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  • Eve O'Dea

The Woman's Picture: One More Note on Camp

Updated: Apr 28

To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.

Camp, by design, is hard to pin down. The term, which was propelled into modern popular usage thanks to the 2019 Met Gala, has reared it's bejewelled head within the realm of film criticism. This past year, the term was frequently used to describe the idiosyncratic nature of Todd Hayne’s drama May December, with one Letterboxd user writing: “No one is allowed to call any other new release “camp” for an entire year. This girl takes the CAKE” and IndieWire’s very own David Ehrlich deeming the film “A heartbreakingly sincere piece of high camp”. Haynes himself takes issue with this description saying in an interview with Ryan Lattanzio for IndieWire, he says “It was never something that entered my mind as a sort of methodology or a reference or a kind of attitude that I would be bringing to this, the telling of the story and interpretation of this script”. Haynes has engaged with Camp before (i.e. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) but the term is overapplied to his filmography because he A. is gay, and B. tends to make movies about women.

Camp often goes hand-in-hand with the term "cult classic", which is now applied to films before they are even released based solely on trailers and promotional images (see Lisa Frankenstein). Both Camp and cult classic are terms which in their truest sense demand the benefit of distance and revisitation. The greatest, and most long standing pieces of Camp are those which appear deadly serious and respectable in their day, but gain their iconic status through changing sensibilities. I have even, to my horror, seen Camp used to describe the recent disaster that is Sony’s Madame Web, not because of any particular attention it pays to aesthetics and exaggeration, but because it is, in a word, bad. Of course, some things which are artistically bad can happen to be Camp (with Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls being the prime example) but to write off a bad piece of art as "nothing more" than Camp greatly belittles the term and delegitimizes the sorts of aesthetics that it embodies, such as hyper-femininity and queerness. To this, I refer to Susan Sontag:

6. Not only is Camp not necessarily bad art, but some art which can be approached as Camp (example: the major films of Louis Feuillade) merits the most serious admiration and study.

Aside from movies (the culture with which I am primarily concerned and educated) Camp can be applied to the most culturally elite and respectable forms of art. Operas, ballets, and symphonies are all art-forms discussed with a stiff upper lip, yet rely on the aesthetic stylization of the most serious human pursuits. In his novel The World in the Evening, Christopher Isherwood writes: “Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love . . . ” Sontag would be hesitant to assign Campiness to an entire medium, writing:

3. But not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.

Generally speaking, I agree with this statement. Even fashion, which transforms functional, protective textiles into exhibitions of nonsense and flamboyance, loses campiness when it comes to athleticwear (except for figure skating costumes) and workwear (aside from flight attendant uniforms).

Sontag’s 1964 seminal essay Notes on "Camp" contains 58 theses of varying length and subject matter. With absolutely no qualifications or right to do so, I should like to add just one more that opens the floodgates to paradox and self-contradiction:

59. Films, that is movies, picture shows, cinema, are inherently Camp.

Sontag makes it clear throughout her essay that Camp is indebted to the artificial, to performance and stylization. What are movies if not endeavours in artificiality, performance, and the stylization of life? Camp in film is everywhere. It’s in the lighting rigs. If there is no lighting, it’s in the sets. If there are no sets, it’s in the actors. If there are no actors, it is in the apparatus, in the collective agreement by the audience to ignore the seams that hold it together. If we accept all films as being inherently Camp creations, then it stands to reason that the term “Camp film” is redundant. Some filmmakers, like the neorealists of post-war Italy, actively worked against the inherent campiness of cinema to produce something as close to nature as possible (they will never succeed). 

Of course, even absolutes lie on a spectrum. All films are Camp, but some films are campier than others. The most evident Camp exists in that which prioritizes style over substance, that which relishes in the artificial.

7. Nothing in Nature can be Camp.

Early silent cinema works easily make their case as objects of Camp. To continue the metaphor of Isherwood, the films of the Lumière Brothers, Méliès, and Dickson are “camp about science”, utilizing novel technological breakthroughs for the purposes of aesthetic exaggeration and entertainment. This continues into the silent era, be that in the theatrical performances of the actors, intricately designed intertitles, or elaborately artificial sets of German expressionism. Camp oozes in early sound films, as the effort of production is apparent in the awkward dialogue and stilted performances. The Golden Age (c. 1930-1960) is so obvious that it hardly needs explaining, from the stars, to the musical numbers, to the costumes, to the enforcement of the gender binary, the era was steeped in Camp. John Wayne, the supposed pinnacle of American masculinity in the mid-century, is perhaps the campiest figure of them all, giving a performance of hyper-masculinity that rivals a Tom of Finland sketch.

10. Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

Around the time that Sontag wrote her essay, this classical era of Hollywood and American motion pictures was coming to an end, destined to be replaced by the “New Wave” and the spirit of cinema verité. In the mainstream, this meant leaving the studio for the street, method actors, and realism, once again aiming to “de-campify” the cinema. In the underground, something else was happening entirely. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, gay and queer filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, John Waters, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, rejected realism in favour of extravagance, highlighting and celebrating rather than disguising cinema’s artificiality. This would inevitably lead to the New Queer Cinema movement of the late 1980’s -1990’s, which saw an explosion of independent queer film that engaged with non-traditional, and highly personal, portrayals of identity and sexuality.

51. While it’s not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap . . . homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp.

53. Obviously, its metaphor of life as theater is peculiarly suited as a justification and projection of a certain aspect of the situation of homosexuals.

Camp and homosexuality go hand in hand not just because of what queer artists make, but because of what they appreciate. Appreciation, rather than judgment, says Sontag, is integral to Camp. Camp wants to enjoy rather than tear apart. The fantasy of movies, particularly those of the studio system that sought to portray life at its most extravagant, was naturally a source of great escape for those living in a state of constant performance. Those divas of classic cinema, absolutely doused in Camp by way of their high-femme appearance and dramatic behaviour, embody that fantasy as charmingly tragic figures who are irresistibly desired by beautiful men. In the mid-century, when survival for homosexuals meant keeping quiet and unseen, being loud, visible, and unapologetic was the ultimate fantasy, one they could achieve at the movie theatre.

39. Camp and tragedy are antitheses . . . there is never, never tragedy.

The first time I saw May December, I was rather ambivalent. I had been expecting a work of Camp and satire, something in the style of Gus Van Sant's To Die For that simultaneously pokes fun at and relishes in the ostentatious nature of middle-America. Of course, Haynes doesn't poke fun at anything. He is one of the most sincere directors alive. Instead, the story with which the film is concerned is palpably tragic, and eerily amoral. Aside from a few notable frames, the film is generally unconcerned with aesthetics. The whole thing looks uncomfortably normal, even ugly at times, signifying the banality with which the central illicit relationship is treated by those around it. How, you find yourself asking, is everybody okay with this? Yes, Julianne Moore does a funny voice, and Natalie Portman is somewhat sociopathic, but the tragedy of Charles Melton's Joe is undeniably Hayne's primary focus, and the aesthetics are intentionally an afterthought.

Camp is something I care about deeply. Generally, I am disinterested in realism. I love films that have just a hint of fantasy, and value aesthetics rather than dismiss them (think Powell & Pressburger, Demy, Sirk), but even I acknowledge that not all that is colourful is necessarily Camp. I am protective of the term, and hope that it will one day be understood by those who use it in a sentence (or at least, be given greater appreciation). To conclude, Camp does not mean bad, it means love and intention. Camp makes life beautiful, interesting, and memorable. Camp is joy within a world hellbent on realism.

I don’t want realism, I want magic

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