Camp? Anti-camp?

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.”

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17 comments

  1. Vaginal just might be suffering from an end-stage yeast infection.
    Alla does look fabulous in the film.
    Here it is marketed as a double feature with Haxan.
    I looked at it with no priors.
    I found it enchanting for the visuals alone. Consequently the alleged bizarrerie did not seemed so bizarre.
    I probably am a majority of one when I say that drag queenery is the most deeply embedded form of mysogyny on the planet but there, I said it.

  2. How awesome that you got to see this on the big screen! And with Vag Davis, to boot! Sounds like a great evening.

  3. Good evening! I’m a follower of your blog (I could say one of my favourites of the internets), but I’ve never showed myself here, I’m so shy! I’m really interested in all the subjects you write about and I learn a lot reading your blog. I want to let you know this time I missed the other strong creative force in Salomé, which I think, could interested you if you don’t know her: Natacha Rambova, who made all the art direction and costume design for the production…she also was the controversial wife of Rudolph Valentino, there were a lot of Hollywood-20s gossip about this couple, but nothing proven.

    Hope you don’t mind this little digression!

    Viveka

    • Hi Viveka, and thanks for commenting. Don’t be shy, digressions big and small are always welcome! I briefly mentioned Natacha Rambova the last time I wrote about Nazimova. It’s such an amazing looking film, and this time I was especially struck by the sequence where Herod tries to tempt Salomé with different things rather than fulfil her order to execute Jokanaan. So beautiful and exotic! True film art.

  4. butterscotchclouds

    How lucky you are! The first time I viewed Salomé I had a distinct “This is it?” feeling. After all the hype from the Web, from Gavin Lambert’s excellent Nazimova bio (*that* is truly camp), from various books about silent and gay cinema… It fell a bit flat with me. However, a few months down the line I watched it again, this time with no score at all, and found that it hit all the right notes (no pun intended). Funny how music can alter our perceptions so much.

    On a lesser note: What in the world was Nazimova doing to keep her 40-something self looking 19? Or should I know better than to ask?

    • This was not a woman of normal proportions to begin with, plus I’m guessing she ate air sandwiches (without the bread). But yes I agree the music or absence of same makes all the difference. I found the unpredictable element of live music really helped focus attention on the screen.

  5. Verle Oberon

    I love it when people hate drag queens and especially that tired black drag queen Vaginal Davis. I’ve despised her since the late 1970s when i would see her in the punk scene and she had a group called The Afro Sisters. Went to see her perform in October at Tate Modern and she was just awful. Love this blog and Salome, Nazimova & Rambova and I will go to the camp/anti-camp art festival at HAU but will avoid that Vaginal creature at all costs. she leads innocent white boys to madness and death.

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  7. I too was astounded by A N’s incredibly lithe and youthful body, I wonder if she, like Marlene, took a dose of epsom salts as a daily cleansing regimen. It was a commom protocal for ‘slimming’ at the time.

  8. Pingback: Nazimova’s secret garden (repost) « Strange Flowers

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  10. Love it saw the original restored version at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens–NY phenomenal = the dance sequences and costumes are outrageous and just great fun. They all looked as if they stepped off an art deco mural.

  11. Pingback: Doubles: Sybille Schmitz | Strange Flowers

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