WHAT/IF & Velvet Buzzsaw
Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp are so démodé these days. (Thanks Anna.) I’m almost embarrassed to have to mention them. But even if tattered, dishevelled and dragged through the Met, they still have a value: as monitory examples for television producers, for example. The people behind two recent Netflix productions would do well to take note of the following:
Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful. The perfection of Trouble in Paradise and The Maltese Falcon, among the greatest Camp movies ever made, comes from the effortless smooth way in which tone is maintained. This is not so with such famous would-be Camp films of the fifties as All About Eve and Beat the Devil. These more recent movies have their fine moments, but the first is so slick and the second so hysterical; they want so badly to be campy that they're continually losing the beat.
If anything wants to be campy, it is What/If (released 24 May) and Velvet Buzzsaw (released 1 February). These artefacts – the former a ten-episode gender-flipped remake of Indecent Proposal, the latter a feature-length splatter satire (yes, a splattire) on the art world – seem to have put the pursuit of camp status above plot, characters, intelligence and intelligibility. A cursory glance into each is enough to persuade the viewer that they are unremittingly bad; on closer inspection one starts to wonder if they are being bad on purpose, part of a deliberate attempt to add some new cult classics to the Netflix stable.
Of the two, Velvet Buzzsaw is probably the easiest to watch. Though mindless and inept, it is hyperactive enough in places to hold the attention, and it there is always a kind of pleasure in seeing an ensemble cast so mercilessly abased. The premise here is that a collection of evil paintings has been released into a feckless LA art scene and started causing all the other art to kill people – gallerists, critics and dealers, you know, real low-lifes. (Why the evil paintings don’t just do the killing themselves is unclear.) This could have been a framework for a) a gory cult horror show or b) a biting satire on the art world – that easiest of targets which, left to its own devices, will happily satirise itself. Unfortunately, the script is so distracted between these alternatives that it fails to land a single punch: it tries so hard to be relevant, knowing, schlocky and slick that it is always, as Sontag puts it, losing the beat. Nobody seems to have told the actors whether they are playing it for laughs or not, meaning that the competing stars in the lineup tear the film in all sorts of directions. A comically neurotic Jake Gyllenhaal and fatale-ish Rene Russo fail completely to gel with a deadpan Zawe Ashton and a John Malkovitch doing, oh, you know, whatever you call the thing John Malkovitch does. Of course, true camp, which requires a genuine and all-too-obvious love of its subject, always undermines satire; but all Buzzsaw manages to evince is a malodorous, poorly articulated, contempt.
What/If is, in a way, more controlled and thus more boring. The proposal – billionaire pays penniless entrepreneur for one night alone with their partner – has been bulked out for episodic treatment with subplots of similar theme but questionable relevance: a married doctor has an affair with her superior, a gay couple has a threesome (I know, controversial!). The dialogue is preposterous without being inventive, cringy but not lush: “You’re the kind of guy that would set himself on fire to keep others warm.” Sontag may have seen through the artifice of Beat the Devil and All About Eve, but they at least dared to be outrageous; the former was written by a young, badly behaved Truman Capote trying to get the actors to say the silliest things he could think of, while the latter produced at least one line that will probably be intoned by drag queens until the end of time. What/If offers no treats: its script is as wooden as its actors – with one notable exception.
That exception is, of course, Renée Zellweger, here in the role of Anne Montgomery, cutthroat investor and randy Randian, a gravel-voiced executive prone to staring out of penthouse windows with a glass of whisky in her hand while stormclouds rage overhead. Of all of the stars Netflix seems to have duped or bribed into taking part in these two ventures, it appears to be Zellweger who is having the most fun, and who is the most enjoyable to watch. She seems completely in on the joke, whatever it is, and determined to camp her part as much as possible. In this she recalls the villains of the ’60s TV Batman: another show that failed to be camp by trying too hard, but where big names – Eartha Kitt, Anne Baxter, George Sanders – could go for the unrestrained, almost therapeutic pleasure of being deliriously hammy. Zellweger does not need to be here – she’s got a perfectly good job being Judy Garland at the moment – but this part seems to be an excellent way for her to let off steam.
Unfortunately for What/If, there is no counterweight to Zellweger’s venomous magnificence. Jane Levy, as protagonist Lisa Ruiz-Donovan, the saintly CEO of a med-tech start-up in need of Montgomery money, is desperately bland, grinding her way through her lines like a mechanical Anne Hathaway. (That’s unfair. She has something of a robotic Kristen Stewart about her too.) The series is totally lacking in character actors; every member of the supporting cast is uninterestingly good looking, central-castingy – too wan and featureless to be able, by force of personality, to turn this mediocrity into the total success or outright disaster Zellweger deserves.
You can see why Netflix would want to be in the business of trying to manufacture camp classics. middling-to-decent shows get watched once, if that; cult favourites generate repeat views – people watch them, show them to other people, come back in a few years or every week, project them on the walls of nightclubs (hate that). They may have failed in their attempt, but fortunately, achieving that “reek” of self-love (Sontag) that gives true camp its flavour is not a prerequisite for such success; witness the Sharknado franchise, a series of six horror films made apparently in total disdain of audiences, actors and the genre, which are nevertheless held up as examples of “so-bad-it’s-good” filmmaking, despite being utterly hateful. Obviously not everyone can be as discerning as one. Basically, what it boils down to is this: Netflix wants you to watch What/if, hate it, tell everyone about the corny dialogue and how great Zellweger was. Which is what I’m doing now. But don’t fall for it. You wouldn’t watch an entire box-set of Dynasty just for Alexis Carrington’s bits: there’s some perfectly good compilations out there. So be smart – don’t give Netflix the satisfaction – and wait for the supercut.