Hold Me While I’m Naked: Notes on a Camp Classic
Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966 USA 15 mins)
Source: NLA/ACMI Prod Co: Kuchar Film Presentation Filmmaker: George Kuchar
Cast: Donna Kerness, George Kuchar, Andrea Lunin, Hope Morris, Steve Packard
In 1964, Susan Sontag published her seminal essay, “Notes on Camp” (1). Seeking to define an increasingly prevalent cultural trend, she described a sensibility of passionate extravagance that cannibalised other forms of both high and popular art, even as it violated their most sacred tenets in its seeming trivialisation of traditionally serious subject matter. Two years after its publication, American underground filmmaker George Kuchar created Hold Me While I’m Naked, a film that has come to stand as one of camp’s defining texts.
The term “camp” might almost have been invented for the films of George Kuchar and his twin brother Mike. Embarking on a prolific film career in 1954, at the tender age of 12, the brothers launched themselves into a string of outrageously ebullient micro-budget homages to the Hollywood films that they devoured omnivorously. Never allowing their ambitions to be circumscribed by their paucity of means, their Super-8 mini-epics reflected influences ranging from renowned filmmakers such as Frank Tashlin and Howard Hawks through to Roger Corman and Jack Arnold’s tackiest horror and sci-fi flicks. Concentrating on individual projects after 1965, each brother remained devoted to an attitude and aesthetic that came to play a prominent role in American underground filmmaking. Described by Ken Kelman as “a perfect fusion of mock-Hollywood and mock-avant-garde styles” (2), Hold Me While I’m Naked is a virtual lexicon of camp characteristics that stands as George Kuchar’s most perfectly realised example of “the theatricalisation of experience” (3) that lies at the core of this sensibility.
Presented as loosely autobiographical, Hold Me While I’m Naked centres on the tribulations of an independent filmmaker, frustrated at every turn as he tries to make a film that pretends to artistic merit. Heavily indebted to Hollywood’s high priest of unrestrained Technicolor melodramas, Douglas Sirk, the saturated colours and treasure-trove of kitsch artefacts in Kuchar’s first 16mm colour production jar with the mock-seriousness of its subject matter. Addressing a topic that permeates a significant body of “serious” art, namely the position of the artist in relation to art itself and the world from which he draws his material, it questions the conventional solemn treatment of this theme.
Partaking of camp’s refusal of “both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling”, Hold Me While I’m Naked‘s events are presented with a panache that circumvents any attempts to evaluate the film according to established critical standards (4). Kuchar’s starring turn as the director of the film-within-the-film is humorously self-parodic from the outset. This is signalled as much by his ludicrous and slightly pitiful personal appearance as by his abject failure to create the film he envisions. The camp sensibility, and its inherent comicality, is splendidly encapsulated in the clips of this masterpiece-in-the-making. These fragments, in terms of conventional art, fall a fathom short of mediocrity, yet excel as camp by virtue of their over-the-top acting and glaring mise en scène. The pretension that is all too prevalent in certain strands of autobiographical and independent cinema is further undercut by the tacit suggestion of a sexual motive in the director’s request that the leading actress remove her brassiere as it is not in keeping with the mysticism of the stained-glass window through which he films her.
In its aesthetic styling, Hold Me While I’m Naked finds a further level on which it can circumvent traditional measures of critical appraisal. If most artistic forms have been evaluated according to one or other notion of realism, in its “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”, Hold Me While I’m Naked stands as a paradigmatic example of camp’s resistance to such measures of merit (5). In one scene, accompanied by music of almost painful poignancy, Kuchar lifts onto his fingertip an imitation bird from the branch on which it is incongruously perched. Amongst a visual cornucopia of effusively lurid costumes, props and lighting, the creature’s blatant phoniness feeds into an aesthetic where the “artificial” exists on the same plane as the “real”. In Kuchar’s tenderness toward the fake bird, we can detect another central feature of camp: “the equivalence of all objects.” (6) The whole charade is a drag act, a marvellous masquerade party, and yet “being-as-playing-a-role” is being nonetheless. (7) Levels of realism and artifice bond together as equal partners in this aesthetic sensibility.
In its frivolity about artistic and existential suffering, and its concealment of its darker nature amid multiple layers of artifice, the aesthetic of Hold Me While I’m Naked is underlain by a feature it shares with a flock of other underground films of the 1960s. This is its status as a gay film. Gays, Sontag argued, have “pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralises moral indignation, sponsors playfulness” (8). To make oneself a work of art, particularly a camp work of art, defies moral judgement, shifting criticism to an emphasis on the vulgar aesthetic. Thus the camp aesthetic can also be seen to inform the films of such artists as Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith and Ken Jacobs, although it did not prevent police raids on screenings of the more overtly homosexual and arguably pornographic Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963) and Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1963). For all that its specious heterosexuality is belied by its devotion to camp, Hold Me While I’m Naked positions itself as more comic than confrontational. It thereby minimises its potential to alienate a broad array of viewers in a way those films did not.
Replete with “bad acting”, glaring costumes, tacky décor and a soundtrack mixed from the cheesiest of flea-market vinyl, Hold Me While I’m Naked is a celebration of the intentionally and unintentionally camp. With even the women dressed in a drag-queen aesthetic and the props and music firmly placed in the so-bad-they’re-good genre, the film revels in everything that bourgeois taste despises. “Always mix styles in reckless abandon as this way your film will never become dated but will retain a sort of ambiguous freshness”, Kuchar has written (9). Without sacrificing its status as a document of its circumstances and era of production, Hold Me While I’m Naked, unhampered by the vagaries of fashionable “good taste”, does indeed seem as fresh today as it did in 1966 (10).