Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Metrograph Guide to "Notes on Camp"

May 6 2019

When Susan Sontag wrote “Notes on Camp” for the Partisan Review and caused a ruckus among New York’s intelligentsia, she capitalized the word Camp throughout the piece. This always struck me as a queer variation on the Biblical typographer who prints the words of Christ in red, and both are in themselves Camp gestures. As with religious faith, Camp is a “If you know you know” phenomenon, and Sontag’s essay, still much discussed after 55 years, is a holy writ of sorts. As such it has been misconstrued, diluted, and held to Orthodox readings.

Tonight is the Met Gala, and its theme “Camp: Notes on Fashion” has caused confusion and excitement. Harry Styles, the former One Direction frontman and one of the event’s co-hosts, was spotted carrying Against Interpretation, and thinkpiece after thinkpiece has debated current notions of camp theory. The essay has never been more widely discussed, but because its litany of references has aged considerably, Sontag’s readings of popular culture are ripe for misunderstanding, as evidenced by ongoing Film Twitter outrage over cinema-related citations. For that reason, I've pored over the essay, line by line, so you don’t have to.

Scopitone films
Camp? Yes.
For a brief period of time, short 16mm musical performances by popular acts circulated on Scopitones, coin-operated video jukeboxes you might find in a dive bar or record store. Scopitones originated in France, and one can imagine Susan Sontag looking at Scopitones while on her transformative trip to Paris in 1957. (Fun fact: While she was there, she shot a walk-on role in a Pierre Etaix movie.)

The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA
Camp? It was.
Located on the corner of Sunset and Vine in the center of Hollywood—around the corner from the Schwab’s Drugstore where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered—The Brown Derby was one of the most prominent Los Angeles restaurants of its day. Known for its Spanish Revival stucco exterior and its celebrity clientele, it was also the origin of the Cobb Salad and the spot where Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard. It would have been a familiar sight for young Susan Sontag, who attended North Hollywood High School.

King Kong
Camp? Yes.
Many of the references in “Notes on Camp,” and indeed Sontag’s understanding of the concept, came from the late film critic Elliott Stein, whose favorite movie was King Kong. Stein told Gay City News: “I was a great influence on her ‘Notes on Camp’ thing. She came to see me in Paris and I had decorated my room in, I suppose you could call it, a campy way, with all kinds of objects, sexual, movie star stuff. It was a gay apartment, and she vaguely understood and was sympathetic about it. We talked about it at some length and eventually it became her essay. I can’t claim credit for it, but I supplied a lot of the background.”

“Stag movies seen without lust”
Camp? Yes.
In the years after “Notes on Camp,” Sontag became a noted expert on pornography. Her essay “The Pornographic Imagination” was groundbreaking in its time for examining classic erotic French novels by Bataille and Sade as literature of genuine scholastic interest, and she testified in defense of Jack Smith’s underground classic Flaming Creatures at the film’s obscenity trial.

Jean Cocteau
Camp? Usually.
Sontag on Cocteau: “[He] is a clear example of the homosexual sensibility that is one of the principal traditions of modern art: both romantic and witty, languorously drawn to physical beauty and yet always decorating itself with stylishness and artifice.”

The major films of Louis Feuillade
Camp? Ça dépend.
Sontag was a noted fan of the Paris pioneer Louis Feuillade, particularly his legendary 1915 serial Les Vampires, but accepted that in hindsight the films were outrageous and artificial enough to be considered Camp. Sontag: “Some art which can be approached as Camp merits the most serious admiration and study.”

Greta Garbo
Camp? Heavens, yes.
In “Notes on Camp,” the bisexual Sontag took note of the Swedish actress’ androgynous qualities: “The most refined form of sexual attractiveness consists in going against the grain of one’s sex... what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” Sontag considered Garbo the “great serious idol of Camp taste,” in part because “her incompetence as an actress enhances her beauty.” Uh, thanks?

Jane Russell
Camp? “Doubles? Anyone? Court’s free!”
If you ask me, “Notes on Camp” has at least one major omission: not once does she mention the Howard Hawks masterpiece Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The peak of Russell’s career in Hollywood, Blondes might be too knowing to be Sontag-sanctioned Camp, but it’s hard to avoid the word when describing “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?” In that classic musical number, Russell cavorts suggestively in a gymnasium surrounded by male Olympians in beige bikini bottoms, and none of them care a lick about the buxom actress.

Virginia Mayo
Camp? Sometimes
A popular war-era dancer and actress, Mayo was best known for her musicals with Danny Kaye until she got a chance to use her dramatic chops in William Wyler’s incomparable masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives. Personally, I have a hunch Sontag included Mayo in “Notes on Camp” because of her gleeful performance in She’s Working Her Way Through College, the absurd tale of a burlesque dancer who woos her college professor, played by a notably lousy B-actor named Ronald Reagan.

Steve Reeves and Victor Mature
Camp? Yes
“Bodybuilder-turned-actor” is a whole solar system in the Camp universe. Before Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made it work, there was Steve Reeves, the muscle man who became a star with a low-budget Italian epic called Hercules. If you squint, you can see him posing as one of the near-nude muscle men in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not necessarily a muscle god like Steve Reeves, Victor Mature nevertheless counts as camp for his “exaggerated he-man-ness.” Mature was a consistent moneymaker for Fox, and later RKO, but he agreed with his own savage critics: “I’m not an actor, and I’ve got 64 films to prove it.”

Barbara Stanwyck
Camp? Camp-adjacent, but no.
If one can, as Sontag attests, have a Camp taste in persons, then one goes for those who exhibit “the markedly attenuated and strongly exaggerated.” In other words, there are actresses, and then there are actresses. Few would place Barbara Stanwyck in the former category, and indeed Sontag names her one of the “great stylists of temperament and mannerism.” Though she was capable of greater subtlety than, say, a Bankhead or a Magnani, Stanwyck relished her personal quirks and, by the mid-30s, had mastered them accordingly, so that if I were to call a character Stanwyckian, you would know exactly what I mean, but on the Camp spectrum, she’s miles from a Mansfield.

Ruby Keeler and “42nd Street; The Gold Diggers of 1933; ... of 1935; ... of 1937; etc. by Busby Berkeley”
Camp? Genuine Camp.
Sontag writes, “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp...The pure examples of Camp are dead serious.” Her prime example of “Genuine Camp”? The elaborate, ludicrously excessive dance sequences devised by Busby Berkeley for his string of popular Depression-era musicals. (Gold Diggers of 1937 plays at Metrograph during our series Delanymania.)

Trouble in Paradise
Camp? And more.
A masterpiece among masterpieces, Trouble in Paradise is the jewel of Ernst Lubitsch’s early sound films, a naughty screwball confection about bad behavior, splendid jewelry, and Art Deco hotel corridors that eat up Kay Francis and Marion Hopkins even as they chew the scenery. It’s silly and decadent and dripping with a kind of Europhilic libertinism that immediately became outré with the advent of the Production Code.

The Maltese Falcon
Camp? Two words: Peter Lorre.
Camp cinema results from “the effortless smooth way that tone is maintained,” according to Sontag. And in The Maltese Falcon, tone is everything, because the story has too many loose ends to tie up. The visual style is smooth and restrained, in direct contrast to the dizzying array of character types who populate Sam Spade’s office. The best of these is Peter Lorre’s whimsically villainous Joel Cairo, a veritable catalogue of superlative swish affectations.

All About Eve
Camp? Not quite.
Bette Davis’ performance in All About Eve
Camp? Yes, but intentional camp is “always harmful.”
Okay, this is where things get tricky. Sontag offers a few useful disqualifiers here. The essential element of Camp is “seriousness that fails,” but “not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp.” The inability of All About Eve to achieve Camp rests not so much on its ambition towards Camp as its ultimate quality: “Too slick,” Sontag writes. Bette Davis’ performance in the film is, on the other hand, technically Camp, but unlike a Camp object, such as a “lamp with a snake coiled around it,” a Camp individual can respond to her audience and “begin Camping.” Furthermore, it is said that Margo Channing was based upon Tallulah Bankhead, an actress who refined her identity to match her reputation once she was “singled out by the Camp vision.” It would appear that a deliberate Camp performance of Camp writing expressly designed to evoke a definitive Camp personality has none of the naïvete Sontag requires of Pure Camp, no matter how many homosexuals tell me that they’re expecting to have a bumpy night.

Beat The Devil
Camp? Sorry, Truman.
It goes without saying that Camp is a misunderstood concept. It does take a certain refinement to appreciate the finer details of, for example, a Gale Sondergaard performance, but half the fun is being in on an exclusive joke. (The other half is getting through the five hundred or so “great movies” and finding, on the other end, a new frontier of morsels collecting dust.) But no explanation, even by a Sontag, will dispel the confusion of the outside world, and even most of the inside, who will call anything Camp if they can’t otherwise describe it. (To quote Fran Lebowitz: “This is what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply.”) Beat The Devil is certainly the origin of several misconceptions about Camp and though it is collecting dust, is not a morsel, nor is it a mediocrity. An oddly marvelous self-parody by Huston, Bogart, and Lorre, Beat The Devil was written by Truman Capote in a great hurry, making it up as he went along during production on the Amalfi coast. Though it aims for elevated amusement, it quickly gets drunk on its own silliness and never quite lands. Sontag called it “too hysterical” to be Camp, which tells you something.

To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, North by Northwest
Camp? No.
By the time Alfred Hitchcock made these three movies, he had already cultivated widespread public awareness of his themes and obsessions, and in the mid-50’s audiences and critics noticed a newly self-parodic streak in his work. Sontag was notably no fan of Alfred Hitchcock—alone among cinephiles, she neglected to list a single one of his films on her published personal canon—and “Notes on Camp” offers a reason why. In her eyes, when it came time to look back on his own career in his work, Hitchcock did so with no “ebullience” and only “contempt for [his] themes and [his] materials,” unlike other accomplished artists who decided to lean into self-parody.

Carné's Drôle de Drame
Camp? Yes, apparently.
In reading Sontag, one sometimes gets the sense that she really has seen everything, inhabiting a stance of devotion so impractically, unshakably serious that she could herself be labeled Camp. (Wayne Koestenbaum, himself an expert on Camp, dubbed Sontag a “cosmophage,” someone who desires to eat the world.) Here is a very rarely seen film. Believe it or not, the English title is Bizarre, Bizarre. From what I can gather, it’s right up my particular alley and I will see it as soon as Metrograph can get a print of it.

Edward Everett Horton
Camp? Yes.
The great Camp stylist and underground filmmaker Jack Smith was the only contemporary of Sontag’s to have written extensively on Camp. In his outrageous essays “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez” and “Belated Appreciation of V.S. [Von Sternberg],” Smith wrote on the cinematic appeal of bad acting, singling out the gay character actor Edward Everett Horton: “A bad actor is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing of himself, not of the bad script. Select the right bad actor and you can have a visual representation very appropriate to the complex of ideas and sets of qualities that make up your film... If his hero is a phony for the purposes of the story, V.S. casts an actory actor in the part & leads him into hammy performance.”

Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat
Camp? Near-Camp.
Bankhead became a personality before she was even a person. By her mid-twenties, she was already a controversial leading lady on two continents, but her naughty off-stage behavior and gamy humor were key to her appeal. By the forties, Bankhead was beginning to lean into this, and by the fifties, it was all she was able to do. It’s not to say her performance in Lifeboat isn’t good; it is. But her role—as a materialistic, turned-on journalist who dominates a boatful of shipwreck survivors with a flip of her hair—was the turning point. (Lifeboat will screen in early June as part of The Raft's Dream Double Feature.)

“Sternberg's six American movies with Dietrich, all six, but especially the last, The Devil Is a Woman
Camp? Yes
Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil Is A Woman: None was like anything else of its time, and as the decades pass they grow stranger still. Impressionistic and elusive, visually innovative by any era’s standards, and built around the director’s cultish devotion to his leading lady. It puzzles me that Sontag never wrote at length about Dietrich; she would seem, even more so than Garbo, a natural subject for Sontag’s examination. Nevertheless, films like The Devil Is A Woman are indeed Camp in the sense that Ronald Firbank’s novels are: they spring forth from a stylistic vacuum, forestalling moral or political analysis while imposing exotic forms upon absurd fantasy.

Ivan the Terrible I & II
Camp? No.
Reason number one million why Sontag is amazing: she liked Sergei Eisenstein, but wished his films were worse.

Albicocco’s The Girl With Golden Eyes
Camp? No.
A worse fate than having been responsible for forgotten fluff? Being dragged to filth for it in a famous essay that we will still be reading and quoting from in one hundred years. Sontag, looking for an example of extravagant art that would be Camp were it not utterly passionless, cited this chic French movie, calling it “merely decorative.” Savage.

On The Beach
Camp? No.
On The Beach is a dead-serious, self-satisfied prestige picture about the survivors of nuclear disaster that no moviegoing queer in their right mind would willingly sit through. Sontag calls it “bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable,” which makes me wonder what she’d make of the last five Oscar seasons.

The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah
Camp? Yes.
“The series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste”
Camp? Yes.
“Numerous Japanese science-fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man)”
Camp? Yes.
Sontag was certainly a snob, but she was also an American who went to the movies. Even though we picture her drinking in Bresson in an empty downtown theater, she also wrote with great precision about B-movies in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” The essay’s opening lines feel oddly prescient today: “Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters.”

Method acting
Camp? It’s up to you.
Sontag speculated that the then-new style of screen acting, exemplified by James Dean, Rod Steiger, and Warren Beatty, would one day read poorly. I showed A Streetcar Named Desire to my teenage brother not long ago, and if something had appeared “extra” to him, he would have told me. Instead, he said he “liked the emotions.” Perhaps the Strasberg style is time-proof.

Cecil B. De Mille
Camp? Yes
There is, if you are curious, a Cecil B. De Mille film called Madam Satan. Like all great movies, it takes place during a rowdy party on a flying zeppelin, and it’s pretty much just an excuse for musical numbers and revealing costumes. The film climaxes when lighting strikes the zeppelin and hundreds of drunk people must parachute to safety, and the primary antagonist falls through the roof of a Turkish bath full of naked men. That is Camp.

Austin Dale is Associate Editor at Metrograph.