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Camp Integration: The Use and Misuse of Nostalgia in John Waters' Hairspray

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Camp Integration: The Use and Misuse of Nostalgia in John Waters' Hairspray
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  Quarterly Review of Film and Video , 26: 143–154, 2009Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1050-9208 print / 1543-5326 onlineDOI: 10.1080/10509200600737804 Camp Integration: The Use and Misuse of Nostalgiain John Waters’ Hairspray CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTT John Waters has always been notorious for his self-described “bad taste,” but in 1988 heproved that his viewers ought to be too. In that year, Waters made a critical mousetrap of a film, a musical teen comedy, Hairspray that uses the lures of those Hollywood genres toencourageitsviewerstoidentifywithanostalgicvisionofthe1960swhileitsimultaneouslycamps that nostalgic mode to reveal the depoliticizing impulses that drive it. 1 Thus to like  Hairspray is to like a film that whites out the history of the American civil rights movementand the collective triumphs of black Baltimore and the NAACP by rewriting their stories,the stories of integration, as the integration of one overweight white girl among otherwhite teenagers on a local after-school dance program. In this very decision to depoliticizepolitical history, Waters and his movie challenge Frederick Jameson and his theory of thepostmodern nostalgia film, which focuses nearly exclusively on the genre’s commoditypastiche, by camping nostalgia films’ tendency to pursue stylistic instead of historicalauthenticity. Hairspray actually camps its displacement of politics by commodities topropose that we might expect more from nostalgia films, that we might do more with ournostalgicimpulses.Waters’filmimplicitlypushesitsviewertoacknowledgethatstyleneednot be synonymous with “trash”; it can also offer “a critical definition of the temptation tonostalgia” and its inherent solipsism (Robertson 267).When he was first approached about turning his film Hairspray into a musical, Waterssaid he “tried to explain to the writers how nervous I was in 1988 to have an ‘integrationcomedy’ on my hands,” “a movie where the line ‘I have a dream’ is a gag” ( Crackpot  168).Waters had a lot of explaining to do, because ever since its release, critics have found “thisbright, bouncy film” “unexpectedly genial” and applauded Waters’ move “from testingthe limits of counter-cultural acceptance to affable endorsement of tolerance” (Maslin 1,Hoberman25). TheWashingtonPost  considers“thelatestfromtheguywhogaveusculthits PinkFlamingos ,  MondoTrasho ,  DesperateLiving ,and Polyester  ... agleefulwallowinthe1960s gook of beehive ‘dos and Leslie Gore music—with a positive desegregation messagebesides” (Howe 1). Roger Ebert manages to give three stars to the “bubble-headed series of teenage crises and crushes” (1). Vincent Canby finds Hairspray a “genuinely satiric and (Ihope my mouth won’t be washed out with soap) sweet movie, which pretends to be trash”(1),andevenJanetMaslinappearstogrudginglyenjoy  Hairspray ’s“merrycavalcadeoftheperiod’s most authentically awful props, fads and textiles” (1). Yet despite her appreciationof the film’s mise-en-sc`ene, Maslin notes that although “one of the film’s preoccupations iswith the incipient civil-rights movement ... Mr. Waters’s general facetiousness creates suchan odd mood in which to air these issues that this aspect of the story simply misfires” (1). Caetlin Benson-Allott is a doctoral candidate in English Language and Literature at CornellUniversity, where she teaches courses on film and gender studies. 143  D o w nl o ad ed B y : [ A nd e r s o n , L e e - A n n ] [i nf o r m ai n t e r n al u s e r s ] A t :09 :499 S e p t e mb e r2009  144 Caetlin Benson-Allott  However, Maslin does not seem offended by Waters’ attempt “to make fun of a liberal’staboo” (Ives 73), and she is not alone in that regard. In fact, Waters alleges that “no onewas ever offended by that [attempt]. I don’t think I got one review in the whole world thatwas offended” (Ives 73).This critical benevolence leads Waters to wonder whether “the sacred cow wasn’t asstrong as I thought” (Ives 73) and this critic to wonder how Hairspray managed to passoff its camp critique and pass into the mainstream. Although Waters maintains that hisfilms mock only those subjects that he loves, that approach leads him to make a comedyso pro-integration you could laugh at it—the film or integration. This moral ambiguity,the moral solvency camp often seems to extend (Sontag 54, 62), confuses or obscures theideological intent of an “integration comedy,” especially since that phrase can describeeither a historical comedy about the American Civil Rights movement or a comedy thatuses humor to integrate someone or something into the mainstream (in this case a notoriousunderground filmmaker)—or both. One can trace the srcins of this political slippage tothe nostalgic conundrum of Waters’ project, which finds itself trying to use history bothto critique the viewer’s white ethnocentrism and to encourage their idealized vision of thepast (and the present) for humor and profit:Waters: The sacred cow wasn’t as strong as I thought, which is probably oneof the reasons for [  Hairspray ’s] success.Ives: You were further away from the civil rights movement by then, that’s thedifference.Waters: That’s it. How brave was it to be a pro-civil rights movie in 1987? Tosay yes, I think blacks should be allowed to dance on television—it’s not a realtough position to take. (74)Inthisshortexchange,Watersfirstsuggeststhat  Hairspray mademoneybecauseitsviewersdid not get his humor and either failed to see the film as an attack on their sacred cow orfailed to see the cow as sacred. Yet he later insinuates that the film’s political stance, its endorsement  of said sacred cow, was too mainstream to offend anyone or to challengecontemporary social mores.Waters’ interpretive oscillation points to and arises from the important questions Hair-spray raises about the political motivations of the postmodern nostalgia film. Hairspray exposes the tension in postmodern nostalgia between the demands genre places on the filmthrough its conventions and expectation and nostalgia’s inherent desire to recall the past,which must be rerouted to the mise-en-sc`ene because of the film’s ongoing attention to theneeds of the teen film and musical genres. Furthermore, Hairspray also brings out anothertension within the broader category of filmic histories between the viewer’s desire to seehistory,torevisitthepasttomaskthepresent’slossofhistoricity(Jameson284–286),andtorewrite history in order to reenvision the present by distorting their relationship. Thus when  Hairspray recycles the history of the African-American civil rights movement by trans-forming it into a backstage musical, it does more than just require the political achievementof equal access and opportunity under the law to cede centre stage to an overweight whitegirl’s dream of dancing on TV. It delegitimizes contemporaneous political debates aboutintegration by consigning the latter to both the past and formula. For Hairspray turns in-tegration into the secondary, contextualizing plot of Tracy Turnblad’s Cinderella story andforfeits its political weight to the heroine’s romantic fulfillment and the viewer’s enjoymentof it. To the extent that Hairspray sends up the “sacred cow” of civil rights, it does soby positing the movement as a fad, a chronologically contingent stage in the process of   D o w nl o ad ed B y : [ A nd e r s o n , L e e - A n n ] [i nf o r m ai n t e r n al u s e r s ] A t :09 :499 S e p t e mb e r2009  Camp Integration 145 individual maturation, like teased hair or first love, that can be written off into subplots andmise-en-sc`ene where history evidently belongs.Thus although it will eventually camp this very perspective, Hairspray ultimatelypromotes itself like other postmodern nostalgia films before it as “a consumable set of images” (Jameson Cultural Turn 129) and characterizes its and its viewers’ “relationshipto the past” in predominantly commercial terms:that of a consumer adding another rare object to the collection or anotherflavor to the international banquet: the postmodern nostalgia film is then veryprecisely such a commensurable set of images, marked very often by music,fashion, hair-styles and vehicles or motorcars. (Jameson Cultural Turn 129)Because Hairspray is Waters’ international banquet, however, it celebrates undervalued orabject domestic commodities as part of Waters’ larger oeuvre as a “trash art” filmmakerwho specializes in “bad taste” ( Shock  1). Waters’ unique humor thus allows Hairspray toexemplify the thematic and methodological link between camp and postmodern pastiche,specifically between the former as “a form of queer labor” and “a form of engagementappearing at the moment in which the commodity languishes after its tour through theindustrial cycle described by Marx” (Tinkcom 2, 9) and the latter as a reappropriation of camp’s reappropriation.Furthermore, because Hairspray promotes integration as a nostalgic moment, and thuscreates commodity from a political movement, it also codes its commodity-ridden mise-en-sc`ene as a symptom of the film’s camp sensibility: the very commodification of integrationalso becomes a critique of that impulse. Camp transcends its alleged amoral sensibilitiesin Hairspray , in other words. Specifically, when Hairspray sacrifices its political sourcematerial, like other postmodern nostalgia films before it, 2 to “a schematization (or typifi-cation) which seems to be inherent to the project of a nostalgia picture,” it relocates itsquest for historic authenticity to the mise-en-sc`ene, where it both freezes history throughits commodity products and takes such a camp approach to those products that it queers thenostalgic impulse (Jameson, Postmodernism 287). Unfortunately, this tension fails to pre-vent the film from allowing “historic moments in popular culture to supersede and actuallychange those in our nation’s political culture,” from presenting a critique of the nostalgicimpulse without also capitalizing on its siren song (Curry 165).In his treatise on Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema , MatthewTinkcom argues that the camp forms of historical consciousness that recuperate priormoments are nostalgic ones, but nostalgia understood (as its etymology reminds us) asthe pain of the past, the remembrance not of history as an act of fidelity (i.e. historyas a realist text) but of history as the past now situated in camp stylistics” (14). WhileTinkcom addresses Waters’ work elsewhere in his treatise and Hairspray seems to offeran excellent example of Tinkcom’s camp historical consciousness, Waters’ writing, hisinterviews about the film, and his director’s commentary track on the DVD all challengeTinkcom’s insistence on pain and historical infidelity as necessary symptoms of nostalgia.Waters insists that Hairspray was intended as a loving recreation of his favorite childhoodtelevision program, The Buddy Deane Show , a Baltimore “teenage dance party, on theair from 1957–1964,” and a long standing obsession of Waters’ ( Crackpot  97–98). In hisfirst book, Shock Value (1981), he recalls, “ The Buddy Deane Show , a local version of   American Bandstand  , is what really turned me into a full-fledged hairdo buff” (78–79),and in his second book, Crackpot  (1983), Waters devotes one essay to commemorating the20th reunion of the show’s cast and another to his recreation of that show on film (97–110,  D o w nl o ad ed B y : [ A nd e r s o n , L e e - A n n ] [i nf o r m ai n t e r n al u s e r s ] A t :09 :499 S e p t e mb e r2009  146 Caetlin Benson-Allott  165–170).Duringhisadvancepublicityfor  Hairspray ,thefilmmakerevenmentionsthathechose Buddy Deane as the subject for his sixth feature because he “knew this was one of thefew obsessions I ever had that would be palatable for a movie executive,” thus confirmingWaters’ personal relationship to this history as well as his continued identification with it(Harmetz 2). Hairspray will not hold still and allow one to read it as “the remembrance ... of history as the past,” in other words, but respectfully requests analysis as one componentof Waters’ negotiation with a specific episode in American history—a challenge to bothcamp and nostalgia’s alleged disinterest in real history.However, Waters obsession with “real events” leaves Hairspray narratively stuck be-tweenthefilmmakers’historicinterestsandhisartisticagendaasanundergroundfilmmakerto toy with the conventions of commercial cinema (Tinkcom 33). This subversion leavesWaters working on and between two Hollywood genres with conflicting expectation, how-ever, namely the teen film and the backstage musical. The former celebrates the coming of age of one disadvantaged young woman who, through pluck, perseverance, and the help of a great dress, achieves social success, romantic union and professional opportunity, whilethe latter organizes its teen plot around the production of  The Corny Collins Show and itsparticipants’attemptstointegratetheshowracially.  Hairspray ’scamppastichebringsthesetwo genres into conflict, however, since the protagonist-based structure of the teen formulaobstructs the romantic duality required by to the traditional American musical. Jon Lewisfinds that teen films emphasize “how teen films narrativize—how they give order to—theotherwise chaotic and contradictory experience of youth” (2), yet the musical forgoes nar-rative logic in favor of thematic and conceptual binaries (Altman 17–25). Hairspray relieson the musical’s thematic opposition of iconic binaries (black/white, fat/thin, working-class/nouveau riche) to organize its story. However, because they both emphasize narrativeclosure, these genres can unite in narrative resolution, although that mutual requirementalso opposes Hairspray ’s desire for historical accuracy, because of their mutual investmentin the success of Tracy Turnblad, a “clean teen” from an “upper-lower class” Baltimorefamily who is played “big, blonde, and beautiful” by Ricki Lake.Tracy longs to dance on The Corny Collins Show , and after winning a local dancecontest, Tracy gets her chance to perform and to steal the heart of amateur heart-throbLink Larkin (Michael St. Gerard) away from the show’s current star, a skinny, blondesocial climber named Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick). As Tracy’s involvementwith the show deepens, she learns that despite its reliance on black music, The CornyCollins Show only allows African-Americans to dance on the last Thursday of the month,which it calls “Negro Day.” The injustice of this segregation becomes clearer to Tracyafter she befriends Seaweed (Clayton Prince), the son of Negro Day’s hostess, MotormouthMaybelle (Ruth Brown), and he falls for her friend, nascent “checkerboard chick” PennyPingleton. Tracy and Link then set out to integrate the show and encourage Motormouthto picket its location shoot at the Tilted Acres Amusement Park. Unfortunately, Motor-mouth’s rally turns into a riot, and in the ensuing mˆel´ee, Link gets double-kneecappedand Tracy arrested and committed to reform school, which leaves Amber uncontested forthe title of Miss Auto Show 1962. Faced with such gross injustice, the integration pick-eters immediately change their tune to “Free Tracy Turnblad,” and Motormouth and herdaughter Li’l Inez kiss and cuddle the governor of Maryland into pardoning Tracy, whoimmediately rushes to the Auto Show to claim its crown and lead all of Baltimore indance.Along the way, The Corny Collins Show does get integrated, but the staging of  Hair-spray ’s final scene visually reduces this political victory to one element of Tracy’s personaland romantic success. Thus although one might applaud Hairspray for bringing up race  D o w nl o ad ed B y : [ A nd e r s o n , L e e - A n n ] [i nf o r m ai n t e r n al u s e r s ] A t :09 :499 S e p t e mb e r2009  Camp Integration 147  politicsinanostalgiafilm,italsosacrificesthosepoliticstoagenericallyconventionalhappyending. Thus the film’s final integration sequence visually marginalizes black charactersin order to represent their success through its other binaries (male/female and working-class/nouveau riche). Specifically, after Seaweed tries to jump the police line to integratetheTiltedAcresshootandthepolicecartTracyofftoreformschool,MotormouthMaybelledeclares,“Itistimeforblackandwhitetotakehandsandletourgovernorknowthatwewillnot stand for racism. Free Tracy Turnblad!” Following Motormouth’s conflation of racialequality with Tracy’s liberation, the film aggrandizes her triumphant release and victorydance with a growing, interracial pack of supporters towards the Auto Show, where sheintimidates Amber into a dance-off while her followers integrate The Corny Collins Show .Amber retreats to her throne, and Tracy gleefully reunites with Link, who miraculously jumps from his wheelchair to embrace her. At this point, Corny addresses the Hairspray camera directly through its temporary conflation with the television camera and reports:“Wait! Hold on! Baltimore, you are seeing history being made today. White and black together for the first time on local TV. The Corny Collins Show is now ... integrated!” Thecrowd erupts into cheers, but Corny flees the scene to kiss his long-time assistant Tammy(Mink Stole), whose delighted surprise indicates that integration has just realized for hersome long-cherished hopes that had nothing to do with racial equality.AftersomedisgruntledreactionshotsofAmberandherparents,thefilmfinallyreturnsto Tracy and her triumphant debut in a floor-length, roach-patterned victory gown to acceptthe title of Miss Auto Show and teach everyone “The Bug,” a circle dance in which thelead dancer shimmies and writhes (as if covered with bugs) in the center of the groupbefore throwing “the bug” to another dancer. Suddenly, a bomb explodes inside Velma VonTussle’s hair (which she hid there in case Amber lost) and sends her charred hairpiecesailing across the room to land on Amber, who immediately and finally relinquishes thethrone in disgust. Tracy then magnanimously accepts the Auto Show crown and mantle andends the film by pronouncing: “Let’s Dance!”Waters preserves this historic moment by freezing the shot, which allows the viewerto study his composition and literally see how little Hairspray ultimately has to do withintegration. Tracy occupies the mid-ground of the long shot and the apex of its figuraltriangle, the rest of which features a thematic ensemble of many of the most importantcharacters in the film. Corny Collins and Edna Turnblad frame Tracy in the background,whileMr.Pinky(theownerofHeftyHideaway,“HouseofFashionfortheAmpleWoman”)and Link stand in the mid-ground to Tracy’s left, and her friends Penny Pingleton andSeaweed appear at her feet. Seaweed is the only black character in the closing tableauof Waters’ “integration comedy,” and his face is half obscured by the bottom edge of the frame. Furthermore, because Seaweed has iconically come to represent all African-Americans during these final “integrated” scenes, his slight must be read as more thansimply incidental. Seaweed is the only African-American character on screen when Cornyannouncesthathisshow“isnow ... integrated,”althoughheisnearlyerasedbythescreen’sedgethenaswell. 3 Furthermore,noneofthedancersinTracy’sfinal“Bug”danceareblack;while Motormouth and Li’l Inez join the circle, no one ever throws them the bug, and eachtime the camera cuts back to the circle for another lead dancer, they appear closer to theedge of the screen and farther from the center of the dance, the scene, and the plot. Evenpoor Seaweed cannot catch “the Bug” until Tracy’s circle deteriorates into a floor-wideextravaganza.Above and beyond its generic focus on Tracy, however, Waters’ integration of  TheCorny Collins Show also bears precious little resemblance to its historical precedent, The Buddy Deane Show , in Waters’ various histories of it. While The Corny Collins Show  D o w nl o ad ed B y : [ A nd e r s o n , L e e - A n n ] [i nf o r m ai n t e r n al u s e r s ] A t :09 :499 S e p t e mb e r2009
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