[Camp] is…always, at whatever cost, a cry against conformity, a shriek against boredom, a testament to ‘the potential uniqueness of each of us and our rights to that uniqueness.’ – George Melly
This will be fun. Watch Kenneth Anger’s underground classics Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) and Scorpio Rising (1964) and then let’s talk seriously about camp.
Underground experimental filmmaking in the 1960s was a source of validation, empowerment and an expression of resistance. For the queer filmmaker, who resisted a mainstream cinema dominated by heterosexual images, underground films had the opportunity to express gay identity in a way that the mainstream couldn’t and wouldn’t. For Kenneth Anger, one of the most prominent filmmakers of this period, films could constitute a ‘cry against conformity’ through a camp aesthetic.
Cultural critic Susan Sontag tells us that “camp art is often decorative art, emphasising texture, sensuous surface and style at the expense of content.” In Kustom Kar Kommandos a muscular man, dressed head to toe in baby blue, polishes his car with an extravagant giant white powder puff. The absurdly shiny car serves little purpose sitting stationary in a pink room. When driven it is for a matter of seconds, filmed in such a way that we cannot see where it has come from or where it is going. The film emphasises the beauty and sensual potential of the car rather than its function. The car’s clear bonnet, however, serves as a useful analogy for camp; while exaggerating appearance and flaunting the aesthetic value of the car, the bonnet allows the mechanisms to be visible. A camp aesthetic concerned with surface and appearance, applied to an artifact of a masculinist culture, such as the car, plays with and undermines the inherent ideological implications of that culture. We can consider camp (as Harry M. Benshoff conceives it) as: “a refusal to take seriously the forms and artefacts of dominant culture”, and by extension, a refusal to take seriously the ideology inherent in that culture.
In Scorpio Rising another intensely masculinist subculture – the leather-clad biker scene – is enjoyed for its fetishistic aesthetic and homoerotic subtext. As Scorpio Rising’s bikers dress in their leather jackets and belts adorned with studs, the camp sensibility is not in reading the bikers’ clothing as evidence of latent homosexuality but in enjoying the ostentatious dressing and undressing. Camp is not just the intention of the images, but the way they can be read. Richard Dyer argues that intense homoeroticism is created not by the images themselves but by the way that we are encouraged to view those images. Anger’s camera dwells longingly on muscles and frequently pans upwards across the crotch and lingers on the torso, encouraging the viewer to sexually objectify the bikers. Susan Sontag sees re-reading and awareness of double-meaning as a key element of the camp sensibility, not just in the division of literal meaning and symbolic meanings but as “the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.”
“[The] re-appropriation of mainstream song lyrics both celebrate a homosexual subtext and indicate the heterosexual assumptions of those songs.”
Camp becomes a means to enable and encourage queer readings of texts. Even images of institutions that systematically repress/ed and victimized homosexuality, such as Jesus and Hitler are not taken seriously – and are not exempt from homoerotic subtext.
In the spirit of underground’s anti-elitism, Anger incorporates pin-ups of popular actors and contemporary pop music that question the separation between low and high art. Juan A Suárez notes that this is to “close the gap between art and everyday life.” By extension, appropriation of pop culture has the potential to close the gap between images in the media and those receiving them, by re-reading images in a way that includes the homosexual viewer.
Camp’s attentiveness to ‘double sense’ is also played out as the lyrics of Anger’s chosen songs are full of double entendre. There is an endless possibility to read homosexual subtext in the songs, but we will suffice with a few examples. In ‘Devil in Disguise’, Dyer notes “many seemingly heterosexual images are rendered gay (and devilish).” The lyrics of the song: ‘You look like an angel…you’re the devil in disguise…You fool me with your kisses…heaven knows you lie to me. You’re not the way you seem’, appear to make reference the images of James Dean and Marlon Brando that surround Scorpio. Both actors played heterosexual roles but have often been discussed as bisexual or homosexual in their private lives. A parallel is drawn between the homosexual and deviancy, which is a site of playful enjoyment for the homosexual viewer but also has stark political relevance as it indicates the negative public opinion of the ‘dangerous’ homosexual, attempting to convert ‘normal’ men to their wicked ways. Similarly, the lyrics of ‘(Love is like a) Heatwave’: denote a celebration of gay love “don’t pass up this chance” and suggest that love as ‘forbidden’: “could it be a devil in me, or is this the way love’s supposed to be?” This re-appropriation of mainstream song lyrics both celebrates a homosexual subtext and indicates the heterosexual assumptions of those songs.
“Though the camp aesthetic privileges style over content, it has the potential to illuminate the political.”
I would describe the connection between the music and images as a ‘camp’ relationship. As images and music are layered together in such a way that they comment upon each other and illuminate hidden meanings, we could say that Anger puts the songs and images in quotation marks – which is another element Sontag sees as central to camp: “camp sees everything in quotation marks…it is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.” Camp involves an understanding of how identity is constructed, and popular media contributes to that construction. By celebrating ‘campness’ in mainstream images and creating the potential to read them subversively the camp-eye has the power to transform experience, and notably to criticise the ‘normal’ assertion of such images.
Though the camp aesthetic privileges style over content, it has the potential to illuminate the political. Vincent Brook puts it like this:
The camp sensibility can expose gay oppression and become a radical, progressive, and critical force…Gay/straight, fanciful/horrific, new/recycled, sacred/profane – all binary oppositions camped/postmodernized into oblivion.
Camp is undeniably a political issue, one relating very strongly to the gay liberation movements of the years following the release of these two films (1964 onwards). Thus, Sontag’s assertion that “Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary” is played out in the excess and flamboyancy of Anger’s films but also in a spirit of challenging what ‘ordinary’ even means.