A Sub-A Claws to Notes on Camp
Lori Williams—the actress who played the suicide-blonde bombshell, Billie, in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!—recalls in the DVD release’s ‘extras’ featurette, Go, Pussycat, Go!, that director Russ Meyer described the film “mainly as being camp. He [Meyer] wanted the characters to be kind of cartoonish. You know, bigger than life because during the filming I would say things to him like…’Russ, who lays across a car and talks to people?...Who does this?’ He said, ‘You do because that’s what this movie is [campy]. If you don’t go for it, the movie is not going to work.’” Williams’ recollection of Meyer’s overarching vision for Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! clarifies the coda to which Meyer ascribed to: utilization of the unbelievable in order to make his film believable. And he was totally correct; Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! would neither have been a convincing film if it weren’t campy nor would it have endured as a cult classic under any other context.
I suppose what I find most surprising about Meyer’s idea of employing camp in order to attain a sense of plausibility in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! is that it doesn’t appear anywhere within Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. In fact, out of her 58 notes on the subject, Sontag only touches upon the issue of ‘seriousness’ in #26 where she states, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously” (p.6). Now, while such a statement is true of Meyer’s film, it isn’t addressing the exploitation of this art form for the purpose of appearing credible. Further down her list in #36, Sontag explains that camp is a “sensibility of failed seriousness…Camp refuses…the harmonies of traditional seriousness” (p.8). Again, Sontag’s elucidations speak truth concerning camp but appear to elide Meyer’s employment of it; so, let’s continue to look further down her list…
In #41, Sontag remarks that “the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious” (p.8), which is antithetical to Meyer’s use of camp to make his movie believable—or, if you will, serious. However, in her next breath, Sontag states, “More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (p.8); though this veers closer to Meyer’s use of camp in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, it still doesn’t appear to be entirely accurate to the director’s ethos. Lastly, Sontag tackles the issue of seriousness once again in #55 of her notes: “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” (p.11). Again, I find no fault with Sontag’s ideas concerning camp here, but her statement doesn’t seem to account for Russ Meyer’s use of camp as a tool to build the believable.
Perhaps, it’s as Sontag states in #30: “the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it” (p.6); however, considering that Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! was released in 1965—one year after Sontag wrote Notes on Camp—I find it highly unlikely that enough time had passed for the meaning of camp to evolve and change to incorporate Meyer’s use of it. Moreover, in #19, Sontag observes, “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious” (p.5), which is the exact opposite of Meyer’s intention. Likewise, in #20 of her notes, Sontag elaborates, “Intending to be campy is always harmful” (p.5); this too is antithetical to Meyer’s use of camp. It should be noted that Sontag’s aforementioned statement was in reference to the intentional utilization of camp in order to be campy but not its employment in order to be serious. Overall, Susan Sontag makes no mention of exploiting camp for the purpose of appearing believable, which is the foundation for Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!
Sontag also argues that “Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical” (p.2), but, in the case of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, anything could further from the truth. In her essay “The Sweeter the Kitten the Sharper the Claws: Russ Meyer’s Bad Girls,” Kristen Hatch proposes that Russ Meyer’s exploitation films were awash in the sexual politics of their time: “they [Meyer’s films] were produced within the context of a rapidly changing social structure, in which the very definition of gender roles was being challenged. These changes contained a not-so-subtle threat to masculinity and, by extension, to a social order that rested on male authority” (p.145). Considering that part of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! rested on the exaggerated, cartoonish, and, therefore, campy physiques of the film’s triumvirate of pedal-to-the-metal femme fatales—Varla, Rosie, and Billie—and that their “breasts had become a sign of the women’s sexual appetite” (Hatch, p.151), Sontag’s stance that camp cannot be political has been overturned.
Additionally, the extreme posturing airs of sarcasm and attitude—and, as a result, their outlandish one-liners, caustic rebuts, and witty repartee—embodied in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!’s three main characters are further emblematic of the film’s political subtext. As Hatch elaborates, “Sexual frustration plays a major role in Meyer’s films…Meyer’s women are characterized by a voracious desire for pleasure…that, when it meets with restrictions, has a tendency to erupt into glorious bitchiness” This theatrical bitchiness is therefore symbolic of the film’s sexual politics as well.
So what does all of this ultimately mean? Well, it means that either Sontag came close to the true nature of camp but got it all wrong on the subjects of seriousness and politics and their interactive capabilities with camp or that she should’ve just waited a year and published her work after the release of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!. I’m sure if she had, Susan Sontag would’ve added a #59 to her list in order to account for Meyer’s ‘unbelievable to be believable’ model for the intentional utilization of camp. Then again, as Hatch states, “At the time of their release, far from being embraced by feminists, Meyer’s films were picketed by women who objected to his representations of female sexuality” (p.145).
Perhaps then, like the feminists during the era of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!‘s initial release, Susan Sontag wouldn’t have been able to see the sexual politics subtextually interwoven into Meyer’s brand of camp and would’ve ended her notes with #58. After all, Sontag is the one who speculated that “time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it” (p.6). In other words, Meyer’s ‘unbelievable into believable’ model of camp—that is, camp with a cause—couldn’t be fully comprehended until many years after his films first saw their original, theatrical releases. Furthermore, his brand of sociopolitical, peepshow camp couldn’t be fully fathomed until decades later through a nostalgic lens.
Faster Pussycat... Kill! Kill!  [DVD]. Dir. Russ Meyer. Perf. Haji, Tura Satana. Arrow Films, 2011.
Hatch, Kristen . "The Sweeter the Kitten, the Sharper the Claws." Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. pp.143-155.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966.