian Butler, Kenneth Anger’s Technicolor Skull. A memorable evening, to say the least.

On the following day, I sat in conversation with Anger at the Danish Film School in front of a small but devoted crowd. Basically, most of Anger’s films were shown and we talked in between the screening segments. What follows here is a transcript of that conversation at the film school.

[Screening of Fireworks (1947) and Puce Moment (1949)]

Fireworks was a film that more or less immediately had a big impact. Could you tell us about where it was first shown and what the response was?

It was first shown at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, which was a small cinema. It was also a theatre where my friend Charles Laughton did plays like Life of Galileo by Brecht. That was actually playing when Fireworks was first screened at night. The first showing was at midnight. Among the audience was Robert Florey, who was working in Hollywood at that time. He was a very interesting French director who made films like The Murders in the Rue Morgue. James Whale was also there, the director of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. I became friends with James Whale and I remained a friend of his. Since it was a midnight screening, we didn’t have any problems with it, like censorship. Then it went on to be shown in San Francisco at the Museum of Modern Art there. Then it gradually spread over the world, I guess.

Tennessee Williams was at the screening in San Francisco, as was Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

Yes, Tennessee Williams also became a friend. Dr. Kinsey came to my screening and he bought a copy of the film for the Kinsey Institute of Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. He wrote two famous books that came out in the 50s, Sexual behavior in the human male, and also a female version. So the first sale of a copy of my film was to Dr. Kinsey, on 16 mm. That was the available film format that you could get a good result with, 35 mm being beyond my grasp at that time. Later on, I made one film on 35 mm, when I lived in France: Rabbit’s Moon. I never worked on Super 8. Now, I’m working on digital. I’ve covered all the bases.

What brought you to France originally was actually a screening of Fireworks at a festival in Biarritz.

Yes, the “Festival du film maudit”, the festival of damned or cursed films. These were films that had problems with censorship. Jean Cocteau was in the jury and he gave a prize for “poetic film” to Fireworks. That encouraged me to come to France and meet Cocteau. I also met Jean Genet and Colette, who was still with us at the time. I wanted to meet André Gide but he died while I was on the boat.

You liked France very much and you were well received by, among others, Henri Langlois, the director of the French Cinématheque.

Yes. One thing that’s important to mention about French culture is that they think there’s only one language in the world, and that’s French. Most of them refuse to speak anything but French. I knew this ahead of time, so I majored in French at the Beverly Hills High School. I arrived in France speaking the language, at least in a rudimentary way. I was fortunate to meet a lot of people, artists like Jean Genet. He saw my film and liked it. I think I inspired him to go on to make Un chant d’amour, which was a silent film.

I’m an independent film artist. I’ve never made a lot of money making my movies but I’ve managed to get grants and help. With one of the films we’ll show here I had a wealthy patron, which is an old tradition in art. Many of the most famous paintings in history could be made because of patrons. Quite often, the paintings were commissioned by the Church. The Church was a big patron of art. Painters could put in their own eroticism if they were careful. There’s a lot of nude flesh in historical painting. There was always an undercurrent of eroticism there.

I needed to make more money. I knew a lot about Hollywood history. So I wrote two books, Hollywood Babylon 1 and Hollywood Babylon 2. That became a source of income for me.

We also just saw Puce Moment, which is a nostalgic view of the silent era. Your grandmother worked in the studios, right?

Yes, she was a costume mistress for United Artists during the silent period. It’s someone who looks after the costumes. She had the idea to make duplicates. In films like The Eagle, Rudolph Valentino had to jump on and off horses and something would always get torn and then you’d have a duplicate ready. For The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland had six gowns ready, just in case something happened.

There were other independent fimmakers emerging at the same time as you. You worked closely together with people like Curtis Harrington and Maya Deren in terms of distribution.

Not with Maya Deren, as she was on the East Coast. But Curtis and I had made little films and we had no way to get them shown, so we founded a company called Creative Film Associates. It was Curtis and me and a few people from San Francisco, like James Broughton. Later on, there was a company called Cinema 16, based in New York, that took over. It was a matter of shipping 16 mm reels back and forth. They’re not nearly as cumbersome as 35 mm reels, which weigh a ton. Now everything is simplified with digital.

[Screening of Rabbit’s Moon (1950) and Eaux d’artifice (1953)]

For Rabbit’s Moon, I was given the negative by the Cinématheque Française. It was a leftover from some documentary project. It was the same stock that Cocteau used to make Orphée. I had a professional cameraman who was the son of the silent filmmaker Tourjansky. The actors came from the mime school in Paris. I made the sets and the costumes myself. It was filmed in a studio which I could use during the month of August. France officially closes up then and everyone goes away on vacation. I took advantage of that. I had one month to do everything.

These films were made during your first European stay. You got a great job as Langlois’ assistant. How did you work together?

I arrived in France in the spring of 1950. The films that I’d done then were shown at the Cinématheque. That’s where I met Jean Cocteau and Genet. Henri Langlois was the director of the Cinématheque and he proposed that I work for him. I was then his personal assistant for 12 years. They had a lot of American films from the silent period in their collection, but under different titles. I helped identify films with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and so forth, matching them with the original American titles. I had a background in Hollywood history so I knew all of that. I was able to help them with the collection.

They also gave me the opportunity to edit a film by Eisenstein, Que Viva Mexico!, which was an unfinished project. It was actually a tragic story. The producer, Upton Sinclair, was a socialist but yet involved in capitalism. When he saw how much the film was costing in 1930, in Mexico, he pulled the plug on it. The film was never finished. An elaborate sequence of it, on a train with hundreds of extras, was never filmed. I’ve read the treatment, a very poetic treatment by Eisenstein. This very important piece of the film was never filmed at all. What remained was so wonderful but it had never been put in the proper order. Working from Eisenstein’s treatment and a segment called Death Day in Mexico, and a feature cut of it called Thunder over Mexico, which has the beautiful images but not in the right order, I put all of these things together chronologically according to Eisenstein’s script. This was shown at the Antibes film festival. It was a project where people were furious that I was allowed to do it. But I don’t mind that. It was a very interesting project.

You had also seen Thunder over Mexico as a boy.

Yes, it was one of the first films I saw when I was a very young boy. I was taken by my grandmother, who thought it was a travelogue, a documentary about Mexico. She loved Mexico and had been there many times. She was rather shocked to see very sadistic things in it, like the peasants who are revolting against the oppressive government. It’s historically correct but cruel. They buried them up to their necks and then the horses ran across the field until the skulls were crushed. Those are images that stuck with me all my life, seeing them as a very young boy. But there were also many beautiful images.

You also attempted to film a ballet by Cocteau?

I was given permission by him to film his ballet The Young Man and Death. I filmed it on 16 mm outdoors, because I didn’t have any lights. It’s a very sadomasochistic story. She is a beautiful model who rejects the man amourously, and she even puts out a cigarette on his chest. He hangs himself, which is a wonderful illusion because he actually puts his arm around the pillar and he’s strong enough to hold himself while hanging from the rope. Nurejev danced in the ballet later on. I transposed everything to a garden. The film was basically a study for a 35 mm film in Technicolor that I wanted to make. But even with a letter of recommendation from Cocteau I couldn’t raise the money. It was a disappointment but I always overcome disappointments. I don’t let them cast me into despair.

How did you come up with the idea to cast a midget in Eaux d’artifice?

By using a midget I completely altered the scale of the film. I was inspired by the etchings of Pirenesi, who was a master etcher. He did etchings of the ruins of Rome and also the garden of Tivoli. Classic famous etchings. He always made things seem bigger by putting tiny people in there. I wanted to find a small person and do what he did. The ruins of the Colosseum are majestic enough but if you double the scale by putting a tiny person there... The midget was a friend of Fellini’s. Fellini knew all the freaks and strange people. He said to me that he knew a midget and that she’d be glad to do it. That’s how that happened.

Kenneth Anger's Technicolor Skull, live the evening before this conversation, photo © Carl A

[Screening of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)]

After your initial phase in France, you had returned to the US for a while. Originally, the idea for this film came from a costume party.

Yes. Halloween is the only time in America when we have a festival where people dress up in costumes. The carnival only exists in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras. A party was given in Malibu by one of the actresses, Renate Druks. The theme announced, several months ahead of time, “Come as your madness”. Everyone was not to tell anyone else what their personal madness was. I guess it was a sign of the egotism of this crowd, which consisted of bohemian artists mostly, that almost everyone came as a god or a goddess from antiquity. Once I saw the costumes, which were beautifully made, I said that I’d make a film of it, that I’d turn the party into a film. The most famous person in the film was of course Anaïs Nin, who was a well known avant garde writer and poet. Samson de Brier played the main part, or actually several parts. He had appeared in a silent film, Salome, in which he plays the slave that committs suicide. I filmed my film over several weekends with the people coming in their costumes. The background is Samson de Brier’s house, which was stuffed with his souvenirs.

In this film, you reached a new level of complexity, not only mythologically but also when it came to the technical aspects. For instance, you used a lot of superimpositions. Did you have evrything well arranged and planned before the editing began or was it more like an intuitive process?

I guess you could call it intuitive. I knew that I wanted to do double- and triple-printing. The excuse is that the people in this ceremony take a drink which is probably psychedelic in some way, or hallucinatory, or magic mushrooms, or LSD. I didn’t want to make it specific. The patterns of illusions become thicker and more complex. I experimented with LSD years ago and you do get that effect. But I’ve never tried to make a film while on LSD because it’s impossible to focus. You have various layers of depth. I’ve always been completely straight when I’ve made my films.

The references to spirituality, magic and even Crowley are more obvious and manifest than ever before in this film. How was Crowley regarded when you found out about him, so to speak, in the mid-1940s?

I was fortunate that Crowley had a magical son in California, in Jack Parsons, who was a famous scientist at Jet Propulsion Labs. He invented the fuel that took the Apollo-rocket to the moon. He was killed in an explosion unfortunately, but his widow, Cameron Parsons, plays the Scarlet Woman in my film. The red hair really was the colour of her hair at that time.

Crowley’s work has strongly permeated your own work. How did that develop in the beginning? For instance, to what extent were Crowley’s books available at that time in California?

Jack and Cameron Parsons had a collection of those books, most of them first editions and signed by Crowley. I had those books available to me. I found him a fascinating person. He was born in 1875 and he died in 1947, so I never met the man. But I knew various friends of his. I feel I know him, even though we never met face to face.

Why did you want to integrate this kind of symbolism in your films?

Crowley’s religion is Thelema, which means Will in Greek. The will has to control what you do, but also love. These things were influences but I’ve always been more of an intuitive artist. I use symbols like others would use colours.

When you shot this film over several weekends, did you give people very specific directions or were they allowed to be free and play around?

It was totally controlled, like a ballet. The movements were controlled.

[Screening of Scorpio Rising (1963)]

What was it that was so fascinating for you about these Coney Island youngsters?

They were making their own motorcycles, customizing them. They were like folk artists working on machines. I found that a very fascinating subject. There are some motorcycle gangs that have a bad reputation because they’ve been involved in drug dealing and murders and things. But this wasn’t a group like that. These were mostly Italian-Americans who made their money working in the fish market and then they put all of their money into their bikes. They all had girlfriends but their first girlfriend was their bike. The bike was almost more important than the girlfriend. She just sat on the back. It’s a strange kind of innocent fetishism.

The film became famous for its creative use of contemporary pop music.

I think I was the first to use music like that. Now, it’s become quite common. In order to show it in public I had to clear the rights, in 1964. At that time I did it through a music lawyer in New York. It doubled the price of the film. The film cost $8000. The music rights cost another $8000. Over the years, I’ve made back what I spent on it.

How important was it for you, when working with the soundtrack, to have a specific song for a specific segment?

The lyrics are like an ironic commentary on the images. I was the first to use Blue Velvet, years before David Lynch. The song is about a girl who wore blue velvet. I used it deliberately on a leather jacket that had blue highlights, and blue jeans. It’s an ironic comment on that kind of self narcissism.

It became a very successful independent film. But you also had some problems with it.

When it was first shown in Los Angeles at the Cinema Theatre, which usually showed unusual films, it was denounced by the American Nazi Party, of all things. They denounced it to the vice squad in Los Angeles. If someone makes a complaint, they have to act on it. They came to the theatre and seized the print of the film from the projection booth and arrested the manager of the theatre. Today it seems totally grotesque but at that time they thought they had the right to do that. The case went to the California Supreme Court, where it was declared OK, because it has “redeeming social values”. This is a term that would later be used in other legal cases with films and censorship. It has redeeming qualities. It’s not technically obscene.

One more thing about Scorpio Rising... There had been a “stellium” in 1962, during which we shifted from the Age of Pisces to that of Aquarius. Was your film in any way a commentary to that?

I enjoy the game of astrology. I don’t take it terribly seriously. Maybe some of it is true. I use it in a kind of fantastic way. Scorpio is the sign of the zodiac that rules machinery and the sex organs. I’m an Aquarius, like James Dean, Franklin Roosevelt and, unfortunately, Ronald Reagan. I’m an Aquarius with Scorpio rising. An artist has a right to play around with these ideas. I don’t have to justify it, whether it has any scientific value. It has a poetic value.

[Screening of Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), Invocation of my
Demon Brother (1969) and Rabbit’s Moon (1971 version)]

Kustom Kar Kommandos is also about a fetishistic inclination in some young men, with their “Dream Buggies”. Have you since then ever come across any similar kind of obsession with machinery?

Customizing cars is a very Californian thing, making these beautifully lacquered and chromed fantasy machines. If you know Freud... In the interior of the car in the film, the seats are shaped like vulvas. The guy designed everything himself. I couldn’t tell him that his seats looked like something from the human anatomy. He made the interior of the car chrome, like mirrored sides. He could see himself reflected on all sides in this mobile box of fantasy. I chose that car because I found it particularly beautiful.

In the mid-60s you lived in San Francisco and started an ambitious project called Lucifer Rising, with musician Bobby Beausoleil in the leading role. That time, things didn’t turn out so well. Could you tell us about the original film you had in mind?

I had this project of making a film about the fallen angel, Lucifer. It’s a metaphor, probably some kind of alchemical metaphor originally, about spirit falling into matter. In this case, I was seeking an actor who could embody this spirit. Bobby Beausoleil was the guitarist ina group called Love, which was an acid rock group. He was 19, very beautiful. I asked him if he wanted to play this part in my film. It didn’t work out because there was too much personality involved. When you’re casting amateurs in films, the problem is how to hold on to them if you can’t have them sign a contract or offer them money. These things become psychological problems. When you pick someone who is a rather difficult personality, it becomes even more of a problem. Basically, we couldn’t come to an agreement. I didn’t drive myself, but I had a van and he decided to just take it and drive off to Southern California from San Francisco, where we were sharing a Victorian house called “The Russian Embassy”. The van broke down in the San Fernando Valley in front of a place called Spahn Ranch. That’s where the Manson Family was staying. The girls came out and suggested Bobby move in with them. That’s how he became involved with the Manson Family. He ended up killing someone and he’s now serving a life term in prison. I absolutely had nothing to do with it but it was an odd way for a kind of Devil figure to end up in real life trouble.

Invocation of my Demon Brother was made with remnants of that original material.

Bobby had gone into drug dealing behind my back. I didn’t know this, but it was my house. He was a minor and I was an adult. If anyone had gotten into trouble, it would have been me. I found marijuana in the house and said no. When Bobby left after the quarrel we had, he took the van and all the film he could find, just out of spite. But I had scraps left in the cutting room bin. I took that material to London when I went back and did a rough assembly of it. I showed it to Mick Jagger and he said he’d do the soundtrack, improvising on the Moog synthesizer. He gave me that improvisation. I don’t think he does that too often.

Your depression even made you place and ad in The Village Voice, stating “Kenneth Anger, Filmmaker 1947-1967”.

I said I was finished and that I didn’t want to work in film anymore. Everything was going wrong. But I changed my mind after I returned to Europe. I got encouragement from people like the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, Donald Cammell and others.

Rabbit’s Moon in this version from 1971 has a new soundtrack. Going back and retouching and re-editing is something quite consistent in your work.

Well, Rabbit’s Moon had a checkered story. I considered it a lost film. It was shot ion 35 mm and stored at the Cinématheque Française. They lost it. It disappeared and was lost for 20 years. The label had come off the can. There are thousands of films there. But I finally got it back after a long time.

[Screening of Lucifer Rising (1981), Mouse Heaven (2004)

Crowley took up painting when he was around 40. Particularly when he moved to Sicily. He did some quite interesting work there. It reminds me of the Fauves. Crowley had a very direct way with colour. My film is a tribute to his painting.

Lucifer Rising has a subtitle which is “A Love Vision”. This was to balance Scorpio, which is so martial. Do you think that the film achieved that balance?

I hope so. It’s a bit like Yin and Yang, the night and the day.

Lucifer Rising is an elaborate production, with acting and interesting environments. Donald Cammell, who plays Osiris, was well versed in Crowleyan mythology. What was it like with the others – Huggins, Faithfull and others? Did they feel that you had to explain things to them?

I never explain anthing. They have to accept me and what I say. The one person that I began using was Mick Jagger’s brother Chris. He went with me to Egypt. He’s briefly seen in front of the Sphinx. He kept asking me to explain what he was supposed to do and I said, “Just do it!” I sent him home. He got a free trip back and forth.

In what way does this 1981 version differ from the one you had originally envisioned and shot with Beausoleil?

They’re related in subject but with a completely different cast. I was happy to work with people like Marianne Faithfull, because she just did what I wanted. She didn’t argue with me.

We’re going to see Ich will now. Could you tell us something about that?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Nazi period. I worked in the film archive in France for so many years and I was always looking for images from that period. Ich will reflects the Hitler Jugend movement, which was the equivalent of the boy scouts. In fact, the Nazis took the idea from the boy scouts in England, which was something invented at the turn of the 20th century by Baden-Powell. There too, the idea was to create a bond with the youth, to prepare them to fight for the empire. People forget that that was the original motivation of the boy scouts, to prepare them for the military. The transition to the military is not that difficult when you’ve been in the boy scouts.

My brother was an Eagle Scout, a high rank. I absolutely refused to go into it. I was the rebel, totally against joining. My father was a scout master but I said no already at a quite young age. And that’s why Kenneth Anger is Kenneth Anger.

I carefully chose a statement or quote from William Shakespeare, from The Tempest, as part of the introduction to the film: “Beware of the words that come out of the mouth that transforms men into beasts.” That’s my only statement about the film. I absolutely cut out all the speeches and I’ve also cut out all the martial music and substituted it with Anton Bruckner’s ninth symphony. That was his last, written when he was dying. He was a brilliant symphonist and, incidentally, Adolf Hitler’s favourite symphonist at that time. The other great symphonist, Mahler, was completely rejected for racial reasons.

[Screening of Ich will (2008)]

This text has previously been published by Edda Publishing in the occultural anthology The Fenris Wolf, issue no 4


Friday, February 22, 2013

Re-inventing a square wheel?

Swedish label Kning Disk are renowned for their high quality special editions of works of art jam-packed with integrity and vision. A recent release, Tingens Vilja, further cements their position as a central space for truly unique and beautiful expressions.

Tingens Vilja is a nice little cardboard box containing two CDs and several printed cards. All of it produced jointly by Alexandra E Lindh and Dan Fröberg. The initial impression is one of meticulous diligence. Although apparently flirting with chance and discarding apparent order and structure, there is still an almost anal retentive vibe in the assemblage of the pieces. It’s very neatly and well put together.

The same goes for the very core of Tingens Vilja: the sounds. Although highly collage-based and free-flowing inbetween styles and sounds, there is an easily discernable supra-order involved that I guess could be termed the "soul" or glue of the totality.

Tingens Vilja is a beautiful work of art. That Dan Fröberg is a superb Klang Meister we already know from earlier projects. Together with Lindh, whose piano sections add a forceful fragility to the overall impressions, Fröberg concocts a sensuous and seductive trip through a vast array of emotions – mostly quite dark ones. It’s a teamwork that belongs in another, higher state of consciousness.

When I listen though, I know approximately what to expect, and I can't imagine that's the idea. Perhaps this kind of assembled sound art containing a collage modus operandi has actually become a quite conservative and predictable approach? Or perhaps I’m just jaded from having listened to too much experimental music?

There’s a zither, there’s nature, ambient sounds, Glockenspiele, birds, loosely lo-fied voices, atonal attempts, tonal tendernesses, hiss, noise, silence, electronic scapes and many other things in a very poetic and intuitive assembly. Lindh’s piano becomes a very human meme within this midst of subtle cacophony. Its (reverbed) distance makes it sound nostalgic in a way – like listening in on someone’s emotional past. This is intelligent structuring, like buoys in a deep sea of fairly well-known audio art tricks. Had this been done in a less sensitive manner, the entire project could easily have become too predictable, like someone trying to re-invent a square wheel in order to be different from all the other square wheel-makers (the ghosts of Subotnick, Throbbing Gristle, et al).

The packaging is very nice indeed, with its cards of equally nostalgic-emotional images from someone’s past. In all, it’s a looking back (?) into a timeless zone. One listens to the emo-ride of aural mementoes and at the same time it’s absolutely possible to play exactly that – spontaneous Memento – with the enclosed images. No rules, no co-players, just you and your emotional response to the audio-visual input.

Tingens Vilja means ”The Will of the Things”, and I can’t really tell whether this box is a pro- or contra stance. Do things really have a will? It doesn’t matter though. What matters is the ride through this psychic forest and the box as such provides pretty solid boots. It’s an enjoyable trek but, as often within forests, certain passages are eerie and haunted. Tingens Vilja is no exception.

This project is a joint release with the amazing antiquarian bookstore Rönnells in Stockholm, a place you really have to visit when in town. Or visit very often if you are a Stockholm resident. Simple as that.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Malcolm McLaren: The point is to fail magnificently!

Malcolm McLaren, Stockholm 2001. © Carl A

Late 2001, Malcom McLaren (1946-2010) visited Stockholm to appear at the well-renowned annual Spoken Word festival. This was only about a month after ”9/11”, so his performance was focused on that traumatic incident and on his feelings of living in an enforced ”Karaoke Culture”.

Shortly before his appearance I had the chance to ask him some questions. I had heard that he could be tricky and rude, but I only experienced the sunny side. He liked to talk and talk he did. A lot of what was said in this interview could be heard on stage later on. It was almost like an ad verbatim scenario. I suspect that, in general, he gave his preoccupations or themes a lot of thought and formulated things as well as he could. Once formulated, these views and phrases would flow eloquently whenever needed, over and over again.

His intelligence, wit and will to provoke helped jolt conservative Britons out of their tea time comas so many times that it’s almost hard to remember that he did actually try his hand at many different things. He was well aware that people would always look upon him as an agent provocateur (incidentally the name of his son’s underwear enterprise) first and foremost and as an artist much, much later – if at all.

He often stated that to be an artist means that you have to fail, but the challenge lies in failing magnificently. If that’s the case, one could say that he actually failed at that. Because his life was more adorned with triumphs and successes than failures. Whatever had happened, there was always a residue of thought-provocation that lingered on. In that sense, his mind lived on even when the concepts as such perhaps didn’t grow as big or successful as intended. As an ideas man with a powerful and, at times, even feared presence, McLaren has yet to be surpassed in his native Britain.

How do you look upon the recent terrorist attacks? Can something good come from something bad?

I think it’s unquestionable that the war that’s going on is not a war about who survives in Afghanistan. It's more about a war about the New World Order. It’s a war that is now being subjected to a debate about its genuine future and sense of culture. It’s a war in which we’ll all debate about how useless or how important we are. How we actually look at our culture and the future. We'll debate what's good and what's bad about it. It's extraordinary that this idea of Islam has actually provoked it, provoked us all into thinking that.

In bookstores in New York, since September 11th, I've seen people at the Middle East sections sitting on the floor crosslegged reading about Islam. For the first time! They have now discovered another part of the world and it intrigues them and confuses them. They definitely want to find out more about it. That's interesting because people have found another idea. There are other cultures out there that don't necessarily want to belong to the idea that we call America. America is confusing for Europeans because America is a concept. It's not really a country. It's a concept based on a lot of people who escaped from Europe over the past two centuries. They came and tried to create another idea. They're still squabbling about what that idea is...

America is filled with a melting pot of cultures. Within it are many disenfranchised people who are not directly in sync with the nebulous, most complex organisation called Washington. If someone were to say to me ”I don't understand Islam...”, I would say ”I have no idea what Washington is... Why they do what they do and the reasons they have...” It's a difficult thing because in essence it's a concept that isn't alien to the rest of the world but it's very convoluted, full of immense contradictions. It's very difficult to comprehend. If you live in the Islamic world I would say it's even more difficult to understand. For instance, if you are, supposedly, a superpower with all the things that go with a superpower, why would you need anyone else to help you fight your battles? I wonder just that, as a question. Does that mean that America is somewhat vulnerable? Does it necessarily believe in its own self? Does it understand its own self? Its own concept? It's so full of contradiction and yet we've all got to join in, rally round the flag without even thinking twice... All under the word America seems to have coopted: ”freedom”...

This is the problem we all face now: Who owns the language? Why is your interpretation of freedom better than ours? That's the problem and that gets right down into the root of the culture itself. I think that's what we're undergoing now. Although globalisation... What is globalisation? In one word, people in America say globalisation means fast food. That's globalisation right there. Coca-Cola, the hamburger, Hollywood, fast film, fast art... All of this is in some sense a contradiction or in direct opposition to the culture under the heading Islam. Islam does not necessarily understand or has in its dictionary the word ”marketing”. This word is alien to their culture. Maybe also ”entertainment”. If you went to France, they would have a difficult time understanding the word ”marketing”. It's a word equally alien to them in some sense. It's alien to their culture. They can't see what entertainment is. It isn't showgirls, it isn't John Wayne... And it isn't about fast food. Yet we're all supposed to rally round this culture... This is the real debate that's going on in the 21st century and it will define what we think in the next 25 years. That's why this war was probably inevitable and probably a long time coming. It came in a welter of mad tragedies... But life is an opera. It's full of love and it's full of death. It's a journey and the journey is now reaching a point where there are serious obstacles that we have to come to terms with.

Before, we were all under this immense cloud created by globalisation. It was a false premise that was sold to us. It can best be described with one word: Shopping. Shopping is the new cultural ideal of the Western world. They've managed to incorporate in that word ”Entertainment”. A new word today is ”Shopatainment”. It's about the satisfaction you get when you go shopping. Shopping for anything. Once the entire culture comes under that umbrella, perhaps that has replaced what was once the Church, where we aquired some form of salvation, some form of self knowledge. When the conquests of that civilisation happened, we had the Museum that we looked up to. There were ideas about society that we were supposed to believe in and to ennoble us. It started with the renaissance which was, in essence, a very Islamic idea. The renaissance owes it to Islam. To then take it further we can say that the super-department store has replaced the museum like the museum replaced the church. This is the culture we've built up. This culture has enabled the commodification of the planet to be the noble pursuit. Shopping is the way to enjoy it. The satisfaction you get.

But, invariably, when we get home after having been shopping, we look at these things that are supposed to have quenched our thirsts, fulfilled our desires, aquired some sort of semi-salvation, we realise it all doesn't. So we go back to the department store the next day and buy more. That has reduced us to people who are constantly confused. It's the quest now to decide how to move forward. Do we strip our culture bare, do we look for alternatives? Is the department store physically going to become more like a church? Is it physically going to be more like a museum? Can we incorporate all those things in it? Or is it just going to crumble? Is America as a concept on its way out? Is the World Trade Center disaster a kind of sign of a crumbling empire? This is the real debate.

The rational processing through media, journalism etc is obviously very, very controlled. Do you think that maybe non-rational processes like art could help in creating a clearer image?

I think you have to define what it is. That word has changed so much now that you could say that fashion is art, as art is fashion. Before, it was some sort of acquiring self knowledge, critique, looking to, finding out some kind of salvation, some kind of knowledge that will help you change life and to look at life in another way. Art today is a fashionable commodity that can be purchased with relative ease. Perhaps just as decoration or as keeping up with the Joneses. Part of one's attempt to look fashionable. Looking fashionable means today having power. If you have the look, you have the power of God and government both. Fashion seems to be the driving force, the engine. Fifth Avenue in New York is the powerhouse. It's interesting to note that Rudolph Giuliani literally came on TV a few hours after the World Trade Center disaster and told all New Yorkers: ”Please, take a holiday... Go shopping. Please support your local store. Please don't forget... I'm a baseball fan but Broadway is the heart and soul of New York and we must buy a ticket. Please go out, spend the money in the restaurants, fill them up, show that you believe in freedom... Show you have no fear... Show them that you continue to shop!” I was staggered, because all my polemic, all my thoughts came startingly true. In this one simple statement three hours after this huge disaster... Thousands of people have just died and all he's concerned about is shopping... That said everything to me.

Speaking of politics and speaking of mayors... How did your own mayoral campaign in London go?

My mayoral campaign was set up... I was, to some extent, cajoled. When the mayoral elections came about in London, one was absolutely furious... Looking at this supposed position given to us by this Karaoke Prime Minister Tony Blair, saying that this was something that London should have. London had the mayoral function taken away by Thatcher. This was now given back for us in order to feel that London might have some autonomy. Nevertheless it was going to be autonomy ruled by the government. In other words, they were going to select who they thought should be our Mayor. My, and many other people's, anger and frustration at such audacity decided that, as Londoners, we wanted something else than Tony Blair Fleetwood Mac. He wasn't even a "townie". He was a country boy. It all provoked us into thinking ”We can't have that...” So I decided to write an article that I was asked to for the New Statesman, which is a political magazine in London and services every politician, writer and collegiate professor. It's an important current affairs magazine. I wrote an article for them some three months before the actual election and I realised I was being set up by this magazine whose owner, a man called Jefferey Robinson, actually had to step down for corruption... He was at the head of the Treasury. I think he wanted to get back at Tony Blair and I was like the court jester set up to do this. To fire a few arrows like some old fashioned Luddite... I accepted it because I thought that it was good at least to fire an arrow. So I went on television together with the Minister of Education and talked about the various issues involved. Like ”Why do we need a politician as Mayor? Surely it's time that we didn't have a politician...” Politicians today seem more like management consultants. They're all in league with the big corporations and therefore they don't act independently. I decided we needed an independent voice. Not to think that I wanted to be the Mayor at all, but the only way I could get on the platform was to suggest I would be.

Once I had managed to air all my views, from anti-Starbucks, anti-globalisation to basically wishing to be able to have a beer while reading Charles Dickens in the library... Thinking about how London could suddenly become a different place. Less serving the corporatations and big businesses and more serving the community as a creative force. London cared about that as I think any community does. There was a sense at that time that one's freedom... That the expense in London, the economy, had grown out of all proportions. It was booming but noone could afford to do anything other than the tourists or big business handled by the City.

There was a desire that we needed to enforce... ”London for Londoners”. Before London gets taken over by corporations from foreign sources. So it was a kind of mad anarchic adventure, just to plug in to those values. I was able to criticise in a way that I think many people enjoyed. At one point a man who was once a Labour party MP decided to cross that rubicon and become an independent... I think I helped him do that. He sailed on the winds of my machinations, and of course his own, and became Mayor. But by becoming the Mayor he was seriously shackled and I haven’t heard more about him since. That isn't at all surprising...

Some of the ideas that you presented certainly have a substance. I'm thinking about the fact that Germany will soon have legal brothels and legal prostitution to a much greater extent than before. That was one of things that you presented. Do you think that your ideas will be the inspiration for actual politics in the future?

I think they were. Some candidates took up parts of my manifesto. They were literally being peeled off. I'm talking to a guy in opposition and he's using my own words... It was very funny to see that. Suddenly everyone was saying that ”I am independent! I might represent the Conservative party but I don't listen to head office... I'm an independent person... I believe in London...” It was funny that I did actually set the cat among the pigeons, as we say in England.

Do you see it as a blessing or a curse to be this kind of instigator? A sower of seeds? Often, you don't get to reap the fruits...

That's the curse of any artist. You never set out to reap the benefits. It's your job. You're there to provoke and change life. An artist's life is a failure, but in the most beautiful sense of the word. Ever since I went to art school I was taught that it means to fail... In a way that allows you not to have any fear, allows you the ability and genuine freedom to express yourself... But to fail miserably is not the point. The point is to fail magnificently! To rather be a flamboyant failure than any form of benign success. That's the job of any artist.

What would you say is your greatest strength?

My greatest strength is to have little fear and perhaps be less concerned with that world of ”career” and more concerned with that world of ”adventure”. It really is just a question of staying creatively in a position where you are never for sale. I think if someone stood up in England and said ”I'm not for sale!”, it would be a change in that society.

Today we are all working under this dreadful umbrella that Tony Blair created but that he now speaks very little about. The word ”Cool Britannia”... We all had to serve under that word. He had tried to turn the country into a commodity. If you didn't serve under Cool Britannia and didn't believe in it, you really weren't wanted on the island. This idea was something that you can't ever go along with, because it meant that everything in it was for sale. The idea of not being for sale is something that I think artists have somewhat lost the plot about. Today art is merely fashion as fashion is art. We, probably more than anyone else at the moment, have turned ourselves into commodity brokers in terms of culture.

The godfather of that was perhaps that Catholic Andy Warhol. He was, inadvertently in some ways, responsible for the children of Andy Warhol that you could call the britpop artists. New York would deny that and say that Andy Warhol wasn't about that at all, it was much deeper and far more profound than any of these britpop artists. I have gotten in many arguments about that. To some extent I understand it but the facts are always that people peel off what they want from a work of art, even other artists. You take from a source and you take certain aspects. The aspects of Andy Warhol were very simple. You took the idea of the artefact, this multiple, this idea of concept, this idea of making art by the telephone, this thought of producing objects of desire, objects that appear glamorous. Living your life in a very fashionable world where you yourself become part of the media. Damien Hirst is a prime example of someone who basically is a marketing phenomenon. Not unlike Madonna who you could best describe as one big, fat dollar bill. That in itself has caused us to think about culture in a way that really doesn't serve the purpose of trying to discover the authentic. Quite the opposite. It serves the purpose of authenticating the Karaoke. Most artists today do that. You often hear in the film world ”I want this film to feel authentic...” The very notion of feeling authentic sets up this idea that it isn't authentic at all. They just want it to feel authentic. They want to authenticate something that is Karaoke. I think that's what most artists do today.

What is your greatest weakness?

I adore living in chaos. I find chaos incredibly comfortable. Because in chaos one always assumes that surprises can happen. Things go inevitably wrong. One always loves to be at that point of disaster. It's exciting. It inevitably leads to extraordinary confrontation and in a world that is very corporate based and serious in concern of making everything uniform, your weakness is not appearing to be a part of that endeavour. People tend to see you coming. You are already coming with a set of precedence and people have already formed opinions about you. For instance, some people say, ”You're a manager... How could you be an artist? A manager... That means you're a schemer, a manipulator, a Svengali, a trickster... That means you're very clever.”

To think of me as an artist... People can't see those two worlds match... They feel they have to be very sceptical about me. They feel they have to hide the silver when I come into the building. ”We don't know what game you're at, but you're not taking our money! You're a swindler... We saw the movie! We know exactly where you're coming from...”

I found myself to be someone who had great difficulty in explaining that I was the manager, I was the architect, I am responsible for the chaos and disorder that the Sex Pistols presented, what media termed ”punk rock”. But what they have to understand is that I wasn't a manager per se. I was someone acting like a manager. My true objective underneath it all was to utterly mismanage... I was a great mismanager! For them to sit back and look at me when I said these things... They thought I had messed everything up by changing the words. They said I'd reinvented new meanings. It's the same way when I turn around and say to you, ”Failure is a more interesting and more noble pursuit than success.” Why? Because I think failure has much more creativity in the word than success does. Success I always think of as someone who's a member of the golf club. Failure I always think of as that person with mud in his hand, throwing it at the neck of the golfer who was the prefect at school and who you always inevitably hated, who you knew was completely bought, ambitious and horrible. But, in effect, that's the world.

I'll never forget when I saw a movie recently called Election, directed by Alexander Payne. It was about politics, but politics taken inside a school. Politics seen from the point of view of high school. You could see how certain people would become extremely ambitious and be the ones who would define and conform and really use and abuse you. But for all intents and purposes, they seemed incredibly noble. It was a beautiful way of describing America and its concept. One couldn't help but be somewhat sympathetic but also hate the liberal school teacher who didn't want this girl to succeed and therefore fraudulently messed up the local school election by manipulating the votes. In essence, he didn't like this girl. She was too ambitious. He ended up being thrown out. At the end of the movie he was thrown out, he was on the street, once a noble professor but now throwing mud at a car, virtually a limousine, carrying this girl who was now looking towards the White House. That was a complete metaphor for America itself. Things like that imbued me with terror as I suddenly felt my weakness. I realised it could have been me on the street, throwing mud at the car of someone similar in my life.

Will there be any more Malcolm McLaren records? Any new musical projects?

It's so difficult to make records... I'm defined as someone who's smart, who's not a real artist, who doesn't sing, who doesn't play any real instruments... The record companies are constantly subjected to thinking if I am for real or not. I'm like an enigma. I make records like a film director. Without a camera. I've got to make my movie but I don't have a camera to make it with, I just have a recorder. If I explain it that way, they ask, ”How on earth can you make records if you don't play and sing?” Well, I draw a map on a wall. Not a geographical map but a map of feelings. I denote the ideas and I get a bunch of musicians, I infect them, seduce them, manipulate them to do my bidding on this wall.

Somehow I come up with these albums that sometimes look conceited, pretentious, difficult, contrived... But that's the way I work. I try to support it with as much chaos as I can and that's usually me trying to sing but inevaitably failing to do so... That's the piece of work in the end. It lives or dies on that basis. The people in the industry usually look at me as if I'm insane, saying that this is not the way they make music... You're supposed to hurt your fingers as you play Chuck Berry 50 000 times and you're supposed to swallow what he's done and manipulate it and regurgitate it and turn it into your own work. All under the Karaoke guise of looking authentic. It's just natural, it's not an outlawed acitivity anymore. It plays perfectly into the hands of an industry that has co-opted this disenfrachised musical form and turned it into a business.

So you're coming along and trying to upset the bandwagon and it's very difficult to try and convince anyone that that's a good idea. Occasionally the French understand it. They understand it because the words ”entertainment” and ”marketing” don't quite fit in. An artist who has a polemic, a philosophy, tends to be looked upon as intriguing and fascinating in their ever growing existential outlook in culture itself. Therefore they have managed to survive by believing in this auteur spirit and not allowing themselves to be constantly subjugated to turning everything into a commodity. In that pool, I've often found solace and the ability to work. I think that's the reason I was given that freedom to work for French television. About a year ago, I made a series of small films and was given a carte blanche to say and do what I wanted. It's leading me back to Paris to do further films. The conceptual values in America, as nebulous and contradictory as I think they often are, also allows me to be a cultural warrior. In that sense, we can still fight.

If you had immediate access and unlimited funds, what kind of a record would you make?

I'm intrigued by the authentic. I look to the origins, to the music, the phenomenon that was to be known as rock'n'roll. A music that I have to say probably became a phenomenon due to organised crime. Just after the war, by the Mafia. It was basically through the rise of the jukebox business... It was a kind of culture that wasn't considered important or worthy. It was left by the roadside and picked up by those that see a niche in business.

The Mafia after the war saw this booming business, the jukebox. A machine that could replace the live act in every bar in Southern United States. They needed stuff to put in those machines. They saw these raggedy old swing bands, top heavy, unwieldy, not economically viable 30 pieces. They broke it down to a bass player, a drummer, a saxophonist... Throw them into a little studio, give them 20 minutes to cut a record and keep it short. The saxophone plays the riff, the others play the rhythm... Take the guy on the street corner who writes the filthiest lyrics, really rude... The word rock'n'roll had been a currency since the 1920s inside black music. ”My baby rocks me with one steady roll...” Rock'n'roll was merely an analogy for sex. They put this together and gave it a boot. Before you knew it, these mafiosi had tons of this new stuff pumped into the jukeboxes, which acted almost as a messenger. This messenger was sent all across Europe through the US Army Camps during the Marshall Plan after the war. It filtered through and a new generation desperate to express itself sought that out as a counterpoint to the establishment and before you knew it, the Mafia had discovered and inadvertently caused the success of this phenomenon that later became known as rock'n'roll. That's the true story! But a story that's never talked about...

As the Mafia grew, they swallowed up profits and they found their way into laundering money and taking over and becoming part of a much bigger industry. Towards the end of the 1950s, they were almost in control. The American establishment, not wanting to deal with this Southern white trash with these black illiterates... Chuck Berry in prison on rape charges, Buddy Holly dying in a plane crash, Jerry Lee Lewis fucking his thirteen year old cousin, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent thrown out of America and ending up in a car crash outside London. The man that seemed to be the lean desperado, also constantly imitating the black man, Elvis Presley, had to go in the Army. In 1958, the whole notion of this music with filthy lyrics, this rock'n'roll, this Mafia driven industry was stopped and moved to a fine, little port town on the edge of Europe called Hamburg, run by villains, run by gangsters... Anarchy reigned... Here, they had to serve the black GI, the white GI... Merchant seamen and all the roughnecks... Here, rock'n'roll could be held in a holding pattern for a new generation that wouldn't know what the older generation listened to. Noone knew the origins, the authentic...

The same people who would play Chuck Berry came back in the early 1960s and played in London to a whole new generation and suddenly, without America not even knowing about it, these English groups were going to export back to the US what had already been written, coded and played in the 1940s. For all intents and purposes, it was being played by ragged-haired white kids. It was English, so they thought that maybe it was acceptable. They were playing to college audiences. Mick Jagger would run back to England and say to Jeff Beck, ”Don't tell them it's anything to do with their music... Just keep your mouth shut and we're going to make millions...” That's what happened and that's the end of the story of rock'n'roll really...