Sunday, March 27, 2011

Humorless Camp


What is it about guys? I guess I should put "guys" in quotes, because that's what this is about: masculinity threaded through the needle of accoutrements, props, tokens and signifiers. "Guy" movies versus "Chick" flicks. "Guys" just being "guys." So the other day I stumbled upon John Luessenhop's Takers, a "guy" movie starring TI, Chris Brown, Hayden Christianson, and Matt Dillon, among many other "guy" actors. It was generally hilarious without meaning to be, and had the pseudo-intensity of a GQ fashion shoot merged with the superficial and bleak philosophy of film-noir: all style, no substance, but even the style seemed borrowed and blue. Too blue. All the actors seem to be directed to hide everything they are supposed to feel and yet they don't seem to be feeling anything anyway, other than the need to be in a really intense heist movie with guns and cigars and scotch. Exposition is handled by the ladies: a junkie sister here, a sweet little daughter there, are touchstones of sweetness for these "guys" who spend their days plotting bank robberies and their nights partying in dark, glamorous, mahogany lounges, no girls allowed unless she's getting you something to drink. And it better be scotch.

Takers is a direct descendant to Michael Mann's Heat, the ur-text to "guy" movies. Made in the 1990s, this slick, smooth, blue-steel, moon-lit crime epic has all the brooding silence and synthesizer elegance of other Mann movies, but it also seems so self-important as to wipe away any respect you might have had left for Al Pacino and Robert Deniro. It's all hyperbolic and humorless: scenes go on for too long because basically the only thing at stake is the next violent outburst.

Susan Sontag nailed down camp in her seminal essay, "Notes on Camp." In it she writes: "Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste. A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea ."

These movies both signify things way beyond their reach: masculinity as a desire to escape actually being a man, guns and posing as a structure for identity, stylish clothes and cars and promises of ass-kicking masquerading as "strength." It is a sensibility hardening into an idea, bad art ossifying into cliche and yet the very high-toned seriousness of the product gives you the feeling no one has any idea, and in fact may have the notion that this is the way things actually are "on the streets." There's no tongue-in-cheek, no signifiers that this crap is really crap. No fun. Fun is not what "guys" in this context want: they want pork-pie hats, tailored suits, and a gun to go with it.

This is "guy camp," humorless and dull, and yet if you look at it through the lens of Sontag's Camp you see the sadsack guy behind the curtain. This is wish fulfillment, just like in a "chick" flick when Matthew McConaughey chases after Kate Hudson with a bouquet of flowers on a New York City street. "Chicks" just want to get married; "guys" just want you to shut your mouth so they can get down to business. Either way it's an alignment of stereotypes, a way to "cram sensibility into a mold," creating more of the same.