Summer camp. The very notion conjures up happy images of youthful good times, a measure of innocence, time spent outside at beaches, pools, roasting hot dogs, pulling pigtails and meeting new friends.
While all of that is well and good, when you put the idea of summer camp in the hands of those mischievous River Cinema Society people, whose fifth free summer film festival begins tonight at sundown in Bangor’s Pickering Square with a showing of Busby Berkeley’s “The Gang’s All Here,” you’ve got something altogether different.
The Society’s latest outing, which ingeniously is called “Summer Camp” (and which, in full disclosure, I’ve co-sponsored with others in an effort to help keep the series free), gathers together a handful of films that belong to the camp genre. For those who know their way around that prickly precipice, the movies in question can range from the silly to the downright vicious, as Joan Crawford learned the hard way in the 1962 camp classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
How does one define camp? That’s a tricky question to answer for a genre so difficult to nail down. Beyond that, defining camp does it something of an injustice. It takes this fringe genre and shoves it under a spotlight, which is unnatural for something so perfectly happy to exist in the ether.
The irony is this: As gaudy as the genre is — whether intentional or not — camp doesn’t necessarily want a rush of attention. It’s a secret to be discovered, embraced, lifted up, shared and then given over to adoration. It’s something that can be yours and yours alone, depending on the level of absurdity in which you view the world. That’s why it’s special. Even more than drama or comedy, it’s the most complex genre of films we have, and because of this, it’s also among our most important and deserving of being discussed seriously, whether it wants to be taken seriously or not.
In her infamous 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag successfully tackled a lengthy definition of the genre. My favorite observation of hers is this: “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.”
Passionate failures, wonderful camp successes — that’s what we have with this year’s festival. With the exception of the two films I suggested the Society show — the hilarious, unintended camp Western “Johnny Guitar,” with Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden duking it out at a saloon in the Old West, and the terrific, intentional camp movie “Dead Ringer,” in which Bette Davis plays her own twin in an outrageous murder mystery that is so beyond it’s beyond beyond, most of the films here play to the softer side of camp. They’re a bit more family friendly and lacking in edge than others you might find in, say, the works of John Waters or Andy Warhol, which is just fine given the nature of the festival and since the movies themselves are so good.
Weather permitting — and lately, the weather has been permitting itself right into everyone’s trash can — tonight’s film is the 1943 extravaganza “The Gang’s All Here.” In it, the camp is as good natured as wholesome Edie Allen (Alice Faye), a dancer and budding chanteuse who tries to resist her share of World War II servicemen, particularly the persuasive Andy Mason (James Ellison), who has another girl on the side, but who wants Edie more than anything.
The camp doesn’t surround these two so much as it does Carmen Miranda, who apparently shot out of the womb designed to channel camp. It’s in this movie that she shows up to gyrate in her triumphant tutti-frutti hat while Berkeley himself nearly steals the show with his own outlandish choreography and swirling direction (his overworked cameras are the co-stars). A performance by Charlotte Greenwood as an aging bon vivant goes a long way to getting to the unhinged heart of the genre, particularly when she lets herself go and gives herself over to the [*cough*] art of dance. It’s a fun show and a swell way to kick off the festival.
On July 3, look for the low-budget 1980 film “Flash Gordon,” which stars Sam J. Jones as Gordon, a casting choice that essentially confirms its low-budget status.
Those in the know will know that it’s Jones who famously said next to nothing as Bo Derek’s love interest in “10” before going on to more revealing opportunities in Playgirl. So, with his feathered, dishwater blond blowout and buff body, he arms himself against Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who naturally wants to destroy Earth while Queen’s over-the-top soundtrack wails in the background. It’s up to Gordon and the saucy Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) to stop him. The film is cult camp all the way, with phoniness ringing through the cheap special effects, the risible dialogue and those cheaply conceived laser gun fights that will leave plenty stunned — but in a good way.
As for the July 10 showing of “Dead Ringer,” don’t miss it. It’s pure bombast, a good movie that has the wonderful distinction of Bette Davis playing opposite herself. I will review it in full upon its release, as I will the July 10 showing of “Johnny Guitar,” the great camp Western that promises to leave people agape. Both films are at once horrifying and wonderful. But more on them in the weeks to come.
Rounding out the films are the July 24 showing of the 1955 noir camp thriller “Kiss Me Deadly,” with Cloris Leachman (!) and Ralph Meeker cast as Christina Bailey and Detective Mike Hammer, neither of whom is above this sort of dialogue: “I don’t care what you do to me, Mike — just do it fast!” And he does. Helpful highlights include how to stop a speeding car (just stand in front of it and hope for the best), how to escape naked from an asylum (extended, heavy panting is required) and how to sells lines like this: “You forget I’m a loony from the laughing house. All loonies are dangerous. Do you ever read poetry?” Who needs to after hearing that?
Closing the festival on July 31 is — Bam! — the original 1966 Batman movie, “Batman: The Movie,” with Adam West and Burt Ward riffing through a river of bad puns. In the trailer, West himself notes that “the big screen gives us more space on land, sea and in the air to capture the most cataclysmic collection of super criminals ever!” Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin co-star, as do an exploding, man-eating shark and the deadly disintegrator. Zowie!
About the festival. For those who haven’t been to one of them, be prepared for an enthusiastic crowd. A typical night’s attendance ranges anywhere between 400-500 people, filling Pickering Square to capacity, with room left only for standing. The happy buzz of those in attendance, the smell of fresh popcorn, the cars circling the periphery to get a glimpse and the state-of-the-art film equipment gifted to the society by the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, have made this community event a showcase for Bangor. In a few short years, the Society has made this something to seek out and attend.
Once again, audiences are encouraged to bring lawn chairs to each event, as seating in Pickering Square is limited to only a few benches. In case of rain, the Bangor Opera House is mostly unavailable this year and so, if the skies do open up, expect the show to be cancelled (call 745-1202 to find out). There is one rain date, Aug. 7, and the film will be determined then if any have been cancelled. More information about the series and the society can be found on their Web site, www.rivercitycinema.com.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.