Friday, February 05, 2016

Star Wars and Caligula, or: Too Old for Camp

I get it.  I was once very into Star Wars, too.  That was 1977 and I was six.  When The Empire Strikes Back came out, I was at my peak obsession.  And while I was very excited to see whether or not Han Solo survived being frozen in carbonite, I had a sense, while watching Return of the Jedi, that the movie was bad. 

What happened?  Most of the same effects and all of the same characters were represented.  Sure, the presence of little muppets in a forest planet was pretty lame, but I could have overlooked that so long as Han was cool and sly, kissing on his buddy’s girl and Chewy was kicking his usual amount of ass.  But even those elements started to seem dull and silly.  What was going on?  I think I was growing up.

I boxed up all my actions figures and let the Millennium Falcon gather dust.  A few years later, I gladly sold all my Star Wars toys to a high school buddy who started a nostalgia museum in his bedroom.  And I stopped thinking about Star Wars.  It was easy: the movies were barely mentioned, rarely replayed on TV or theaters, and assigned to the back room of my memory.  They were pleasant reminders of my childhood, not unlike a slew of late 70s/early 80s TV shows and movies.  It wasn’t until Kevin Smith made Clerks that I remember anyone really geeking out about the films as if they were magically transported back to their six-year old selves. 

I blame Clerks for making Star Wars nostalgia cool.  Or maybe it was cool but I didn’t know it.  Or maybe it was cool in the underground fringes that have become the foreground of our culture thanks to the internet’s ability to simultaneously give everyone a voice and lessen our collective attention span and, thus, our ability to critically evaluate culture.  And before anyone gets all uppity with their grad school applications of theory to explain how a piece of pop culture can be intellectually fulfilling and socially relevant—I know all this and am I sure you are right.  But I also find the driver behind the hype over The Force Awakens to be a little depressing. 

I admit it: I have not seen the film.  So I cannot criticize it.  But I can criticize the culture that surrounds the film.  (Criticize not being synonymous with denigrate.)  I don’t understand the pre-ordering of tickets or the waiting in line for hours in costume to see the film.  And this is from a guy who actively geeks out in other ways.  I bought three copies of Bolaño’s 2666 when it came out in English.  I own over 20 copies of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  I have sat through horror movie marathons and camped out for concert tickets.  I’ve pre-ordered music from my favorite bands without hearing a note.  I understand the inclination to commit to a brand, but I also know that life has a lot to offer.  Why is it that Star Wars gets so much attention?  It’s not a bad series of films (at least not the first two) but are any of them really that good?

I don’t wish to assert that my art is better than yours.  I’m not trying to be elitist here.  I have plenty of room in my cultural diet for sci-fi (when it’s good) and horror and even, occasionally, fantasy.  I like The Walking Dead (most of the time) and still think Time Bandits is a great film.  I’m a Monty Python nerd.  I obsessively listen to stand-up comedy and rewatch Mr. Show on YouTube.  I can slip into the nerd fray with ease.  But I cannot get it up to care about Star Wars.  Not at the age of 44.  It’d be like playing Dungeons and Dragons again. 


Since writing the above paragraphs, I’ve seen the Star Wars movie.  It’s pretty good.  The plot is fine thanks to the lack of intergalactic trade negotiations or whatever was bogging the prequels down.  And there’s action aplenty, old heroes popping up throughout, and a new droid to love and merchandise.

But I still think the movie is hardly worth seeing more than once. 

My bigger issue today is with Susan Sontag.  Specifically, “Notes on ‘Camp’” which is really all I know of Sontag’s work save for a short article on feminine beauty that seems to confuse my ENG 101 students.  No, wait—I’ve seen other essays and articles, but her most serious work (“Against Interpretation” and the entire On Photography) has eluded me.  “Notes on ‘Camp’” is a biggy, though, a classic.  It has been hailed as such by friends and foes alike.  I’ve only read this essay once, so forgive me if my memory of it proves faulty.  I could reread it in preparation for this post but, frankly, the idea of doing so bugs me.  I don’t want to grant Sontag’s ideas on camp the respect of reconsideration.  Not because she was wrong or that the essay is bad or that camp is a bad thing lacking any credibility, but because I am tired of camp; I’m no longer amused by kitschy crap that academics like Sontag have managed to convince me is legitimate art.  Even horror films, which I used to go through like Kleenex, repel me. 

My wife and I have had many dates centered on leaving the house and paying hard earned money to watch people eviscerated by an enigmatic psycho.  Every Halloween we spend hours in an uncomfortable movie house in the name of camp.  But I seem to be at the age where such forms of entertainment, however giddy they once made me, seem crass and stupid.  Witnessing CGI bloodbaths and lame-brained ghost stories is a tolerable way to whittle an evening, and some of these movies do still manage to shock in ways that feel inventive and even worthwhile, but more often I feel cheap after letting these films do to me what I knew they were going to do.  I’ve let them have their way with me and, even if I sort of enjoyed the experience, I inevitably feel worse about myself after.  The post-movie trip back to the car is my morning walk of shame. 

I ought to define camp, since my idea of it is probably contrary to most people’s, certainly to Sontag’s.  And I should also note that Sontag was indeed a top-notch critic and fierce intellectual.  I don’t need to have read much more than the handful of articles to know that.  I mean no disrespect to her legacy, but I have that same feeling lately with her as I do about Beckett: Waiting for Godot and Endgame are fantastic, truly important plays, but fuck if I hate the experimental theater Beckett’s work inspired.  And it is hardly fair to lay all blame on Sontag for the slew of dissertations on Star Trek, but I have to start somewhere.  May as well be with her since so many people have cited her essay on camp as a game changer. 

Back to the definition.  Camp: sometimes fun overly theatrical or sensationalistic entertainment that willfully upends traditional notions of beauty and, in doing so, attempts a discourse on the true elements of art and the elitism of the so-called canon.  The example I wish to begin with is the 1979 film Caligula

I can recall the first time I sat through Caligula.  More memorable is the time I took a college friend to the midnight showing of the legendary piece of shit.  We sat front row center and watched the fucking, fisting, and beheadings.  What fun!  Until it wasn’t.  The first twenty minutes we—the entire audience—laughed.  An hour in, some tittering was heard.  By the ninety-minute mark, no one was amused.  My friend was begging me to go.  He’d had enough.  “Let’s bail,” he said.  I protested—we’d paid money to see the movie.  We should finish it.  His response: “I’ll pay you to leave with me now.” 

I was resistant to leaving because enduring the repulsive movie seemed necessary, as if by doing so I could better measure something within me.  Who I am is who I am in response to Caligula.  And at the age of twenty-two I wanted to be a person who found trash fun, who knew about B cinema and defended it in an intellectual way.  But I was full of shit.  I was just into the gore and the sheer audacity of it all.  It appealed to me the way Japanese noise artists like Merzbow appealed to me.  It was a middle finger to elitism.  There was no way for me to realize just how elitist I was being by insisting that we stay to finish Caligula, how I was asking my friend to join me in the small group of select individuals who were ready to call this art. 

Caligula, for the record, is so bad it barely qualifies as trash, though it does have Peter O’Toole so that elevates it.  A movie that is similarly repugnant and admired is Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the 1975 Passolini film my movie buff friends tell me is important.  I think they defend the movie by insisting it’s about the sickness of popular entertainment or the depravity of art or something, but frankly I found the film simultaneously dull and gross.  Better, in some ways, than Caligula but still nasty and not as shocking as Cannibal Holocaust, a movie that is at least honest in its sick, exploitive nature.  No script by Gore Vidal, no top-notch actors struggling to justify their participation, no shit eating masked as political statement— just ugly people doing ugly things for an ugly audience.  Recently, a quasi-remake of Cannibal Holocaust, The Green Inferno, has been made by a director known for bringing the cinematic pain.  Five years ago, I’d have gone out of my way to watch it but today I cannot imagine viewing a second of the thing.  The prospect disgusts me.

I don’t think this is a sign of my maturation.  I’m still not the type to shun trash in favor of canonized art.  I do see the value in a lot of what some might dismiss as junk.  Dawn of the Dead (the original, though the remake is pretty good) is one of my favorite films.  As is Rosemary’s Baby.  As is Angel Heart.  These are movies full of gore and scares and, in the case of Angel Heart, crazy sex that results in blood pouring from a hotel ceiling.  But these films have something going on that elevates them, though naming that quality is difficult.  I’m guessing most people don’t try.  They simply enjoy a good flick.  Gore for gore’s sake.  But I can’t help but think of Sontag when I watch some of these films or when I read a pop novel that has been praised by academics or when I see ironic T-shirts on the backs of my students.  Or when Batman, Iron Man, and Star Wars not only dominate the box offices but also thesis papers.  We have raised trash to the status of art in the name of camp. 

Trash has always been fun because it’s trash.  Once it became art, it may have lost something essential.  I know this post-modern idea of cultural omnivorism came before her, but Sontag’s essay on camp really seems to have done a fine job of convincing a lot of academics that anything and everything is fodder for intellectual discourse.  And they’re not wrong, but I worry lately that I live in an era where fun, pulpy works of trash are elevated to a status on par or above the canon.  And while we’re on the subject, fuck the canon.  I’m not one to subscribe to the idea that there are classics that are unimpeachably great and important and that they ought to be the only books we read and teach, but I feel like this reaction against the canon has resulted in the seesaw tipped too far in the opposite direction.  I’m happy to read both Carson McCullers and Anne Bannon in a class on American women writers, but I won’t pretend that Bannon’s books are good.  I am sure they are important to a lot of people, but my interpretive community sees them as badly written pulp.  Fun, sexy, cool, and maybe worth reading, but not as good as “The Ballad of the Sad Café” goddamnit. 

You can guess that I said as much in class and that my views were called elitist.  Maybe they are.  I’m just interested in a good story, good writing, good art.  And my definition is my own; it doesn’t need to be yours.  Still, I do wonder if combatting the elitism and all the other isms involved with the canon has brought us to a place where we define the worth of a book by its politics.  Camp is the ultimate anti-elitist art, appealing to the politically marginalized.  And god bless it.  Camp is escapist fun, tawdry at times, silly at others, always entertaining, but rarely—to me—fulfilling. 

My main gripe comes in the form of hating the movies of Quentin Tarantino, though I’m sure I’ve felt this sense of unease when defending my love of Faulkner to a colleague who dismisses his books as elitist literature penned by a dead white guy.  As I disassembled my library, I saw plenty of elitism represented.  There are a lot of canonized writers, some members of what I call the sub-canon—that nebulous place where one is still literary but not as universally revered as Shakespeare—and a few genre exercises that I’ve kept for whatever reason.  I did sell a lot of the camp, though.  All the Fantômas books are gone.  A couple old ghost story collections as well.  Most of the crime books, though I kept a copy of Swag by Elmore Leonard because a friend gave it to me and I feel bad selling it.  I saved My Dark Places by James Ellroy and sold his novel Black Dahlia because I stupidly decided that the former, being nonfiction, was worth keeping over the piece of invention.  I ought to have cut them both, or kept them both, but my imposing of a distinction on them is a form of elitism.  I can’t keep a good old-fashioned mystery but the true crime book stays? 

I am willing to admit it—I am elitist.  I have no time for crap.  I define good work in my own way, but my definition clearly privileges the cheesy horror films of Roman Polanski—I love The Tenant—and rejects the genre mash-ups of Tarantino.  But Tarantino is widely celebrated by cinephiles and the bloodshed, cool dialogue, and hip retro feel of his films all but ensures the kids will love him.  And there are those who tell me I ought to let go of expectations and just enjoy a fun night at the cinema or a page-turner.  Maybe, but it strikes me that a theory is not necessary in order to enjoy pop art.  No one has ever needed persuading to watch reality TV, but it takes some convincing to get a lot of people to read a Russian novel.  Genre books, trashy cinema, campy delights have been legitimized but in doing so we have told people to strive no higher.  Maybe that isn’t the way it ought to be.  Maybe we ought to do like my junior year high school English teacher and assign Stephen King and Charles Dickens.  The post-modern concept of inclusivity shouldn’t equal ignoring the so-called classics.

I’ve been trying to fill in gaps in my reading lately.  Joyce, Melville, Sterne, Musil—reading these writers is a way of making up for what I feel is the neglect of some allegedly important books.  And it’s mostly been fun (imagine that!) though it doesn’t seem like it to the people wondering why the hell I would spend my winter break with Moby-Dick.  Netflix beckons and really this is The Golden Age of TV, didn’t you hear, Vince? 

How about this: I’ll watch Jessica Jones if you read Finnegans Wake