Remember when “camp” was an important category for classifying bits of popular culture? Sure, it’s still around, but you don’t hear it as often as you used to. When I hear it, my strongest association is the 1960’s Batman show, with Adam West. But I thought of it most recently while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my second time binge-watching the series). No, Buffy doesn’t fit neatly in the “campy” box, but it does draw pretty freely from that spring. There’s a higher-than-usual suspension of belief that’s often called for. You can’t worry about whether people would really do those things in a school or a hospital without drawing a SWAT team. You don’t ask how all that loud, catastrophic to-do happens without anyone noticing (unless the plot requires them to notice).
Camp style is a sort of deliberate transgression of situational proprieties, simultaneously satirizing or lampooning those proprieties while still totally relying on them. Relying on them with a wink. Watching Buffy, and wondering at our willingness to go along with the transgression, to wink back while still seriously caring, I thought of The Lamb. I thought of Rael (the Lamia Slayer). It was not yet a well-formed thought, but it seemed right in some way. No wooden stakes come into play; Rael’s blood is enough, and the Lamia become food rather than dust. But the heavy sense of destiny is familiar.
Then I remembered “magical realism” (AKA “magic realism”). Though more commonly applied to certain novelists, this phrase is also applied to some painters. It’s related to surrealism, and often seems to veer in that direction. But it generally stays “realistic” in its framing and in its primary references, so that the fantastic elements stand out in just the right way. Consider the work of Philip Curtis or George Tooker.
Framing the fantastic elements with the real. Allowing the surreal to impinge, even to the point of a kind of crisis between worlds, where competing candidates for “real” become both equally real and equally fantastic. New York City is real, but in The Lamb it becomes a fantasy, a fable, an open question in some important sense. The city is a contrast to the strange, rocky landscape where Rael travels inexorably toward that strange collapse of self into his brother John. When he’s “Back in New York City,” it’s more like a Potemkin city, a reconstruction or representation of the city, and we see the city as a wasteland somehow continuous with the mysterious land of Slippermen.
Thinking of Buffy once more: In “Normal Again,” (season 6, episode 17), we are confronted with the possibility that Buffy’s career as Vampire Slayer is all a hallucination, and that a return to mental health is available to her by choice. [BIG spoiler alert!] The episode deliberately leaves the question of what is real an open question, but Buffy clearly chooses the darker version of Sunnydale, her life as Slayer, and the friends she loves. The passage between the two Sunnydales opens like the window or skylight that opens for Rael. “I must decide between the freedom I had in the rat race, or to stay forever in this forsaken place.” This realization leads directly to – is almost interrupted by – the exclamation, “Hey John!” As if staying is a forgone conclusion. The window fades on cue. Buffy the series cannot be negated, as much fun as it is to play with the possibility. Rael can’t really go back.
So is it really a choice? Is destiny not written deeply into the plot of the narrative, for Rael and for Buffy? Trained by logic into antipathy toward contradictions, it seems WE must decide whether or not these “decisions” are genuinely free. But must that meta-decision be a genuinely free choice as well? Do you smell that? It’s the smell of an infinite regress, suggesting that something in our thinking has gone awry.
When the narrative hinges on some notion of destiny, isn’t there always that ongoing sense of the voluntary, of choosing it even though it is destiny?
Listen again now, and consider: Destinies; fate; predestination; forgone conclusions… Don’t we need to struggle with how none of these really eliminate decision, choice, free will? Might it be that we really don’t (yet) understand decision?
It’s an invitation, not a command. Listen again.
But once you’ve done it, won’t you know that it couldn’t have been otherwise? And perhaps this is true only because it could have been otherwise.
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