In Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”, camp is described as being, “The love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’, of things-being-what-they-are-not” (279). From Pamela Robertson and Jennifer Peterson’s articles, I gather that Johnny Guitar perfectly embodies this over-exaggerated camp aesthetic. Sontag theorizes that, “In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails” (283). Although the film was knowingly exaggerated, the purpose of the film was inherently serious. Jennifer Peterson explains that Nicholas Ray was trying to make a commentary on “McCarthyist hysteria” (5). From the readings, I understand the film failed at this serious political ambition and nearly everything else, but this does not mean the film does not succeed as a piece of Camp. Robertson would argue that, “Consistent with Susan Sontag’s ‘good because it’s awful’ criterion for camp objects, Johnny Guitar is camp because it is a fundamentally incoherent text, both a failed western and an awkward star vehicle” (42). I am interested by the idea that it is an “incoherent text”. The Peterson and Robertson articles seem to be somewhat all over the place with their theorization about the movie. This seems to be a symptom of the films contradictory signifiers and ideas. I was specifically interested in the way that film’s campiness was aided by the inherent campiness of Joan Crawford. Sontag saw Camp, when seen in a person, as the height of “Being-as-Playing-a-Role” (280). I was intrigued by the idea that a person could live their life as blend of reality and artifice. Robertson says that Crawford’s, “…physical appearance became increasingly severe, and her film roles captured the artificiality and hard professionalism that structure her camp image” (38). Crawford had literally become a Camp icon by the artifice present in her own life. Johnny Guitar’s inherent failure as a film, along with Crawford’s Camp status, make the film almost impossible to view as anything other than Camp. Although there is a lot more to unpack with the film’s conflicting ideas on women, I think the film’s incoherence ultimately makes any reading of the film rather subjective.
Peterson, Jennifer. “The Competing Tunes of ‘Johnny Guitar’: Liberalism, Sexuality, Masquerade.” Cinema Journal 35.3 (1996): 3-18.
Robertson, Pamela. “Camping Under Western Stars: Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 47, no. 1/3, 1995, pp. 33-49.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against interpretation and other essays, Penguin, 2009, pp.275-292.