Ask someone whether camp is best characterized by embarrassing, overwrought displays of joy (Can’t Stop the Music) or the schadenfreude of seeing society’s dregs either succumb to (or rise above) the constraints of their environment. You’ll find that it’s an easy question to answer: both easily generate camp value, so long as the focus is on exaggeration. On the other hand, ask someone if it’s possible for the genre to convey a strong social message (of the Stanley Kramer strain, that is, not the Susan Sontag). Most will likely reason that the “serious” social message will be compromised by the strongly subversive antisocial camp value. Without dwelling on the question of whether camp value can be attributed to the intention of the filmmaker (John Waters sure thinks it is) or a reaction by the audience, suffice it to say that every postulation has its antithesis, and for anyone who doubts that a film that’s soaked in camp can’t tackle a timely subject, here is Lipstick. Though suffuse with guilty pleasures, it’s also a devastating look at society’s unfair tendencies to make clear divisions between Madonna and Whore labels. Margaux Hemingway is the slightly dim supermodel Chris, who suffers a bizarre, clumsy rape attack from her young sister’s music teacher (played by Chris Sarandon, in another too-mannered sleazeball performance). Throughout his rampage, he insists on Chris listening to his avant-ambient synth compositions, which outdo even the unnerving Wendy Carlos compositions for Clockwork Orange in ear-rape effects. While there is no shortage of similar tongue-in-cheek minstrelesqueries (Anne Bancroft chews some serious scenery as the district attorney who takes up Chris’s case), it’s also crystal clear that Lamont Johnson buys wholesale into scripter David Rayfiel’s dissection of the fine line between image and reality. By the time the melodramatic trial has come to its conclusion, not even Chris herself is confident that her image as a sexual object (her pouty-lipped ad campaign is on billboards throughout the film) doesn’t trump her emotional wreckage. In fact, Johnson only seems to drive that point home by concentrating less on Chris’s inner torment and more on oblique angles of the architectural and urbane mise-en-scène that mirrors the high-gloss ‘70s fashion world. By the time he fastidiously ties up the loose threads other films in that vague decade would’ve left dangling (i.e. the outcome of the second trial), it’s clear that Johnson doesn’t want the audience to dwell much on the specifics of the plot, but rather, translate the fundamental critiques of judgmental dependence on image tropes into their own experiences. That he hides this bitter message in camp—a genre that depends on its audience acting on their image-reading, cynical impulses—is ballsy genius.
Paramount has nearly caught up with MGM in creating wonderful-looking DVDs for films that might have just as easily ended up in the vaults forever. Lipstick looks pretty great, though most of the colors are somewhat washed out (which makes one wonder if the "you're worth it" red of Hemingway's lipstick weren't digitally retouched). The sound is uneventfully mono, clear but flat. Still, I for one am sort of thankful I didn't have to hear the demonic Michel Polnareff musical interludes in a 5.1. remix.
Nothing but the fierce debates you will have after the film is done.
It's Lifetime. It's camp. It's seriously confused, and it should speak directly to drag queens in straight relationships everywhere.