Filmmaker Bruce LaBruce discusses the elusive term ‘camp’ in preparation for the three-day festival Camp/ Anti-Camp: A Queer Guide to Everyday Life.
LaBruce is notorious for renegade art-porno cine-attacks like The Raspberry Reich (2004) and Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008), backed by serious academic punch. Film and theory are transferred to the stage this month as he takes part in the Cheap collective’s wide-ranging weekend of drag, concert and discussion.
Can you define ‘camp’?
I don’t think I can actually be so bold as to define what camp is. I think it’s a performativity that has an element of irony in it, but it also has an interesting balance of sincerity and critique. I think the most interesting camp is a posture that both embraces something and destroys it at the same time. It’s paradoxical in that way.
For example, I was at the Toronto Film Festival when Todd Haynes’ movie about Karen Carpenter debuted in the late 1980s. During the Q&A period, this feminist got up and said: “Would you care to explain that piece of shit?” I never forgot his response. He said, “I really think that it’s possible to identify with something really strongly and emotionally and have this strong critique of it at the same time.”
Gay male identification with these kinds of women can be very complex, and it is kind of a sincere identification that almost borders on being sociopathic, or at least extremely intense, but also there’s a really strong sense of satire or making fun of something.
What do you expect the audience to take away from the festival?
For some people the temptation will be to go to these performances and not pay so much attention to the academic stuff, but I think it’s really important to do both, because these academics and philosophers and theoreticians are interpreting what’s going on in the development of the queer world, the sensibility of the movement.
It’s a really rare opportunity to see these two parallel streams intersecting, examining this idea and continuing the radicalisation of queer and of camp, making sure it doesn’t become co-opted and commodified by the mainstream, to be almost protective of it.
Give us an example of mainstream and/or straight camp.
I think there is good straight camp, but most straight camp is awful – Twilight is a good example. It’s just this super conservative, sexually heteronormative paradigm that is being foisted on all these poor children, you know? Like eternal monogamy.
I don’t find any critical writing on how deeply conservative that phenomenon is. So I think [Camp/Anti-Camp] is a real chance of being entertained but also being aware that there always has to be an analysis of what’s actually going on. This is an opportunity for everybody to examine it.
Shame is a good example of bad straight camp. Ultimately the weird thing about the film is that it’s quite moralistic, and true good camp is never moralistic. There’s always a kind of either criminal or revolutionary aspect. It’s a rejection of the status quo.
So is there any good straight camp?
Have you ever seen Woody Allen’s dramas? For me, that’s good straight camp. Interiors… September… because they’re done with the utmost kind of sober sincerity, and it’s a New York Jewish guy doing his version of the ultimate WASP characters. It’s over the top in its representation of this WASPy sterility which is so opposite to his cultural background. For me, it really is good straight camp. It really transcends its own super-seriousness.
You’ve got this title, Camp/Anti-Camp, this dynamic – what is “anti-camp”?
I don’t know if you saw Nicki Minaj’s performance – I think it was at the Grammys. It was so obscene; I don’t even know what to think of it. She came to the awards with a guy dressed as the Pope, and she performed an exorcism on stage, and she had this levitating Linda Blair thing.
Sometimes I question whether this use of camp – which totally borrows from the underground, mainstreaming it – has any kind of radical impetus or subversive impetus, or whether it deactivates it somehow. It certainly becomes commoditized and commercialized, but the intent behind it even becomes perverted, in a bad way. It loses its radical impact by being mainstream. So that’s one argument for saying “anti-camp” in a broader kind of Marxist context.
But then there’s a lot of underground work, too, that’s extremely problematic. Just because a drag queen throws on a dress and parades around onstage doesn’t mean what they’re doing is radical, or even interesting. I think [anti-camp] is a way of saying camp can’t either be dismissed or embraced, it has to be thoroughly parsed and examined and the complexity of it has to be addressed.
What’s happening with camp in the 21st century?
It’s kind of scary times now, partly because of the power, the enormity of the pop machine. They say pop will eat itself, it seems like there are these perpetually mutating celebrities. It’s incredibly toxic at this point. How influential Jack Smith was on Andy Warhol comes up a lot, and how Warhol really exploited his work in a commercial way. Because Jack Smith was the antithesis of commercial exploitation; he was against the idea of even having property or paying rent. But Warhol started this Fame Monster – is that a Gaga thing?
It’s so toxic, so immense, because of the way the financial system works now. These celebrities have infinitely multiplied their wealth and fame to the point where they are “too big to fail” – these permanent superstar creations that suck in every influence, every stylist, every artist and turn it into endless capital.
And camp’s future?
What’s interesting is that there’s still, even within the underground, a real mainstream of camp. Not to reduce it to this idea of drag queens, but just as an example: I saw this drag queen in Guadalajara do the best Liza Minnelli I’ve ever seen. If you just squinted your eyes a little bit you’d swear it was actually Liza at her peak. There’s something thrilling about that, but there’s such a professionalism to it that it almost isn’t camp – it’s pure homage or imitation. There’s no deconstruction.
So there’s still that kind of mainstream camp sensibility that exists. In some ways the performers like Vaginal Davis or Richard Move, who do what I consider revolutionary drag, are still really necessary, because there is that kind of mainstreaming of the underground that always needs to be challenged.
Bruce LaBruce lecture followed by concert from Holly Woodlawn Apr 19, 19:00 | Video clip screening, Apr 21, 20:30
CAMP/ANTI-CAMP: A QUEER GUIDE TO EVERYDAY LIFE Apr 19-21 | HAU 2, Hallesches Ufer 32, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor