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Bruce LaBruce's New Take on Susan Sontag's 1964 Essay 'Notes on "Camp"'

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2013-05-07-BruceLaBruceCreativeCommons.jpgFilmmaker and writer (and often-eloquent, often-controversial underground critic and historian) Bruce LaBruce has a new take on Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" which attempted to structure the connotations of an as-yet-unidentified aesthetic that was being shared collectively by gays (which she referred to as "camp") and officially tag it as a legitimate cultural category for mainstream audiences of the '60s. Although Sontag's essay has been discussed and criticized since its debut, the term "camp" is still very much alive today, commonly used to describe everything from race car competitions to children's computer-animated films to bad celebrity fashion. But in today's complex, post-everything culture, does the term "camp" still have meaning? LaBruce could be the one to tackle the seemingly insurmountable job of giving Sontag's "Notes on 'Camp'" a modern facelift. With tongue planted slightly in cheek, his new version, "Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp," revamps and expands on Sontag's original, creating subcategories, elaborating on camp's context and arguing for its relevance as a categorical term then and now. It's an interesting read! Sitting down with me, Bruce answered some questions about his essay and "camp-categorized" a brand new list of current gay-related people and topics at the end of the interview.

Mark Allen: The term "camp" was coined by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" and is still often used today, even if people can't seem to agree exactly what it means anymore. Why did you feel the need to revisit her essay and create this revised list?

Bruce LaBruce: Sontag didn't coin the term "camp."

Allen: Oh.

LaBruce: Sontag merely tried to exhaustively pin down the sensibility, even though she claimed in the same piece that to attempt to define "camp" is a kind of betrayal of it, which I thought was pretty significant. I guess that makes her a kind of traitor! As I indicate in my piece, "camp" probably derives from the French slang term "se camper," which means "to pose in an exaggerated fashion," and the term probably emerged in the early 20th century. I wrote and performed my somewhat stylized and slightly satirical essay "Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp" as my contribution to the "Camp/Anti-Camp" conference curated by my friends and colleagues Susanne Saschsse and Marc Siegel at the Hau Theater in Berlin last year. It was a marvelous, three-day event where artists, academics and performers came from various international destinations to perform, discuss and perhaps attempt to redefine "camp," or even "anti-camp," positions. It was an orgy of camp!

Allen: Do you think "Notes on 'Camp'" will need to be revised periodically, ad infinitum?

LaBruce: I would hope so. I don't know if anything as ethereal and open to interpretation as a sensibility should ever be made into something definitive and permanently nailed down. It was clear at the conference that there was quite a bit of disapproval, if not outright contempt, for Sontag's attempt to reify camp, as it were, particularly, as I point out in my essay, as she made the outrageous claim that camp is "apolitical" and "disengaged." I can think of nothing as engaged or engaging as camp, at least in its classic gay form. My central thesis is that camp was always a kind of signifying practice invented out of necessity (both for survival and for sheer creative pleasure) by "queer" (in the classic sense) outsiders -- fags, drag queens, transsexuals, deviants, sexual renegades -- and that it was always by its very nature deeply political and committed: Some people dedicated their entire lives to it! Sontag's interpretation always seemed a bit dismissive to me somehow.

Allen: You claim in your essay (as did Sontag) that discussing camp was "amounting to a private code or a secretly shared badge of identity," primarily among gay men. With all your new categories, like "straight camp" and "conservative camp," do you believe all these people are secretly winking at one another, or is it still just gay men talking about it?

LaBruce: My interpretation is that just as irony was co-opted and corrupted by the mainstream in the '90s (when everyone started to say, for effect or to be "cool," the exact opposite of what they actually meant or felt, and began to mean it, thereby often betraying their own set of beliefs or sensibilities), camp has been co-opted in the Oughties and emptied of its subversive, subcultural significance. So you have the most famous performers, like Beyoncé and Mariah and Gaga and whomever, acting out a kind of camp for the masses (often still propped up by reams of gay stylists and designers), which really is a kind of betrayal of its original intent. So it's not so much winking as a kind of capitalist exhaustion of previously hidden or even "low-brow" forms. They're really borrowing -- or stealing -- from hookers and trannies! Meanwhile, most of these stars are tiresomely heteronormative, displaying their baby bumps and propping up their monogamous marriages and middle-of-the-road, rather conservative ideals. In terms of the "conservative camp" list in my essay, I think the figures I've identified, like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain, must be aware that they are merely performing a kind of grotesque burlesque of the already preposterous right wing, mustn't they? I mean, they can't be serious!

Allen: I'm curious why Matt Drudge or The Drudge Report weren't on your "conservative camp" list. He seems like a prime example.

LaBruce: Oh, I forgot about her. Yeah, she's about as "bad conservative camp" as you can get.

Allen: Why did you call Neil Patrick Harris (and Perez Hilton and Adam Lambert) bad gay camp? Are there out gay celebrities whom you wouldn't qualify as bad gay camp?

LaBruce: Oh, I was just being bitchy. I think I'll switch Adam Lambert to "good gay camp." I'm a fickle fairy. Neil Patrick Harris is the poster boy for the new assimilationist gay, so that probably amounts to bad gay camp. She's like an episode of Will & Grace. And Perez Hilton dropped her mean schtick, so she's probably not even bad gay camp anymore.

Allen: I was interested where you talked about actor Meade Roberts' theatrically flamboyant character being filmed in an "improvisational, naturalistic, almost documentary style" in Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as an example of early straight camp, I assume partly because it was aimed at mass audiences. Today the modern reality television phenomenon (post-An American Family) is everywhere, exploitative but decidedly unreal, yet it is filmed to look that way and is created for mass consumption. Where do you think today's reality television genre fits into camp?

LaBruce: My theory is that reality TV is quintessentially camp, but in a kind of disturbing, misdirected way. Mob Wives and the Real Housewives franchise, for example, are really about women acting out the lives of drag queens, except their bitchiness and greed and materialism is actually all too real; there's nothing artificial about it. And a lot of it is just real estate porn anyway. Then you have the other extreme: the low-brow, working-classic variety of reality TV. I mean, what could be more camp than Hillbilly Handfishin', except for maybe Celebrity Hillbilly Handfishin'? It's a bit sad, when you think about it, that the only popular representation of the working classes now is through these bad camp reality TV shows. No more The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley, I guess, or even Green Acres, which I adore. Lisa Douglas (Eva Gabor) on that show was one of the most subversive, complex female characters ever portrayed on network television, a character who could actually see the credits of the show, communicate nonverbally with animals, and who abandoned her life of luxury and materialism in New York for the squalor of a broken-down farm and was still absolutely joyful! I don't know what Jodie Foster was talking about. I don't mind Honey Boo Boo. I like her gay uncle, Uncle Poodle. That's good gay camp!

Allen: Lesbian camp: Does it exist?

LaBruce: Sure! Any smart sissy has an equally smart, if not smarter, dyke partner in crime, and lots of lesbians perform their own permutations of camp. (Drag queens and kings are equally camp in my books, but all drag is not equal; there is good drag and bad drag.) Butch dykes are as camp as femmie fags, in a good way. A great classical example of lesbian camp is Robert Aldrich's brilliant film The Killing of Sister George, an equal dyke counterpart to William Friedkin's camp masterpiece, The Boys in the Band.

Allen: In your 2004 film The Raspberry Reich you sometimes portray the Baader-Meinhof gang in a seemingly comical way. Can revolutionaries be camp? What about terrorists?

LaBruce: Well, that's tricky. I think it's easier to approach figures like that as camp in retrospect, looking back historically at them or, perhaps more accurately, how history has digested them. My camp approach to the Baader-Meinhof gang was more about how contemporary culture has a tendency toward "radical chic," the most obvious example being the way that the image of Che Guevera has been completely emptied of any real political or historical significance and "reduced" to an image comparable to James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, in his case a vague romance of the extreme left. I've written about this extensively, as I was sued for a million bucks for using the Korda image of Che Guevera in The Raspberry Reich in a camp and vaguely pornographic context (even though I obviously wasn't unsympathetic to his extreme leftist ideals, only to his flagrant homophobia!). As I argue in my essay, however, camp, as Sontag did point out, is a variant of sophistication, and I like to believe that I approached the RAF and Che Guevera as subjects in The Raspberry Reich in a complex and sophisticated way, as the best camp always operates. It has to be multi-levelled and produce a multiplicity of meaning in its artificiality, the great paradox of camp that its modern ("bad straight") incarnation entirely misses. I was both celebrating and critiquing the extreme left in my film, which is how good camp should always operate.

Allen: Can "camp" sometimes be used just as a euphemism for "bad"?

LaBruce: That's basically what I've argued the world has generally become nowadays: bad camp. From CNN to Fox News to the Hangover franchise to the endless reiterations of Star Wars to Julian Assange's haircut to Vladimir Putin's shirtless escapades to Michelle Obama's bangs, it's all bad camp now.

Allen: Do you think the idea of camp will live forever?

LaBruce: As I indicate in my essay, I really hope that the whole world will cease to become camp (or bad straight camp) and leave it to the experts: the marginal, the disenfranchised, the subversive sissies and dagger dykes and terrific trannies. (Mykki Blanco is one of the best examples of extraordinarily good, classic contemporary camp.) My hope is that camp will be re-politicized, reinvigorated and not just used as commodity fetish for a bunch of boring, capitalistic publicity hogs to make endless profit from. I mean, what could be more camp than Justin Bieber?

Allen: OK, here is a list of new things I didn't see in your "Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp" essay. Could you tell readers what category of camp, if any, these fall into? First, George W. Bush's paintings.

LaBruce: Bad straight camp.

Allen: RuPaul's Drag Race.

LaBruce: Good contemporary gay camp, especially the queen who did Edie Beale, although some of the queens on it are bad camp.

Allen: James Franco.

LaBruce: Oh, Goddess, she's going to kill me if I call her "camp," so I won't. But anyone who has anything to do with both The Wizard of Oz and Cruising is automatically Camp By Association.

Allen: Baz Luhrmann.

LaBruce: Ultra Bad Straight Camp.

Allen: Bacon.

LaBruce: Francis? Good gay serious camp.

Allen: Gay weddings.

LaBruce: Bad conservative gay camp.

Allen: Fab.com.

LaBruce: I had to look it up. Bad contemporary gay camp (too capitalistic).

Allen: The Westboro Baptist Church.

LaBruce: I'm almost tempted to say it's good straight camp, because it's so over-the-top it almost works.

Allen: Mad Men.

LaBruce: Bad straight camp.

Allen: Cat videos on the Internet.

LaBruce: Bad straight camp.

Allen: Art Basel.

LaBruce: Bad straight camp.

Allen: Sex and the City.

LaBruce: Bad straight and gay camp.

Allen: Girls.

LaBruce: That's a tricky one. I don't think it's camp, really. It's too real, and not necessarily in a good way.

Allen: Liz & Dick.

LaBruce: Ultra-camp.

Allen: Behind the Candelabra.

LaBruce: From the trailer, I would say it has the potential to be good classic gay camp.

Allen: Fifty Shades of Grey.

LaBruce: Ultra-bad straight camp.

Allen: Donald Trump.

LaBruce: Ultra-bad conservative camp.

Allen: Ted Nugent.

LaBruce: Ultra-bad conservative camp.

Allen: The term "P.C." or "politically correct."

LaBruce: Kitsch.

Allen: Lindsay Lohan.

LaBruce: Good gay camp, usually. Maybe.

Allen: Kate Middleton.

LaBruce: Boring.

Allen: Anderson Cooper.

LaBruce: He's definitely camp. I'm not sure which category.

Allen: Andrew Sullivan.

LaBruce: This is exhausting! Bad conservative camp?

Allen: ACT UP.

LaBruce: Not really camp. Too earnest.

Allen: How to Survive a Plague.

LaBruce: I haven't seen it yet, so I won't comment. But AIDS can be quite camp if you play it right. Tricky, though. The legendary Canadian art collective General Idea did it beautifully by turning Robert Indiana's "LOVE" sculpture into "AIDS."

Allen: The tea party.

LaBruce: Ultra-bad conservative camp.

Allen: Hetero versions of Grindr, like Blendr.

LaBruce: If you put them in an actual blender, it would be good gay camp.

Allen: The "fake news" phenomenon (e.g., The Daily Show, The Onion, etc.).

LaBruce: Uneven straight camp. The episode of The Onion calling Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt was an example of how camp in straight hands can sometimes go terribly wrong.

Allen: Jodi Foster's 2013 Golden Globes acceptance speech.

LaBruce: Oh, Lord. I have a Jodie Foster tattoo from Foxes, which is great classic gay camp, but I'm afraid that speech was a variant of bad straight camp with a closeted lesbian twist.

Allen: Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.

LaBruce: Classic bad gay camp. I mean, LMFAO? Come on!

Allen: Endless Hollywood remakes.

LaBruce: Tired, bad straight camp, especially the Iron Man franchise.

Allen: Pride parades.

LaBruce: Just plain tired, unless they are in the former Soviet Union, Africa, China or the Middle East.

Allen: Bruce LaBruce.

LaBruce: Camp classic.

* * * * *

Bruce's last-minute "good contemporary camp" add-ons: Narcissister, Mykki Blanco, the gay boy who makes the swastika pillow slip on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Stefon on SNL, Alan Cumming.

Bruce LaBruce's new film Gerontophilia is in post-production and will begin screening at festivals by the end of summer.

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Photos: Andymiah/Wikipedia; Bruce LaBruce