In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays an uptight ballerina who, as she prepares to dance the dual lead roles in Swan Lake, must battle psychotic hallucinations and stigmatalike lesions, not to mention the spiteful fading soloist she has displaced, a doppelgänger rival with an ominous black-winged back tattoo, a domineering witch of a mother who obsessively paints self-portraits, and a snooty French choreographer whose idea of a homework assignment is to instruct her to “touch yourself. … Live a little.” In case you haven’t heard, it’s a comedy. Or, at any rate, a movie that frequently invites laughter. Its pitch is theatrical, its style exaggerated, its general tenor absurd—in other words, as more than a few reviewers have noted, it could be said to exhibit the hallmarks of camp.
“A sensibility … is one of the hardest things to talk about,” Susan Sontag admitted at the start of her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” (which listed some “random examples” of camp items, including Scopitone films, feather boas, and … Swan Lake). Ambiguous, contradictory, and existing partly in the eye of the beholder, camp is an especially slippery phenomenon: at once an aesthetic and an attitude, a language and a lens, a manner of behaving and a mode of appreciation. Its early connoisseurs understood it as an acquired taste, often a covert experience, even an oppositional stance in that it suggested a queer way of seeing. (Sontag dedicated her piece to Oscar Wilde.) Quintessential camp finds meaning in the margins, elevating the frivolous and rehabilitating the forgotten. And in its purest form, it is thought to be naive—which is to say, unintentional.
So what does it say about our present-day conception of camp that Black Swan is almost the exact opposite of all these things? Far from subcultural, it’s a high-profile movie that strains for respectability, a barefaced Oscar grab. Despite some diva catfights and lesbian sex, there’s not a queer bone in its body: Its derisive view of female ambition, its crude linking of art and madness, and the leering frenzy of its girl-on-girl fantasies are as familiar and banal—as straight—as can be. Hardly naïve and in no way coded, it is willful, overt, strenuous. If Black Swan barely resembles camp as many of Sontag’s “notes” would have it, is it then … anti-camp? Post-camp? Failed camp?
This much is clear: Aronofsky’s film represents one more dubious milestone in the mainstreaming of camp. A seductive style—and, crucially, an elastic category—camp was ripe for co-optation from the start, poised to insinuate its way into both high art and popular culture. As it became more visible, the ideal of naive camp grew increasingly remote. The major filmmakers we associate with the sensibility (R.W. Fassbinder, John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar) are deliberate and certainly self-aware. Pop art and glam rock, with their flamboyant avatars Andy Warhol and David Bowie, expanded the domain of camp. At this late stage, the word has lost most of its subversive connotations, and the tendency to see “everything in quotation marks,” as Sontag said of the camp vision, is so common as to be practically unworthy of comment. “Whatever was camp has mutated into plain mainstream American humor,” Waters declared in the late ‘90s. (And this was before his cult hit Hairspray became a Broadway musical and then a John Travolta vehicle.)
But the fact that camp is more widespread does not make it any less elusive. Black Swan, a schizoid piece of high-minded trash that seems to divide audiences on how seriously it is ultimately meant to be taken, raises the interesting question of what it means for camp to fail—keeping in mind that it is, in Sontag’s famous formulation, “a sensibility of failed seriousness.” As anyone who has followed his career can attest, Aronofsky—love him or hate him—is not a filmmaker known for irony or humor. His movies are showcases for single-minded, bludgeoning technique, prone to sensationalism (Requiem for a Dream) or sentimentality (The Wrestler). Some have called Black Swan “straight camp,” and the near-oxymoronic concept refers less to sexual orientation than to an aesthetic contradiction: an auteur whose self-serious sensibility lends itself to unwitting camp applying himself to a piece of conscious camp.
Oscar talk notwithstanding, Black Swan has been taken as an openly camp text: instantly conflated with Showgirls (as in this mash-up trailer) and spoofed on 30 Rock. Sontag called camp “the answer to the problem” of “how to be a dandy in an age of mass culture”—or, put another way, a highbrow means of appreciating the lowbrow. Despite the flattening of distinctions between high and low in postmodern culture, a top-down attitude persists whenever we invoke camp. To call something a “camp classic” (or a “guilty pleasure,” “so bad it’s good”) is still to safely couch one’s enjoyment in ironic terms. It’s telling that Aronofsky betrays a touch of defensiveness in describing his project. Explaining that he thought of Black Swan itself as a kind of ballet, he said, “We weren’t really afraid of camp and melodrama.”
There’s no denying that Black Swan is a riot: Aronofsky piles on the nutty hysterics, and while Portman is obliged to play it straight, the supporting actors make a feast of their hammy roles (Vincent Cassell’s curled-lip maestro, Mila Kunis’ swaggering bad girl, Barbara Hershey’s Kabuki-ghoul stage mother). But the film also illustrates the pitfalls of intentional camp, especially in the hands of someone who thinks of it simply as a lowly form. A signal quality of camp is that it blurs high and low, good and bad. For the creator of conscious camp, this sometimes translates to an optimistic—or, worse still, opportunistic—belief that “bad” can pass for “good,” as long as it’s tarted up the right way.
Sontag claimed that camp is either “wholly conscious” or “completely naive.” Black Swan is both. On one level, Aronofsky relishes the freedom of camp. An all-purpose permission slip, camp excuses the half-baked Freudian clichés that pass for psychology. It allows him to subject Portman’s frigid Nina to all manner of sniggering torments, from a dirty old man on the subway to a “touching” session interrupted by Mother. And it justifies the hyperbolic crassness of the dialogue. (Winona Ryder, who plays the ousted diva, stumbles up to Nina and spits, “Did you suck his cock?”) Some might say that Showgirls was a similarly cynical use of camp (others would contend that it was clueless), but in any case, it’s possible to view Paul Verhoeven’s pointedly vulgar film as a coherent satire: a star-is-born showbiz fable bluntly recast as a tale of prostitution. Tawdry as it is, Black Swan—set at Lincoln Center and not at the Stardust or the Cheetah Strip Club—aims higher than trash. It has grand statements and dark ideas to get across about artistic sacrifice and the price of perfectionism, but the more serious it tries to be, the sillier it gets—an attribute, one might say, of pure camp.
Except that Aronofsky misses one of camp’s most essential qualities: its tenderness. There is nothing resembling love in his depiction of dance, which—perhaps by necessity, given the reliance on ballet doubles—is mostly filmed in choppy convulsions, with minimal attention paid to the human form. The treatment of his characters is even more abusive. A skilled mimic with a wide array of influences, Aronofsky surely recognizes that the backstage melodrama was a fundamentally campy genre long before Showgirls. Camp treasures the unfashionable and thrives on incongruity, and there are few spectacles as tragicomically out-of-place as the aging, obsolescent diva, as exemplified by Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The camp appreciation of these films points to the sensibility’s latent edge of cruelty and misogyny, but those grande dames have always inspired a complex mix of horror, awe, affection, and even, for a queer constituency, a kind of identification.
But Aronofsky, to put it bluntly, just loves a freak show. The repulsions of Black Swan—sundry toe and cuticle injuries, plus Hershey gets her fingers slammed in a door and Ryder even stabs her face with a nail file—are in keeping with the grotesque abasements of his other films: the amputation and sex-show horrors of the your-brain-on-drugs extravaganza Requiem for a Dream and the staple-gun and meat-slicer mutilations of the Christ parable The Wrestler.
The irony is that Aronofsky’s boldly absurd New Age head trip, The Fountain (2006), was as close as any recent Hollywood movie has come to naive camp. A story of the quest for eternal life that culminates in a tragic encounter with the sap-oozing Tree of Life, it’s set on three different planes of existence, in which three versions of Hugh Jackman battle Mayan tribes, try to cure cancer, and assume yogic poses against deep-space screensaver backdrops. Through it all, Aronofsky keeps a straight face. Risible as it is, the film’s unshakable solemnity—its total excess of seriousness—is a source of unlikely power.
The problem with Black Swan is not that it “sees everything in quotation marks.” It sees camp itself in quotation marks. A discussion of camp that predates Sontag’s by a decade can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s 1954 novel The World in the Evening, in which one gay man introduces another to the pleasure garden of camp. He explains its nuances (“You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it”) and distinguishes between Low Camp and High Camp. An example of the former would be a Marlene Dietrich impersonator. Expanding on the latter, he says, “Baroque art is largely camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love.” Not so ballet in Aronofsky’s film, and certainly not so the film itself. Turns out all those mirrors are an apt visual metaphor: Black Swan, at most, is camp about camp.