Last night I finally got to see Salomé in the cinema, as it should be seen. As previously discussed, this 1923 silent film based on Oscar Wilde’s drama was directed by Charles Bryant, but its driving creative force was its star, Nazimova.
Bringing Salomé to the screen was of immense importance to Nazimova, and she was determined to realise it in the style of Aubrey Beardsley’s original illustrations for Wilde’s play. It was an undertaking into which she sank a large portion of her own money, seeing it as the summit of her dramatic work. However in the book Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth, Philip Core calls Salomé “a camp con-job on a grand scale”. Would confronting a full-sized Salomé explain this gap between intention and perception?
Salomé was screened as part of two overlapping programmes. The first is “Rising Stars, Falling Stars”, a series now in its fifth year which pairs silent films with accompaniment, hosted by Berlin-based multi-platform drag phenomenon Vaginal Davis. The second is “Camp/Anti-Camp”, which starts in earnest next month and promises “a queer guide to everyday life”. La Vaginal hosted the evening, thanking her Macedonian hairdresser before introducing the queer delights to come, though we were left to sort out the camp/anti-camp dichotomy for ourselves.
The audience certainly seemed to locate Salomé to the left of the oblique. Initially, at least, for the overt campiness isn’t spread evenly over the whole piece. Knowing laughs greeted Salomé’s repertoire of petulant moues as she rejects Petrarch’s advances, the courtiers’ bona drag and the lustful, vengeful histrionics of Herodias, the stage mother from hell. But all of that is done with surprisingly early on. The shadow of death literally hangs over proceedings, fluttering over Salomé and Jokanaan whenever they touch, a detail I had somehow missed before. From then on the film assumes a sinister, ritualistic pace. The square format of the film enhances the dense, portentous mood, and the film’s solitary long shot is a depiction of suicide (at the court of Herod, so steeped in corruption, the only redemption is death). In Salomé, claustrophobia is somehow a condition of time rather than space.
The evening’s overtly anti-camp element, if such there were, was supplied by John and Tim Blue’s excellent accompaniment. It’s easy to imagine how a camp musical reading of the movie might hit each dramatic cue, shrill crescendi underscoring the guard’s suicide or Jokanaan’s calumny, a jangling Orientalist frenzy marking time for the fabled, fatal dance. Instead the images were shadowed by hypnotic bass, guitar and unidentifiable electronics fed through a whole armoury of loops, delays and other effects to ratchet up the tension and heighten the sense of dread and ritual.
Was Salomé a con-job? If it was, it is hard to see who was being conned and to what end. Though some decades older than her character, Nazimova could get away with it, with a body not just adolescent but weirdly child-like. The effect was a little like a Romanian gymnast dressing as Cyndi Lauper for Halloween. Undeniably a vanity project, it was one which nonetheless bravely attempted to bring arthouse values to a difficult literary adaptation. It may have aimed so high that it sailed right over the heads of its intended audience, but its vaulting ambition can’t be held against it. After all, as our hostess said, “all of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at Vaginal Davis.”