The Wormwood Star: Extraordinarily freaky cinematic portrait of occult artist Marjorie Cameron


 
It’s certainly no slight to the late director Curtis Harrington to describe The Wormwood Star, his visually arresting 1955 portrait of occult artist/beatnik weirdo Marjorie Cameron as being “Anger-esque” considering that he’d served as the cinematographer for Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment and that it stars Cameron, one of Anger’s most well-known cinematic avatars (Cameron famously played “The Scarlet Woman” in Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome and Harrington himself portrayed “Cesare the Somnambulist” in that film. Additionally, Paul Mathison, who played “Pan” in Anger’s druggy occult vision was the art director of The Wormwood Star).

Until The Wormwood Star came out on DVD and Blu-ray recently via Drag City/Flicker Alley as part of The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection, it was very, very scarce and very difficult to see. You either had to be a friend of Curtis Harrington, probably, or have had a mutual friend with the late director (that’s how I saw it) or maybe see it in a museum. Now it’s on YouTube, of course.

So we’ve established that’s it’s, er, Angery, meaning that there’s more than a fair share of visual flair, drama and a hefty dollop of authentic occult creepiness. Cameron, for those who don’t know, was the wife of rocket scientist/wannabe Antichrist Jack Parsons and a participant in the infamous “Babalon Working” magical rite that also involved future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. She was a dedicated follower of Aleister Crowley and his occult philosophy of Thelema (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”).

Curtis Harrington told Cameron biographer Spencer Kansa in his book, Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron:

Before I made the film I’d heard from Renate [referring here to painter Renate Druks] that Cameron had spent some time in the desert trying, through magical means, to conceive a child by the spirit of Jack Parsons without success.  Cameron never spoke of Jack directly, but I do remember feeling sometimes when I talked to her, of her going off into a realm that I didn’t understand at all. It was sort of an apocalyptic thing and it’s there in her poetry.

What you should know as you watch this is that the vast majority of Marjorie Cameron’s paintings were destroyed by her—burned—in an act of ritualized suicide. There are very few pieces by Cameron that have survived—a few paintings and some sketches—and The Wormwood Star is the only record of most of them (outside of the astral plane, natch. What does survive of her estate is represented by longtime New York gallerist Nicole Klagsbrun). Cameron has long been a figure of fascination for many people and I think I can say with confidence that this film meets or even far exceeds any expectations you might have for it.

As with Anger’s films, I deeply appreciate the careful aesthetic balance between beauty and evil and, as such, it’s an extraordinary document of both Marjorie Cameron Parsons’ very essence as a human being and of her creative output. As cinema, it’s a mini-masterpiece that can stand alongside any of Anger’s films, Ira Cohen’s magnificently freaky Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda, Jack Smith’s Normal Love or Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Obliteration.

Below, the seldom-seen short film, The Wormwood Star. If it looks this good on YouTube, it must look really amazing on Blu-ray. Order The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection on Amazon (I just did).
 

 
Curtis Harrington and Cameron would work together again on 1961’s Night Tide, one of Dennis Hopper’s first starring roles. Her role as the “Water Witch” was brief, but oh so memorable…
 

 
Thank you Spencer Kansa, author of Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

Written by Richard Metzger | Discussion
James Franco and Brian Butler to perform Aleister Crowley ritual in Los Angeles art gallery


Three magi: Kenneth Anger, James Franco and Brian Butler

Occult artist / musician / filmmaker Brian Butler will be performing Aleister Crowley’s “Bartzabel Working” tomorrow night, Tuesday, December 4, at the L&M Arts gallery space in Venice Beach, CA. This occult ceremony is part of the gallery’s current “Martian Chronicles” theme exhibit and will employ custom robes made in the original A∴A∴ (Crowley’s magical order) designs and a circle, altar and triangle fabricated in vivid colors. Actor James Franco and Noot Seear from Twilight: New Moon will also participate in the ritual.

In conjunction with the current exhibition For the Martian Chronicles, L&M Arts is pleased to present The Bartzabel Working, a performance by filmmaker and artist Brian Butler. Based on a ceremonial evocation of the spirit of Mars, first written and performed in London in 1910 by the famed British occultist Aleister Crowley, the ritual later became part of Los Angeles history in 1946 when Jet Propulsion Laboratory rocket scientist and Crowley protégé Jack Parsons conducted his own version of this rite, with the intention of placing a martial curse on a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard.

For his reinterpretation of this historical performance, Butler will conjure Bartzabel, the spirit of Mars, evoking the site that was once home to the late sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and currently comprises L&M Arts. The ritual will have Butler as Chief Magus, leading a cast drawn from his upcoming feature film King Death and featuring Henry Hopper as Assistant Magus, Noot Seear as Magus Adjuvant, and James Franco as Material Basis, the vessel though which the spirit of Mars manifests.

The performance will take place on Tuesday, December 4th at 8:30pm, followed by a reception with tunes courtesy of DJ & artist Eddie Ruscha.

Butler’s work has been shown at LAXART, in Portugal, Greece and in China. He recently performed with Kenneth Anger at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles as Technicolor Skull. www.brianbutler.com

“The Martian Chronicles” exhibit, honoring the work of sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, runs through January 5, 2013

L&M Arts, Los Angeles, 660 South Venice Boulevard, Venice, CA, 90291, 8:30 - 11:30 PM

Written by Richard Metzger | Discussion
Antichrist Superstar: Jack Parsons on film


 
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the death of rocket scientist and occultist John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons. In addition to being a pioneer in the filed of rocketry—at the age of 25, Parson was part of the first US Government’s first official rocket group. He later invented the formulation of the solid rocket fuel that eventually put man on the moon—Parsons was a follower of Aleister Crowley, a one-time associate of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and a self-proclaimed Antichrist.

From the bio on the Cameron-Parsons Foundation’s website:

MARVEL WHITESIDE PARSONS, always know as Jack, was born October 2, 1914 in Los Angeles, California. A chemical engineer and explosives expert, he was a principal scientist in the experimental rocket research group attached to the California Institute of Technology during the 1930’s. Their testing range in the area of Devil’s Gate Dam above Pasadena has since grown to become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Parsons was also a co-founder of the Aerojet General Corporation.

Together with his first wife, Helen Parsons Smith, Parsons joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) in 1941, the same year as his most successful scientific achievement, Jet Assisted Take-Off (JATO). He was very much the young lion of the occult Order and, under the tutelage of Aleister Crowley, briefly served as the acting master of Agape Lodge. His now famous invocation, “The Babalon Working,” was first performed in 1946, with former WAVE Marjorie Cameron serving as Scarlett Woman and L. Ron Hubbard, future founder of the Church of Scientology, channeling words from the ether as Scribe while Jack performed as Priest.

The “Working” reset the course of Parsons’ life, ending his relationship with Aleister Crowley and the O.T.O. In his surviving essays and polemical writings, Parsons anticipated by many years the ethical, moral, religious and social dilemmas of the future.

Parsons died in an explosion of mysterious origin at his chemical laboratory at home in Pasadena on June 17, 1952. His second wife and collaborator, the artist Cameron, preserved and carried on his work until her death in 1995. In 1972 the International Astronomical Union named a crater on the moon (37°N 171°W) after Parsons in recognition of his pivotal role in developing the solid fuel rocket.

 

Painting of Jack Parsons by his widow, Marjorie Cameron

Additional reading:
Rocket Man by Scott Hobbes

The Crying of Liber 49: Jack Parsons, Antichrist Superstar (From my Book of Lies anthology)

Short film of Jack Parsons and others at March Field in Southern California, August, 1941, for the first successful test of jet-assisted takeoff (JATO). (YouTube)
 

More film footage of Jack Parsons after the jump

Written by Richard Metzger | Discussion
The Master: New look at PT Anderson’s upcoming L. Ron Hubbard film


 
The marketing campaign for director Paul Thomas Anderson’s fictionalized L.Ron Hubbard flick, The Master, is starting to heat up. Yesterday a mysterious trailer with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix was released and it looks like this is going to be a fascinating film.

Here’s all it says on IMDB at present:

“A 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between a charismatic intellectual known as “the Master” whose faith-based organization begins to catch on in America, and a young drifter who becomes his right-hand man.”

Hoffman as Hubbard is an inspired bit of casting (although I think the ultimate portrayal of Hubbard will come one day from The Mighty Boosh‘s Rich Fulcher) but are Adams and Phoenix supposed to be based on Marjorie Cameron and Jack Parsons? It kinda looks that way.

One of the film’s producer, JoAnne Sellar, denied any connection to Hubbard or Scientology: “It’s a World War II drama. It’s about a drifter after World War II.”

Yeah, right…

With a tense soundtrack from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The Master is scheduled for release on “Crowleymass,” October 12th. I wonder if that is a co-incidence or deliberate?
 

Written by Richard Metzger | Discussion
Marjorie Cameron: The Wormwood Star

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Writing a book is an heroic process, it really is, but even more so when it comes to biographies. Especially these days when so few people bother to read books anymore and the rewards are seldom very remunerative for most authors. In the case of biographers, it’s a different kind of satisfaction. It takes a real sense of purpose and desire to see someone’s story told properly; to get things down as accurately as possible for history’s sake before the participants are picked off by time. In this sense, there is often a very real race against the clock. 

I’m quite partial to biographies. I have a pretty sizable personal library, and by far the largest part of the books I own are life histories, especially the tales of cult figures or rebellious type people (Beats, Lenny Bruce, Leary, Crowley, Dali, Warhol, etc). There is a special fondness I have for books about extremely marginal personalities (Andy Milligan, Charles Hawtrey, Charles Ludlam) and I appreciate the effort, the true labor of love, that goes into such obscure endeavors. The more obsessive, the better.

Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995) was a “witchy woman” and Beatnik artist known widely in several overlapping Los Angeles bohemian circles, but she was hardly famous. Since her death, there has been a gradually growing public awareness of Cameron’s art, or at least what’s left of her work, that the artist herself did not destroy in a moment of mental instability. Her paintings, now highly sought after by collectors, can sell for in the tens of thousands of dollars. In recent memory, her work has been exhibited in major museums (The Whitney’s “Beat Culture” show and the the excellent “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle” exhibit) and the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in NYC published a gorgeous monograph of her work in 2007.

Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron by Spencer Kansa is a fascinating and very, very well-researched look into Cameron’s perplexingly strange life. The title refers to Cameron’s belief that she was the end-times “Whore of Babalon” prophesied in the Book of Revelations, in the flesh, This was a result, she thought, of a black magic ritual performed to summon or “conjure” her by her future husband, rocket scientist Jack Parsons, and L. Ron Hubbard, in his pre-Scientology days.

Cameron’s often wobbly orbit in life saw her cross paths with significant cultural players like underground filmmaker Kennth Anger, who cast her as “The Scarlet Woman” (typecasting!) in his 1956 film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which also featured author Anais Nin. (Anger was Cameron’s roommate at several points over the decades they knew one another). She was certainly a part of Wallace Berman’s intimates and co-starred in. Night Tide a low-budget horror film with Dennis Hopper (who recounts a brief period of sexual intimacy with the older woman). Crisscrossing the country and tracking down all of the various characters the author spoke to must have been quite a chore, and as a reader and longtime admirer of Cameron’s work, I’m grateful for the attention Kansa paid to detail.

Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron is one of those books that’s obviously not for everyone, but me, I’ve probably read Wormwood Star three times in the past month. If it sounds like something that might interest you, well, it probably is.

Below, one of Cameron’s brief, but memorable, scenes in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Dennis Hopper stars in creepy 60s Beatnik cult film, ‘Night Tide’

Written by Richard Metzger | Discussion
The Unknown God: Wilfred T. Smith and the Thelemites

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Recently finished Martin Starr’s epic “The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites,” published by Teitan Press, an immaculately researched history of Aleister Crowley’s neo-religion Thelema after Crowley’s personal story trails off. Crowley’s life has been documented ad nauseum, what hasn’t been is the history of his ideas after his death and what happened to the people who took them seriously (“By their works shall ye know them”). Martin Starr fixes that historical oversight here, providing fascinating insights not only into occultism during the two World Wars (including all the bickering infighting between the various occult orders?

Written by Jason Louv | Discussion