“It was obvious that he was a man who marched through life to the rhythms of some drum I would never hear.” best summarises both Scorpio Rising and the Hells Angels movement. Hunter S. Thompson, who that quote is faithfully and brutally stolen from, spent quite some time with the post-war biker gang that terrorised a generation of well-to-do Americans. Rightly so, to some extent. A rallying cry against the system, and the ‘68 book Hell’s Angels is perhaps the best entry into discovering this oddity of culture. Scorpio Rising does a great job too, its short nature makes it an immediate candidate for those looking for a quick snapshot in the life of a brutal biker.
Director Kenneth Anger pieces a superb, iconography-grabbing soundtrack with some slow pacing. A presumed member of the Hell’s Angels gang fixes up his bike, intercut with shots of what we can only assume is the Grim Reaper. Death, skulls and all the vicious behaviour associated with those moods are found not just within the film, but within the gang itself. Synonymous imagery is fast and cut well. By far the greatest draw Anger can offer is that of a faithful, chilling adaptation of the degeneracy and destruction this gang left in their wake. A total breakdown of order, and the ever-growing fear felt in towns and cities that they would be the next target of a raid is not quite captured here, but it is implied through the tough men that dominate the screen, all set to the crooning beauty of Blue Velvet.
Is the contrast obvious? Hopefully. Anger presents the influences of Marlon Brando and James Dean on the image of a typical Hells Angel, paired nicely with a cavalcade of early 60s hit songs. It is roughly the representation expected of a short film, grappling with so many notions of degeneracy the group was known for, there is no way whatsoever that Anger or his ensemble will have any time at all to discuss the darker horrors or even slight, interesting merits of the group. Still, telling a story through static shots and extreme close-ups of bicycles and using a strong soundtrack and archive footage to contrast the events of these bikers will only take a narrative so far. Scorpio Rising is at least compelling and odd enough to keep itself engaging.
Inevitable omissions are sad, but do not detract from the art-oriented narrative all that much. Brief clarity is the best tool for Anger to employ, and with Scorpio Rising the well of ideas begins to run a tad dry once those final red beams light up the screen. Showing the Hells Angels as degenerates beyond compare, this experimental piece grapples well with the concept of biker gangs, but its representation is slightly incorrect. This biker gang was a collection of horrid losers shunned by society, and it would have served Anger well had he engaged with this more than a handful of times. Instead, he hones in on the premise that they are more sexual deviants than they are aimless fascists whipping and raiding bars and boutiques alike. They were both, but the violence consumed the aberrant sex, eroded by drugs and a dependency on hitting what was known as “The Edge”.