The Out Take is a monthly column by Daniel Walber about queer representations in film.
Brian de Palma’s “Passion” is a bad movie. It’s ineptly made, the script is a mess, and some of the acting is pretty suspect. No movie is objectively terrible, but the incompetent strangeness of this exhausting almost-erotic thriller edges in that direction. It’s also gotten plenty of abysmal reviews, which have been piling up since last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. This article is not about that. The dreadfulness of “Passion” isn’t really interesting. What does seem worth discussing, and has some bearing on LGBT representation and queer film culture, is how De Palma’s semi-lesbian film falls apart and whether it becomes enjoyable along the way. In a single question: “Is ‘Passion’ campy?”
Well, a bunch of critics seem to think so. The word has come up a lot in the writing about “Passion,” almost as often as it emerged in the conversation earlier this month about “The Canyons.” The two films actually make quite the double feature on this subject. Both are failures, yet both seem to have been given the almost immediate benefit of the doubt that they might be unintentional successes of “campiness.” That word, the current go-to stand-in for “so bad it’s good,” has been tossed around quite a bit. It’s also entirely the wrong way to describe either “Passion” or “The Canyons.”
Simply put: a movie is not campy simply because it’s bad, and loudly so.
There are a number of reasons why this confusion is irritating, but I’ll get to those shortly. First, it’s important to clarify just what the word means in the first place. There’s a distinction between “camp” and “campy.” The former is a sort of “high camp,” the little nuances and J. Bryan Lowder celebrated earlier this year at Slate. As Lowder explains it, the high camp moment is one of nuance. It’s a little detail that you notice, something that speaks to you alone in an unexpected way. Lowder’s prime example is the entrance of Rosalind Russell in “Auntie Mame,” full of subtle half-jokes and gestures.
Yet these nuances are also why we love campy movies, the “low camp” stuff. John Waters’ “Pecker” is full of small jokes and character quirks that speak directly to the individual in the audience. Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” is nothing if not brash and messy, but its campiness comes from its stranger details. The way Nicole Kidman delivers one of her odder lines, the total unnecessary strangeness of Matthew McConaughey’s kink, the impossible sweat on John Cusack’s brow. Campy movies are just camp writ-large, with the nuances boldly remaining even after the film around them has thrown subtlety into the dumpster.
Why care about this in the context of “Passion” and “The Canyons” being terrible? Simply put, camp adds value. It’s assumed that something campy is better than something terrible and boring. Camp redeems the dreadful. “The Bad Seed” and “Valley of the Dolls” became classics after the fact because nuances had been found in them that spoke to a new audience. Calling “Passion” camp almost directly implies that it’s better than other bad movies. It isn’t.
The proof lies in the details. Campiness isn’t obvious or successfully serious, perhaps because those elements would prevent glee. De Palma uses a number of twists in “Passion” to swing the audience around, many of which are supposed to be taken entirely without laughter. There are a handful of moments in which Noomi Rapace’s character suddenly wakes up, implying that the previous scene was all a dream. In another, campier film these would be extraneous to the plot in a way that allows for comic interpretation. Yet De Palma seems to mean them quite seriously, determined to shake his audience. There’s nothing campy about that. Countless other opportunities to create subtle, campy details are lost. The script is full of dull clichés rather than funny ones, bland costume and art direction choices, and flat performances.
Here’s another example, from “The Canyons”: Paul Schrader uses a number of still photos of shut down movie theaters, in the opening credits and as intertitles to denote a day passing. Schrader is obviously making a point about the death of cinema, or at the least the death of movie going, that is so ponderous and obvious there’s no possibility of nuance. As a counterexample, the intertitles in Madonna’s “W.E.” are excessive, constant and devoted to highlighting the glamor of Wallis Simpson’s life. They’re transparent in their purpose, this is true, but the way that the excess clearly comes from Madonna’s strange obsession with this story creates nuance for the audience.
From that example one can also infer that there’s an element of intent involved. Camp and campiness require reading a film in a new way that creates new interpretations. It’s fascinating that the few defenders of “The Canyons” and “Passion” are also looking deeper for their answers. Yet while camp hunters usually look for details on the surface, often ignoring the director, the partisans of these two films craft arguments of auteurist intent. The conclusions are these: “The Canyons” is lifeless because it’s making a point about lifelessness! “Passion” is shallow because De Palma is showing us the shallow nature of our 21st century images! Such cold, cerebral logic not only unintentionally emphasizes how much of a boring slog to watch these movies, but is also the absolute opposite of campiness.
Finally, it needs to be said that the element of queerness in camp is put in a precarious place by these two films. “Passion” and “The Canyons” are both full of sex without being particularly sexy, and both use the occasional queer sexual encounter to further their faux-erotic style. De Palma’s reasons for including lesbian characters in his film hardly seem queer, and have more to do with his surprisingly old-fashioned ideas about why female nudity belongs on screen. “The Canyons” comes by its supposed queerness a bit more honestly, but Bret Easton Ellis’s bombastic misanthropy complicates it again. The script makes gay sex more of a seedy device than anything else.
Why care? Because camp is an element of queer culture that, because of the assimilation of LGBT people into a gradually more accepting society, everyone can now enjoy. Don’t mess it up by assuming all queer things are camp, and don’t ruin it by applying the term to bland, terrible movies. The result would be audiences that associate camp and campiness with dull trash rather than fabulous trash, and mainstream audiences (even art house ones) are already choosing not to go to LGBT movies. Here’s a chance for everyone to have fun together, and we shouldn’t ruin it by unintentionally elevating something like “The Canyons.” Life’s too short.