Essays: The imagination of disaster & Notes on “camp”

Sontag’s 1965 essay, The Imagination of Disaster, (collected in Against Interpretation) is her look at sci-fi films in the era of worrying about the atomic bomb. The dialogue in these films makes them “wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like ‘Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub,’… and ‘I hope it works!’ are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something that is painful and in deadly earnest.” The films are about disaster, “one of the oldest subjects of art.” And in the films, disaster is always viewed extensively, a question of scale, a matter of “quantity and ingenuity.”

The aesthetics of destruction are the “peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess.” We are “treated to a panorama of melting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacecraft, colorful deadly rays; and to a symphony of screams, weird electronic signals, the noisiest military hardware going, and the leaden tones of the laconic denizens of alien planets and their subjugated earthlings.”

“The theme of depersonalization (being ‘taken over’)… is a new allegory reflecting the age-old awareness of man that, sane, he is always perilously close to insanity and unreason. But there is something more here than just a recent, popular image which expresses man’s perennial but largely unconscious anxiety about his sanity. The image derives most of its power from a supplementary and historical anxiety, also not experienced consciously by most people, about the depersonalizing conditions of modern urban life.”

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”

“The interest of these films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.”

The films force us to “think about the unthinkable.”

“In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death, and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.”


Notes on “Camp” (1964, also collected in Against Interpretation) is another useful essay as I’m trying to crack what it is about terrible movies that I enjoy so much. Movies are one of the first things she notes as “campy,” calling out Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) as an example.

“One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying.”

“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.”

“The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy. There is Camp in such bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy—and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

“One cheats oneself as a human being if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.”

“One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.”

“Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.”

She quotes from Oscar Wilde (father of Camp) throughout the essay, including A Woman of No Importance: “I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex.”

“Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste… The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy… Camp makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

“Camp taste is a a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation, not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism… Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes rather than judges the little triumphs and awkward intensities of character.”

“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”


A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

There is nothing disappointing about Anne Boyer’s uncategorizable work. Poetry, philosophy, humor, jammed together in a sandwich of words. Plato rubs shoulders with the Occupy movement who wave at Bo Diddley who muses about the genius of Willie Nelson who sings about Colette.

The flashes of genius will surprise you and make you giggle, like her Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry, wherein she suggests various ways to make poems more scarce and thus worth more (shoot poetry through pneumatic tubes to world poetry capitals like Oakland, Brooklyn, Tallahassee; choreograph whales’ blow holes to look like words from above; hack traffic lights to blink out morse code poems; put poems on post-it notes slapped to the back of mourners at a funeral, etc.)

She writes of cancer treatments and sweating on the bus in LA, writing a poem about Mathew Barney’s shit sculpture show as an excuse to sit longer in the air conditioning: “maybe Normal Mailer on a river of shit is the art that we deserve.” There are pieces on reading and writing and poetry and art. “To read a book is to acquire the manifest of a ship full of trouble.” Her book of choice while battling cancer is the perfect companion, The Magic Mountain, but in Mann’s world the character can simply sit in the Alps and recover while Boyer must try to earn money in order to afford her chemotherapy.  “Cancer cells refuse to die, proliferate wildly, take over every territory they can… Their expansion—that wild, horrible living—has as its content only the emptiest death. ‘Like capitalism,’ I tell my friends, and mean, by capitalism, ‘life as we know it,’ and I mean, with ‘like capitalism,’ that among other things, ‘it’s dead inside.’ ”

I’m tempted to copy wholesale some of my favorite parts, like Click-Bait Thanatos (luckily already written out elsewhere):

As much as capitalism’s humans seem to generally suspect we should or will die off and take the world with us, many of us also want to live, at least in a manner.

We spend our days searching the engines that search us back. We look for instructions, click-baited by fear and trembling, propelled by whatever force allows the ruins of rust-belt factories to be taken over by vetch, the landfills to be filled with rats and sparrows.

Poetry, which was once itself a searching engine, exists in abundance in the age of Trump, as searchable and as immaterial as any other information. As it always has, poetry experiments in fashionable confusions, excels in the popular substitutive fantasies of its time, mistakes self-expression for sovereignty. But in making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition.

Verse poetry once served a social function as memory structure and didactic aid. Its songishness was useful to memory, and memory was necessary to a kind of cultured thought. This memory-use began to fall away with the printing press, then crumbled underfoot with screens. Changes in memory and the human relation to it under industrialization corresponded to changes in poetic form, which underwent multiple rearrangements in the 20th century as social cognition was also rearranged. Our minds were exteriorized to the paperwork, then indentured to Silicon Valley’s safety-blue empire. As thinking fled mnemonics, so did poetry, and the new poetry of fracture, parataxis, and ragged complexity, if it had anything to do with memory, seemed to always be saying one thing about it: “Don’t remember me.”

And there’s this from Questions for Poets:

“Is the trial of today to flood ourselves with the vast oceanic tides of the marketplace and false feeling and scripted hellos and the aerosolized and the ambulatory and shipping containers and social practice and smile scanners? Is it the vital and great, the epic, or the minor, the depreciated, the commodious,the scatological, the blithe or the charming? Is it a trial of weaponized data entry? Is it the testimony of pdfs?”

Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe

Research for a project I’m thinking about, or perhaps just because I’m interested in the 1970s disaster movie genre. Stephen Keane starts his exploration of disaster flicks with the earliest of cinema, saying the silent films from Italy lead the way (1908 + 1913 Last Days of Pompeii, 1910 Fall of Troy, 1912 Quo Vadis), where the visual spectacle even without sound showed the power of those images to translate across the world. Audiences watch rapt, safe in their cozy theaters, removed but entertained.

Keane makes the point that disaster movies are born out of times of “impending crisis,” the tension of what’s in the air helping to draw in audiences. Thus 1930s and 1950s were ripe, but Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima’s actuality crowded out the need for faked disaster. The movies in the 1970s brought disaster films into the present time (1930s was about the ancient epics/Biblical/Greek/Roman, 1950s about future with sci-fi). With the shift to present day, people more apt to believe it could happen to them.

He relies heavily on analysis from Nick Roddick’s ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies’ from 1980, quoting Roddick: “A sort of post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex after the Vietnam debacle, even a ‘bread and circuses’ attitude caused by ‘the erosion of democracy and the Western materialist way of living’…” as contributing to society’s need for these films.

Another Roddick-ism is calling out the elemental forces at play: “the threats arise without exception from earth (Earthquake), air (Airport, Airport 1975, The Big Bus —which ends up hanging over a precipice, fire (The Towering Inferno, The Hindenburg) or water (The Poseidon Adventure, Juggernaut, Airport ’77).” I can think of an exception (Two-Minute Warning).

Discussing Airport, Keane calls it “disaster as therapy” where the movie shows you the path to living a better life. Other points to consider: how traditional roles/patriarchy is used to reinforce middle class values; how religion is used.

All disaster movies seem to follow the formula of using big name stars in their spectacle. It’s a shortcut for having the audience to feel something about the characters—they know Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as good guys already. There’s also a type of game audiences play when they see all the archetypes on display—which ones will die, which will survive. A bingo card of deaths awaits.

I liked the call out of how today’s movies employ green screens but earlier ones meant you KNEW the actors had worked hard in those scenes.

Also discussed: The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake where apparently Walter Matthau had a cameo; he appears in the credits under his real name: Walter Matuschanskayasky and all he does through the film is drink toasts to film stars (need to rewatch this!).

Disaster movies morphed into action movies in the 1980s (he does a nice segue with the Die Hard franchise) and then had a resurgence in the 1990s (Titanic, Independence Day, Armageddon, Volcano, Twister, etc.).

Manfried the Man

This cute graphic novel was exactly the palette cleanser I needed after a few brutal days. The concept flips the ownership of cats by people and it’s cats that act like humans and who have tiny men as pets. The main cat in this gets ridiculed for being a man cat (kind of like a cat person), his co-workers yawn at all his stories about his man. He does silly things like pile stuff on top of his sleeping man and try to walk him in a harness. Eventually he gets fired for not doing his call center job well, and his man runs away from an open window. The cute “lost man” posters end up netting the cat a freelance gig and he’s reunited with his man, so happily ever after.

Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

Is my insistence on reading certain books to the end healthy? This book lured me with the bait of lyrical descriptions of nature and (best of all) spending time alone appreciating the seasons. If it had stuck to that path, it may have been worth the effort, but she attempts to mine her own biography for details that I simply didn’t care about. Ho hum, a tomboy whose military family bounced around a lot and whose abusive dad ended up splitting the family. Yawn, her obsession with trusty dog companion (although this reminded me of Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman) who she loved more than her dying mother. Zzz, sleeping through her tales of dating in a small Colorado town and especially snoring once she finds true love on OK Cupid. She deals with a cabin fire in the beginning, and I wonder how she chose to structure it as such. What if she built up to the fire and described the calm and the seasons, then peaked with burn drama and wrapped with lessons learned from getting rid of all your possessions?

Bottom line, there are much better memoirs and much better hymns to the natural world.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

I wanted this book to be as interesting as the interview the author gave to Ezra Klein (“Is modern society making us depressed?“). Unfortunately it falls short, Hari being a much better interview subject than writer. It’s not a complete waste of time, though, as it reinforces his message over hundreds of pages: society now makes us isolated and has us focused on the wrong values, which end up making us depressed. To solve this, don’t just pop an anti-depressant but dive to the root of the problem—connect with your neighbors, find meaningful work (e.g. bike shop co-op), practice loving kindness and meditation, stay off the internet and stop watching as much TV. Exercise, because we’re animals. Get out in nature. Universal basic income. You know, the usual proscription to solving modern ills.

Clock Dance

The prolific Anne Tyler keeps chugging away but it seems like her punchy writing is becoming diluted. The message remains the same, no matter how old you are you can make a change in your life (usually it’s an older woman who fantasizes about leaving her unappreciative husband). The main character in this is Willa, sent scurrying to Baltimore to care for her son’s ex-girlfriend and that woman’s daughter after the ex was accidentally shot. Willa’s first husband was conveniently done away with in a road rage incident, and her second is a grumpy older man who resents Willa’s willingness to drop everything to tend to this stranger. In the end, Willa flies back to Tuscon but it seems like she’s going to leave him. Is this some sort of fantasy that all older women have?

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Excellent book by Richard Rothstein detailing the systematic, de jure segregation imposed on America by its institutions (not de facto but rather de jure, or enforced by law). He layers example after example on you, each page weighing the argument more and more, drumbeats that refuse to back away from this egregious history. Citing examples in San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, etc. he builds his argument from decades of research.

Lots of other crazy bits are inside, like the 1917 campaign promoted by the Department of Labor in response to the terrifying 1917 Russian revolution: an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign where “We Own Our Own Home” buttons were handed out to schoolkids and pamphlets distributed saying it was a patriotic duty to stop renting.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Zora Neale Hurston tried to get this published in her lifetime to no avail, and here it is almost 100 years later that it finally gets printed. She interviewed Cudjo Lewis (Kossola, his African name), the last survivor of the final shipment of the illegal slave trade right before the Civil War broke out. The best parts of this were when Zora inserts herself into the story, obliquely, unobtrusively. She ends up bringing him gifts like peaches and ham and watermelon and they become friends chatting in the shade of a hot Alabama afternoon as he leads her down his memory hole to what life was like in Africa, how he was captured, what life became for him in Alabama. The hardest part for her was coming to grips with the fact that Africans themselves sold out other Africans to the slave trade.

Everything is Flammable

Is Gabrielle Bell always this whiny? I’ve read several of her graphic novels which detail her autobiographical dilemmas, best of which is Truth is Fragmentary: travelogues and diaries, but I don’t remember feeling annoyed by her tone in those. Maybe it’s my mood.

There are good parts, like the bus ride wherein she’s trapped with an ex-con who’s a bit too talkative and her seatmates all combine to ignore this guy, “as if the 3 of us were arbitrarily given the task of babysitting a large, unpredictable, scary, nasty child who should have been aborted.” The story tips from coast to coast as she travels from New York to northern California to help her mom after a fire wiped out her mom’s cabin. Luckily her mom’s community comes to the rescue, and she’s donated clothing and various supplies. Gabrielle helps her find a tiny home and the guy who’s living on the lot helps her build a bathroom extension. There are bears and dogs and PTSD from abusive relationships in California and tomato plants and homeless bikers camping in her backyard and friends who donate dish racks that are carted across the country in New York.

Why Art?

Eleanor Davis pokes and prods at the question of why we need art in a book you can zip through in 20 minutes, introducing us to various artist types and then spinning a world wherein the creators are manipulating their creations but to what end? Not a book for anyone looking for a meaty answer, more of a frothy jaunt contemplating this major question in the manner of a daydream.

Noah’s Compass

A sixty year old man is pushed out of his teaching job and downsizes his home to a shoddy apartment to make ends meet. On the first night at the new apartment, he’s burglarized and wakes up in the hospital without knowing what happened (he was conked on the head). A swirl of family eddies around him, his three daughters and an ex-wife, his youngest daughter Kitty coming to live with him. He becomes obsessed with the fact of his lost memory of the night, then becomes obsessed with a helper woman who “keeps the memory” for her older employer. He arranges to bump into them, and begins seeing the woman, Eunice, who’s 22 years younger and (oops!) married, but he only finds out about the marriage after he’s behind her mother at the grocery and introduces himself as someone who’s dating her daughter. In the end, it’s happily ever after on Christmas Day, alone in his apartment with a good book, a chicken warming in the oven, slippers on.

Saint Maybe

Thank you, Anne Tyler, for giving me something to take my mind off the drama swirling around, something to sink into away from the day-to-day. This one is her usual formula of good writing and likeable characters. The point of view shifts as it usually does in her work from one character to the next. It’s set, as usual, in Baltimore. The story begins with a happy family, a beloved son who gets married to a woman with two kids and soon has one of their own, only his brother raises questions about the legitimacy of the baby one drunken night when the father ends up suiciding his car. Ian, the brother, ends up raising all the kids after the mother kills herself. Weird plot twist to make Ian turn super religious, but the other characters stay a very healthy skeptical. We see the kids grow up, come back to take care of Ian.

Digging to America

Anne Tyler is excellent when she writes what she knows, even when it’s colored with highlights from a foreign culture, like this one. An Iranian-American grandmother navigates her son’s life, dealing with her daughter-in-law and their adopted Korean baby, along with the Donaldson family who they met on Arrival Day with their own Korean adoptee. Maryam is the widowed mother, fiercely independent, who ends up falling for the grandfather of the other baby, but has an awkward rejection of marriage because she can’t imagine being married to an American. Delicious.