Thursday, June 6, 2013
Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” was written half a century ago. Her ideas were new then, now they’re dated. Or at least the Camp she was describing is dated; I’ll call it Old Camp (OC). There’s a thriving New Camp (NC) that fits her description of what OC is. However, the two are radically different. When Sontag used the word “flamboyance” she had in mind something quite unlike the flamboyance found in today’s NC. Those differences are worth exploring.
Sontag’s Camp manifested itself in literature, clothing, songs, etc., but I’m going to consider only film. Both OC and NC films come in variety of forms — dramas, comedies, sci fi. The most prominent director of the specific type of NC film I’m focusing on is Quentin Tarantino. His success at the box office and the critical acclaim he receives make him a significant figure in modern culture.
In selecting quotes from Sontag’s essay I’ve made an effort to convey her views in a condensed and simplified version. Since she used numbered “jottings,” so have I.
1) “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
2) “Style is everything.” “To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content.”
3) Camp “employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders.” “Behind the ‘straight’ public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.”
4) “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of a million feathers.”
In a scene from “Kill Bill 1” a sword-carrying woman in a yellow jump suit disposes of a host of male attackers and then faces her most formidable opponent: a schoolgirl with a spiked ball and chain. After a long battle this opponent is also vanquished. The carnage that takes place could never, in real life, happen, but that fact is irrelevant. In NC, as in OC, the content doesn’t need to be realistic, or even make sense.
The dress with a million feathers is replaced by a jump suit; a feathered dress is meant for strutting, not fighting to the death. Yet the schoolgirl is identified as such by her outfit. Except for the plaid skirt being way too short, she could have walked straight out of an exclusive girls’ academy.
Tarantino’s fans appreciate his style. But any director worth his salt has a style (the neo-realists, who reject any form of extravagance, are stylistically at the opposite end of the spectrum from Camp). And every director uses artifice, which is a stratagem to create a desired effect. So what particular style and what particular type of artifice does Tarantino employ to attract a wide following?
He’s “new” — he surprises. And part of his newness is that he knows no bounds. The teenager in the schoolgirl outfit, walking self-assuredly down the stairs swinging her spiked ball and chain, is smiling — an evil smile, almost coy in its evilness. She has never been seen before on a movie screen. In an early scene in “Pulp Fiction” two men talk about hamburgers and foot massages as they drive to an apartment, where they’ll slaughter some young drug-dealers; it’s apparent that killing is a casual matter to them. Tarantino creates his own universe with its own standards.
One can say that his popularity violates the exclusivity aspect of the OC that Sontag described. But there are Tarantino lovers and Tarantino haters. His fans respond to those who object to his graphic depiction of brutality and gore by saying, in effect, “You don’t get it.” There are scholarly articles on Tarantino’s work, but the following quote, taken from a blog devoted to the director, expresses an attitude that I think is telling: “did you ever make that zombie movie?? lol ohh and I saw this movie called machine girl and you should check it out . . . its gory and demented . . . it made me think of you . . . haha but yeah it was pretty good.”
This fan is one of the cognoscenti; she’s finding a “private zany experience of the thing” that the serious-minded outsider misses.
5) “Pure camp is always naive.” “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.” But, though seriousness is an essential element, it’s “a seriousness that fails . . . A work can come close to Camp, but not make it, because it succeeds.”
6) “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it’s too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish. (‘It’s too much,’ ‘It’s too fantastic,’ ‘It’s not to be believed,’ are standard phrases of the Camp enthusiasm.)”
7) Camp must be “passionate,” be the result of an “uncontrolled sensibility,” be an attempt to “do something extraordinary.”
8) “What Camp taste responds to is ‘instant character’”; “what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character.”
9) Camp revels in “the sensibility of failed seriousness . . . Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.”
Based on statements he’s made, Tarantino considers himself a serious artist. And he succeeds, at least on the terms he establishes. In that respect, according to Sontag, his work doesn’t qualify as pure Camp. But, regarding this distinction, she was always on shaky ground. In the OC classic, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” nothing is taken seriously; all is outrageous, flamboyant. But it’s not naive; it’s intentional in its campiness and is done with a high degree of skill. It succeeds, yet it is Camp. The same can be said for the films of Tarantino.
In another sense, though, he avoids seriousness. He doesn’t attempt to develop character in any depth; instant character is his thing. Since the viewer cannot identify with bizarre people in freakish situations, the extreme states of feeling depicted on the screen don’t elicit empathy. Both OC and Tarantino’s NC are marked by superficiality.
He definitely meets Sontag’s requirement for outlandishness; those phrases — “It’s too much,” “It’s too fantastic,” “It’s not to be believed” — could constitute a chorus of audience responses to scenes in his films. To go over-the-top is his trademark. Even the boring stretches in his movies serve as a buildup to an outburst of uncontrolled mayhem.
10) Camp “incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” “Camp and tragedy are antitheses.”
11) “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” “Camp proposes a comic vision of the world,” but it’s an “experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.”
12) “Camp is the modern dandyism.” Unlike the dandy of the 19th century, “the connoisseur of Camp finds pleasure in more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses.”
13) “The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity . . . the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.” This feat is “goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated.”
14) “The history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste.” And who, in our modern world “is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-elected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves the aristocrats of taste.” “Homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp.” For homosexuals “Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”
15) “Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.”
Tarantino can generate reactions (dismay, dread, shock, amusement). But a tragedy moves one emotionally, and this he doesn’t do. There’s also no moral dimension to his films. In “Kill Bill” the heroine’s quest for revenge is merely a motivation for her killing spree. The murderers in “Pulp Fiction” toy with their victims before shooting them, but the cruelty in that scene is not meant to stir pity or outrage. Brutality in Tarantino’s universe is a frivolous matter, sadism is a playful pleasure. Those who abhor those aspects — whose reaction is repugnance — aren’t getting it precisely because they take it seriously. Tarantino fans laugh (“lol”) at his films at their most gruesome moments; they’re detached from the reality of the acts taking place. They’ve discovered an ingenious pleasure. They’re connoisseurs who sniff the stink and pride themselves on their strong nerves. They’re roused from their everyday boredom. Tarantino can flourish in an affluent society because affluence makes life easy; people struggling to survive would not find his films amusing; to them suffering is a serious matter.
Fifty years ago, when Sontag wrote “Notes on Camp,” homosexuals were outsiders in a straight society. They created an insider sensibility that shunned reality, seriousness. Sontag’s ideas were groundbreaking primarily because she delved into a facet of a subculture that was ignored or rejected, and she treated their tastes with respect. But that subculture is no longer in the closet. This fact, along with changes in mores, accounts for the dated quality of her essay.
What the homosexuals Sontag was writing about turned to for enjoyment was quite different from what’s found in a Tarantino film. Graphic depictions of carnage would be rejected by an OC audience. If violence appears at all, it’s cartoonish (as in “The Revenge of the Fifty-Foot Woman”). Tarantino offers people a non-realistic, non-serious enjoyment based on a wholly new set of values.
Who make up the cognoscenti that appreciate the coarse pleasures of a Tarantino film? His fans are legion, so it’s hard to categorize them. The core audience, I believe, is composed of people in their teens to early thirties who were brought up watching video games in which the savagery on the screen has no relation to real life. Some film afficionados admire his style, some people who have become jaded like his fresh approach. Add in the mix sadists — wouldn’t they get a thrill out of watching a man’s scalp being ripped off his head?
Next Sontag embarks on a summing up.
16) “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste . . . The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating . The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure . . . Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”
17) “Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.”
18) “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature.” “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.”
19) “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”
There’s a huge gap between having a “tender feeling” and enjoying something “gory and demented.” Though this constitutes the major difference between OC and Tarantino’s NC, I doubt whether Sontag is being honest in her closing celebration of OC. Not only is it a pleasure we must not deny ourselves, but it’s a form of love and an aid to digestion. Really?
When “Notes On Camp” appeared in the Partisan Review in 1964, it created a stir that put Sontag in the limelight, but that essay doesn’t define her. I read it in a collection called Against Interpretation. What struck me was the scholarly nature of the other pieces (even “Notes” is heavy going). Are we to believe that this hard-core intellectual found innocent pleasure in La Lupe records, Flash Gordon comics, feather boas, Godzilla movies?
Early in the essay Sontag wrote that she was “strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it,” and that she has a “deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” This duality, she claimed, made her qualified to analyze Camp. Why, then, does she only present the favorable side? At no point does she criticize any aspect of OC.
Sontag states that Camp enthusiasts don’t sneer at the seriously dramatic. Yet, she proposes, if we want to loosen up occasionally, we should turn to Camp. But why is heavy seriousness held up as the option to the zany fun OC offers? Is that our only choice? Comedies can be fun and funny and yet have depth (a prime example is “Groundhog Day”). And are OC films fun? Before I read Sontag’s essay I watched “The Devil Is a Woman,” a movie that she cites as a Camp classic. My friend laughed throughout; in retrospect, I can see that she appreciated how outrageously awful it was. My feelings of boredom and restlessness became excruciating; only social considerations kept me trapped in the room. Laughing at something because it’s bad just doesn’t do it for me.
OC doesn’t offend or revolt me; it’s too harmless. It’s also out of fashion. Still, I want to offer a set of values in opposition to the OC credo as summarized by Sontag: “It’s good because it’s awful.” We have an overabundance of awfulness, in its many forms, all around us. What we don’t have enough of are excellence and beauty. And truth about the human condition. Where are we to find the depiction of real people caught up in situations we can relate to? This is the great — and greatly neglected — subject of art.
Sontag had fifty-eight Notes on Camp; I have only one:
1) Camp doesn’t matter.
Because he has no concern for what I value, I could say that Quentin Tarantino’s brand of New Camp also doesn’t matter. But it does, simply because of his popularity. Many millions, worldwide, wait avidly for his next film. So I’ll do what Sontag never did in her study of OC: express what strongly offends me about his work.
Entertainment-wise, we’re a society soaked in blood. It’s an appalling shift, but I find the campiness of Tarantino’s approach particularly disturbing. He treats human suffering superficially, as something enjoyable, frivolous, amusing. Even though he doesn’t take a moral stance, he’s not immune to moral considerations. I’m one of those who believe that indulging in — finding pleasure in — brutality is harmful, even if you only watch it on a screen. There has to be a line one refuses to cross. Where is that line for you?
I’ll close with a summary of my exposure — and reactions — to Quentin Tarantino’s work.
A few decades ago a friend lent me a VHS of “Reservoir Dogs.” I turned it off when there was an impending torture scene.
Years later another friend told me that I must see “Pulp Fiction”; she emphasized the not-to-be-missed ending. So, for the first and only time, I paid money to see a Tarantino film (at this point I was familiar with his name). Early on, with the murders of the terrified young drug dealers, I was alienated. This scene was effective, but I find psychological torture as repugnant as physical torture. Also, I wondered why, with all the shooting going on, somebody in the apartment building didn’t call the police. Clearly, by taking cruelty seriously and demanding logic, I was in the wrong movie theater. As I sat through one bizarre, grimy episode after another, I felt the same excruciating boredom I experienced when watching “The Devil Is a Woman” (this constitutes the final similarity between OC and NC). Still, I stuck around so that I could see that terrific ending. It turned out to involve a very, very long speech by the killer/philosopher. When, I wondered, when would he please stop talking, when would the contents of the mysteriously glowing briefcase finally be revealed? Of course, the answer to the latter question is Never. I called my friend and told her that the briefcase wasn’t opened because it was as empty as Tarantino’s head. She said that I “didn’t get it.”
I saw “Jackie Brown” on TV, in an edited version (which was fine with me). I liked it, mostly because of the performance by Pam Grier (who doesn’t beat up or shoot anybody). Tarantino did a competent job of telling a story.
I checked “Inglourious Basterds” out at the library. I knew what to expect, but I wanted to keep up with the current cultural life of our country. I turned it off after the bashing in of a man’s head with a baseball bat. This time I felt depressed — is this what we’ve come to?
Recently I took a college class on changing gender roles as depicted in films (that’s where I was introduced to Sontag’s essay). I didn’t attend the screening of “Kill Bill,” but on the following day the professor showed the spiked ball and chain scene that I described; a scene where our heroine goes to a cackling, white-bearded Japanese martial arts expert to learn to be a killing machine; and the scene where she disposes of Bill with her “five-point-palm-exploding-heart” technique.
As I sat in that classroom filled with young people it occurred to me that this was Camp, as defined by Sontag. But a new Camp, one for our sorry times.