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"Camp": Notes on Modernity and Self-Consciousness

What do UFOs, Zack Snyder's Batman, and "Mooo!" by Doja Cat all have in common? Nothing, really: except that they're all perfect examples of "Camp".

Susan Sontag in a Bear Suit by Annie Leibovitz

Susan Sontag’s seminal essay Notes on “Camp” was published in 1964, a time when her own coming of age as a queer woman shaped her pleasure of abstraction and the way her own opinions penetrated the culture of the time. The article weeps with an exciting youthfulness and an indescribable sense of ‘being there,’ that type of writing where finally someone has put into words the thing that was clinging desperately onto the tip of culture’s tongue.

But, nearly sixty years later, the role of art and artists are no longer dictated by the shallow kind of posturing of the old-guard literary world that Sontag – at her worst – would stampede through her otherwise culture-shifting criticisms (as she herself even admits in her essay that “of course, the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it”). Her elastic “jottings” on “camp”, however, scribble all this out in a beautifully contradictory dismantlement of snobbery, artificiality, and empty theatrics:

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. 56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of "character." . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as "a camp," they're enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling. 57. Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.

To say “film X is camp, but film Y is not” does nothing if you’re talking about “camp” as a term of categorisation like a genre but can help to uncover why film X works, and film Y doesn’t; because I love “camp” things, enveloped in perfection beyond believability, a love for the unnatural, “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”

These are my notes for a new “Camp”:

1. In a modern sense, to talk about a ‘guilty pleasure’ is really just to talk about your own “camp” taste. For example, I listen to Doja Cat more regularly than I’d like to admit. But why shouldn’t I? Her music is unpretentious and fantastical. Irony often feels lonely, and satire often ends up sounding self-righteous. I’m not dancing to Doja ironically just as she doesn't sing this satirically, but purely because there’s a real sense of joy there:

2. Bitch, I'm a cow, bitch, I'm a cow

3. I'm not a cat, I don't say meow

4. Bitch, I'm a cow, bitch, I'm a cow

5. Bitch, I'm a cow, bitch, I'm a cow

6. Doja herself is “camp” – as seen in her red carpet costumes, a linear progression from Lady Gaga’s meat dress, or Björk’s swan gown – but so is her music (power-pop-paeans iced with an atomic sci-fi aesthetic). Having said that, the artist and their art aren’t necessarily both “camp”: Doja Cat’s new song, “Vegas” for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis soundtrack is the exception that proves the rule. Luhrmann’s films are “camp”, and so is Elvis Presley himself, however, Elvis’ music and films aren’t. Doja’s reclaiming of Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog” highlights this distinction.

7. Likewise, Harry Styles isn’t “camp”. Yes, his androgynous style seems like it should lay quietly in the background of the “camp” paradigm, but it doesn’t. The problem isn’t that Harry wears dresses on magazine covers and at events, but that the dresses he wears are the most awful dresses ever worn in the history of fashion. Brad Pitt wearing skirts and a tight-fitting cocktail dress is, however, the height of “camp”.

8. Saying that, it is rare to find much great “camp” pop music reaching the charts in the last decade or so, the true modern soundtrack to “camp” lying in the experi-metal-jazz-funk-fusion of post-punk, where emblematic of the genre Black Country, New Road opens their debut single with the lyric “mother is juicing watermelons on the breakfast island” in a voice that sounds like if Frank Zappa was a Bond villain.

9. Art for art’s sake and romanticism over realism are not mutually exclusive. Untrue things can be beautiful, just as art can be an expression of itself – and the reverse can be equally true, though of course often revealing something deeper about the façade of life; the stories we tell, the narratives we create, the personas we portray. “Camp” is just not afraid to say ‘sometimes the façade is all there is,’ what “camp”-queen RuPaul defined as “seeing the absurdity of life from outside yourself” (don’t dismiss RuPaul as just the Drag Race host either, that man was there at the birth of pop art, partying and performing in underground New York City clubs like Club 57 and Mudd Club with Keith Haring, Klaus Nomi, Madonna, and The Fall).

RuPaul goes on to dub drag as saying “I'm not this body, I'm actually God in drag playing humanity.” When you’re in that place, you can then laugh at the absurdity. It’s here that “camp’s” confusing contradiction emerges because “camp” is also a disapproval of cheap, facile feelings. Artifice is not surface. Style is not a substitute for substance, but a form of it: the sizzle without the steak.

10. In terms of modern cinema then, you might think of Marvel as being “camp”, right? Wrong. Look at Thor: Love and Thunder (which I’ve not seen, but I’m sure whatever criticism I can level at the last one, or any recent Marvel movie, applies here), there is something self-conscious about the films, undercutting themselves before the audience can claim they are naïve, so there is never a risk of them ever being perceived as “camp”.

11. Even Sam Raimi, a king of “camp” who created inarguably the best (and campest) comic book movie to date in Spider-Man 2, couldn’t manage to get over Disney’s preciosity. A protagonist called Doctor Strange whose crime-fighting partner is a red sentient cape is about as “camp” of an idea for a film as it gets, while the film spends its egregious runtime too self-aware to ever have fun.

12. This self-awareness, the idea of ‘make fun of yourself before someone can else can make fun of you’ only serves as a way of predicting audience response before the audience themselves have a chance to react and form their own opinion. Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Thor are all silly characters, in a silly world with silly problems (aliens, superpowers, love and responsibility) yet it trembles under their own insecurities, too mediocre in their ambition to ever feel fully formed.

13. On the other end of the spectrum – Matt Reeves’ The Batman – there is a seriousness filled with anguish, derangement, cruelty, and a sense of self-importance that strikes me as a little pretentious. Where Marvel tries to undercut the “camp”, Reeves tries so hard to pretend like it isn’t even there. It’s shlock masquerading as high art.

14. Sitting in the middle of these two poles, the Goldilocks of superhero films, is Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, an appealing experience where style and aesthetics are placed over content or morality, doing so without cynicism and without sneering at everything else. This is why I truly believe every die-hard Marvel fan must constantly have high blood pressure (and I sincerely apologise if any of them pop a vein in their temple while reading this).

15. BvS is “camp” because it both succeeds and fails so spectacularly. It’s the over-the-top, the going too far in ambition, the looking back at a careful balance and the sweet spot in the rear-view mirror.

16. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor alone puts this film in the “camp” hall of fame. Luthor is a character driven by obsession, played by an actor as eccentric, as bizarre, as confident, and as blinded by the character’s saviour complex as Luthor is himself; a performance pitched to the same frequency as an SNL sketch, generating something beyond parody.

17. Because BvS is self-serious about its silliness, in a way that is closest to Batman ’66. Its silly problems (aliens, superpowers, love and responsibility) are treated with a sincerity that, in one of the most joyously OTT scenes in blockbuster cinema, detonates into joy when “Is She With You?” explodes out of the CGI Armageddon, its virile machismo going so far that it swings back into “camp”.

18. Precisely why it is so “camp” is also the accidental transformation of the source material into something silly: the four-issue comic book run that the film is inspired by, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, is noted for introducing a darker and more ‘mature’ (if a man in spandex can ever be) version of the character, and superheroes in general.

19. Similarly, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is “camp” but the J.J. Abrams’ films are not. Tenderness of intention distinguishes the camp from the merely kitsch or ‘chic’: as Sontag prescribed, “camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy.” There needs to be a sense of immaturity to be truly “camp”, the iconoclasm of a deranged child playing with a Luke Skywalker action figure, pockets filled with $300 million worth of loose change.

20. The perfect example of “camp” being placed into a new and interesting context in modern cinema are the epicene films of “queercore” filmmaker Gregg Araki (the Godard of the MTV generation), whose Mysterious Skin I haven’t been able to pry from my mind since watching it recently. Child molestation? Queer lives? The end of the world? These are serious topics streaked in b-movie glitter, grave issues tackled by a man who knows that having merely good taste will derive you of pleasure, but having good taste in bad taste unlocks whole new realms of it.

21. Mysterious Skin is a heavy, heavy film about two teenage boys whose divergent lives intertwine through their shared trauma of the sexual abuse they experienced as children. Within this world of pain, there is built in another ‘other’ world, one of UFOs, alien abductions, and doomsday visions paired with candy-coloured dreams and sugar-coated memories. It’s “camp” in service of something deeper, but unafraid of its own and honest self.

22. Behind the white picket fence lies the true meaning of “camp” (see also the elements of melodrama, such as those found in David Lynch or Pedro Almodóvar’s films, that are ripped straight from soap operas and evolve into the apotheosis of terror and beauty, where the magic of cinema is stripped back to raw artifice). Araki does this best, anything denoting ‘straight time’ (marriage, procreation, inheritance, any sense of the nuclear family) is erased and replaced with desperate housewives on the verge of insanity, flirting with elements of sci-fi and horror nonchalantly (where aliens become alienation, where body horror becomes adolescent transformations), and a cast of fish-out-of-water characters constantly gasping for air; in that sense, also, the Gothic is extremely “camp”.

23. Araki’s other works follow suit, although without the inherent weight of paedophilia-induced-PTSD, such as the purposefully provocative Kaboom! and the refreshingly tasteless Now Apocalypse fusing the poly- or post-sexuality of the so-called strawberry generation as they treat their hook-ups and relationships with the same sobriety as impending global annihilation. His 1997 no-budget masterpiece Nowhere is a frenetic, sexy, funny, blip of a movie that is like channel-surfing through the aches of coming of age in a modern world, brimming with the same pageantry that coloured Luhrmann’s own Romeo + Juliet the year before (and features, funnily enough, a character called Elvis, who – while licking his girlfriend's armpits – is asked, “do you believe in God?”, replying, “I don't believe in anything”).

24. Yet, as is always the case with “camp”, the budget doesn't matter, and neither does your education. If this was someone’s first introduction to the complicated world of bisexuality or queerness, then they’d be all the luckier for it; as Caleb pointed out, Nowhere is “what you wish Euphoria was, probably what it wishes it could be”.

25. Because, ultimately, silliness should be fun. “Camp” thrives on the nonsensical, and the line “Old McDonald had a farm, I give him a titty tryna keep him calm” is the radiant mercury-vapour signposting of a new anthem of a pop culture utopia in the 21st century. Amen.


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