Critic’s Notebook: Unpopular Causes, Part III

Reappropriation: Camp, Kitsch, and Sincerity

“When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.  The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything outlandish.” – “Notes on Camp” [1965], Susan Sontag

“Need more clarification? To his fans Liberace was the epitome of cultured taste, but of course we know he was kitsch. However, unlike the not-quite-weird-enough musical stylings of ABBA, say, or the Village People, Liberace-style kitsch is so weird, so outré, that hipsters find it impossible to appropriate as cheese. Liberace didn’t make his work inappropriable on purpose; others, however, have. The director John Waters, for example, described his (excellent) early films, which lovingly celebrate kitsch in an extreme, even terrifying way, as “trash.” He did so in order to prevent hipsters from fake-appreciating his work — as they’ve done with, e.g., the films of Ed Wood. Deploying the term “trash” was a brilliant anti-ironic maneuver on the part of a master ironist.” – “Kitsch, Camp, and Cheese,” [June 5, 2010], Joshua Glenn

Beneath every hipster opinion is a root of contempt.  For the popular, for the mainstream, the straw men are various and sundry.  A similar position of championing the unpopular involves camp and kitsch.  Unlike the fake-appreciation of hipsters for Pabst Blue Ribbon and the accoutrements of working class garb, fans of camp and kitsch embrace certain cultural products with a passionate sincerity.  Camp and kitsch, while similar, are not the same, although the popular press and consumers often confuse the two.

Camp reappropriates culturally disreputable works in a kind of counterintuitive appreciation.  A work that is generally abhorrent and awful (example: Zak Snyder’s 300) can be repurposed.  As a standard action film, 300 represents the nadir of the genre.  But what if one watches it as a comedy?  The Heavy Metal Librarian asserts:

I predict that, in ten years, 300 will have the same type of following that Rocky Horror Picture Show has today: ie, it will be aired after midnight at theaters in college towns all over the country, attended by audiences of gay men and people dressed up in costumes from the movie, who will recite the dialogue word for word, throw popcorn at the screen, and laugh uproariously at parts that are supposed to be deadly serious. After all, the only real difference between the two movies is that the latter is intentionally campy. (from the post, “Wank the Spartans”, Heavy Metal Librarian, September 14, 2009)

300 is unintentionally campy and pretty hilarious when read that way.  Sontag differentiates the Camp from the bad by the outlandishness of its execution. 300 fits the bill.  The Heavy Metal Librarian catalogues 300’s outlandishness:

300 is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen in my life.

I was reminded of the film’s brilliance when it made its television debut this past weekend. Seriously, it’s perfect. What other movie gives you:

  • Howlingly bad dialogue (“because freedom isn’t free” sounds like something from George Bush’s wet dream)
  • Rampant homoeroticism (buff, chiseled, shaven-chested Greeks prancing around in underwear and capes) in an allegedly tough-guy war movie
  • An enemy, the Persians, who manage to simultaneously look like a cross between an al-Qaeda training video and a Gay Pride parade from Mordor
  • Said enemy led by Xerxes, a ten foot tall Rupaul clone obsessed with making people kneel in front of him

The undeniably homoerotic element in the movie is its most amusing aspect. After all, there exists a high correlation between people who think that Islamofascists are hiding under their beds and those who believe that Teh Homosexual Agenda is attempting to subvert their children. The fact that this crowd loved 300 constitutes further scientific proof of the Foley/Haggard Theorem (“The Degree of one’s Homophobia is Directly Proportional to the Depth of one’s Closet.”)

The same reading could possibly be made for John Wayne’s performance in The Green Berets, but most definitely for his turn as Genghis Khan.

Kitsch is a much harder beast to cage, since it is typified by terrible artistic production.  Embracing Art Nouveau lamps and Busby Berkeley musicals can be Camp.  Embracing Keane paintings and the Left Behind series is kitschy.  Unless one sincerely believes the idiosyncratic Bible interpretation of the Left Behind series, it is a challenging work to champion, let alone read, on any level.  Where Camp succeeds in surely executed outlandishness, Kitsch fails because of shoddy craftsmanship.



This brings us to a reckoning point: Sincerity.  (The weasel word “authentic” will be avoided, mainly because of the associations with fake-authentic cultural products.)  Can one appreciate a disreputable genre or film or book with sincerity without falling into the traps of Kitsch and Camp?

Up next, Nathan Rabin!

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