Camp and Contradiction in Johnny Guitar
Jasper Muse

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In her “Notes on Camp” (1964), Susan Sontag claims that camp taste “turns its back” on the distinctions of good and bad, instead engaging with an entirely different plane of qualitative standards (note #34). There is a sense of aloofness in this statement. She calls the “good-bad axis” an “ordinary aesthetic judgment,” and by otherizing “good” culture she suggests that camp taste is by contrast extraordinary and multidimensional—beyond the reach of elite tastemakers. Although I agree that the camp “lens” offers much more nuanced and culturally/historically relevant readings of documents than a good/bad “review” (almost any other form of analysis does so), I find note 34 in her list to be in conflict with note 6, which claims that “there is a sense in which it is correct to say: ‘It’s too good to be camp.’”  This statement is problematic inasmuch as it implies that there are elements of camp contained within certain canonical pieces of high art, but at that the same time that high culture’s stamp of “goodness” dispels any possibility of a camp reading. Works such as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde are “not marginal enough,” according to Sontag.  Her definition of camp as the empowering “eye” of gay culture (a definitively marginal culture in 1964), and her eschewing of the “good-bad axis” seems to be saying that nothing is really “not marginal enough” or invincible to a camp reading.  This is not to say that Camp taste seeks to do battle with great works of art, or that those who appreciate camp are locked into this mode of viewing.  Nor should we assume that camp always seeks to violently subvert the mainstream.  Nonetheless, Sontag’s “too good” statement is a limitation of what should be a system of intellectual freedom through an always open and possible “other” view. Almost every text embodies an exploitable artifice, depending on what habitus the beholder occupies.  Of course no individual beholder is capable of occupying all positions at once, and consequently there are cultural objects that confront us in a paradoxical way, being both “bad art or kitsch” and “approachable as camp” while at the same time deserving “the most serious admiration and study.”

One such self-contradictory, unstable document is the cult western Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954, USA), a film that is somewhat disconcerting in terms of a camp because it embodies a tension between bad art/kitsch and a successfully executed intentionality. Moments in the film impress the viewer as successful art while others are manifestly bad/kitsch.  Moreover, Johnny Guitar is a film that embodies “rural camp,” a representation of nature as artifice. The film handles nature in a similar way to East Asian gardening practices, harnessing and segregating natural form into microcosmic and parceled perfection. To most, the minimalist nature and historical depth and earnestness of East Asian gardening would “exempt” it from the camp eye, in part because it lacks the key ingredient of extravagance which Johnny Guitar has in spades.  In Vienna’s “saloon” (emphasis on the quotations marks), foregrounding a grand piano, the entire back wall is made of sandstone canyon rock, as though the canyon were built around it.  This mise-en-scène is camp because it defies the iconic image of the saloon as a low rent, down-and-dirty refuge from the wild outdoors by attempting to be some sort of Frank Lloyd Wright-style modernist update, architecturally integrating the wild outdoors. Had the rest of the interior been designed with the rock wall in mind, perhaps it could have been pulled off, but it wasn’t, and so there is a glaring incongruity. The desire for integration becomes more of a “squeezing in,” which is compounded by the piano being placed in front of the rocks, as if a polished mahogany piano—symbol of the Victorian indoors—could somehow coexist with river-carved sandstone.  All of these factors turn the set piece into garish artifice, and a pleasurably baffling confluence of artistic decisions.

Consider, too, the entrance to the Dancing Kid’s gang’s hideout, a thin misting waterfall veil that horses are led through into a presumably long tunnel that ends at their strangely clean log cabin. It is a too-good kitschy concept that strangely enough aligns again with a Japanese aesthetic of nature as microcosm, albeit the more cloying side of it. The waterfall-veiled secret lair satisfies a prim and cutesy system of placement—a Smithsonian exhibit reduction.  The waterfall becomes camp because, in the context of the cinematic western, the intention of its placement should carry the feel of the epic—a sense of rugged wonderment—which is sabotaged by the neatness of it. Even if the waterfall was naturally occurring, its repurposing as a curtain to the all-too-perfect log cabin hideout pulls it back into the category of high artifice.

The natural environment and atmosphere of Johnny Guitar is imbued with campiness through one major prop: Vienna’s train-set diorama, which maps out the city to be built around her saloon. The prop ties together all of the elements of “rural camp” into a meticulous little world where one could point out every scene (And there’s the old creek! And look at the tiny mesa!, etc.).  In this model, the overt conflict of xenophobia against an encroaching newness is contained. I argue that once the diorama is shown, the diegesis of the film becomes artifice and is rendered as camp.

The viewer’s dilemma with the film lies in discerning the ways in which the film is an artistic success. As Leo Charney points out, the film is “intentionally inscribed with literal social contexts”—it is a pointed allegory of communist fears and blacklisting (among even deeper, longer lasting issues such as gender identity) within Hollywood.  Given the era in which it is made, the film is full of provocative and subversive statements. It is also a remarkable that the Western genre, torchbearer for conservative American ideology, was chosen to communicate these ideas. When we watch Turkey (Ben Cooper)—who could be read as a stereotypical gay Hollywood actor, with the duality of cowboy role and effeminate undertones—being interrogated, bloody and limp, his fear elicits a genuine compassion, along with a real disgust for the mob. While it is a bit overt and simplified, it is still a powerful metaphor for McCarthy-era blacklisting. A similarly effective scene occurs minutes prior.  When the mob advances from the limits of the camera’s night vision in a spectral wave of white faces and collars, the extreme long shot condenses them together into an allegorical “force.”  The dilemma I speak of exists because these moments of artistic “success” do not exist apart from the notably camp that appear elsewhere (and sometimes simultaneously) within the film; they don’t rise above the pervasive artifice, but instead grind against the camp enjoyment of the film.

If anything, Johnny Guitar is an important film to study on the subject of the artistic motivation of intentional camp, and how it can be harnessed with goals other than a cheap laugh.


This is an original piece written by a student at Clark University. For more information visit the Screen Studies program website.

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