An exposition of some basic literature on camp to think through some of the areas of discourse on the topic.
In La Violetera (Luis Cesar Amadori, 1958) Sara Montiel’s rich aristocratic lover (Ralf Vallone) leaves her when after the death of his brother he inherits lands and title, must protect the family name, and can no longer afford to be seen with a lowly seller of violets/ music hall singer. She runs off and of course ends up triumphing in all the great capitals of Europe. The film offers a montage of her singing different songs across different capitals and in Paris the song she offers is ‘Mon homme’, which she begins singing in Spanish and then switches to French to flatter her audience.
Watching her sing the song made me wonder if there is an international repertoire that gay divas have in common. The song was introduced by Mistinguette in 1920. Arletty, the glorious gay diva who, after being tried as a collaborator for having a Nazi lover during the occupation famously retorted, ‘My heart is French but my ass is international,’ also covered it. The song is basically sets to music the indelible character in Marcel Carné’s Hôtél du Nord minus the ‘atmosphere, atmosphere!’: ‘on the ground we argue, she says in the film, but in bed we communicate, and on the pillow we understand each other’ (see excerpt below):
If you understand French, it’s worth listening to the two French versions side by side.
The song was made famous in America by Fanny Brice in 1921 and was such a hit she even starred in a film by that name in 1928. It was famously revived for Funny Girl by Gay Diva extraordinaire Barbra Streisand below. Again it’s worth comparing Brice’s version to Streisand’s (below):
Another such comparison is that of the Billie Holiday and Diana Ross versions. Diana, or Miss Ross to you, had famously played Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. And Holiday’s great version of the song, had been a big hit in the thirties without quite eclipsing Brice’s version in the culture at large. It’s again instructive to look at these two versions together. Ross looks completely glam, interacts with the audience, says how hard the song is for her to sing. She takes the audience through the mechanics of the song. Her voice is unique, instantly recognisable, one of the great glories of American pop. But I don’t believe a word she says; and neither does she. ‘I hate that line’ she says after singing ‘He Beats Me too’. Compare it to Holiday’s version below. It brings up all kinds of feelings, confused and contradictory ones, about a person and a way of life that can’t be contained by camp. The hurt bursts through.
Now let me take you to what started this off in the first place, Sara Montiel’s version. As you can see below, if it was difficult to believe what Ross was singing in the clip from Vegas above. Montiel doesn’t even try to communicate what the song is saying. Her number is so far removed from what Billie Holiday is conveying that it’s as if from a parallel universe. With Montiel, it’s all about the dress, the hairstyle, the gestures; it’s all about her; and about inciting audience adoration. It’s all artifice, exaggeration, style, decorative beauty. Camp. ‘My job is not to be a good singer or a good dancer or a good actress. My job is to be a star’. And as you can see, the clip below puts you in no doubt of that fact. There’s nothing there about a woman who loves a man so she’s willing to share him, or get beaten up by him. He wouldn’t dare. That downtrodden woman in the song is transformed into an object of admiration and worship. She glistens, she beckons, she offers looks. It has nothing to do with the truth of the song. Montiel transcends hurt and oppression with gorgeous gowns and glamour. Glitter eclipses hurt.
Saw Mommie Dearest last night for the first time since it came out. It was at the ‘Shock and Gore’ festival, and great programming on their part. I think Dunaway’s great, though her career never recovered, even though the film was a hit. Everyone, including myself, laughed pretty much throughout, but not without discomfort. Was she stitched up by the director? His incompetence is extraordinary in a studio film. A lot of the laughs happen because the shots are held too long, and the editing is terrible and clichéd throughout. Even the make-up, ostensibly designed to make her like an older Joan Crawford, seems on a big screen like quickly applied Kabuki, or a a clown who ran out of time. The way Steve Forrest says his goodbye to Dunaway has to have been directed; and the line reading are ludicrous.
Contemporary audiences will now compare Faye Dunaway’s performance here to Jessica Lange’s in Feud. I love Lange. And she gave a great performance of some movie star in Ryan Murphy’s series. But it wasn’t Crawford. And it had nothing like the commitment and intensity Dunaway gives here. It’s too bad the film is so terrible. I think the whole project is an actor’s worst nightmare: Betrayal by director.
Plus, it’s a film about abuse, and most of the laughs happen at the moments when children are most under threat. So whilst seemingly aiming to decry child abuse it does so via abusing its subject and is lead actress, thus giving off a whiff of misoginy. It’s telling that the film ends not on the death of its subject but on the reading of her will. A weird, funny, and troubling experience.
Adam Carver did a great introduction to the event in which I learned that there is a book called The Mommy Dearest Diaries, written by Rutanya Alda, the actress who plays Carol Anne, and ostensibly an exposé of all the on-set shenanigans, and which I will of course order, in spite of feeling that one is just feeding into the exploitativeness of it all.
Mommie Dearest has been acclaimed as a masterpiece of unintentional camp, which is probably right. It’s why we’re still watching it almost forty years after it was first released. But it’s the kind of camp that’s fuelled by mean-ness; a making fun of, a laughing at. One laughs, sometimes heartily, but also with discomfort and a lingering sadness. At least I do. The film is the height of camp; but also the worst aspect of camp; the meanness and bitterness that comes out of social exclusion; a kind of schadenfreude at the tragedy of life which finds its outlet in laughter.
French Can-Can is one of the glories of cinema. I love so much about it: Gabin’s dancing at the beginning and the way he sways to the music and offers a little twirl of his leg at the end; the vibrancy of the colour; the way so many scenes seem like either a Toulouse-Lautrec poster or a French post-impressionist paintings come to life; the ‘La complainte de la butte’ song; Edith Piaf’s cameo; the way Montmartre seems constantly under construction like a metaphor for modernism encased in the Can-Can of the Belle Epoque; the way the baker boy cries after making love with Ninni; its wise and understanding heart; its generous attitude to sex; and oh so much more. But I’m now in the midst of a María Félix obsession so I just want to focus here on the way Renoir makes such excellent use of her beauty, her height, and her imperiousness. I was initially distraught at her first appearance. Surely, Renoir is too open and intelligent to diminish La Doña to some mere hot tamale belly dancer? He is. He dresses her beautifully, gives her a larger than life character to play, and gives her enough passion, jealousy, and moments of temperament to bring humour and play into the film’s themes and tone. IN the film she starts at La Belle Abesse, ends up as an Empress, and constantly makes a fool of herself over a man without once losing her dignity. She’s quite something to see. Here are some of her best, and not un-camp moments, in the film.
Paddington 2 wins us over in the end. We found it accomplished, lovely to look at, and with Brendan Gleeson and Hugh Grant giving career-best performances. The film sent us home on a high with a final, gloriously campy musical number that has Grant tapping down a staircase à la Stairway to Paradise to delight his captive audience in borstal (think pink!).
The beginning of the filkm irritated both of us: Its cosy, idealised version of England as a large, racially inclusive community of upper middle-class toffs with clipped accents and impeccable manners; its view of London neighbourhoods as small villages where everyone knows each other; the way all of it seems encased in the same cloud of amber-tinted nostalgia so familiar from Ms Marple films — perhaps it’s depicting the way we would all like it to be and perhaps it’s asking us to measure the distance between what we see and what we know. But it veered dangerously close to sap-land and brought out the ornery in me. This feeling disappeared once the film tossed in some acidity to brighten up proceedings.
We discuss the film’s glorious visuals, with various styles of animation seamlessly incorporated into the film’s clear but complex storytelling; the similarity to Wes Anderson; we diss Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent. It’s not as perfect as everyone seems to say — offering us plenty of scope to criticise — but we both left the cinema in admiration and in a cloud of good feeling. A feel-good, Brexit Paddington (and negotiations would be going much better with him at the helm). Mike mentions the word masterpiece.
Almost universally derided as lurid, overwrought, excessive: I liked it very much. The title at the intro warns us that the film is a story of evil. In Beyond the Forest, evil is personified by a woman, Rosa Moline (Bette Davis), married to the too-nice local doctor (Joseph Cotton) but desperate to get out of that one-horse town and into the nearest big city – Chicago – for the sophistication and excitement she craves. Why is she evil? Because she’s a slattern – the house is full of dust — because she cheats on her husband, because she’s killed a man. But the worst bit – the bit that got cut out of prints in several US cities – is because she’s willing to jump off a hill to abort the child that’s keeping her from the bright lights of the big city. At the beginning, she says that life in Loyalton is like waiting for a funeral to start. The film shows us just how true that is, as she collapses and dies just as she’s about to make the last train outta there.
The film is probably best remembered for Davis’ speaking of the one line ‘What a dump!’, a camp classic made respectable when re-deployed by Edward Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and even more famous when Elizabeth Taylor spat it out in the film version. But the fame of the line obscures what surrounds it and makes it potent: Rosa’s refusal of the constraining and defining options for women in Loyalton.
‘I don’t want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when they don’t like me. It means I don’t belong.’ When her dull milksop of a husband — shown drinking a glass of milk in case you didn’t get it — tells her he just saved a woman’s life, her retort is ‘Saved her for what?’ Hating everyone makes her feel alive, keeps her from accepting the conditions of the existence she didn’t choose, keeps her in revolt. ‘I’m going to bed,’ says the husband. ‘That’s big news. Where else could you go?’ Gay audiences of the time might have laughed at the line but surely the feeling that if they didn’t get out of their small towns and into a big city, they’d die, that towns like Loyalton would kill them, is a situation they could connect to, one that spoke them and dramatised their plight?
Beyond the Forest has many great scenes but one worth lingering over is the one where she leaves the husband and runs off to Chicago only to find Neill Latimer (David Brian), her lover, doesn’t want to marry her (see above). He offends her by offering her money. But even as she refuses, she’s interpellated by everything that surrounds her as laughinstock and a whore: she’s kicked out of a bar for being a single woman, a drunk thinks her a prostitute, the police have their eye on her, even the newspaper boy seems to detect her plight. It’s a fantastic scene. Some might think it too much. But too much for what? King Vidor directs this is as if it were an opera, all is emotion and he’s finding the right pitch to convey it, with situation, camera, setting and angles, even the tone of a stranger’s laughter. Everything here symbolises, creates, evokes and conveys feeling. Clearly.
Ruth Roman is in the movie merely as an ideal of womanhood, everything Davis’ Rosa Moline isn’t. Max Steiner’s score is so unimaginative he has to rely on underscoring Fred Fisher’s ‘Chicago’ over everything. And yet, Beyond the Forest is lurid, is excessive, is overwrought. It is also great. The film achieves the latter through, not in spite of, the former.
This thought was incurred by the Before Stonewall programme of films at Lincoln Centre and by Guy Madden’s excellent programme of films at Harvard, as well as the suspicion that retrospectives of ‘gay’ films almost always dwell on instances of representation rather than ‘sensibility’ or ‘structures of feeling’ or other elements that are harder to classify but just as clearly communicated, and historically perhaps even more important, as they were a subcultural form of communication but clearly understood through mainstream media, something akin to the minstrelry Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes in Blues, Ideology, and African American Literature, A Vernacular Theory, when he describes blacks donning black-face in minstrel shows and performing to a mixed audience in a way so inflected that the black audience were aware but the white audience possibly not.
I saw Foul Play when I was 14 and it’s the first film I saw which I knew was somehow gay without it having any gay characters to speak of. Today there are many things one can point to: the film’s empathy with outsiders and misfits of all kinds (though some might find the scene above on the verge of being offensive; the film makes amends later); the feminist overtones which then over-hung the incipient gay liberation movement — a girlfriend gives Goldie Hawn’s Gloria a whole array of tool with which to defend herself against male aggression; the San Francisco setting; the way the Dudley Moore character travels through the saunas and discos in search of a quick shag in ways much more characteristic of gay men of the period than heterosexual ones; the type of cinephilia, with its adoring send-ups of thriller/horror tropes; the opera sub-plot and it’s comic use of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado; the plot to kill the pope; the camp humour with which it’s all told; the tracing of this sensibility to its director, one of the first to be openly gay, who had written Harold and Maude before and would later go on to direct such camp classics as 9 to Five and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas before dying of AIDS in 1988: one easily notes the patterns of the films and of the career. Back then, the only thing I could point to was how in the last shot, the extras looked like the pornstars that then adorned the covers of Blueboy or Mandate magazines, and were later to adorn the covers of Falcon videos. As you can see from the clip above — where Goldie Hawn plays a librarian who is being chased for a microfilm she doesn’t know she has by a killer nicknamed The Dwarf — it’s all very gay, in every sense of the word. And one knew it, even then, even at 14 but without quite knowing why.