After the last several days of serious AIDS dramas, this pairing was supposed to be lighter and more carefree. But as fun as they are, there’s something about both Die, Mommy, Die and Pink Flamingos that always nags me a little.
Not, mind you, in any way that makes me enjoy them less: These are two of my absolute favorites for the whole month, utterly rewatchable and delightful every time.
But here’s the question: Are they camp?
They’re certainly campy — “absurdly exaggerated, artificial, or affected in a usually humorous way,” according to Merriam-Webster. But if we’re going by Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’,” I’m never quite sure if either Charles Busch’s or John Waters’ oeuvres totally qualify.
As the BBC’s Joobin Bekhrad described last year when trying to define the term on the occasion of that year’s Met Gala, “(Sontag) wrote: ‘To snare a sensibility in words… one must be tentative and nimble.’ Yet, in reading Sontag’s essay, it seems that even she was at times eluded by the deceptive simplicity of the term.”
This feels like a key observation, from Sontag’s point of view, at least: “Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.” But I’m not entirely sure that’s true — it’s certainly not so in the case of either Busch or Waters. That’s what makes them so special to me, I think.
I’ll concede this to Sontag: It’s hard as hell to do camp on purpose. The creators of the 1960s Batman TV series had the formula right for a while, but it burned out before too long. Like Bekhrad points out, Valley of the Dolls wasn’t intended to be camp, but it was, whereas Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was supposed to be, and it also worked. Mommie Dearest was supposed to be serious, but dear fancy Moses, was it ever camp. To be fair, Joan Crawford herself became more and more camp over the years.
Which brings us back to Busch: His brand of theater celebrates the extravagantly over-the-top acting and lurid plots of the heyday of so-called “women’s films.” Writer James Jordan sums it up nicely:
If it’s not a real woman on stage (as Busch constantly, subtly reminds us), then we have permission to buy into a brand of old-fashioned theatrical extravagance that a biologically correct actress couldn’t sell nowadays. Busch, an avid student of theater history, recreates for his audiences the experience of seeing a great actress playing in a stage or screen vehicle, but he does it though a lens of intentional camp. … If a modern-day Katherine Cornell or Susan Hayward were to attempt to this kind of stuff straight, the result would be unintentional, embarrassing camp. Busch circumvents this hazard by tacitly announcing, “None of this is any more literal than I am a woman.” He further distances himself from the material by playing, not the role, but rather, the actress who plays the role.
Die, Mommy, Die finds Busch as the flamboyantly theatrical, washed-up chanteuse Angela Arden, stuck in a miserable marriage (to the great, grumpy Philip Baker Hall) and saddled with two moody children (Natasha Lyonne and Stark Sands). Naturally, beneath her perfectly coiffured auburn hair and stunning array of costume jewelry, Angela has a secret; the whole film is a deliciously soapy delight.
Though they’re working with similar themes and influences, Busch’s aesthetic is worlds removed from Waters’ punk style: Busch recreates the gloss of a classic Hollywood film, while Waters, especially in his early work, revels in the DIY nature of his movies.
I think I first saw Pink Flamingos at a movie party with several gay friends in the late 1990s, after it had been re-released on VHS and, once more, found notoriety. As I recall, a few of us screamed and laughed along as Divine and her Baltimore buddies fought to be named the “filthiest person alive,” and more than a few of us were utterly repulsed. And that was well before the infamous dog shit scene.
I guess I don’t blame those weak sisters: Waters is definitely an acquired taste. The acting in his films (again, I’m mostly talking about the early ones) is kind of awful, but in an adorable way. But the whole cast always exudes such a joy in creating together that I’m always won over.
And really, who couldn’t love a film with lines like this: “I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone: MY kind of people, and assholes. It’s rather obvious which category you fit into. Have a nice day.”
So, which kind of person are you?
Up next: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street