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Max Friedman Twisted Lit. Prof. Cohen 3/10/16 – Essay Revision

Using the Winnebago: Mulholland Drive as Carefully Crafted Camp Defining genre is not usually that difficult. Whether it be noir, adventure, thriller, or any of the other common choices, every genre has a distinctive set of attributes and characteristics. When it comes to the relatively-newly defined genre of “Camp,” though, this process is not as clear cut. Written in the early 1960’s, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation features a chapter entitled “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in which she takes a stab at defining the genre, latching on to what she refers to as a “sensibility” -- a tonal thread shared by the various works she associates with Camp. This sensibility, broadly characterized as the sustained use of theatricality, stylization, and sometimes vulgarity, came about to describe a style of film and literature, but it was also devised to represent a stylization of everyday objects and dress. Had this article been written 30 years later, it would have used the film/television work of David Lynch as models of all things Camp. More specifically, she would have focused in on his 2001 film Mulholland Drive. Given the parameters discussed in “Notes on Camp,” Mulholland Drive is a model Camp film. By using the essential element of failed seriousness, emphasizing the metaphor of life as theater, and placing emphasis on irony over tragedy, Mulholland Drive adheres to Sontag’s definition. The only aspect in which the film differs from Sontag’s definition is that Lynch is actively crafting the Camp, making it somewhat deliberate, which is seen as less valid Camp under Sontag’s characterization. Lynch, however, has never stated that he was trying to create Camp; its appearance is the consequence of his inability to maintain a consistent tone or genre through the film. He is thus still operating within Sontag’s sense of true Camp, as the audience’s perception is what elicits the sensibility, not the director’s intent. The plot of the film is a complicated mess, but its tone is relatively consistent: it’s dead serious, but in a way that is decidedly laughable. According to Sontag, “In naive, or pure, Camp,


Max Friedman Twisted Lit. Prof. Cohen 3/10/16 – Essay Revision

the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.... Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive” is Camp (283). The premise is divided into two. 1: A young actress named Betty moves to Los Angeles and finds an amnesiac girl named Rita in her apartment upon arrival. Betty helps Rita rediscover her identity, and then quickly gets an acting gig in an esteemed director’s film. 2: Betty, portrayed in a different life as a woman named Diane, is a failed actress living in L.A. who has a lesbian lover named Camille, played by Rita. Rita/Camille gets the successful role in this version, and Betty/Diane gets consumed by her fears and anxieties in the end. The blending of identity and character is confusing, and has turned off many viewers over the years, but that fact speaks to the “campy” nature of the film. The seriousness of the plot is frequently overshadowed by moments of laugh-out-loud comedy that never seem wholly intentional. For example, there is a scene near the beginning of the movie, in which the film director has a casting meeting with some of the film’s investors. They are large, intense Italian men who say little. One of their demands is that they be given a cup of espresso. The audience waits as the investor orders, receives his espresso -- which apparently has been deliberately sought out for his enjoyment -- and takes a sip. Apparently displeased, he spits the espresso out onto a napkin in a slow exaggerated fashion, and then wipes the remnants slowly off of his tongue. The characters in the scene do not laugh, but the excessive tension elicits a reaction from the audience. The man’s reaction is understood as serious in the context of the film, but it makes no sense to the viewer. This is essential to true Camp, as “Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying” (Sontag, 282). The rude style of the man’s refusal is completely out of synch with the rest of the scene, and that shift in tonality is what creates the comical moment. The tonal shifts and forced seriousness are intentional, as Lynch directs his films with an overemphasis on the aesthetic, but the comedy that


Max Friedman Twisted Lit. Prof. Cohen 3/10/16 – Essay Revision

arises is not deliberate. His tendency to stay truly serious in a scene, or to get over-serious too quickly, instills discomfort in the viewer. In that sense, Lynch is not a bumbling idiot, but a weirdo-craftsman who thinks and creates in a campy tonality, which maintains the pure nature of his Camp. He’s going camping in a Winnebago in that sense, but one he built from scratch. In addition to the failed seriousness of the film, Mulholland Drive shows its Camp through an emphasis on the theatricality of life. According to Sontag “[Camp] is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater,” (280). This emphasis manifests in two key different ways: both in the way everyday life is treated as theater, and in the integration of actual theatrical performance into life. The first appears in a series of scenes wherein Betty is practicing for her audition with Rita, and then actually performing in front of the casting agents. In the first scene, the audience isn’t made aware of the fact that Betty is reading from a script until a few moments into the shot. It appears as if she and Rita are having a heated discussion, and it’s only when the camera pans down that the audience realizes the two women are practicing a scene. When it comes time for Betty to perform the scene, she does so with a fellow actor, and without scripts, causing the moment to appear more like a real movie scene. This performance is hyper-sexual, cinematically intimate, and much better acted, but all the while the audience is aware that it is a scene within a scene. The fact that the audition scene comes across as more lifelike than the actual Mulholland Drive scene is a function of Lynch’s playing with this element of Camp. The underlying tone of the first scene is serious, because the audience thinks that Betty and Rita are arguing before realizing that they are having fun together, and the underlying tone of the second scene is funny, because the audience knows from the beginning that the two actors are just acting, and the seriousness is entirely artificial. The Camp is still unintentional, because it’s created by the juxtaposition of these two scenes, which are both theatrical expressions that fail to


Max Friedman Twisted Lit. Prof. Cohen 3/10/16 – Essay Revision

be serious. When asked if Lynch set out deliberately to tease or mystify the audience, he replied: “No, you never do that to an audience. An idea comes, and you make it the way the idea says it wants to be, and you just stay true to that” (Rodley, 30). Lynch was not trying to confuse the audience; the ideas just came to him in that organic way. The Camp creator never purposefully damages a narrative – they just tend to let other elements, like the stylized theme of performance, take precedence. The performance element continues to appear throughout the film, such as when Rita suddenly sits up in bed at two in the morning and begins repeatedly whispering “Silencio,” until Betty realizes she’s being instructed to go to a nightclub with the same name. At the club, the emcee frequently reminds the room that “It’s all a recording at ‘Silencio.’” A Latina woman begins passionately singing a Spanish cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and right as she’s about to finish, collapses. Her voice, however, continues to echo through the speakers. Rita and Betty start crying, even though they knew the song was a recording. This unsettling moment speaks to the nature of performance, as it reveals the audience’s tendency to accept illusion as reality, but it also adheres to the idea of Camp in its excessive theatricality. The film’s viewers are not affected by the Spanish woman’s song, because they know it’s a performance, and the absurdity of the whole event provides a certain level of emotional distance. This distance is key: “Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy...an experience of under involvement, of detachment” (288). The sense of alienation that this performance creates is not laugh-out-loud funny in that moment, but it’s un-serious enough to establish distance between the audience and the emotional landscape of the film. The characters’ crying should be appropriate, but it comes across as out of place. Something has been wedged between the art and the audience, and all sentiment becomes warped as a result.


Max Friedman Twisted Lit. Prof. Cohen 3/10/16 – Essay Revision

The tone of the film, through failed seriousness and theatricality, establishes that irony has precedence over tragedy. As the credits roll at the end of Mulholland Drive, the audience becomes confused. This is not just because the last scene features an inch-tall elderly couple sneaking under Betty’s door, causing her to commit suicide in symbolic splendor, but because the movie has failed to be tragic. It was stylized, violent, passionate, funny and compelling at times, but failed to convey true tragedy in the end. It may seem that the audience would be happy at the end of the film, ecstatic or at least amused at the ridiculous and nonsensical conclusion, but the initial reaction must be that of confusion at almost understanding what happened. Only after rewatching the film does the audience realize that the elderly couple is the same pair that got off the plane with Betty in the beginning of the film, and filled her with high hopes of becoming famous. Only then does the ridiculous sequence become a reversal of the opening scene, and a work of narrative craft. This misunderstanding is what cements the failed tragedy of the film. According to Sontag, “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy” (287). Camp is the antithesis of tragedy, as it unintentionally undermines the audience’s attempt to interpret the film as a cohesive work of art. But that act of intentional undermining in itself is what produces the Camp. Mulholland Drive’s failure leaves the audience confused, misled, and begging for some kind of explanation. This reaction often registers in the negative; it turns viewers away. The audience has to dislike the film, because the ultimate Camp statement is “it’s good because it’s awful” (292). As Desson Thomson said in his Washington Post review: “Mulholland Drive is an extended mood opera, if you want to put an arty label on incoherence.” This negative review reflects the average, unaware viewer, but it should be noted that the majority of critics at the time seemed to understand what the film was trying to accomplish. In


Max Friedman Twisted Lit. Prof. Cohen 3/10/16 – Essay Revision

his 5-star review, Roger Ebert stated: “This movie doesn't feel incomplete because it could never be complete--closure is not a goal.” In the end, the film is good because it possesses the passionate, generous, and entertaining elements of a successful film, but it’s bad because it fails to be coherent in the same regard. When this failure occurs, however, as long as it does so innocently, as if unintentional, it begins to radiate a certain Camp quality. Even though everything David Lynch did with the film was meticulously planned, it becomes clear upon further analysis that he was not walking around with a “How to make a Camp film” guidebook. He was, however, walking around with a defined vision in his head – a series of ideas that did not, and could not conform to typical Hollywood film structure. The end result being a film that never makes complete sense, and that begins to open up to the viewer if and only if they accept that fact.


Max Friedman Twisted Lit. Prof. Cohen 3/10/16 – Essay Revision

Works Cited: -

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’” Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus and

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Giroux. 1961 Rodley, Chris. “Lynch on Lynch.” New York: Faber and Faber. 2005. Mulholland Drive. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux.

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Criterion, 2001. Blu-Ray. Ebert, Roger. “Mulholland Drive.” Chicago Sun-Times.12 Oct. 2001. Thomson, Desson “Mulholland Drive.” Washington Post. 10 Oct. 2001.


Using the Winnebago - "Mulholland Drive" as Carefully Crafted Camp