Six Damn Fine Degrees #27: Fear of a Camp Planet

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Camp, adj. - Ostentatiously and extravagantly effeminate (typically used of a man or his manner); ... deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style. (Definitions from Oxford Languages)

For the longest time, I would shy away from a lot of media that I associated with camp. From what little I could see, I thought it was tacky, in poor taste and attention-grabbing: “Look at me! I’m in your face! I’m different – and I’m unafraid to be different!”

I’m still not automatically a fan of things that I consider ostentatious and in-your-face, and I guess there is a lot of camp that leaves me non-plussed. But that’s true for a lot of art – and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I’m entirely honest: looking back, I wonder how much of my negative reaction to it was that, as little as I like to acknowledge it, young Matt was a teensy bit of a homophobe.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Easter Parade (1948)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I’ve written about my ambivalent relationship to the musical genre before. It moves beyond ambivalent into downright ignorance when it comes to the musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Sure, I’ve seen Singing in the Rain, but I have failed so far when it comes to other classics, such as An American in Paris. And if you were to ask me about Fred Astaire… well, it’s better not to ask me about Fred Astaire, unless you enjoy the sound of silence. It’s not that I dislike him, it’s more that I simply don’t know him.

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It’s about cats. Singing and dancing cats. You’ll love it.

Years ago, I went to see the stage version of The Lion King in London. As the lights went down and people stopped talking, knowing that the show was about to begin, a kid one or two rows in front of me piped up. “I don’t like lions!” Well, tough, kid, you’re going to get lions, whether you like them or not.

Most people like lions, if they keep their distance and don’t attempt to eat you or your loved ones. What many people don’t like? Musicals. Some people don’t like action films, others aren’t really into horror movies, but I don’t think there’s a single genre that as many people claim not to like as musicals. To be honest, though: until a few years ago, I would have said the same, though I may have qualified it a bit more – I don’t like the Platonic ideal (i.e. the pretentiously formulated stereotype) of a musical that people may think of when the genre comes up. At the same time, some of the films I liked best growing up were musicals, such as Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve even rewatched some musicals that didn’t click for me when I was growing up, like West Side Story, and I’ve come to greatly enjoy them. Similarly, “Once More With Feeling” is one of my favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Killer, and I’d defend its artistic merits as much as I would those of my favourite less jazz-handy episodes.

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It’s showtime!

I almost managed to live to the age of 40 thinking that Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz would be a film I’d hate. High camp, stage dancers from the days when disco was just about still alive but definitely already starting to smell funny funny and the like aren’t exactly on my list of favourite things; I’m more of a whiskers on kittens and David Fincher’s Seven kinda guy. It was only when Criterion brought the film out on Blu-ray and Matt Zoller Seitz did his video essay on the film (embedded at the bottom of this post) that I thought I should perhaps try to get over my Fear of a Leotard Planet.

In short, I was transfixed. A couple of years ago I wrote about artifice and authenticity in films, and already while watching All that Jazz I was startled how well the former was used to evoke the latter. The film is often highly stylised, it eschews the surface markers of realism, it embraces camp and staginess like so few films do, and even fewer do successfully. The style of All that Jazz is showy, but it’s never insecure or needy: there’s an almost staggering confidence at play in the film. It’s rare to find a film that has learnt the right lessons from theatre, and that understands how limiting cinema’s obsession with realism is.

All That Jazz

That’s perhaps the main thing I took away from All that Jazz: it’s exciting to see a film that isn’t beholden to a narrowly defined and all too often shallow representational realism. While it wouldn’t fit all kinds of films and stories, the kind of illusion that’s more common to the stage is something I wish film would embrace more often. Filmmakers try to make things look more real, but we know that what we see isn’t real: the dinosaurs and flying superheroes are pixels, that tower with a big flaming eye on top is a miniature, and that guy running with a gun is Tom Cruise. There’s a certain demented futility to the extent to which cinema is often at cross-purposes with itself: movies want you to get excited about the extravagant illusions they create, yet they want to hide the fact that they are illusions. There’s a fetish of the seamless – and it isn’t limited to CGI orgies: in a way, what Linklater was aiming for with Boyhood was also the seamless appearance of reality. There’s definitely a place for that, but realism isn’t inherently more valuable than other modes of representation. To my mind the most powerful illusion is often not the one that is seamless: it’s the one where the audience sees the illusion for what it is, a mirage, and fully buys into it nevertheless.

On the stage, we can watch an actor slip from one role into another, yet make them all real. There’s no need for Academy Award-winning makeup to hide the fact that we’re still looking at, say, Meryl Streep. A different hat, changed body language, all of these change an actor from a young man into an old woman, and both can touch our heart. The audience doesn’t just watch the illusion, it becomes complicit in it, intensifying the effect. I’ve seen a modern actor playing an Elizabethan player playing Thisbe, making us laugh at the incongruity one moment and cry the next as Thisbe’s pain and death feel utterly real. When it works, that reality is in no way diminished by the obvious artifice of it all. To make the audience see both the trick and the reality of what the trick presents at the same time, that’s magic. As Tony Kushner wrote in his stage directions to Angels in America: “It’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do.”

All That Jazz

Obviously, film isn’t theatre, and what works in one medium has to be adapted for another. I wouldn’t want all movies to resort to the Brechtian strategies Lars von Trier resorted to in Dogville. I do want film to be less fixated on the invisibility of its illusions, though: the more magic happens entirely on the screen, the less it happens in my mind. All that Jazz‘ magic isn’t entirely that of the stage and its visible wires, but it rejects a superficial realism. It invites the audience into a much larger and more exciting space. Its reality is emotional first and foremost, its razzle and dazzle is artificial and has no qualms about this – artifice can heighten reality much more than a seamless illusion can. It opens up space and time, showing what a tiny stage realism is. How many leotarded angels can dance on the head of the pin that is realism? Many times fewer than Fosse was able  to imagine, I’ll wager.