The final version of “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” is finally out in the world. The film, initially shot in Hollywood by Kenneth Anger in 1956, has been produced in incomplete versions for sixty years. The original footage was even lost. The film has gained a cult status for many reasons: the surreal cast, the daring psychedelic scenes exploding throughout a final triptych, the epic musical score (by Electric Light Orchestra), the bright or subdued colors and lighting, the mysterious intrigue, and Aleister Crowley’s subliminal occultism. It is both a milestone and a crossroads of cinema history. Last year, Brian Butler started helping Kenneth Anger complete the masterpiece, and the film was presented in a different form as an installation at Art Basel 2015. The finalized short film (38 minutes) premiered last week at Max Linder Theatre in Paris and we had the opportunity to chat with Brian right after the movie screening.
Could you reintroduce the movie and the cast for us?
This movie is really from [Kenneth Anger]’s mind, his surreal vision. It was filmed in the home of Samson De Brier, who was sort of a raconteur in Los Angeles, a very interesting person in the late '40s and early '50s. I think that’s how Kenneth met most of the cast, in [De Brier]’s home in Hollywood—a very small house, believe it or not. But it’s Kenneth’s genius of camerawork and his expressionist set that created perspective and depth. And it looks like a huge space.
Most of the characters in the film were wearing costumes from a party that Kenneth Attended at the home of Renata Druks. The theme was “Come as your Madness.”
Curtis Harrington—who I knew personally for some years—played the somnambulist from the “The Somnanbulist of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” He knew Kenneth since they were teenagers, and he did the camera on “Puce Moment.” Renate Druks, who had the short red hair—besides Marjorie Cameron, they had a certain rivalry going there—did the makeup and the costumes. Her partner was Paul Mathison, the blond who played Pan. I did meet Renate and she said that she knew Jack Parsons as well, the rocket scientist, follower or associate of Aleister Crowley. And of course the widow, Marjorie Cameron, played the Scarlet Woman in the film. Samson De Brier, who owned the house, played five different roles as a result of loaning his house. And that was how his house really looked, with the Chinese mirror, and all the colors and the rings, and all the details there.
“It’s a party whose theme is: ‘Come as your Madness.’”
Could you tell us a little bit about the narrative or the meaning?
Well, often I’ve seen Kenneth do interviews where he says, “no explanation available—beyond the title given.” I know it was inspired by the Coleridge poem, “Kubla Khan,” and I think Cocteau had a big influence. The title screen, that was done by Paul Mathison, is pretty amazing—made under the direction of Kenneth, of course. Kenneth is known for his great titles and graphics.
But I guess, as much narrative there is, I think it’s all—as most art is—for the viewer to interpret what it means to them. But it’s a party. Kenneth went to a party, actually, at Renate Druks’ house. And that’s where Anais Nin was, in a similar costume she wears in the film. So that was one inspiration, combined with the poem by Coleridge. As Gaspar [Noé] said about the yagé [psychedelic brew], or some psychedelic potion that they were drinking led to where it expands into the triptych, into this super-psychedelic scene, especially for 1954.
Another character that Kenneth described to me was a puppet he called the Owl Pope. It’s his sort of whimsy humor. In a lot of ways, it’s incomprehensible or it’s like a dream, it’s hard to put a linear explanation with the film.
Do you think there’s a lot to decipher, that there are many layers or codes in this film? Or is it mostly an aesthetic experience?
Well, in my experience, of many years of seeing the film, there is a lot to decipher. But it’s like a dream where it’s your own personal interpretation. But that was the film where he really began to introduce these symbols of Aleister Crowley. I think mainly as a result of meeting Marjorie Cameron, the widow of Jack Parsons, who was very well-versed in Aleister Crowley and magic.
Is this film his first work illustrating magic, or using magic references then?
I think so, as far as direct symbols. Because previous to that, it was “Fireworks”  which was surreal but didn’t have direct occult symbols. “Puce Moment”  was kind of the same. And “Eaux d'Artifice”  was before that. He shot “Rabbit’s Moon”  before that, but found it in 1971 or 72 and cut it. “Puce Moment” as well.
“There is a lot to decipher. But it’s like a dream where it’s your own personal interpretation.”
Is it while doing this film that Kenneth became acquainted with magical practices or rituals?
Um, there’s several different versions of that. But that circle of people: Samson De Brier, a lot of the associates of Jack Parsons, the “Pasadena” group of Aleister Crowley—I don’t want to say “followers,”—but a group that was practicing his rituals. I think that was around the time that “The Great Beast,” the first biography of Aleister Crowley, was published in 1951. And I remember Curtis Harrington told me that he had a copy of that. So it’s hard to say exactly, but it definitely had a big influence on—if not introducing him to that—having a direct knowledge of that.
Did you find the original footage from 1956?
Yes, I spent a lot of time in a room at a lab—it’s called the negative assembly room—where you’re winding 16mm on this synchronizer, counting frames. It turned out that the 1956 original print was just in storage and wasn’t labeled correctly. I finally bought a projector, and several months into the project, I decided to put this on, see what this is, and it got to the part where the triptych begins. Where the superimposition starts [in previous, classic versions], this time there were no superimpositions [in this footage]. So I was like, “wow, what’s this,” and I looked at the date code and it was “1956.” So that was an almost impossible occurrence but a great find, and it was key in assembling the film.
How did you work on the film with Kenneth Anger, were you editing yourself or where you two in the editing room?
Mostly I was in the edit room, because I’ve worked with Kenneth for so long. I’ve worked with him in the editing room before, and I have a really good understanding of how he works and what he wants. So he would come occasionally, but I did most of heavy lifting, so to speak, just going through and sifting through materials and assembling. And I would get to a point where I felt it was close, and I would show it to Kenneth and get notes and modify it from there.
“I’ve been to the house where it was shot and I saw it was very small. It doesn’t look like it does in the film.”
Tell us about the lighting. Was there was a particular trick to get these colors?
Yeah, that to me was a mystery for a long time, was you know “how did he do this?” Especially because I’ve been to the house where it was shot and I saw it was very small. It doesn’t look like it does in the film.
It was shot in 16mm Kodachrome reversal, which I believe is one of the best film stocks ever made, because although it’s 60 years old it looks like yesterday. So when I finally saw the elements, I thought, “wow this is all in-camera,” so to speak. It was the lighting that was in the room, I imagine a gel overheard and one light coming up from below.
And of course he went almost overboard, or in an extreme way, with optical printing method of superimposition - he was really pushing the technology available at the time. But the actual images is what it looked like in the room. Despite what cinematographers would tell me—because I’m a director myself—I often wondered how he achieved that look, they would say “oh, it’s all done in post,” and you would have to do all the coloring and effects after the shoot. No, it was in the room.
Can you visit this house?
Yes, it’s in Hollywood, on a street called Barton, near Hollywood, or Santa Monica and Vine Street. A few years ago, there were some guys who lived there who were aware of Kenneth and would have little salons there, but they’ve since moved.
Kenneth did live there for many years, actually, with Samson De Brier. Samson De Brier would live in the guest house in the back and rent out the front house. And many people passed through there: Dennis Hopper, who was in Curtis Harrington’s first feature film, [“Night Tide” 1961]—I think that was Dennis Hopper’s first role—Jack Nicholson, and a lot of actors, people from the California beatnik scene, probably George Herms, obviously Cameron.
Would you say he created the first music videos?
I would say a lot of music video’s were derivative or heavily influenced by Kenneth’s work. But to say he was making music videos would be missing the point. Music video are basically marketing or commercials for record companies to sell records—some where done artistically but the directors rarely had total creative freedom.
What is your next project?
On the island of Stromboli I am doing a solo performance entitled “Choronzon Working” on the live volcano July 17th. They will be screening “Lucifer Rising” as well. I’ve called it “The Shortcut To Illumination” and it will include: a ritualistic performance enhanced by paradoxical sound frequencies, atmospherical ionization, stroboscopic effects, electrostatic generators, reality augmentation, and a live volcano.