Against the backdrop of WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, the impetus to scour the history of queerness and camp on film has rarely seemed so timely. Though queerness, as both material reality and theoretical possibility, offers a rejection of normativity, or even the idea of linear narratives, this milestone is nonetheless a reminder of how queer expression on film has changed and left an indelible mark on both cinematic and queer history. Here are 10 memorable, mostly underseen gems that explore the tensions of queerness and camp on screen.
Bound (1996, The Wachowski Sisters)
By now a classic of queer cinema, the Wachowskis’s debut kicked down the door of masculinist genre fare and opened up its potential to be rewritten. This romantic noir is a volcanic study of gender, queerness, and the ways in which queers are undermined by symbols and signifiers themselves, not merely the figureheads that hold them. For Bound, gorgeously stylized, genre itself is both a prison and a Utopia.
A hybrid of nonfiction, an adaptation of Oedipus Rex, and an experimental drama, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses offers an idea of what trans cinema can be, not merely as subject matter but as form and practice. Time is broken down and subjectivity imploded, and sex and gender are unhinged from reality. Delving into the underground drag and sex worker scene in Tokyo, the film unfurls in beautiful disarray, offering one of the most harrowingly pure expressions of cinematic queerness in history.
Ever the provocateur, Canadian filmmaker, photographer, artist, and pornographer Bruce LaBruce’s The Raspberry Reich is one of his most jovial attacks on the frequent hypocrisy of radical politics. As he gives his characters the right leftist credos to regurgitate, he interrogates and punctures their commitment to their professed ideology, like Agatha Christie knocking off victims in a mansion. So too does this give him the opportunity to explore cinema as a political medium. By erasing the lines between narrative, essay, and pornographic film, LaBruce unearths the inherent artifice and transactional nature of political posturing. Then again, there’s nothing hotter than someone whispering into your ear, “The revolution is my boyfriend.”
In this wicked satire of sex and politics, Babbit takes aim at the successes and failures of radical queer political groups, putting in her crosshairs a world of separatist lesbians. Like LaBruce, Babbit understands and sympathizes with the premise of the group’s rhetoric — that patriarchy dominates society tyrannically, and that all social spaces are therefore misogynistic. But their nonviolent activism (graffitiing public spaces with feminist proclamations) falls apart as the group splinters over differing opinions and the nuances of their political perspectives. The film builds a deep understanding of this group, with all their sweetness, angst, competition, empathy, love, and heartbreak.
Sion Sono uses Antiporno, a treatise on power dynamics and textuality, to indict its audience. Everyone watching is complicit. A pink film version of a Michael Haneke lecture, the director peels back the layers of the relationship between two performers as they are haunted by memories of the past and each other, as well as the relationship the audience has with eroticism onscreen. Every wall is knocked down, and the artifice of the different scenarios is deconstructed and rebuilt ceaselessly.
Candy Darling’s star shone brighter than most actors could have hoped, and Andy Warhol wasn’t the only person to notice her rawness and exuberant energy. Taking place on the night of a Christmas party in a crowded Greenwich Village gay bar (and released just a couple of years after Stonewall), Darling’s timid voice, her ability to manifest a desire to fold into herself and disappear, demonstrate how virtuosic she was. Though other performers get their time in the spotlight (including Rue McClanahan), this Altman-esque ensemble belongs to Candy.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental tensions in camp studies exists between its relationship to aestheticization and its depth. Camp, it is often claimed, is all about the surface. Essayist Susan Sontag, whom many credit with popularizing the term, is heavily bent toward a vision of camp wherein failed seriousness trumps any possibility of authenticity. But many artists and filmmakers have interrogated camp’s complications. Todd Haynes’s half-hour PBS short film Dottie Gets Spanked, which traces a line between star persona, fandom, queerness, and latent proclivities, is stylized like a Lifetime Movie. It’s pastel enough to pass for basic cable, its colors subtly used so as to never betray the ludicrousness in its vision of desire. Over his career, the New Queer Cinema pioneer has never matched the empathy which suffuses Dottie Gets Spanked.
D.E.B.S. (2004, Angela Robinson)
Angela Robinson is good at revising popular fantasies. In D.E.B.S., she takes the corny lesbian schoolgirl trope to its logical extreme. A giddy celebration of its own artifice of femininity, the film also deconstructs the espionage genre. This is a quintessential text of dyke camp.
Fireworks (1947, Kenneth Anger)
A sailor holds a firecracker between his legs, moments away from exploding. This 1947 short from filmmaker, artist, occultist, and Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger writes a mythology around white masculinity, inscribing the fantasy of a sailor coming home (in more than one sense of the word) as a great American fever dream. Or maybe it’s a nightmare. The uniformed phantasmagoria is a forbear of everything from Tom of Finland comics to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s almost-pornographic reverie Querelle.
Chantal Akerman, responsible for devastating films like Jeanne Dielman and News from Home, had a sense of whimsy too. Set in a shopping mall, this musical is like a cocktail of Jacques Demy’s ear for music and life and Chris Marker’s eye for the changing political landscape. Using the gossipy, dramatic world of salons and shops, Akerman borders on ethnographer as she observes the ups and downs of love and sex between mall employees, as well as the economic prospects of the European Union more broadly.