Now i have confirmation that it's not a load of drivel, here's my essay. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as i enjoyed writing it.
In what ways does ‘The Pirate’ embody the sensibilities of Camp?
The sensibility of camp is a subject which has been discussed by a multitude of writers, each of whom seem to come up with a different set of criteria to which something must conform in order to deserve categorization as a camp object. In this essay, for my own ease and in an attempt to come to some form of clear conclusion, I shall solely be focusing on camp as defined by Susan Sontag in her 1961 essay, ‘Notes on Camp’. In so doing I fully realize I am ignoring a vast and fascinating aspect (some would argue the defining aspect) of camp, namely the association between camp sensibilities and gay culture. By focusing on Sontag’s argument, and in particular her statement that “the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” I hope to explain how a camp sensibility is translated into ‘The Pirate’ through set, costume and performance.
‘The Pirate’ was directed by Vincente Minnelli, a major figure in MGM musicals, famous for his “adventurously stylized” productions. He, probably more than any other director, popularized the idea of integrating the song and dance routines into the action of the film, so that they appear spontaneous and effortless. One way in which he achieved this sense of naturalized performance was by creating an obviously artificial or stylized world for the characters to inhabit, with the set and costume signifying a disassociation from reality to the audience even before any singing or dancing takes place. By establishing the unnatural nature of the character’s surroundings Minnelli created a space wherein “the boundaries between fantasy and everyday life could easily be transgressed” without jarring the audience. If we consider the film in the light of Sontag’s assertion that “camp is a certain mode of aestheticism... in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization” , we can appreciate the campness of Minnelli’s vision. The overstated visual aspect of the film, the colourful costumes, stylized sets and magnificently constructed backdrops frame the film within a code of campness, working against nature, so that the sets as well as the characters become performative.
The idea of performance, of “being-as-playing-a-role” is central to the sensibility of camp, and this is particularly prominent in the main song and dance sequences of ‘The Pirate’. Sexual desire is expressed through performance by both central characters, firstly by Gene Kelly as Serafin in the song ‘Nina’, and later in Judy Garland’s song, ‘Love of my Life’. The song ‘Nina’ starts with Kelly explaining to the men in the town the way he attracts women, before moving through the town seducing various girls, and finally ending up at a poster of himself, advertising his show. Kelly is performing his desire, but as an audience it is unclear to whom he is performing. Is the song for the men to whom he starts singing, to the women with whom he dances, or to the audience he wishes to entice to his show? What is clear is that the character is supposed to be focused upon. The women, with which he dances, far from serving as objects of desire, become a faceless multitude, entirely interchangeable and un-eroticized. As a result of this, Serafin “assumes the ‘feminine’ position of erotic objectification,” he is the one to whom we as an audience are attracted, thus subverting the traditional cinematic viewpoint of man as subject and woman as object. In this way, ‘Nina’ conforms to Sontag’s idea of “transcend[ing] the nausea of replica” by allowing something to be read in a new and different way.
Similarly, in Garland’s number, ‘Love of my Life,’ we are presented with a performative expression of desire, and here the element of artificiality behind the sentiment being expressed is made abundantly clear. The song is constructed within layers of performance. Garland’s Manuela is expressing her love to Kelly’s Serafin, who is pretending to be Macoco; but she is also singing to provoke Don Pedro, the real Macoco, whilst all the while pretending to be hypnotized. The artificiality is further highlighted by having the sequence take place on Serafin’s stage. Again, it is unclear to the audience to whom Garland’s performance is really aimed. Here, at the most obviously artificial point in the film, the audience is given Manuela’s expression of love for Serafin, supposedly “the most direct expression of ‘true’ feeling,” in the film. This acceptance of artifice in the place of real emotion adheres to Sontag’s statement that “camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.” What could be seen as a romantic or emotional expression is instead layered within performance and artifice, so that it becomes impossible to read seriously, without the sense of “playful, anti-serious” humour on which camp is based.
This playfulness extends to the portrayal of gender and sex roles in ‘The Pirate’. I have already touched upon the way in which Kelly is ‘feminized’ early on in the film, and this fact is made even more explicit within the ‘Pirate Ballet’ sequence. Here we see quite clearly that Garland as Manuela takes on the ‘masculine’ role as an observer, the subject of the gaze, while Kelly is objectified into the ‘feminine’ position. The sequence starts with Manuela looking out of her window at Serafin, who is pretending to be Macoco. Serafin notices her watching, and plays up to her gaze by fighting the local police force. The camera then cuts back to Manuela before fading into a dream sequence. This editing leaves the audience in no doubt that the following dance routine is entirely Manuela’s fantasy; we experience it through her imagination. The image of Serafin/Macoco we are then given is highly sexualized. As the ruthless pirate of Manuela’s fantasy, Kelly’s body is on display for the audience to admire. Wearing tight black shorts and a low cut, sleeveless vest, Kelly is coded as a sexual object, the black of the costume blending into the darkness of the highly stylized black and red background so that the bare flesh of his legs and arms are the focal point. The camera is placed low, angled up at him so that his crotch is at the centre of every shot. Even the choreography is styled around the male as spectacle. In classical ballet, and in most dream ballet sequences of the period, the male dancer serves as a support for the ballerina (a good example of this is Cyd Charisse’s cameo in the ‘Broadway Ballet’ sequence from ‘Singin’ in the Rain’). Here, this is not the case. Kelly dances with other men, or alone. Only once does he dance with a woman, and then it is only for a second, and we do not see her face. This is a fantasy from a woman’s perspective in which men are sexual objects, thus producing a “provocative disjunction of gendered and sexualized understandings of masculinity,” with which the audience must try to align itself.
The fact that we see Serafin acknowledging that Manuela is watching before he puts on his exaggerated masculine performance leads us back to the point of Sontag’s, that “as a taste in persons, camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated or to the strongly exaggerated.” All of the performances in ‘The Pirate’ are exaggerated to some extent, but Serafin playing Macoco, and Manuela when pretending to be hypnotized are the most interesting in terms of camp sensibility. In both cases we see the characters playing heightened versions of gender stereotypes. Serafin as Macoco is all machismo, lowering his voice and puffing out his chest. Manuela under ‘hypnosis’ is a heavy breathing, quivering lipped parody of femininity. This “relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms” firmly places both characters in the realm of camp, performing gender stereotypes to an extent that could almost be considered drag.
A final way in which ‘The Pirate’ could be considered to embody the sensibilities of camp is in its portrayal of an unconventional romance narrative. Serafin falls for Manuela’s beauty, but as an audience we get the impression that he would be willing to forget her as he does all the other women until he hears her sing. The relationship is then less about romance than it is about Serafin wanting her for her talent, to the point where he even states that “it’s isn’t essential for you to love me.” The film instead provides the audience with a “camp romance narrative... [which] tampers with romantic expectations.” The two characters do not have a typical courtship; Manuela only falls for Serafin because she thinks that he is Macoco, and only finds happiness when she “exchanges dreams for self-conscious artifice” . The film thwarts our expectations to the last, when instead of the expected union of the couple we are given an androgynous, unromantic comedy musical number.
This final number, ‘Be A Clown’ could be taken as a suggestion for how to read the film as a whole. The couple perform on a lavishly decorated stage, surrounded by artifice, encouraging the audience both on screen and off to laugh with them. If “the whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious,” then ending the film on a subversive and humorous note is a perfect summation of camp sensibility. We are presented with the “artifice and exaggeration” of the film, in terms of set, costume and performance, and told by the leads that it is alright to find it funny; in the end they remind us that “camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment... camp is generous, it wants to enjoy.”
Cohan, Steven, ‘Dancing with balls in the 1940s: sissies, sailors and the camp masculinity of Gene Kelly’ in The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema, eds. Powrie, Phil, Ann Davis and Bruce Babington (London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2004)
Cohan, Steven, Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical, (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2005)
Dyer, Richard, ‘Judy Garland and Camp’ in Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2004)
Naremore, James, The Films of Vincente Minnelli, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)
Sontag, Susan, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961),
Tinkcom, Matthew, ‘”Working Like a Homosexual” Camp Visual Codes and the Labour of Gay Subjects in the MGM Freed Unit’ in Hollywood Musicals and The Film Reader, ed. Steven Cohan (New York: Routledge, 2001)
So yeah, there that is. Apparently i could have gotten higher marks if i hadn't sold myself short in my introduction by saying i was only looking at Sontag when in fact my research was broader. Bah, live and learn. Still, I'm happy, and that's 25% of my grade for this course in the bag.
Had a rehearsal today for an hour and a half doing the last 15 minutes of act 3. The staging is fine, so we were really just focusing on lines and motivations. It does get better every time we do it, and people take direction very well, really listening to my notes and applying them to their performance, but the lines are still weak. The interesting this was that we did a line run with everyone sitting down and it was almost perfect. They just seem to get confused when we're up and moving. It's frustrating, but i think we've almost got it.
I'm spending the evening trying to get well, getting posters printed, and going up to London to get my hair dyed. I'm thinking fluorescent pink. Good idea?