“Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome”: An “Erotic/Psychedelic/Thaumaturgic Bacchanal”

By on April 23, 2016

Marjorie Cameron, born April 23, 1922 in Belle Plaine, Iowa — along with her husband Jack Parsons, one of the founders of Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab — was an active member of the Hollywood sex/occult coterie that L. Ron Hubbard ran with in his pre-Dianetics days, as seen last year in HBO’s Going Clear Scientology documentary, but we thought we’d celebrate her birthday today by having a look at Kenneth Anger’s 1954 short film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, in which she appeared as “The Scarlet Woman.”

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In 1966, Inauguration was included in a comprehensive screening of his films called The Magick Lantern Cycle, beginning with 1947’s Fireworks and continuing chronologically, ending with 1981’s Lucifer Rising. The original thirteen-page booklet for the Cycle, with a different color for each page, actually provided specific instructions on when to take LSD (still legal at the time) to time it so that the acid kicked in at the right time (“Psychedelic researchers desirous to Turn On for Pleasure Dome should absorb their sugar cubes at this point”).

A newer version of Anger’s 35-minute film is the one he re-cut in 1978, when he replaced the score he’d previously used — the “Glagolitic Mass” by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček — with music from the 1974 Electric Light Orchestra album Eldorado (omitting only “Illusions in G Major,” a blues-rock tune which Anger felt did not fit the mood of his film). You’ll possibly recall the ELO album featured a cover photo showing Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, a detail that may explain why the Hollywood-obsessed Anger — who wrote Hollywood Babylon: The Legendary Underground Classic of Hollywood’s Darkest and Best Kept Secrets — was drawn to the album in the first place.

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Anger gave this new version a new title, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: The Sacred Mushroom Edition — it was screened only once, at the 1978 Boston Film Festival. Early prints of the film had sequences that were meant to be projected on three different screens. Anger subsequently re-edited the film to layer the images, and created two other versions for this movie, one in 1966, and this 1978 version, both of which were mostly shown at universities and art galleries and Anger retrospectives.

According to Anger, the film centers around a very deliberate kind of decadent aesthetic, and takes part of its title from “pleasure dome” from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s atmospheric poem Kubla Khan (the 1966 version included a reading of the poem, but it was edited out for the 1978 version).

The film is a rather fanciful depiction of an occult initiation rite as envisioned by Aleister Crowley and his religion/philosophy known as Thelema, which is described as the “male” counterpart to the more “feminine” lunar beliefs like Wicca.

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Cameron was already quite entrenched in this scene, but not as much as her husband, Jack Parsons, whose own interest in the occult had increased to the point that it led to extended investigations by the F.B.I, and the termination of his government defense work. Parsons influenced Cameron’s art with the teachings of occultist Aleister Crowley, mythology and magic rituals, which he had learned through Crowley’s mystical organization, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). Parsons came to believe in magic, a force that he felt could be explained through quantum physics, as espoused by Crowley, and developed an interest in esotericism after attending “The Gnostic Mass at the Church of Thelema.”

Then, Parsons was killed — in 1952 — in a freakish explosion on the porch of their Pasadena home, caused by his dropping a container of fulminate of mercury. This had happened right as she and Parsons had been planning on moving to Mexico — she had lived there a few years earlier, in San Miguel de Allende, where she had met artists Leonora Carrington and David Siquieros and the Los Angeles performers Renate Druks and Paul Mathison.

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Anger has said he was inspired to make the film after attending a Halloween theme party at Samson DeBrier’s Hollywood home, called “Come as your Madness.”

“When I saw how everyone who came to this particular party imagined themselves as some kind of god or goddess,” he once said, in the audio commentary for his collection The Films Of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1, “which maybe shows where peoples’ egos were in the Bohemian world in Hollywood at that time, I decided that it could be wonderful to preserve all the costumes and the interpretation; put all these people in my film.”

DeBrier, who died in 1995, deserves a lengthy mention here: DeBrier — who called himself a “male witch” and a sensualist — lived in a century-old Georgian House on Barton Avenue, which ended up being a mecca for every oddball in L.A. For extra income he rented out the main house, a gabled bungalow, while presiding over his intimate discussion groups in the smaller rear bungalow.

Asked by Time magazine in 1987 what they had discussed while sitting in a living room that was basically a museum of memorabilia — including a provoctive art and book collection, oriental robes, velvet pillows and emerald jewelry — while peering into a kitchen where a Modigliani hung on one wall, DeBrier replied that “the listener expects some remarkable reminiscence, little realizing that noble conversations are rare.”

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Another visitor, quoted anonymously in John Baxter’s Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, described the house as a “gentle junkyard, a repository of rotting portieres, chipped gilt frames, Regency ballgowns on wooden dress dummier, disintergrating first editions stacked on floors, tables and love-seats; of dusty whorehouse mirros, of gold-plated peacocks with zircon wings, of photographs of Gide, who was Samson’s closest companion, of death masks, including one of James Dean.”

If it sounds like DeBrier’s Hollywood home could have been the model for Quilty’s decaying mansion in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, perhaps it was, as Kubrick was among the many guests who came to his parties; so did Jack Nicholson, James Dean, Steve McQueen and Jane Fonda, mingling together with such older luminaries as Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Anaïs Nin and Dorothy Parker.

Anger had attended DeBrier’s salon soirées too, and was living in DeBrier’s front house when he met Cameron and realized that she was the perfect “Scarlet Woman,” an honorific that Aleister Crowley bestowed on certain of his important magical partners in his Thelema religion.

Anger cast her in the leading role, and a smaller role (“Kali”), in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which was going to be lensed right there in DeBrier’s house. The rest of the cast included Anaïs Nin as Astarte, vamping about in in fishnet stockings and birdcage headgear; DeBrier as Shiva, Osiris, Nero, Cagliostro; Aleister Crowley (credited as “The Great Beast 666″); Joan Whitney as Aphrodite; Katy Kadell as Isis; Renate Druks as Lilith; Curtis Harrington as Cesare the sleepwalker; Paul Mathison as Pan; Peter Loome as Ganymede, and Anger himself appeared as Hecate.

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The film is a trip, quite literally, and anticipates the hallucinatory acid experiences that were prevelant in the more psychedelic sixties. Anger’s ideas borrow heavily from those previously presented in films by Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren and others, but he adds his own myriad interests in the occult, merging arcane satanic and iconic religious references with bizarre hallucinogenic Egyptian rituals to create what one writer called an erotic/psychedelic/thaumaturgic Bacchanal.

There’s no dialogue at all, no background or other ambient sound. The various characters, dressed in their costumes and exorting amid DeBrier’s expensive furniture and exotic decorations, can be seen consuming an intoxicating drink, and then the visuals explode into layered scenes of bursting, flaming color and strange superimposed juxtapositions and combinations of repeating images, Hindu-god figures with green skin (a symbol of death), Egyptian gods and maenads (female acolytes of the Greek god Dionysius, lord of ecstasy) tearing apart a young man.

The film uses some scenes from an 1911 Italian silent film called L’ Inferno , and near the end, scenes from Anger’s earlier film Puce Moment are interpolated into the layered images and faces.

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In the early 1950s, Cameron had become friends with fellow L.A. artist and jazz enthusiast Wallace Berman, who was fascinated by her artwork, poetry, and mystical aura and used a photograph he’d taken of her, in 1955, as the cover of his seminal underground literary journal Semina and included in the issue a reproduction of a drawing (“Peyote Vision”) that she had made the previous year during her first experience with peyote, which she had taken after hearing a lecture by Aldous Huxley.

The reproduced drawing became renowned when the Los Angeles Police Department cited it as “lewd” and shut down Berman’s 1957 exhibition of drawings, assemblages, and sculptures at Ferus Gallery. After this experience, Cameron, like Berman, refused to show her art in commercial galleries. Just a handful of years earlier, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had made it illegal to exhibit modern art in the city of L.A. on the grounds that modernism was a front for “communist infiltration.”

After her appearance in Inauguration, Cameron enjoyed a tempestuous relationship with Anger for the rest of her life.

She continued to work in film, appearing in Curtis Harrington’s lyrical short film called The Wormwood Star (1955), which chronicled and captured some of her art and the atmosphere of her candlelit studio. Most of the beautiful paintings and drawings documented in this film were later lost or destroyed.

She also played a key role (as the “Water Witch”) alongside Dennis Hopper in Harrington’s bizarro 1963 feature Night Tide, starring Dennis Hopper and shot mostly on the Santa Monica Pier.

In 1964 she published Black Pilgrimage (Baza Press), a volume of dark mystical poems and ink drawings. Then, in 1969, she did the raggy day-glo costumes for Za, underground filmmaker’s Elias Romero’s experimental short film which was filmed in Big Sur and featured liquid light projections onto Diane Varsi, playing an alchemist cum poet. Romero is considered to be one of the main pioneers of light shows. In San Francisco, in 1956, he began developing it as a performance medium using overhead projectors, mixing oils and inks in dishes placed on the projectors, passing light through the translucent blend which was then projected onto a screen. He performed hundreds of shows throughout California, including shows in L.A. at Ben Shapiro’s Renaissance Club on the Sunset Strip, usually accompanied by musicians and performers. Many of the later psychedelic light show artists were inspired by his work.

Also in 1969, Cameron appeared in Thumbsuck, by artist John Chamberlain. The unreleased film was filmed in Santa Fe, where she’d spent some time before returning to L.A., where she spent her last decades in a small house in West Hollywood, making incredible art.

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In 1989, Cameron’s artworks were surveyed in an exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery curated by Edward Leffingwell. Titled The Pearl of Reprisal, that exhibition included water-color, ink, and casein drawings from the series Anatomy of Madness (1956) and Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House (1978-1986).

Cameron died of cancer in 1995.

A selection of her work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin, the Pasadena Museum of California Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1989, and in the 2005-2007 traveling exhibition Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle.

In October 2014, the largest survey of Cameron’s work since 1989 — including approximately 91 artworks and ephemeral artifacts — was exhibited at MOCA, organized by guest curator Yael Lipschutz.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.