Here’s the thing about camp today: pure examples of it are extremely rare. First of all, we know too much; Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” was published in 1964 and has been assigned in humanities courses at liberal arts colleges ever since, so the possibility for an uncritical reception of a “new” camp object is fairly limited. Then, of course, the descriptor “camp” is generally applied to older things; in the moment, we are too caught up in the seriousness of whatever it is that we will come to see as over-serious and excessive and exuding mostly style. But the real sticking point is the all-pervasive cynicism ruling so much of art, fashion, character, life today. Cynicism is the killer of camp, it is the self-knowledge, self-irony and most importantly, general disdain that refuses the possibility of the ebullience of camp.
Of course, there have been some successful, new movies that could be described as campy, my personal favorite being Pain and Gain, a beautiful celebration of far too much of everything (muscles, explosions, saturated colors, self-serious moments, etc.) that only a director like Michael Bay could make by accident, while thinking he is critiquing or poking-fun-at the very thing that motivates his own work. And it’s that “by accident” that makes it pure: the things he thought he was camping are secondary to the excess that ends up taking over. But Pain and Gain was a unique confluence of sincerity; the same year (2013) saw such releases as Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, which felt like cruel and flat attempts to make cynicism fun again, a false production of something that wants to be camp. Unfortunately, the first episode of American Horror Story: Hotel is another example of the latter.
There’s much to enjoy and appreciate about “Checking In.” The camera work is fantastic, giving some of the duller moments in the script visual life; the look of the hotel is amazing, like a goth fantasy home for beautiful weirdos; and thank the dark lord for Kathy Bates and Wes Bentley, who refuse to melt smoothly into the milieu, which seems to prevent so many of the other actors from, you know, acting – rather than just posing and reciting like walking costumes. As a horror nerd, my favorite aspects of the episode are the blatant references to the classics, like the carpet, a fun homage to The Shining, and the shiny replication of The Hunger in the scenes with Lady Gaga and Matthew Bomer.
However, these references also cause some of the problems: the twin-like children seducing the guests are far too easy, for example. And then there’s the anal-rape-death scene, an obvious nod to Se7en; but where Se7en had the good sense to reveal the weapon in dark flashes that forced the viewer to fill in the horribly sadistic blanks, implicating everyone in the violence’s enactment, Hotel chooses to show, repeatedly, and at length, from behind the killer, in the victim’s face, and even in a full-body, well-lit mirror reflection of the scene, one of the most abhorrently flippant representations of sexual violence I’ve had the displeasure to witness. This is serious. And, hopefully, will never be enjoyed as “camp.”
AHS definitely suffers from the loss of Jessica Lange, whose performances in the previous four seasons exuded a commitment and allure that was a real pleasure to watch, even as it went a bit off the rails last year in Freak Show. Where her character was camp in Season 1, by Season 3 she was camping herself; as Sontag wrote in “Notes,” “Camp discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it. … Persons begin “camping”: Mae West, Bea Lillie, La Lupe, Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, Bette Davis in All About Eve.” Lange was exactly what a show like AHS, with its horror-genre-loving, scary-but-camp aspirations, needs.
To the casual consumer of pop culture, Lady Gaga might seem like an obvious choice for Lange’s replacement: she represents style and excess. However, she is also completely without content, and absolutely lacking in innocence (not even innocence-corrupted), sincerity, naivety, humor. She is cynicism personified. On top of that, she is completely without charisma, in keeping with the trend for dead-eyed, painfully boring (and not in a sexy, Artaudian-style alienation thing) performance from the likes of Kristen Stewart, Lana Del Rey, and Ryan Murphy’s own favorite, Emma Roberts. These people are not fun to watch. At all. They are good hair and fun clothes and bad at reading lines. Watching Ben Carson the other day, a Republican presidential candidate who’s just been jokingly described on The Daily Show as a possible zombie, I couldn’t help but think that his is the kind of charm (that is, the total lack thereof) that seems to be the fashion these days.In spite of these very unfortunate missteps, Hotel, like True Detective’s second season, pulls you in and demands to be followed. So many plots have been introduced, so many twists have been hinted, so many swimmingly gorgeous hip sashays affirmed from Denis O’Hare as “Liz Taylor,” the beautiful bellhop. I’m in for episode 2. We’ll see if AHS Hotel delivers what it’s first two seasons once promised.