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Camp Cinema: Russian Style

Русская Версия

The term “camp,” originating from the French verb se camper and meaning “to flaunt,” has no equivalent in the Russian language, and invites an area of research almost completely unknown to Russian film scholars. The major working task of the Russian Film Symposium this year is to conceptualize Soviet and Russian camp cinema.

A stable definition of camp in western criticism is itself problematic. Susan Sontag’s seminal article, “Notes on Camp” (1964) set off a barrage of objections, with many activists claiming that Sontag took camp’s sexual transgressive nature, and unrightfully turned it into a popularized aesthetic that featured frivolity, the conflation of high and low cultures, and style over substance. Political reclamations of camp have traced its history back to Oscar Wilde and essentialized its expression as an effeminate, male homosexual aesthetic. Nevertheless, both sides would agree that camp is a subject that craves attention: it is performative, improvisational, and defined by stylized acts, regardless of its own self-awareness or audience. Camp cinema can be considered both a product, as well as a way of queer reading by audiences, who celebrate what is considered (by the mainstream) bad taste. In adapting our own working definition for Russo-Soviet cinema, the symposium participants will consider all angles of this politicized debate over camp.

What use, then, is “camp” for Russian cinema? Western discussions of camp and its politics of identity often note the attempt of distinction, a separation from bourgeois, normative, mainstream culture. Explicit representations of gender or sexual transgression in Soviet cinema are almost absent, however, and the famous saying proclaimed: “In the USSR there is no sex” (“В СССР секса нет”). Homosexuality was declared illegal under the rule of Stalin in the 1930s until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although this law was repealed in 1993, the Russian Federation has recently moved toward similar acts of discrimination, with lawmakers in St. Petersburg backed by the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party this November approving a bill that would ban any public promotion of homosexuality. Camp sensibilities, inserted into the popular market of the Russian film industry, can offer an alternative aesthetic to both the social-normativity and hyper-masculinity of the Putin era.

Arguably, camp performances have existed throughout Russo-Soviet film history, finding a place within both the heavily centralized state film industry of the Soviet period to the privatized studios of present-day Russia. This year’s retrospective program will investigate a variety of approaches to camp. The Soviet style of the past can become newly discovered camp treasures in The Amphibian Man (1961) as well as Abram Room’s recently restored A Severe Young Man (1936). The pure stylized performances of Aleksandr Bashirov and Renata Litvinova, “Russian camp icons” of art-house cinema, are on full display in House under a Starry Sky (1991) and The Goddess (2004). Popular genre films Hello, I’m your Aunt! (1975) and more recently Feliks Mikhailov’s Jolly Fellows (2010) celebrate the transgressive performances of drag queens.

A conceptualization of camp could also open new avenues to the existing historiographies of Russo-Soviet cinema. A camp reading of Soviet film history would account for films such as Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Happiness (1934) and Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Jolly Fellows (1934), whose playfulness and frivolity were in stark contrast to the ideologically laden socialist realist films of the 1930s. How did these camp commodities pass through the censored Soviet cinema industry ambiguously, closeted, yet existing for public consumption by those who recognized their aesthetic codes? Likewise, while studies of Russian culture in the 1990s almost solely focused on the darkness of chernukha, Russian films also playfully celebrated the démodé, or the historical trash of the Soviet era in films such as Sergei Livnev’s Hammer and Sickle (1994) and Sergei Debizhev’s Two Captains Two (1992). Finally, camp products often engage the high culture of imperial Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s past: the image of Russia’s most prized poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, absurdly clashes with popular culture of the modern present in both Iurii Mamin’s Sideburns (1990) and Vladimir Mirzoev’s remake of Boris Godunov (2011).

What does a camp reading of Russian cinema say about its viewership, from domestic audiences, film festival connoisseurs, to film studies scholars abroad? We invite you to come discuss the topic at the fourteenth annual Russian Film Symposium, Camp Cinema: Russian Style, which will be held on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh from Monday 30 April through Saturday 5 May 2012, with evening screenings at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Melwood Screening Room. This year the Russian Film Symposium will take its daring performances to new venues, with a screening of Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1982) at the Riverside Drive-in movie theater, with the director Tsukerman himself introducing the film.

The Russian Film Symposium is supported by the University of Pittsburgh: the Office of the Dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the University Center for International Studies, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Humanities Center, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, the Film Studies Program, the Graduate Program for Cultural Studies, the Graduate Russian Kino Club, and grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Andrew Chapman