In Praise of Camp in the American Underground Cinema [1928-1969]

By Raphaël Bassan

The experimental film tradition in the United States was established by individuals who, unlike their European counterparts in the early twentieth century, did not come from the visual arts but from the sphere of film. They belonged to amateur film clubs (which were very important in the 1920s) or were aspiring directors waiting to be hired by Hollywood and who cut their teeth by making their own self-funded efforts. Screenings of expressionist, Dadaist or surrealist films at the end of the 1920s, particularly in New York, led some of these directors to imitate these movements.

The first film, still cited today, is The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich (1928), two European émigrés (1). Filmed in an expressionist style, this short film tells in a stylized way, with very graphic shots, of the trials and tribulations of an extra who comes up against the Kafkaesque workings of the studios, leaving him unemployed, having had printed on his forehead the fateful number 9413. The film is a sketch that challenges the viewer with a familiar problem: the sad fate of extras in the film industry.

Bouncing around from these beginnings, I am proposing a subjective journey through a particular figurative American experimental cinema (sometimes narrative, as with the Kuchar brothers or Adolfas Mekas) seen from the angle of a scathing and (self) destructive burlesque, defined by Susan Sontag in 1964  as “camp”. (2).


Robert Florey had been in Hollywood since 1929, directing the Marx Brothers in the hilarious feature film Coconuts, followed by Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932): the burlesque and the fantastic would be two of the favourite genres of future underground filmmakers.  Vorkapich became a specialist in special effects for several feature films of the 1930s.(3)

One of the major themes of the future American underground cinema (Kenneth Anger, George and Mike Kuchar, Andy Warhol) was its love-hate relationship with Hollywood, generating zany psychodramas often tinged with despair. In addition to the extravagant sets of Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra, there is a plastic use of text in the inter-titles that is taken up by James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Folsom Webber in Lot in Sodom (1932), an irreverent ‘sword and sandal’ film that (fifteen years before Anger) tackled the theme of homosexuality under the guise of a biblical story. These films, with their many twists and turns, were still dependent on the aesthetics of silent cinema and were based on a certain situational burlesque as practised at the time by filmmaker-performers like Buster Keaton.

The most “prophetic” film of the time is the brilliant Even - as you and I made by six hands (Roger Barlow, Harry Hay, LeRoy Robbins, 1937). It humorously shows the creative torments of three amateur filmmakers enticed by an advertisement promising every owner of a 16mm or 8mm camera the chance to participate in a competition combined with a screening for members of a Hollywood studio. Our three fellows get to work but are hampered by the impossibility of writing a script that doesn’t just revolve around the dreadful “boy meets girl”. Then one of them comes across a magazine dedicated to surrealism. The jolly fellows are overjoyed to learn that a screenplay is useless - it is enough (as they understand it) to film anything (thus they can film a light bulb frying in a pan and other such joyous things). The feverish filmmakers edit miles of film. The finished work is full of quotations from Buñuel (the eye being sliced from Un chien andalou) or from Richter (the flying hats of Vormittagsspuk).

This sketch, shot a decade before the establishment of the most important experimental film movement in the world, depicts the inferiority complex that US independent filmmakers maintained in relation to Europe. We know that Iris Barry, head of MoMA in New York, swore by French and German experimental films in the 1930s and 1940s. It was only after her departure that a film by Maya Deren entered this prestigious museum in 1955! Even - as you and I is a seductive short film, whose purpose is skewed: the apprentice filmmakers want to participate in a competition, and not to develop the language of film. Thirty years later, George Kuchar faced the same challenge when he made the cult film Hold me While I’m Naked (1966). The filmmaker had friends and family rehearse in order to make a film worthy of Hollywood. But in these “times of pop”, the real works are parodies.

With Mother’s Day, shot in 1948 in San Francisco, the referential breeding ground of the future underground cinema, James Broughton forged a whimsical and nonsensical film, the one envisaged here. Shot in high contrast, graphic black and white, with laconic inter-titles, it focuses on the fate of a woman, mature and flirtatious, who manages, in her own way, a brood of sons and daughters. Having reached adulthood, they retain their childish (infantile) behaviour. The last component this film offers concerns the sexual immaturity of the protagonists.  Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) or Adolfas Mekas’ Hallelujah the Hills (1962), are, among others, based on this configuration.

Camp and Baudelairian films

The first films mentioned develop a situational burlesque. The extra in Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra wants nothing else than to fit into the system, and the three filmmakers in Even - as you and I only dream of becoming recognized filmmakers. Mother’s Day contains, like gothic novels or melodramas, elements of entropy that gnaw at the coherence of the outdated world described in the film. The immaturity and impotence of usually male characters are cruelly sketched in Ron Rice’s work (in The Queen of Sheba meets the Atom Man, 1963, Taylor Mead (4) mechanically shakes the breasts of his black girlfriend without feeling the slightest desire, and in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures the penises are limp even in the middle of an orgy; the enigmatic No President (1969) is peppered with the flaccidity of numerous sexual organs shaken up in vain.) Flesh is sad on the eve of Flower Power. This sexual ineptitude is already present in the burlesque films of the 1920s and 1930s: Harry Langdon has an asexual profile, Laurel and Hardy, even though they are married, are constantly trying to get rid of their respective wives in order to be with each other, Groucho Marx makes fun of the strong Margaret Dumont whose love leaves him indifferent.
Immaturity is more psychological in Adolfas Mekas’ Hallelujah the Hills, a slapstick tale in which two hesitant men court the same woman for seven years without ever deciding to propose to her. They are thrown off balance when she marries a third scoundrel. Built on a mosaic of small black and white tableaux, this film is, in some ways, a continuation of Mother’s Day. Here, Adolfas (like his brother Jonas who was directing Guns of the Trees at the time, a film with similar aims (5)) multiplies the references and the nods to international auteur cinema.

Ron Rice, Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, Mike and George Kuchar depict a world that expresses itself through the very centre of 1960s counterculture; the beatnik poets and pop art have come and gone. (6). Two films canonise this universe: Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960) and Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963). The former captures in a quasi-documentary way the nonchalant drifting of an innocent misfit (Taylor Mead), in the streets of San Francisco. He picks a flower, meets various characters with whom he cannot establish any real contact. Flaming Creatures takes place in a single location (an apartment) and is more ritual than dérive: a few companions of (often) undetermined sex engage in various bodily jousts, ranging from narcissistic self-exposure to a simulated orgy with a strong propensity for transvestism.

Seen again today, these films are very watchable and enjoyable. They consciously uncover a world of ruins in a polyphonic way. The film stock used is outdated, the apparent grain deliberately makes the image dark, sometimes bordering on the blurred; various woven materials (fabrics, gauzes, curtains) come between the lens and the background. The spaces are a veritable hodgepodge of various objects, dresses, clothes, dolls, posters, ointments and kitchen utensils. If Flaming Creatures got into trouble with the law, it wasn’t so much because of its infrequent nudity (although that’s why too) but because of the deleterious, mentally disruptive atmosphere that emanates from it. These films are not only zany, but also picaresque, farcical, camp, buffoonish, eccentric, comical, saucy, grotesque, parodic, absurd, unusual, bizarre, whimsical, unpredictable, carnivalesque, ironic, offbeat to use a contemporary vocabulary. Jonas Mekas calls them baudelairian (7).


With The Great Blondino (1967), Robert Nelson follows in the footsteps of Ron Rice. A Pierrot Lunaire drifts through the city; the filmmaker integrates elements of found footage into this journey and claims Bruce Conner’s legacy. It was, however, with Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) that Nelson produced a highly acclaimed visual pamphlet that departed from the baudelairian universe (8).  Watermelon is the food of the poor, the blacks. In the American collective unconscious, it both symbolises them and stigmatises them. The film is full of watermelons that are violently kicked like footballs; they are crushed, dropped from planes like bombs, eviscerated, and a woman even has sex with one of these fruits that literally floods her. The word “watermelon”, taken from a nursery rhyme, is repeated over and over again throughout the film, while Steve Reich’s music adds density to the whole: a remarkable anti-racist “visual pamphlet”!

The justifiable recognition of Ron Rice and Jack Smith is, today, accompanied by the shelving of the brilliant works of the Kuchar brothers (9). Cited as models by John Waters, these New York twins began shooting pastiches of Hollywood films in 8mm colour, in the 1950s at the age of twelve. The care taken with their close-up shots gives this format a remarkable and unusual baroque texture. From the age of twenty onwards, they made films separately, but they still collaborated on acting and scripts. George is the brightest, the most ‘optimistic’. In Hold me While I’m Naked, we see him doing bits and pieces for a fanciful film with friends, including a beautiful actress; the subject of this short film (as in Even - as you and I) is the filmmaking process. In place of the  Hollywood film that isn’t there, an excellent pastiche comes into being. The more pessimistic Mike made The Craven Sluck (1967) on a similar subject, but in black and white. Here, a frustrated and grumpy forty-something housewife dreams of becoming a star. Between depression and the search for a lover, she rehearses various poses alone in her room that are supposed to make her a new Marilyn Monroe.

Mike, who was very inspired by genre cinema, made the medium-length film Sin of the Fleshapoids in 1965, which in a way, is his poetic treatise. In an unspecified, post-atomic future, humans, living in a veritable Eden (dressed in antique style with togas and tunics) are constantly served by robots made of flesh (the Fleshapoids), until the day that a robot realises it has an intelligence of its own. This leads it to revolt against its masters - dragging a young robot into its antics accelerates the final catastrophe. Everything is set in the master’s palace, where colourful clothes, various utensils and saturated colours make it an authentic piece of baudelairean cinema.

I’ll allow Dominque Noguez to tentatively conclude : “In truth, inside many an ‘underground’ filmmaker there sleeps (with one eye) a former little film viewer who wants to remake the films that enchanted his childhood”.


Thanks to the efforts of historians such as Jan-Christopher Horak and Bruce Posner, this little-known early avant-garde has been recognised since the 1990s through exhibitions in international museums and DVD editions.


Notes on Camp, available online at " Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.” (note 44).


On the relationship between burlesque, violence and underground cinema, see L'Horreur comique, esthétique du Slapstick, edited by Philippe-Alain Michaud and Isabelle Ribadeau-Dumas, published by Centre Pompidou, 2004.


Taylor Mead played moody, maladjusted characters in the films of Ron Rice and Andy Warhol. The film he made in 1966-67, European Diaries, the forerunner of filmed diaries, conceived before those of Jonas Mekas, has no connection with his acting activity. It is, if anything, less playful, more formalistic, than some of Mekas' Diaries.


The Mekas brothers believed that a New Wave could emerge in the United States as well as in Europe; indeed, Adolfas would have a short career as an independent filmmaker ‘within the system’.


Considered a "beat filmmaker", Ron Rice (who died at the age of 29 in 1964) was entitled to have his entire filmography projected on the walls and in dedicated rooms, in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou this summer, devoted to the Beat Generation. “Ron Rice's The Flower Thief is the purest expression of Beat sensibility in the cinema" (P. Adams Sitney, Le Cinéma visionnaire, Paris Expérimental, 2002, p. 285).


Jonas Mekas defined 'baudelairean cinema' in 1963: 'The films I am thinking of are Ron Rice's The Queen of Sheba meets the Atom Man; Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures; Ken Jacobs' Little Stab of Happiness; Bob Fleischner's Blonde Cobra - four works that constitute the real evolution in cinema today. These films illuminate and reveal sensibilities and experiences that American art has never before witnessed; a content that Baudelaire, the Marquis de Sade and Rimbaud gave to world literature a century ago and that Burroughs gave to American literature three years ago. It is a world of flowers of evil, of torn and tortured flesh; a poetry that is at once beautiful and terrible, good and bad, delicate and disgusting" (Ciné-journal, a new American cinema [1959-1971], translated by Dominque Noguez, p: 90, Paris Expérimental, 1992).


Just like Ken Jacobs, who, having produced two major works in this underground vein, Little Stab of Happiness (1960) and Blonde Cobra (co-directed with Bob Fleischner, 1963), as a true protean avant-garde filmmaker, then turned to the structural found footage film (Tom, Tom the Piper Son, 1969), the political pamphlet (Star Spangled to Death, 2004) or artisanal research into 3D (A Primer in Sky Socialism, 2013).


Sitney does not mention them at all in his book Le Cinéma visionnaire (Visionary Cinema) op.cit.


Une renaissance du cinéma, le cinéma " underground " américain, Paris Expérimental, 2002, p. 225.