The Future of the Past: The IndieFlix Classics SeriesAugust 16th, 2011 | Posted by in Film Festivals | IndieFlix in the Media | Movie Reviews | New Releases
hat is “camp”? Webster’s says it’s “something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.” Susan Sontag, who first made a name for herself with 1964’s groundbreaking Notes on “Camp,” considered it resistant to explication (hence her fragmentary “notes” instead of a conventional essay). As cool as Susan Sontag was, with that hair and everything, I’m not sure why camp stumped her. It seems obvious to me: camp is a wide gap between enthusiasm and talent.
Take Ed Wood, for example. In the history of cinema, you couldn’t hope to find a filmmaker more passionate about the possibilities of the medium. But with the aesthetic sensibility of a box of socks, Wood’s enthusiasm produced some—and this is key—laughably horrible results. It’s like squeezing too much of something through too small a hole: results may vary, but I can pretty well guarantee a mess. People with small talent and little enthusiasm don’t produce camp; nor do those with outsize supplies of both. Those types of artists produce work that’s more likely to fall somewhere on the bad-art to good-art spectrum. But when there’s a mismatch, when the wiring goes awry and the gap between craft and passion is out of whack, the continuum twists back on itself and we end up on the far side of the looking glass with the kind of art that’s been called “so bad it’s good.” That’s camp. (What do we get when the imbalance is the other way around—huge talent and little or no enthusiasm? I’m not sure; something sadder than camp: Garbo’s later years? Charles Laughton’s unmade movies?)
But that’s still not the whole story. Camp can be further divided. Again, all due respect to Ms. Sontag, but this also seems obvious. You have your pure camp: sincere but naive and unsuccessful attempts at art (Glen or Glenda) and your applied camp: winking, ironic use of bits and pieces of naive art (Die Mommie Die!). This distinction is clear enough, I think, that it requires no further explanation. (It’s not rocket surgery, Susan.)
Which brings me to the impetus for this blog article. IndieFlix is proud to announce the addition of a new wing to our library. Starting this week with the launch of the IndieFlix Classics series, IndieFlix joins Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, and other distributors in the growing trend of making the lost classics of yesteryear available to the public again. Now, the films we’re adding to our library are not the Gone with the Winds, or the Citizen Kanes, of the golden age of the Hollywood studios. Most of them are “B movies.” While some B movies were in fact made by the big studios, as a kind of cheap filler for double bills (thus the name: a double bill often had an A title–a big studio production–and a B title), most of what we think of as B movies today were made by independents. Then as now, an independent producer would not generally have access to the kinds of budgets and A-list stars that marked the productions of the big studios. A frequent result of this was a notable difference in quality between independent B movies and studio A movies. So for many B movie fans, camp value is a big part of the appeal. But the medium is not always the message: Michelangelo was Michelangelo, whether he was painting a prince’s portrait or sketching an urchin in charcoal. For the diligent prospector there are some real gems to be mined among the dross.
“But there’s a lot of dross!” you say. And you have a point. But with the launch of the IndieFlix Classics series, IndieFlix will be your guide through the darkness. So, onward and downward, into the mines!
One of the things that makes me unreasonably happy is finding a lesser-known masterpiece that’s come down to us through the decades with its light obscured by a bushel basket made of the kind of narrowminded preconceptions that recognize no distinction between monetary and artistic value. I’m not alone; most of my moviegeek friends love to talk about filmmakers like Jacques Tourneur, who took a small budget and a silly script and made atmospheric masterpieces like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, using darkness and sound in lieu of expensive props and effects. Or Edgar Ulmer, who made the noir classic Detour out of little more than shadows, fog, and a palpable sense of despair.
One way to recognize such diamonds in the rough is that they tend to stand out from the general background noise of a century of B movies; each one is unique in some way. We’ve chosen six such standouts to inaugurate the IndieFlix Classics series, but for brevity’s sake I’m going to focus on just one: the fiercely weird Carnival of Souls.
In 1962, Herk Harvey was working as a director and producer for Centron Films of Lawrence, Kansas, an independent production company specializing in those educational films that have been the bane of schoolchildren since the 1940s. You remember them: films like “Street Safety Is Your Problem,” “Pork: The Meal with a Squeal,” and “To Touch a Child.” While on vacation in Utah, Harvey happened upon an abandoned theme park, Saltair Pavilion, a location so evocative that it inspired him to cobble together $33,000, the services of one professional actress and the enthusiastic participation of several local amateurs, and, one assumes, a little more vacation time, to write, produce, and direct Carnival of Souls.
Harvey began his first fiction film from what was surely a point of comfortable familiarity: it starts as a transparent morality tale about the dangers of drag racing. But once the teen-piloted car plunges off the bridge into the Kansas River, we’re in a different world. Reality shifts, space and time follow unfamiliar lines, and any expectations the audience may have had as to how this story was going to play out float away the like the bubbles escaping the sinking car.
Watching Carnival of Souls, it’s easy to spot the sources of tributes and references from directors like Coppola, Fuller, and Saw’s James Wan, who quotes from Carnival of Souls in more than one film. Stanley Kubrick borrowed at least three shots for The Shining, and the parallels between the Saltair Pavilion and the Overlook Hotel are numerous and explicit. George Romero freely acknowledges Carnival of Souls as a source for his zombies. And David Lynch seems to have constructed much of his own aesthetic from building blocks first laid down in Carnival of Souls. For a film that received almost no notice on its initial release, Carnival of Souls has gone on to achieve not only cult status among audiences, but the validation and respect of some of the most important people and institutions in cinema.
And now, as the inaugural offering in the IndieFlix Classics series, it’s part of the IndieFlix Library, and an example of the staying power of independent film. Join us as we continue the series, where film history, independent achievement, and, yes, sometimes camp, meet.
Also included in the inaugural launch of the IndieFlix Classics series:
Detour | 1945 | Film Noir. A backlot cheapie, shrouded in shadow and fog to disguise its budget, and a masterpiece of atmosphere, with the scariest femme fatale ever to scratch a guy’s face with her nails. Directed by Edgar Ulmer.
A Star Is Born | 1937 | Drama. An early technicolor weepie, the source of all those remakes, and an insiders’ view into the highs and lows–especially the lows–of stardom in early Hollywood. Directed by William Wellman.
The Stork Club | 1945 | Musical. A war-time cinderella story starring the wildly appealing Betty Hutton as a hat check girl with big dreams and a suspicious boyfriend home from the Pacific. Directed by Hal Walker.
The Strange Woman | 1946 | Period Noir. A strange movie: a hybrid period costumer and film noir starring the supernaturally beautiful Hedy Lamarr in the juiciest role of her juicy career. Directed by Edgar Ulmer (some scenes by an uncredited Douglas Sirk).