After forty years, now serving porn as intentional camp for erotic consideration
We need a precise definition of camp. This statement probably sounds paradoxical, impossible, and totally futile because camp’s very power is its indefinability, its coy, catch-all polymorphousness, its reconstitution of seemingly all extroverted extremes into a marker of oppositional style — regardless of whether those extremes result from intentional artistry or unintentional buffoonery. Susan Sontag’s playful list of artifacts in Notes on Camp spellbinds mainly because her artifacts’ many mutual exclusions gloriously prove and broaden camp’s indefinability, ecstatically releasing us from the academic burden of an objective definition. The casual, interchangeable vocabularies we lazily rely upon have always implied that camp, though probably definable, shouldn’t be defined, lest we regain our innocence only to lose it. It isn’t clear if many humorously descriptive, onomatopoeic words we use — hokum, kitsch, schmaltz, cheese, corn — are subsets of camp or alternatives to it, and even if they are subsets, our subjective, amorphous definitions sabotage any attempt at a taxonomy. For me, hokum is Powell and Pressburger, kitsch is Offenbach, schmaltz is (of course) Rachmaninoff, cheese is Lehar, and corn ranges from the nourishing Shadow of a Doubt to the dyspeptically flag-waving The Sands of Iwo Jima. But who’s to say hokum isn’t The Merry Widow, cheese isn’t Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, and constipating corn isn’t The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? Even if we accept Sontag’s claim that florid, puffed-up Richard Strauss is camp (is she thinking of his queer Josephslegende?) and grumpy, grandiloquent Wagner isn’t, can’t ring-thieving dwarves, pointy helms, and magic rainbows still be described as hokum or kitsch, as ably demonstrated by an effeminized Bugs Bunny and infantile Elmer Fudd?
We identify camp — itself a reactive convention — through conventional signs of expressive extremity: parody, stagy flamboyance, joie de vivre, radical wittiness or witlessness, pitiful overambition or pitiful underambition, heightened self-knowing or somnambulistic unselfconsciousness, Oscar Wildean dandyism or H. G. Lewisian tastelessness. But these signs are only symptoms or performances of camp, not the sensibility itself, and the irony we associate with camp is only the mode through which camp is appreciated. Mystics may wish for camp to exist only as momentary performance, not as grounded ideology, but if camp too frequently postulates not merely irony but a sense of tense longing that imagines the subject as simultaneously superior to the past’s quaint naiveté and desperately desiring its imagined innocence, camp is effectively a historicizing gesture, disdained to know the disappointments of the present yet happy to safely reflect upon the distant failures of the past. Sometimes camp reflects on history’s unintentional mistakes — we fetishize a bad monster movie from the ’50s, but would never exchange its ignorance for bliss. Sometimes camp’s historicism is intentional, yet more implicit — when a drag performer parodies gender, he is not only parodying femaleness for a present moment but the entire human history of gender construction and gender-specific dress upon which that present moment rests. Camp that is both intentional and explicit is the most disreputable, even despicable form, since it dangerously borders on lowly travesty; yet even an unsubtle Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, paying blunt homage to genre chestnuts, understands the historicizing gesture of camp. As a rule of thumb, intentional camp, understood as the ridiculous, is imbedded in a text a priori, but unintentional, Coleman Francisian camp, understood as the sublime, is the subject’s historical position to a text, a position which then becomes transferred to the text a posteriori. So let us lengthily contend with one of unintentional camp’s shiniest epiphanies, H. G. Lewis’ Blood Feast, and then weigh it against Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, its self-parodic, intentionally campy sequel belated by forty long, campily historicizing years.
To speak now of Lewis’ monumental Blood Feast (1963) is to risk polishing a lodestone beyond its point of precious enchantment. Once a rough-hewn beacon of poverty-row entrepreneurship, and thereafter a camp delicacy more stultifying than Ed Wood’s Styrofoam science and Dwain Esper’s ganja-clouded soliloquies, Lewis’ charming relic has long passed critical mass and today sprouts quasi-canonical mold — the obligatory result of four decades of joyous imitation, hyperbolic homage, salivating fanzine pictorials, and other institutionalizing practices. But this cultural moldiness is the effect of speaking about — or writing about — the Feast, whose ridiculous nadirs of execution meld, trancelike, with sublime heights of fearless intent, creating a synthesis so indescribable as to make the belletrist balk. A problem with camp, we know, is that its sentimental essence, like religious passion and other emotive metaphysics, needs to be immediately and presently experienced rather than echoed weakly with words, in the past tense camp itself paradoxically embodies. Thus, to write descriptively about the Feast, as we all must do sometime in our cinematic pilgrimage, is inevitably to repeat stale myths, struggle to recapture seminal 1960s energies, and exercise linguistic power over that which defies and transcends rational explication. We prize a Lewis text for the same reason we value Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27 (“Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind / For thee, and for myself, no quiet find”): just as Shakespeare’s semantic beauties heavy-heartedly remind us that language can requite unrequited love no better than the poetic speaker can capture his dreamed beloved, we know camp’s ironic longings can never transport us to lost paradises that, outside of our imaginations, never existed.
So much for writing about the Feast. But to watch it again! Words may suffocate it, but the totem itself, equally timeless and dated, freely breathes. To taste the Feast today is to relive though its supra-linguistic naiveté all your most inexpressible joys: when your tongue first kissed a dark truffle, when as a budding boy your underwear suddenly stretched from the inside, when you heard the bigot wouldn’t be reelected. Yet this naiveté misbegets a sick delusion, even if the Feast‘s living (though pasty) color staves off the spoiling nostalgia that would drown it had it been filmed in alienating black-and-white.
In two ways does this delusion bloom. First, the alleged naiveté glowing through the campy film-artifact is deceptive: we presume ourselves to be intellectually and ethically superior to the deservedly lost innocence a Blood Feast signifies, but the present-day nihilism through which we experience this superiority is hardly superior. Insofar as civil liberties are concerned, our enlightened era is superior, but are today’s people themselves superior, apart from inherited or absorbed values? Do people today not cling as dearly to their illusions as they did in 1963? Aren’t people still fundamentalist crackpots, slaves to Madison Avenue, pawns who idealize voting systems in which they themselves cannot believe, blind to the wars of the Third World, apathetic about social justice, and so on? Do we really believe our present-day conventions of hair styling, fashion design, and interior decoration make today’s alienated housewives ethically superior to the beehive shut-ins of the ’60s? This illusion of existential superiority is surely the first danger of camp: though purportedly outré, marginal, and therefore subversive, camp is ideologically conservative, for its unearned ironies instill the dangerous illusion that we, as passive viewers, are as individuals automatically superior to the past when we view it through a received lens of civil rights individualism. Forget that our cultural decadence is as reprehensible as the past’s moral and legal blindnesses — camp believes that passivity is enough, and that ironies needn’t be earned.
Such is camp’s first danger: ludicrously idealizing the signs of childhood (or at least the recent, well-remembered past), it invites us to accept a fairytale history as something real, which we can then transmute back into fairytale innocence, a ritual act that postures as moral enlightenment. This, simply put, entails the imagining of the present in terms of the past. Camp’s second danger, however, imagines the past in terms of the present: if we fixate excessively on a campy text’s enigmatic signs themselves, a Blood Feast, for example, can mesmerize us into a neurotic fanaticism whose allegiance is to the extant, material cult object itself, not the nuomenal naiveté we believe it transcendentally, transhistorically proposes. Seeing the past as the present, while still pretending the present is the past, we come to taste the film itself rather than tasting through it, fetishizing the details and minutiae of the sentimental vessel we use to access the unspeakable, inaccessible, and irretrievable rather than the distant, forgotten knowledge ever-dwindling on the vessel’s far side. Rather than a Kantian purposiveness without purpose, the purposiveness has become ad hoc purpose — we know Styx better than Hades. Furthermore, we soon fetishize not only the film itself but everyone’s use and manipulation of it — this is the defining characteristic of a cult audience, which organizes and socializes a pseudo-dissident ethos (and camp’s dissidence is usually mild enough to allow easy socialization) into an imagined countercultural collective.
Those so transfixed by the material vessel that is the buoyant Feast, who know its balsa sets and flubbed lines better than their brothers, perceive its crude butchershop gore not as primitive iconography but as economic poverty, and its thespian instabilities as mere human frailty rather than a magic (if deceptive) mirror reflecting into Edens past. Such souls fetishizing the material Feast know:
- the two alternating notes on the soundtrack’s death-tolling timpani better than the doubled kettles of Stravinsky’s pagan sacrifice;
- the sound of the fart-horn that heralds the extraction of the ancient virgin’s heart more keenly than the Jubilee’s freedom-blasting shofar;
- the thieving of the strumpet’s tongue better than the silencing of the voices of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party martyrs;
- the name Fuad Ramses better than whaling Ishmael’s;
- Lewis’ use of saturated reds better than Paradjanov’s;
- the shape, intensity, and close-up glare of Fuad’s mesmerizing orbs better than the ravaged socket of that damn woman tumbling down the Odessa Steps;
- the sight of those beach-spilled bimbo brains better than the minds of our finest American stateswomen;
- and that fascinated boredom is sweeter than moderate interest.
And they furthermore know:
- that “Ancient Weird Religious Rites” is, apparently, a respectable scholarly book title, and the glaring headline “Legs Cut Off!” makes for decent local journalism;
- that cue cards can read Connie Mason better than she reads them;
- that chintzy, pastel dinner soirees will adequately distract one from “horrible killing” and the “butchering of all those girls!”;
- that — excepting the corpus of George Romero — no good film ever features emergency news bulletins;
- and that 1963 was not only indelibly marked by The Birds, 8 ½, and Zapruder’s grainy snuff flick.
Against this delusional mindset, which fixates upon the time-capsule totem rather than the projected wistfulness to which it obtends, stands Lewis’ own history, now nearly as known as Holinshed’s. Lewis is no Ed Woodian naïf, but a sour profiteer, a bookkeeper, a cinematic accountant on the lookout for a quick buck, who repeatedly delights in juxtaposing his bitterly calculating yang capitalism against producer David Friedman’s happily huckstering yin showmanship.1 Lewis, also a wizard of publicity and advertising, vocations far more horrific than any madman’s eye-gouge, plays well the unwitting pioneer cackling in auteurism’s pretty face; he intentionally demythologizes the democratic legend of his unforeseen success, cruelly disillusioning those who saw in the Feast a critical linkage between the values of cue-card ineptitude and low-budget, do-it-yourself rugged individualism. Lewis believes his codgery disinterest in “art” and Machiavellian money-grubbing are refreshingly unpretentious — but overeager candor can conceal even a codger’s cunning, and a former English professor like Lewis knows that Dickens, Trollope, and countless other canonicals were paid by the word, just as he cashed in by the corpuscle.
With Color Me Blood Red (1965), a cynical and simplistic variation on Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959), Lewis became contemptuous of his audience, mocking those who invested his gutter gaucherie with either artistic pretense or democratized entrepreneurship. But Lewis didn’t realize we already knew he, as a self-proclaimed advertiser, lied too well about his work. Certainly, the commerces of advertising and pornography begin with shared technical assumptions, both trafficking in the world of engineered appearances reinforced through a nerve-addling, confidence-shattering repetition designed to make the subject bow before an authoritarian aesthetic. But what fascinates about Lewis is the effective contradiction between his marketing ethos, which represents deception, mendacity, half-truths, and customer dissatisfaction, and his pornographiteering, which stands for straightforwardness, transparency, exposure, and, hopefully, oozy surfeits of customer satisfaction. Despite its head-hammering explicitness, Lewis’ bloodporn was as softcore as his early nudies, a pink and orange fantasy rolling in mock ecstasy, staged with the old-fashioned, nearly Victorian demonstrativeness2 of a vacuum salesman. Just as the nudie photographer luxuriates in the rubescent hues of large-breasted life, Lewis dawdles over the exposed, reddened colors of slaughter, his perlustrating camera leering at lungs and spleens as sweetly as he had peeped at the flesh displayed in his The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), Boin-n-g (1963), and Goldilocks and the Three Bares (1963). Lewis fans delight in the patented “lingering and fondling” motions of his meat scenes, where plundered entrails, bowels, and chitterlings are hoisted aloft like bronzed booty, sensually fondled like an erogenous zone, petted like a fine pelt of mink, or massaged like precious cuts of mouthwatering venison waiting to be peppered. Despite his humorless proclamations on the futility of art and the foregone triumph of textbook commerce, the gusto Lewis took in his work always screamed otherwise.
As a rough (and probably disprovable) rule, we judge horror filmmakers by how well they effectively distend atmosphere, suspense, and tension through the “filler” sequences between moments of money-shot terror, just as we judge ballet composers by the dramatic and atmospheric qualities coursing through the bridges and obligatory dances that link together their big set-pieces. With the nominal exception of 2000 Maniacs (1964), whose grotesque hillbilly caricatures crudely suspend audience anxiety in between the gory barrel-roll and that infamous stone-crushing tournament, Lewis understands nothing about sustaining tension,3 and unlike popular American horror directors who later exploited gore — Romero, Carpenter, and early, overpraised Craven — he was never a childhood student of horror films. No, Lewis was a truly styleless, tactless pornographer, impatient for the money-shots, and unable to maintain the jittery poverty row atmosphere of an Edgar G. Ulmer or even an Andy Milligan (unless the ramshackle ambience resulting from Lewis’ cornpone production “values” constitutes atmosphere). Furthermore, whenever he tried to advance a self-reflexive “philosophy” of violence, as in Color Me Blood Red and The Wizard of Gore (1970), his narrative illogic tied him in knots,4 and the bizarrely stentorian, Ray Sagerian thespianism sabotaged what remained.
Lewis’ brand of slovenly gore — farcical in its excess and technique, yet frank in its demonstrativeness — was sporadically imitated in largely forgotten trivialities like The Undertaker and His Pals (1967)5 and poor Pat Patterson’s Doctor Gore (a/k/a The Body Shop, 1973),6 a film whose obscure video release featured a cozy armchair introduction by Lewis, who cautions the audience that they “may not like the acting…[and] may not even like the gore.”7 Yet much of the American shock violence treading in Lewis’ immediate wake was not intended as harebrained Guignol porn but as an anxious reflection of the violent, Vietnam-era popular consciousness, whether liberally inclined, like the racially aware Night of the Living Dead (1968), or conservative, like the X-rated I Drink Your Blood8 (1970), a film that, like the same year’s Joe, dreamt that ill-behaved, devilishly carnal hippies would annihilate the nuclear family’s chaste foundations. But in the ten years Lewis practiced his phlebotomy, his apolitical style never changed. If anything, rather than becoming emboldened by Vietnam, in the ’70s he only retreated further into farce with The Gore-Gore Girls (1972), before abandoning filmmaking altogether when his precious gore became appropriated by both B-grade exploitationeers and the film school mainstream.9 Despite vast sociological evidence that suggests the mere presence of violence will condition one to think and behave violently, mainstream horror directors usually defend themselves against the castrating censorial scissor by deploying childish notions of catharsis, claiming their violences provide a safe, unburdening outlet for the aggressions and anxieties of psychically stunted, permanently pubescent audiences, who presumably need the First Amendment not to denounce social injustices or scribe protest verse, but mainly to bask in masturbatory blood squibs. Such apologias, probably, were the death knell for honest Herschell’s pornography — for gore to be allegorized as politics is bad enough, but for it to be excused as a new age, pseudopsychological vitamin pill surely betokened the end of his unhypocritical, happily unashamed literalism.
Another reason for Lewis’ demise was the rising eroticization — as opposed to pornographization — of gore. A technical, if admittedly simplistic, analogy: horror is to gore as erotica is to pornography. That horror and gore often occur in the same film doesn’t mean the two elements are mutually inclusive or overlapping; it only means that the overarching genre we uncritically call “horror” is actually an admixture of multiple modes of generic representation, which can be reclassified as the horror of the unknown (the Freudian uncanny) and the horror of the known (best represented by, but not limited to, the visualization of gore, monsters, etc.). Likewise, erotica and pornography, though overarchingly acting upon generic understandings of sexuality, are two technically different modes of representation, erotica addressing the uncannily unknown desires, and pornography the transparently sensed ones. An erotics of violence, like any erotics, must play upon the audience’s partial absences of knowledge, and prompt the audience’s connotative imaginations to compensate for those absences. Given a small amount of sensory knowledge, we erotically imagine a partially-known, partially-sensed object is greater than it truly is; the exercise of our imagination in opposition to an unknown stimulates our erotic desire, and the difference between the imagined object and the actual one lubricates our longing. (We can therefore dispense with the redundant phrase “erotic longing,” since erotics is hereby defined as longing.) For the sake of our argument, let’s assume conventionally hidden things like naked flesh and flowing blood are the erotic objects whose knowledge is in question; if the subject has a lust or fetish for things normally exposed — hair, clothing, jewelry, food — our examples about exposure and secrecy would have to be reversed, though our motivating assumptions would remain unchanged.
In a sense, erotic experience uses fetish and egoistic self-reflection to create a metaphysical synecdoche, whereby a whole knowledge — the object of desire fully revealed — is imagined from whatever part of it is presently, phenomenally available or accessible. This is why erotic experience cannot derive from a total absence, for, obviously, one cannot make a synecdoche from nothingness. Seeing a fully clothed person is an erotic experience for two interconnected reasons: 1) because there is an imagination-stretching tension between what is presently known (the person himself, standing before you) and what is absent or hidden (his nakedness, his truth); and 2) because we believe — rightly or wrongly — that this anxiously partial knowledge has the potential of becoming fulfilled, fully known, and fully exposed, at which point, incidentally, eroticism would cross over into pornography. Therefore, the erotic is a potentiality whose fulfillment is also its negation. Broadly defining erotica as a differential between known and pornographic unknown also generously allows for much vacillation to and from the borderline of pornography, a vacillation whose degree, obviously, will depend on the subject’s personal philosophy. A radical individualist, enthralled by his empowering, egoistic imagination, will believe erotica is more moral and, by extension, more intellectually invigorating when he views the erotic object at a vantage far from full knowledge (i.e., seeing an aloof man fully clothed). Meanwhile, a social interactionst, who believes meaning is found not in disproportionate subjectivity but through intermediating social spaces where self and other can closely rendezvous, may wish to perch at a more intimate, middle distance from his object (i.e., seeing that fully clothed man and gaining additional knowledge of him by hearing him amiably speak). This definition of erotics has the further advantage of theorizing the gaze not as a monolithic, demonic Hitchcockian sadism, but as a fluctuating perspective whose variegated degrees of sliding spatial knowledge can accommodate multiple subjectivisms and different levels of egoism.
Puritan legalisms suppose indecent pornography, unlike more decent erotica, is evidenced by anatomical stimulation, erections, the convulsion of vaginal juices, big orgasms, and other empirical measurements of the unrepressed known, apparently unaware that even greater sexual excitation — where sex is understood in the Freudian terms of polymorphous pleasure — often results from the promise of the unknown or partially known, such as listening to a complex dissonant harmony, tasting an exotically, unfamiliarly spiced dumpling, or feeling the new, unexpected temperature of the changing seasons. Much to our legal system’s dismay, human beings express their excitation at the prospect of the unknown — the erotic-connotative, analogous to the horrific — and their excitation from the experience of the fully known — the pornographic-denotative, analogous to the gory — through the same erectile tissues and orgasmic functions.10 Therefore, the distinction between the supposedly harmless (but in fact indefinably dangerous) erotic and the supposedly violent (but in fact safely conventionalized) pornographic can never be epistemologically ascertained, only subjectively speculated about on a case-by-case basis by judges who, in the absence of full pornographic knowledge, must erotically imagine what moralities of pornography exist in citizens’ minds.11
The corny argument that the frumpy sex and pusillanimous violence of the tasteful Hays era inadvertently created an erotics more tantalizing, exciting, and genuine than explicit pornography is patently false, because this tastefulness can only fulfill our first condition of the erotic (visualizing the hidden), and never the second (knowing the hidden might actually become unhidden).12 A murder sequence whose violence occurs entirely offscreen — the camera tastefully cuts away as soon as the cleaver’s raised — is thoroughly anti-erotic, for this is merely a total absence, a total unknown, not a tension between the known and potentially known, particularly since an audience weaned on censorship would already be heartbreakingly aware of the sensations institutionally denied them. Likewise, to spy Kim Novak’s superpointy breasts poke alpine tents through a clingy sweater in Vertigo (1958) is teasingly sexy, but by our definition this sight cannot be authentically, intellectually erotic, for audiences are already painfully aware that the context in which their object of desire operates has been censored, sanitized, inhibited, altogether prearranged, and thereby exempted from the free possibilities of knowledge erotica imagines. Audiences’ imaginations, though indubitably and necessarily working overtime, are denied a priori even the smallest potential of having their knowledge of Novak’s bosom fulfilled, requited, and pornographically exposed.13 In this sense, while the pornographic exists at the border of the erotic, it is also a subcategory of the erotic, for within erotic experience is the imagined, synecdochic desire that the erotically unknown can become the pornographically known, that the fig leaf could be potentially removed, whether or not it actually will be. Because our biological responses do not discriminate, an orgasm that occurs when the fig leaf is present is not morally superior to an orgasm that occurs when the fig leaf is absent; the fig leaf itself, however, creates an epistemological tension that results in a moral-erotic experience that elevates the subjective imagination over Lewisian objectivism. If it is common for impoverished objectivism to inspire our most vibratory orgasms, we have only ourselves to blame.
The conservative, often violent porn fantasies inadvertently spawned by the sexual revolution of the late ’60s only reinforced puritan fears about the purportedly inextricable links between id-like pornographic desire and unsuppressed violence. These fantasies were typified by European exploitations like Adrian Hoven’s witch-torture epics Mark of the Devil (1970) and Mark of the Devil II (1972) and the sadistic oeuvres of Jean Rollin and the pubic-worshipping Jess Franco, but they also included the kindlier, gauzy swinging of Radley Metzger, the cardboard surrealism of José Mojica Marins, the Brazilian pornochanchada industry, the Japanese pink film, artsy porns like I am Curious: Yellow (1967) and Last Tango in Paris (1972), and even the Playboyized Hammer vampirisms of the early ’70s. Although in censorship trials many of these films (specifically Curious and Tango) were defended on the grounds that they were erotic, not pornographic — and thus, like Joyce’s Ulysses, redeemed by a conventionally defined, elitist ideology of aesthetic merit — these films are, in my view, basically pornographic insofar as they theorize pleasure as the explication of the sexual act, not the erotic withholding of that act just long enough to create a tension between a known object and the unknown experience(s) to which that object is potentially tantamount.
Though my definition of erotica-as-epistemological-tension is almost designed to invite argument and contradiction (even from myself, perhaps), it does perfectly explain why the implicitly sexual violence of Peckinpah, and not the more literalistically sexualized violence of Eurotrash horror, was adopted as the preferred mode of violence for a mainstream cinema eyeing the respectable, intellectualized erotic-connotative, not the Lewisian pornographic-denotative. Peckinpah’s eroticism achieved its zenith in The Wild Bunch (1969) not because this was his most explicit film, but because here his montage technique intently and purposively places languorous slow-motion shots in tense opposition to teasing, rapid-fire snippets of information. (In later films, particularly Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Cross of Iron (1977), Peckinpah’s montage is far less radical — slow motion is often used to merely prettify violence, and montage complements shots of slow-motion violence rather than challengingly interrupting them.)14 In the Bunch, studious slow motion promises a full (if controlled) disclosure of bloody sights previously shunned, but the coy, seamless montage into which that slow motion is embedded simultaneously denies the promise of disclosure, fracturing knowledge into shards of uncontrolled, disordered temporality — our erotic imaginations are whetted by the friction between the promise of the known (represented by the studious, revelatory slow motion) and that which renders the promise incomplete (the anarchically interruptive montage). Peckinpah’s greatest achievement in montage — perhaps the most technically complex example of eroticism in film15 — is the demise of Emilio Fernandez’s General Mapache: at the very split-second the funneling, suspended-animation contents of Fernandez’s four blood squibs are about to reach their crescendi, Peckinpah disobediently yet tantalizingly cuts away, denying us full knowledge of the death’s diminuendo and afterglow. Around the time of The Wizard of Gore, Lewis once defensively proclaimed, “Peckinpah shoots people — I dismember them!”;16 yet Lewis was not outdone and undone by sheer bucketloads of blood, but by the expressionistic, antirealist techniques of post-Peckinpah eroticism, techniques anathematic to Lewis’ literalistic, Victorian stagecraft.
Now that we understand the tense essence of eroticism, we are ready to return to Lewis and the nostalgic transformation of knowledge that is camp. If eroticism is an epistemological tension surrounding an object partly known and partly unknown, is camp, which subjectively reimagines historical meaning in terms of a nostalgic yet self-reflective mystification, thus a subcategory of eroticism? While a full answer to this question would fill a book, we can tentatively propose that, within the comically limited parameters I offer here, camp can be defined as the historicization of the erotic. If Lewis’ fully, pornographically exposed content is now enveloped in the shrouded form of erotically mystified camp, the very prospect of — indeed the very existence of — Lewis’ long-belated sequel Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002) is further eroticized through the differential existing between the gore we’ve known, from Blood Feast through The Gore-Gore Girls, and the gore we imagine Lewis could potentially concoct with the latest technology (and in an era of weary desensitization to violence).
By the 1970s, Lewis was ensnared in and embarrassed by his cult mythology; for his 21st century comeback, he succumbs to epidemic cultural insincerity, and it’s depressing, if unamazing, to see the once sincerely pornographic Lewis bullied into John Watersesque irony — Waters, always a fan of Lewis, even has a cameo in this sequel, appropriately playing a pedophilic priest preying on would-be altar boys. Wouldn’t the greatest irony have been for Lewis to return unrepressed and not succumb to irony, to refuse to admit that there ever even existed a problem to be tenderly, nostalgically lampooned? But Blood Feast 2 is merely nostalgic parody, both Ur-text and meta-text, with semiprofessional actors stiltedly, if accurately, restaging the original’s unprofessional line readings (or stumblings), while Lewis knowingly nods to the original Feast‘s technical foolishnesses, right down to its clock-wipe and slush-organ soundtrack. The plot concerns Fuad’s grandson, Fuad III, reopening his forebear’s exotic catering house; before you can howl “Egyptian feast!” Fuad III is harvesting humanstuffs, corkscrewing the brains of lingerie models, grinding their fingers into forcemeat, pressing livers into foie gras, scooping eyes with a melon-baller, straining gazpacho from gore, crafting collops from cheeks, and arranging the spare parts as conspicuous garnish. Occasionally rising above the swamp of parody, however, is a surprising strain of absurdism, as the two bumbling policemen protagonists blissfully step over the very corpses they’re searching for, and fail to become suspicious of Fuad III even as he’s soaked in blood before them. Those willing to indulge their imaginations can see in such absurdism the inverse of Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), where conformist police are unwilling to believe the soul-redeeming confessions of Gian Maria Volonte’s tragically alienated yet outwardly respectable bureaucrat — yet here, who is the alienist if not Lewis, cheaply selling his pornographic soul for the borrowed respectability of campy, fashionable decadence?
So bearing what arms, you ask, does Lewis make his mock-heroic return to gore? Lewis’ middle-ground solution in Blood Feast 2 is to alternate his savory ’60s sirloin with the rubbery, post-Tom Savini prosthetics of the ’80s, but there is no complementariness or “dialectic” between the two technologies — butcher’s meat and plastic penetrations just awkwardly alternate (depending on what a particular murder calls for) without dialectically synthesizing into something juicier. We are embarrassed by the two technologies’ mutual exclusivity, just as we blush and groan when computer-generated graphics stick out sorely from live action. At the same time, we are masochistic and self-loathing about the ethical implications of our technological curiosity — if we clumsily, illiterately remake Godzilla to see how he’ll look computerized, we hate ourselves for it. Conversely, we’d be appalled if Lewis resorted to computer technology (if he could afford it!), but would be equally disappointed if he failed to acknowledge the springy rubber torsos and cleavable dummy heads that were to the backward, backyard ’80s gore auteur what leftover goat intestines and spare hog guts were once to him. Indeed, the cheapjack parameters of the ’80s direct-to-video horror market finally standardized the American gore aesthetic Lewis introduced. By the mid-’80s, every emotionally stunted (if ruggedly individualistic) hayseed auteur sporting a video camera, a pail of Karo syrup, and a dismemberment fetish was eking out do-it-yourself opuses like Splatter Farm (1987) and Woodchipper Massacre (1988), circumventing the scissors of the MPAA and fostering an underground gore culture that eventually reached its apogee with Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) and semi-mainstream Braindead (1992). Soon afterwards, special effects violence graduated from marginal horror to centered, big-budget neo-neorealism with Saving Private Ryan (1994), an archconservative aesthetic newly standardized by the vainglorious, breast-beating historical militarism recently espoused by Mel Gibson and Ridley Scott.17 Our cinematic repository of violence is no longer generic horror (the repressed) or even cultish camp (the fondly half-remembered and ironically mythologized), but generic history (the dreadfully forgotten and slickly mythologized). Under conservative conditions that permit the violence of mainstream films to be more graphic than that of marginal films — a Braveheart, Starship Troopers, or Black Hawk Down is gorier than fifty Blood Feasts — violence will not only become less erotic and more pornographic, but the very potential of erotic tension is gradually dispelled as full disclosure (of violence) becomes an uncontested reality. If the pornography of violence has been radically mainstreamed, Lewis, upon his return to the arena, has little choice but to become a camp eroticist, for at least camp can, even if illegitimately, always claim marginality. But what’s the ultimate effect of Lewis falling into intentional camp?
In his essay “Coldness and Cruelty,” Gilles Deleuze identifies the politicized literatures of Sade and Masoch not as pornography but as “pornology,” or works whose “erotic language cannot be reduced to the elementary [i.e., pornographic] functions of ordering and describing.”18 He continues:
However [pornology] can only be accomplished by an internal splitting of language: the imperative and descriptive function must transcend itself toward a higher function, the personal element turning by reflection on itself into the impersonal…Hence the well-known apathy of the libertine, the self-control of the pornologist, with which Sade contrasts the deplorable “enthusiasm” of the pornographer.”19
What Deleuze is describing is an intellectualized self-alienation, a coldness that apperceives sexuality only to be unmoved by it (the “higher function”), and in that unmoving discovering a “self-control” that places both author and reader willfully above the aesthetic conventions through which they both operate. How this “higher function” would work in film is unclear, since film literally demonstrates the sexuality that literature only describes; but, if we take Deleuze’s ideas loosely, isn’t the intentional camp of Blood Feast 2 a pornology rendered in the stale terms of self-reflexive irony? Doesn’t camp, splitting nostalgic-temporal experience as pornology splits language, alienate us from the campy object by prompting us to turn experience from the personal into the impersonal? Hasn’t Lewis, now self-split and alienated, become an “apathetic” and “self-controlled” parodist instead of the “enthusiastic [and wonderfully deplorable] pornographer” he once was? But self-alienation, alas, is only half of Deleuze’s equation: unlike pornology, camp has no “higher function.” Camp is enamored of playing with convention (not rebuking it), its assumption of moral superiority is, as we have said, illusory and false, and it does not question its literary or cinematic medium in the way Sade or Masoch erotically, tensely confront the sensory limits of what language can express. Camp exists for its own ritual sake and loves not having a higher purpose. We frequently delight in this defiance — until we realize that the lack of higher purpose too often results in the bankrupt intentionality of a Blood Feast 2.
Tired of writing descriptively, my mind floats back to the original Feast, and I recall the dangers of totemic fetishism. As I write expositorily about porn-as-camp-as-erotica, I remember that, as expository writing seeks to expose, unintentional camp, once exposed, becomes intentional camp, just as erotica, when pornographically exposed, ceases to exist. My mind is split apart.
So much for writing about the Feast! But to watch it again . . .
- For example, see the interview with Lewis at www.brightlightsfilm.com/34/lewis.html. [↩]
- A tantalizing subject: “The Victorian Gaze of H.G. Lewis”? Certainly, there is a vulgar connection between his lip-smacking demonstrativeness and front-and-center camera placement and the demonstrativeness of Victorian theater and pre-Griffith static cinema. [↩]
- One need only refer to the climax of Blood Feast, where Connie Mason refuses to sit still as Fuad tries to sacrifice her, to prove Lewis’ ineptitude at creating alleged suspense. [↩]
- I recall seeing on the internet some years ago a mock-academic article about subjectivism in The Wizard of Gore. Calling the unintentional illogic of the film (which supposes that hypnotism can somehow delay one’s time of death even after evisceration) a disquisition on subjectivism is, at least, amusingly kind. I have since put off my publishing my essay on the role of the flaneur in the middle-period works of Doris Wishman. [↩]
- Some sources claim 1965. [↩]
- Some sources claim 1971. [↩]
- Lewis probably means audiences may be offended by the gore, but audiences who fail to “like” it will probably be disappointed by its ineptitude, particularly when Dr. Gore’s enfeebled assistant receives an ax to his characterological humpback. Regardless, the gore’s mild compared to the scalping sequences of Patterson and Lewis’ The Gruesome Twosome (1967). [↩]
- I Drink Your Blood was, in fact, the first American film to be rated X for violence alone. Lewis’ early films obviously predated the MPAA rating system formulated in late 1967, and played mainly in Southern grindhouses, where censorship laws were rarely enforced. [↩]
- I can only imagine Lewis’ depression when The Godfather — a horribly overrated assembly of ethnographic clichés enlivened only by occasional graphic violence — won a Best Film Oscar in the year of The Gore-Gore Girls. [↩]
- At least the judiciary can hide under their robes! [↩]
- I do not need to dwell upon of the irony of judges erotically imagining (an act of partial knowledge) a definition of pornography (that which represents fully disclosed knowledge). [↩]
- A stubborn conservative could certainly continue arguing that the sexuality of Hays-era films is more tantalizing and exciting than explicit porn — but this sexuality, by my definition, still does not qualify as an ideological “erotics.” [↩]
- To extend this idea beyond art into everyday life, seeing an attractive person walking down the street can be erotic, for there is always the potential, no matter how small or improbable, that your sexual knowledge of the person can increase unlimitedly, without preset guidelines or a censor looking over your shoulder. [↩]
- Obviously, slow-motion violence in itself, without a radical montage to counteract it, is not erotic. When a long take shows a river of blood flowing from David Chiang’s gouged belly at the climax of Chang Cheh’s Have Sword, Will Travel (1969), the effect is simply pornographic, since the audience is given full knowledge of the event. [↩]
- Psycho‘s shower scene seems to be a close second. Hitchcock originallyhad a dummy constructed that could be bloodily impaled onscreen, butdecided to opt for implicit violence, using montage and just a trickleof blood to create the erotic, epistemologically tense illusion ofbloodletting (freeze frames reveal the knife never actually threatensJanet Leigh’s torso). However, it is debatable as to whether Hitchcockcould have actually used the special effects dummy even if he had wanted to, as the censorship standards of 1960 would have likely forbidden it.Thus, the scene may be less erotic than it first seems, as censorshipconsiderations probably predetermined and contaminated the scene’sexpressive potentialities. Nevertheless, some will inevitably preferPsycho‘s erotics of greater mystery and lesser knowledge to The Wild Bunch‘s greater knowledge and lesser mystery, regardless of censorshipconsiderations. [↩]
- Quoted from — yes — the back of The Wizard of Gore‘s old VHS video box. [↩]
- If only ethnic minorities could find as much mainstream financial success as the one-time minority that was special effects violence … [↩]
- See “Coldness and Cruelty” in Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1991. Page 18. The essay is primarily concerned with debunking the psychoanalytic construct of sadomasochism, which Deleuze sees as an illegitimate conflation of sadistic and masochistic symptomologies, and raising Masoch and Sade to the level of mutually exclusive literary ideologies. [↩]
- Ibid, pages 22 and 29. [↩]