The United States of America
The term “camp” gets thrown around a lot these days. Many times, it is used to refer to things that are over-the-top, cheesy, or just plain silly. Visions of Adam West dancing the Batusi and reaching for bottles of Bat-Shark-Repellant immediately spring to mind. But what does it truly mean to be “camp?” The first time that the term appeared in 1909, it was defined as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, and effeminate behaviour.” But that explanation doesn’t seem quite to fit what has come to be identified as “camp.” After all, those words could all be used to describe the acting techniques of Japanese Kabuki actors or performers of Chinese Opera. And yet, those art forms do not fit what has generally become accepted as “camp,” at least in the American cultural mind-frame where the term first arose. So, perhaps it is best to revisit the explanation given by one of the very first people who defined the idea in a modern context: Susan Sontag. She described it as a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Sontag went on in her essay Notes on “Camp” to emphasis the aesthetic’s focus on “artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess.” With this definition, conceiving the idea of “camp” becomes easier with certain filmmakers beginning to melt into focus. Memories of Edith Massey crying out for the Egg Man in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) and Faye Dunaway screeching about wire hangers in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981) swim into view.
Sweet, delicious camp...just like mama used to make!
But where exactly can we place the first development of Sontag’s “camp” in cinema? For the answer to that question, one need look no further than an apartment in the Bronx in the early 1950s. Within that apartment lived George and Mike Kuchar, a pair of twins who made over 200 films in a career that spanned several decades. Beginning their lives as filmmakers before they were even teenagers, the twins made no-budget movies on 8 mm film stock. They were tributes to Hollywood excess, featuring improvised costumes, sets, and props. They frequently focused on shocking and graphic material. In one instance, George Kuchar was punished for making a film that had a transvestite in it. George explained his casting decision to his mother by saying that she “didn’t realize how hard it is for a 12-year-old director to get real girls in his movies.”
Stills from The Naked and the Nude (1957) the earliest surviving complete film by the Kuchar Brothers.
Within these films, the Kuchar’s developed what would come to be seen as the “camp” sensibility. Their incessant cheapness and proclivity for exaggeration slowly evolved into a kind of aesthetic. As Deborah Allison explained in an essay for Senses of Cinema, “Amongst a visual cornucopia of effusively lurid costumes, props and lighting, [their film’s] blatant phoniness feeds into an aesthetic where the “artificial” exists on the same plane as the “real.” Most critics point to George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) as their ultimate masterpiece.
A scene from Hold Me While I'm Naked.
However, I’d like to draw attention to another one of George’s films that I feel is ultimately more valuable in its depiction of their contributions to “camp.” That film is I, an Actress (1977). Made while George Kuchar was working at the San Francisco Art Institute, I, an Actress was the result of a collaboration that he made with his students. One of his students, Barbara Lapsley, had desires to become an actress. As such, she requested to star in a short film that she could use to launch her new-found career. So one day, with ten minutes of class left, Kuchar arranged for Lapsley to feature in a classic Hollywood screen test. He gave Lapsley a script from a ludicrous melodramatic monologue, positioned her against a wall next to a draped post with a wig on top that would serve as her lover, and started the camera. The film then records the next ten minutes in real-time without any breaks. Lapsley starts out trying her best to act out the inconceivably hammy script with some semblance of dignity.
Lapsley's first attempt.
However, after only a few lines, George interrupts her and starts to give her off-screen directions.
A demonstration of the "George Kuchar Acting Method."
He tells her to be more passionate. Eventually, he walks into the frame and starts to give her explicit directions. He mimes how she should grope her breasts as she confesses to her “lover.” As they proceed, he starts interrupting her more and more often. Eventually, she can barely go one line before he interrupts her with more directions.
George Kuchar rubbing his breasts in order to show Lapsley how to properly sex it up.
George’s antics are absolutely hysterical. The only thing more entertaining than George is watching Lapsley try and make sense of his directions without cracking up and laughing. Watching her clench a cigarette in her teeth and sneering, “When I cheat it’s not for sex, it’s for revenge” is simply sublime.
“When I cheat it’s not for sex, it’s for revenge”
Soon, George gets her on the ground, flailing about in front of the post. Barely able to control her laughing, she yells, “aren’t you used to women on their knees, Harold, or are you only used to women on their backs?” And yet, it still isn’t enough for George. They get more and more frantic and over-the-top until everybody in the room, including the crew, are in fits of laughter.
Truly an Oscar-worthy performance.
It may seem strange to consider such an odd film which was clearly only an exercise for a class an essential part of cinematic history. Here’s the thing, though...this film serves as a kind of documentary of the Kuchar creative process. It was through these very antics that the aesthetic quality of “camp” truly evolved. In I, an Actress, we see the creation of “camp” before our very eyes: the exploitation of farcical melodrama. The aesthetic’s trademark self-awareness becomes more glaringly apparent than ever before with its creator in full view of the audience. “Camp” may be silly, over-the-top, and ridiculous. But through the efforts of the Kuchor Brothers in such films as I, an Actress, it is impossible to dismiss “camp” as unoriginal. Derivative? Yes. But “camp” transformed into something much more: a commentary, a celebration, and a cocktease of Hollywood conventions.