I have a friend who does not understand camp. Or at least, she’s not confident of her camp judgment. So once she learned that I was preoccupied with the subject, she took to regularly asking me if this or that thing was camp. “Drag queens and John Waters sure,” she’d say, “but why did you say that that Philip Gourevitch passage was camp the other day?” I recall fumbling through some half-brained answer then, so let me try again now.
Codifying the fundamental constants of the camp (as opposed to campy) experience is a difficult endeavor. Even when I can direct you to my camp nuance, place it directly within the field of your senses, there is no guarantee that you will perceive it in the same way. More likely, you will think that I am hysterical or rude or both, which is why camp pleasures are often kept secret, or at least among initiates: Going on about a thing someone else doesn’t have seems impolite.
Still, because all this secrecy and confusion is what’s leading to camp’s premature burial, I’ll risk offense with a few examples. Take, for instance, something widely seen and relatively recent—the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games. The Danny Boyle–directed fantasia on British history flirted with campiness in its intense chronological literality and sheer theatrical bulk, but style aside, the pageant of excess was prime territory for true camp.
The first shot of the ceremony telecast inside the stadium is of an apparently unruly cloud kept in check with a harness of string. Something about the tension in those ropes, the attempt to manage so unwieldy an object (plus the redundancy of producing fake clouds when the stadium is open-air) is a camp nuance to me, especially considering the apt impression it sets up for the absurd show to come. Later, there’s a quick cut to a beekeeper pouring smoke into a beehive with such purpose on his face that you don’t ask questions.* And just try to ignore the maidens clapping jauntily next to a maypole while a much slower and solemn rendition of “Danny Boy” plays over the speakers. Thankfully, the cameramen, like my eyes, can’t help but be drawn to the dropped loops in a narrative tapestry so preposterously grand.
Of course, a scenario as exuberant as the opening ceremony is bound to produce some humorous moments, but I want to be clear here that camp is, like Lady Marchmain said of vulgarity, “not the same thing as funny.” The feeling might be better described as ecstatic, on the order of religious fervor or a drug-induced state. All of which is to say one need not visit the rolling, sunny fields of comedy to camp out. Try, for a change of pace, a darker locale.
This news story came across my screen the other day via Gothamist: “Yesterday afternoon, a young NJ woman jumped off the George Washington Bridge to her death. According to the Post, [the young woman] ‘placed her handbag on a walkway at around 4:40 p.m. before leaping from a point midway in the Jersey-bound lanes of the upper level, authorities said.’ And inside her purse was a ‘list of five girls she did not want to attend her funeral.’ ”
This is a sad story. Suicide is very sad. But, my God, if I were to end myself, I hope I’d have the wherewithal to leave behind such a fabulous detail! A thoughtfully composed list of girls who are BANNED from the funeral! Picture the big, black-clothed bouncer, consulting this list at the church door: “No, Vanessa, you’re on the list.” It’s grade-A camp.
At this point, I realize I’ve lost some of you. I sound callous and amoral, I know. But that’s one of the costs of true camp—it doesn’t really care about your ideas of morality. A nuance is a nuance, no matter how small, and you can’t help which ones give you the camp “thrill of a whisper.” That poor lady’s banishment list is amazing, and I choose to revel in, even celebrate, that. I reject the doxa’s demand that I should only feel pity for her, just as in that climactic scene in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle where the goodly wife is having an asthma attack, I choose to gag with delight for the absurdly intense close-up of her inhaler-containing handbag in the greenhouse doorway rather than succumb to the film’s melodramatic prodding.
No, camp doesn’t do moral judgment; however, it does extend to the camper an essentially limitless authority to judge. And this freedom, the privileging of reception over intent, is camp’s true superpower. More on that tomorrow, with a little help from Reba McEntire.*
Correction, April 5, 2013: This post originally misspelled Reba McEntire's last name.
Correction, April 9, 2013: This post originally misidentified the extremely serious, sombrero-wearing, gloved gentleman in an early shot from the telecast of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony as a “farmer pouring from an oilcan into a doghouse.” He is, more likely and with equal absurdity, a beekeeper pouring smoke into a beehive, which we’re told calms the beasts therein. Such nuances, in this series more so than anywhere else, must be respected.