Burlesque, the new Cher/Christina Aguilera movie came out this week. I am almost certain that I am not going to see it. The reviews are split between okay, bad, and so bad that it is good. In Salon one writer talks about why Burlesque is will not be a camp classic (Spoiler: It’s bad but not bad enough, and the new generation of gay men doesn’t appreciate trashy diva movies the way previous generations do. Damn kids!)
No description of divine trash is complete without referencing Susan Sontag’s famous and brilliant break-out essay “Notes On ‘Camp'”. There, it has been referenced. Sontag also describes the connection between camp and gay culture. (I would love to describe my own take on camp and gay culture although it is not germane to this post, and I am trying to cut down on long drawn-out essays. So another time.)
The quintessential so-bad-it’s-good movie is Showgirls, which nearly (and unfairly) killed poor Elizabeth Berkley’s career–if an actress can get work after Saved By The Bell, then awesomely awful movies should only make her stronger. Showgirls is atrocious if you love movies; it is legendary if you love camp. Joe Eszterhas, who wrote the screenplay also wrote Basic Instinct. Basic Instinct is a far worse movie on every level, yet, for all the controversy that surrounded it, it created a star, at least temporarily, in Sharon Stone. Yet, while Basic Instinct did not get the critical panning, it does not inspire the same kind of latter adoration as Showgirls. Basic Instinct also lacks a gay following (probably because the lesbians in the movie are crazed serial killers.)
What I want to know is what defines a campy movie. What criteria make a Douglas Sirk melodrama a classic, but calls a movie like Mommie Dearest, with the same kind of complete over-the-top emoting, a camp classic? Why are Fred and Ginger movies with incoherent and ridiculous plots not camp even though they are a lot of fun to watch? Why is All About My Mother, one of the finest movies ever made and one of my all-time favorites, considered a “legitimate” movie that wins awards when the film (and director) is steeped in gay culture and camp. All About My Mother owes its existence to All About Eve, another one of the greatest films of all time and one with a huge gay following (It should be a law that every young gay boy be able to recite Margo Channing’s famous line “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” on demand.) And that isn’t even the most over-the-top of Bette Davis’s great movies–we exclude her bad ones; they’re not camp, just bad. Davis’s campiest movie is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (“But y’are, Blanche! Y’are in that chair!”), a movie in which Davis and Joan Crawford, two of Hollywood’s most legendary divas, try not to let their hatred for one another outshine the hatred their characters feel for one another (not always successfully).
So why are All About Eve and All About My Mother classics but Showgirls, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Mommie Dearest camp classics? What is the difference between a great movie and great awful movie? Is there one? I feel like there is, but I am not yet able to define it.
Maybe I need to reread my Sontag.