Thursday, July 30, 2020

Notes on Political Camp with The Hunt

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of July, I selected this year's controversial political horror film The Hunt.)

"I would go so far as to argue that 'camp' has replaced 'irony' as the go-to sensibility in popular culture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused. In other words [...] in this moment, the whole goddamn world is camp."

Bruce LaBruce, "Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp"

What is camp? 

Most camp fans have decreed is that, at its base, camp is a form of comedic sensibility, used to exaggerate things to their extremes for the sake of a laugh. Yet, the question of the exact nature of camp been the subject of debate for decades: In Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, "Notes on 'Camp'," she argues that camp is a sense of naivete, that camp is when nobody has any idea of what they're doing. On the flip side, Andrew Ross wrote in his 1989 text, "Uses of Camp," that camp isn't naive; that it can be used intentionally for specific functions depending on who's using it and for what purpose. Then, there's the aforementioned 2012 essay from filmmaker and writer Bruce LaBruce that argues that camp has lost its meaning and that "the whole goddamn world is camp" now. He believes that camp has become such a widespread phenomenon that it's no longer just a single sensibility, but rather a series of sensibilities. LaBruce names off several categories, ranging from Classic Gay Camp to Ultra Camp to Subversive Camp to Conservative Camp and Liberal Camp. The topic of political camp comes up several more times throughout LaBruce's essay, as he argues that camp is "by its very nature political," and that, due to a present lack of sophistication and substance within current camp, it can be accessed and used by both conservatives and liberals. Examples of both categories given by LaBruce include Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich for Conservative Camp, and Dr. Ruth and Al Sharpton for Liberal Camp.

Now that the question of what is camp has been addressed, the next question becomes what does camp have to do with The Hunt? For those who missed its all too brief theatrical run before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters country-wide, it was a film released on March 13, 2020 that was written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and directed by Craig Zobel. The film follows a group of upper class liberals, led by a woman named Athena, whom gather a group of over ten lower class conservatives in a forest with the intent of hunting and killing them. Their plot is complicated when one of the hunted, a seemingly conservative woman named Crystal, proves to be a more capable opponent than her hunters expected, leading up to a final showdown between Crystal and Athena. The film was intended to be an updated adaptation of the short story The Most Dangerous Game, with a bonus injection of political content that earned controversy long before the film was even released. It garnered enough controversy that the film was actually delayed from a release in late September 2019 to its final March 2020 date. However, what many failed to take into account is that the film's ultimate statement is not in favor of either side of the political spectrum, but rather to display the campiness of both conservatives and liberals in the present era. With the hope of creating a satirical look on America's current political climate, the filmmakers of The Hunt not only utilize tropes found within the horror and action genres, but also Conservative Camp and Liberal Camp to achieve their goal.

The battle between Conservative (Camp) and Liberal (Camp) in The Hunt

The Hunt's use of Conservative Camp is at its heaviest near the beginning of the film: The first major conservative character we are introduced to is a young woman known only as Yoga Pants. Her appearance brings to mind another woman who falls into Conservative Camp territory, Tomi Lahren, what with her pastel Lululemon outfit, pink lipstick and the cheapest looking blonde wig since Kate Mara's from the ill-fated 2015 Fantastic Four reboot. This is hammered home by the casting of Emma Roberts, who is no stranger to political camp considering her role (that also lampooned Tomi Lahren) in American Horror Story's seventh season, subtitled Cult, that mixed politics, horror and baroque humor. Yoga Pants is quickly joined by other conservative characters being hunted, including Trucker, a character who appears as if he lost out on the role of Jack Ryan, Don, an older man whom embodies the stereotype of the right wing gun nut as he tells Yoga Pants as the hunted arm themselves, "Can your finger do this [wag]? Then, you can squeeze a trigger then," and Staten Island, whom is shown to have marched in the Charlottesville rally and also proudly boasts about owning "seven guns to defend myself."

Yoga Pants (Emma Roberts), Trucker (Justin Hartley) & Staten Island (Ike Barinholtz) displaying Conservative Camp

When the titular hunt begins, these characters react about how you would expect them to: Despite getting armed with several enormous firearms, they are quickly killed off one by one in a demonstration of the film's ability to combine horror with action with political camp. Trucker protectively yanks Yoga Pants away from open fire and, just as the latter makes a remark about almost getting hit, she gets shot in the head and dies. Trucker tries to save another woman, billed as Dead Sexy, but steps on a land mine and gets blown up. Staten Island discovers Dead Sexy literally torn in half, but refuses to put a woman out of their misery. To which she demands, "Let it go, you fucking snowflake," before grabbing his gun and shooting herself. The Conservative Camp in The Hunt is dialed down shortly after this sequence, with the main symbol carrying it on being the character of [Shut The Fuck Up] Gary, who shows up to tag along with protagonist Crystal for a good chunk of the film. [Shut The Fuck Up] Gary pretty much embodies the remaining conservative stereotypes not yet joked about, including being an Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theorist who spreads his paranoia virally, earning his nickname by not being able to shut the fuck up about a liberal conspiracy called "Manorgate." As well as displaying hostility towards immigrants, insisting that a group of refugees that he and Crystal encounter on a train have to be "crisis actors" there to be another test for them from the liberals. Like the other conservatives, though, he is eventually dispatched with so that the film can focus on the brand of camp it ultimately delivers more of: Liberal Camp. 

From near the start, The Hunt is entrenched in Liberal Camp and satirizing its left wing characters: The first major example of this comes from when Staten Island, along with two other conservatives known as Big Red and Vanilla Nice, enter appears to be a gas station. After some banter in which Staten Island dresses down the gas station owners, Ma and Pop, for having the right to own and operate firearms so he can "stand his ground", Ma and Pop quickly dispatch of the three conservatives. Big Red is killed after eating a poisoned donut, Staten Island is (ironically) gunned down by Ma and Pop tear gasses Vanilla Nice, then breaks his head open with his own shotgun. Before Vanilla Nice's death, he tells Pop to go to hell, whom retorts, "I don't believe in hell [...] I'm a godless elite. And for the record, asshole, climate change is real!" This is followed by Ma and Pop's dialogue embodying more liberal stereotypes as they bicker while disposing of the bodies, including Pop lambasting Staten Island for "probably" using the n word on Twitter, arguing with Ma over what to refer to black people as, a discussion of their mutual love for NPR and Ma yelling at Pop for drinking soda because it's all of the chemicals and sugars that corporations put inside.

The first of many instances of Liberal Camp, courtesy of Ma (Amy Madigan) and Pop (Reed Birney)

As the movie progresses, we learn more about the liberals that make them increasingly campier: In one scene, while Crystal and [Shut The Fuck Up] Gary are being driven by a man claiming to be an army official supposedly to safety, said "army official" gives himself away to Crystal as another hunter when he can't help but, while interrogating [Shut The Fuck Up] Gary, inserting a speech about how he's trying to not victim blame to justify his questioning. And, of course, one can't forget the scene with Crystal and Don fighting a group of the liberal hunters which is peppered with Liberal Camp. Including, but not limited to, boasting about retweets from Ava DuVernay, lectures about jokes about AIDS, a fight about referring to the group of liberal hunters as "guys" being harmful because "gendering." As well an argument about whether or not female liberal Liberty should be afforded any extra mercy from Crystal because of her gender, an interesting callback to the Conservative Camp of Dead Sexy's death. Then, there's the flashbacks showing the origins of how the hunt came to be a year prior, specifically in which Athena and her fellow liberals are selecting conservatives to hunt. There's some dialogue that stands out, primarily the instance of the liberals refusing to select a black republican to hunt because they view hunting a black person as racist. Despite that, as a part of the hunt, they're having one of their own pretend to be an Arab refugee when he's from Connecticut. 

That instance of hypocrisy is dismissed with a line that is arguably the epitome of what the filmmakers are going for: "We need to lean into the stereotypes to let them expose their biases." Why that line is arguably the embodiment of the film is to demonstrate that, by forcing these conservatives into Conservative Camp territory, the liberals have pushed themselves into Liberal Camp territory. The conservative characters are obsessed with collecting and maintaining guns at all costs; the liberal characters are obsessed with enforcing and maintaining political correctness at all costs. The conservative characters refuse to attack women, even if said women are among the hunters trying to kill them; the liberal characters refuse to attack or even speak ill of black people despite being fine with having one of their own play up Middle Eastern stereotypes. The conservative characters are all lacking in higher education to the point where the majority of them are quickly killed off within the first fifteen minutes of the film's runtime; the liberal characters all possess a higher education to the point that they shoehorn a pig named Orwell into the hunt just to flaunt their knowledge of classic literature through Animal Farm references.

Two sides of the same Camp

And then there's Crystal: The film's protagonist is initially stated to be among the conservative characters, but it's clear from the beginning that this may not be the case. When we are first introduced to Yoga Pants, she initially tries to seek help from Crystal. Instead of trying to help her, Crystal instead uses a bobby pin, her hair and a leaf to create a natural compass, thereby demonstrating her resourcefulness. When Crystal is introduced proper, she enters the supposed gas station that, by this point, we know is a trap set by Ma and Pop to hunt conservatives. Instead of being another notch in the body count, she uses her intelligence to suss them out and promptly shoots them both down, shouting that "Cigarettes in Arkansas only cost six bucks; you fucked up, bitch!" Crystal's knowledge and capabilities are on display throughout the entirety in ways that separate her from the displays of Conservative Camp: Among other instances, these include showing compassion for the immigrants that she and [Shut The Fuck Up] Gary encounter and the army veteran liberal she must kill while fighting a group of liberals, and figuring out that she and [Shut The Fuck Up] Gary are being driven by a hunter, whom she quickly fights. This all pays off with ultimate reveal at the film's climax that Crystal was not the woman Athena assumed her to be, that it's a case of mistaken identity with another woman whom lives in the same city as her.

The phenomenal Betty Gilpin as Crystal

This revelation opens up a number of potential readings for what Crystal is meant to symbolize: Is she lying and she really is the woman Athena meant to kidnap? Is she proof that forgoing politics and enforcing an apolitical status is the way to go? There is one potential reading, however, that lends itself to more analysis than others: That Crystal, herself, is a liberal just like Athena and her comrades. Crystal, as a character, shares more traits in common with the liberals than the conservatives: She demonstrates a proficiency with fighting, including with firearms, but never once harps about her right to own guns. She cares about the well-being of certain people, but never coddles any one group of them to the point where she refuses to attack them if necessary. And, most interestingly of all, she also displays knowledge of literature like the liberal characters that is first shown when she recounts her own version of The Tortoise and the Hare. Yet, despite this, Crystal is never thrown into Liberal Camp territory as Athena and the others are, and this is where the reading of Crystal as a liberal reveals another point of satire within The Hunt: With the reading of Crystal as a liberal, one can see that The Hunt is satirizing the conflicts between leftist and centrist liberals. Something that is expressed most prominently in the literal fight sequence during the film's climax. 

The climatic fight between Crystal and Athena combines everything The Hunt is trying to encompass: It's the film's take on the showdown between final girl and villain in horror films, it's a fine action set piece that more or less wraps up the film, and it's where the use of political camp, particularly Liberal Camp, reaches its peak. In "Uses of Camp", writer Ross describes how camp "involves a celebration, on the part of cognoscenti, of the alienation, distance, and incongruity reflected in the very process by which it locates hitherto unexpected value in a popular or obscure text. [...] It belongs to those who have the accredited confidence to be able to devote their idiosyncratic attention to the practice of cultural slumming in places where others would feel less comfortable." How Ross's text pertains to The Hunt is that this is exactly what the filmmakers are have done through their attempt to adapt The Most Dangerous Game: By their finding of value in this popular text, they have created a sequence where they devote a good deal of their attention to Crystal and Athena engaging in cultural slumming through this fighting. The cultural slumming goes both ways: Athena insists that Crystal is "uneducated and ignorant" and complains that the only reason she organized the hunt and is about to fight her was because Crystal believed in Manorgate, so she twisted it into reality. Crystal, on the other hand, sees through Athena's machinations and insists she's crazy, that she's not who Athena thinks she is (literally and metaphorically), and reveals her own view of slumming through Athena's upper crust culture with the line, "Now, do I have to keep listening to Beethoven, or can we fucking get on with it?"

Athena (Two Time Academy Award Winner Hilary Swank) & Crystal: Slummers

Another component of the climax's camp quality is something that Ross terms as "grande damerie", defined as "when the products (stars, in this case) of a [...] earlier mode of production [...] become available, in the present, for redefinition according to contemporary codes of taste." This is seen with the casting of Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank as Crystal and Athena, as these roles are redefining an earlier role of both Gilpin and Swank's for this film. For Gilpin, it's her as role in the Netflix series G.L.O.W.). Crystal redefines Gilpin's Liberty Belle role by transforming Gilpin from a symbol of Reagan-era conservative heroism to a symbol of contemporary moderate liberal heroism, while maintaining Gilpin's physical prowess. On Swank's end, The Hunt alludes to her famous role from 2004's Million Dollar Baby as boxer Maggie Fitzgerald. Not only are we treated to multiple scenes of Swank displaying her own physical prowess, including a scene of Athena practicing her boxing while her fellow liberals select conservatives to hunt, but Athena, like Crystal, takes a role with conservative ties like Maggie and redefines it into a contemporary leftist incarnation. Essentially, screenwriters Lindelof and Cuse have transformed Gilpin and Swank into grand dames of differing positions on the left wing political spectrum.

Hilary Swank & Betty Gilpin: Grand Dames

As for the fight itself, it, above all else, channels the basic definition of camp through the film's political camp lens in multiple ways: The first is the use of many objects within Athena's kitchen as weapons, including a Creme Brulee torch, a swan vase, a ceiling light, food processor blades, an ice pick, an Alexa and a champagne bottle. The next is the interjections of the characters' personalities into the fight: Athena's pretentiousness is so prevalent that, when Crystal tries to use the champagne bottle as a weapon, Athena goes out of her way to grab the champagne bottle and stash it in a safe space. As well as growing weary enough of Crystal's destruction of her home that, when the fight briefly goes outside the manor, Athena screams "No more glass!" when Crystal is about to destroy another of her glass doors and insists on opening the door before the fight resumes. On the other hand, Crystal's glimpses of compassion are once again on display as she gives Athena a moment to catch her breath after throwing Athena out of a glass door, in addition to her being done with the situation to the point that her use of the Alexa as a weapon is less out of trying to hit Athena and more about cutting out the frivolousness of her opponent. Finally, you have camp leaking over into exaggerations of the other genres The Hunt is taking from: In one instance, Crystal leaps away from Athena and grabs onto a rope attached to the ceiling in hopes of performing an Indiana Jones-style leap...only for the rope to break under Crystal's weight and causing the protagonist to fall and crash into a glass table. As well as parodying the seeming invulnerability of horror movie characters by having Crystal and Athena delivering a total of approximately fifty attacks to each other, including four stabbings and impalings and one instance of Athena catching Crystal's arm flesh in her gun, yet the fight managing to carry on for over five whole minutes before Crystal delivers a final blow to Athena.

The climax of The Hunt

Interestingly, the resolution to the climax, and to The Hunt as a whole, takes us back to the film's prior style of political camp: With both women lying on the floor, Crystal asks Athena why she was called Snowball, to which the latter explains its literary origin to the former. Crystal responds by stating that, since Snowball was an idealist which irked the other pigs that Athena should be Snowball. This shows that Crystal has an education that, unlike Athena, she has no desire to flaunt and confirms that Crystal really was never the woman Athena assumed she had to be. With Crystal bringing home the political nature of the film with this revelation, Athena is left to bring home the camp nature by, in her final breaths, giving a humorous "Whoops!" as her last action before finally dying, having finally realized her error: That she couldn't see that she and this woman were simply two sides of the same political coin despite the truth being in plain sight. To the point where the effects of the antagonist's blind anger is shown in the characters' wardrobe: Crystal wears a blue crop top, Athena wears a red sweater.

The resolution of The Hunt

In conclusion, screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and director Craig Zobel aimed to make a statement with their 2020 film adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, titled The Hunt, but it was not the statement that many expected. Instead of trying to pick a side on the political spectrum, the film instead attempts to demonstrate the current campiness of both conservatives and liberals. They achieved this by mixing elements from the action and horror genres with political camp or, in more specific terms borrowed from filmmaker/writer Bruce LaBruce, Conservative Camp and Liberal Camp. While this mixture is on display throughout the majority of the film, it is on most prominent display during the film's climax when its primary protagonist and antagonist have their final battle in a match that channels the universal definition of camp through a political camp lens. While the film was a financial failure, it succeeded at one thing: Demonstrating that LaBruce was correct that "the whole goddamn world is camp." The whole goddamn world is camp, because, otherwise, Zobel, Lindelof and Cuse wouldn't have made a film that's ultimately an exercise on the art of political camp.

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