Sunday 20 December 2015

Susan Sontag and Scopitone

In her influential, indeed seminal 1964 essay Notes on "Camp", the late Susan Sontag initiated a line of discourse that is still going strong. In it she lists the following 'random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp':  

    Zuleika Dobson
    Tiffany lamps
    Scopitone films
    The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA
    The Enquirer, headlines and stories
    Aubrey Beardsley drawings
    Swan Lake
    Bellini's operas
    Visconti's direction of Salome and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
    Certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards
    Schoedsack's King Kong
    The Cuban pop singer La Lupe
    Lynn Ward's novel in woodcuts, God's Man
    The old Flash Gordon comics
    Women's clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.)
    The novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett
    Stag movies seen without lust

Several things strike me - one is the predominant belle époque Yellow Book resonance of Salome and Beardsley, and of the 1920s (Tiffany lamps, flapper clothes). Camp for Sontag was, at least in part, about the confident cultural appropriation of the past, and about ironic detachment. It was also more or less about foreignness because, with the exception of the Enquirer, the Brown Derby and Flash Gordon (and perhaps the Lynn Ward pictorial novel, which strikes me as the opposite of camp)., almost everything she lists comes from remote Europe, and the even remoter nineteenth century.

That a list is so accommodating as to find space for the Brown Derby (one of a string of hat-shaped restaurants), Bellini and King Kong begs the question: what isn't camp? A camp sensibility will manage to locate and elaborate potential campness in anything - it's the sensibility that counts rather than its correlative.

A couple of items in Sontag's list were completely off my radar: Scopitone films? La Lupe? Stag movies seen without lust? Other items seem to me to be a lapsed currency (Tiffany lamps) while others are tantalisingly vague: 'certain turn-of-the century postcards' - what on earth can she mean? And (this seems to me important) where does camp end and kitsch begin? It's a contested border. A theory of mine, and one that may not withstand close or even momentary scrutiny, is that camp degrades sooner or later into kitsch, but that kitsch can sometimes be rehabilitated, given fresh value and purchase on the culture, by camp. It's a temporal thing - tastes change.

But let's go back to Scopitone. I looked it up and discovered that the this was a kind of video-jukebox, showing 16mm films of mid-century performers, precursor to the pop video. Happily many of these survive and are available to view in a wonderful online archive here.  (You'll be immediately hooked, so beware). With the exceptions of Nancy Sinatra (inevitably performing These Boots are Made for Walking) and the French chanteuse Sylvie Vartan (twisting away conscientiously to Ray Charles's What I Say and raising the bar for cute), none of the singers in the Scopitone archive meant a thing to me. Which only adds, of course, to their charm and poignancy - all these lost young hopefuls from the middle of the last century. But none of the Scopitone films I've watched so far - perhaps a dozen, and with varying degrees of delight - strikes me as particularly camp in Sontagian terms. They share a retro appeal, are agreeably unhip and (as we now know) are mostly poignant records of incipient commercial failure, of cultural also-rans.

Camp today - and it's a long time since it needed Sontag's tentative inverted commas, having moved into the mainstream - is more raucous, more ubiquitous than it was half a century ago. I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing, but it's undeniably a thing. I don't own a television but such is the cultural ubiquity of the television presenter Graham Norton that even I am aware of his overpowering register. Camp has become a default setting. It's worrying.

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