By Nicole Veneto
Amanda Kramer has created a thoroughly campy and celebratory ode to queerness that stands as both a timely political statement and a genuinely well-crafted piece of independent filmmaking.
Please Baby Please, directed by Amanda Kramer. Screening at AMC Liberty Tree Mall and AMC Methuen.
The broadest yet most inclusive definition of “camp” can be surmised in five simple words: things being what they’re not. Although Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” is still considered the foremost authority on defining camp sensibilities, the boundary she drew between low “naive” camp and high “deliberate” camp has blurred in the nearly six decades since its publication. As far as filmmaking goes, pure, naive camp still exists in the form of box office disasters salvaged into meme-fodder, like Cats or Morbius, as well as Ed Wood-esque vanity projects seemingly written and directed by extraterrestrials (your Neil Breens, Tommy Wiseaus, etc.). But, given that so much of contemporary media holds an ironic attitude toward itself, the prevalent strain of camp today is largely deliberate, fully knowledgeable of and indulgent in its own campiness with a postmodern meta-awareness of itself.
This is where the sense of “things being what they’re not” becomes especially useful; everything is inherently performative and artificial to some extent, and what something “is” or “isn’t” is both relative and liable to change on a dime. The malleability of camp goes hand in hand with gender and sexuality — unsurprising, given that queer people have long been at the vanguard of camp sensibilities. Queerness and camp share an intuitive understanding of “things being what they’re not.” This is arguably the driving sentiment behind Amanda Kramer’s film Please Baby Please, a musically inclined camp extravaganza about a repressed heterosexual couple whose encounter with queer hooliganry opens up new possibilities for their relationship (spoiler alert: they add a third). Like Neptune Frost, Please Baby Please is a DIY ode to queerness and queer filmmaking. It’s teeming with creativity and a love for all things gender-fucky, serving as a poignant political statement at a moment when the paranoid, conservative fear-mongering of the McCarthy and Reagan eras are making an uncomfortable comeback.
On their way home to their Manhattan apartment, beatnik newlyweds Suze (Mandy and Possessor star Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Dudley Dursley himself, Harry Melling) happen upon a queer greaser gang murdering a couple in front of their building. (Only after they dance and snap their way down a smokey alleyway, of course.) The second Arthur locks eyes with the Young Gents’ handsome leader Teddy (Karl Glusman, Watcher), it’s lust at first sight. A softspoken clarinet player, Arthur has never been secure in his ostensibly heterosexual masculinity. He has been alienated by its cultural expectations of sexual domination and the relentless “comparison and measurement” between men: “I won’t be terrorized into acting like a savage because I was born male, and I don’t want to be rewarded for it either.” To put it in colloquial queer terminology, Arthur is afraid of topping his wife and would much rather be a bottom.
Suze, on the other hand, (literally) wears the pants in the relationship. With her heavy-winged eyeliner, messy beehive updo, and abrasive New York accent, she’s far too rough around the edges to pass for a doting ’50s housewife by any Rockwellian standards. The encounter with Teddy’s Scorpio Rising gang has a similar effect on Suze as it does Arthur, sparking newfound gender anxieties. She begins to question the validity of their relatively asexual relationship. Her desires are further exacerbated when their gorgeous upstairs neighbor Maureen (an agelessly beautiful Demi Moore), a kept woman of expensive tastes, asks Suze to house-sit her brand new kitchen appliances. Equally enamored with Maureen’s gilded-cage lifestyle as she is with Maureen herself, Suze undergoes her own sexual transformation that will test the strength of her marriage to Arthur.
Artifice is the name of the game in Please Baby Please. Hand-made props and lovingly constructed practical sets exude the sort of theatrical artifice that’s integral to camp sensibilities. Every scene is played out with a playful wink and a nudge, even though the inciting action is a double homicide. The transatlantic drawls are thick and the dialogue volleys back and forth between screwball banter and cheeky double entendre, unfolding like a Tennessee Williams script directed by Bertrand Mandico. Visually speaking, Kramer’s created an incredibly textured homage to queer filmmaking that honors the iconography of Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington. Every artistic choice is deployed toward the notion of camp as “things being what they’re not,” from drag queens singing their own (off key) musical numbers to Ryan Simpkins’s (Fear Street) greaser gang boy-drag getup.
There’s also an ironic charm to Melling’s casting considering his ties to the Harry Potter franchise and its creator, J.K. Rowling, whose noxious transphobia much of the younger cast have either disavowed or distanced themselves from in their post-Potter careers. It’s difficult to overstate just how much damage Rowling’s TERFy diatribes have wrought, considering her massive cultural influence around the globe; as the author of arguably the most lucrative YA multimedia franchise of all time, she continues to make a profit off of every little piece of Potter paraphernalia that’s bought or sold, no matter how many former fans she’s driven away. When Arthur confesses that it’s “hard to believe I was even born male,” you get the sense that Melling is directing a personal and pointed “fuck you” toward Rowling and her ilk.
Personally speaking, I prefer either tightly structured storytelling with emotional/character driven narratives or completely mind-fucky dream logic. Please Baby Please falls somewhat short because it wavers between these two extremes at the cost of feeling anticlimactic once Arthur, Suze, and Teddy decide to become a throuple. Some sparing phallic imagery aside, the film could really afford to be more explicit when it comes to its characters’ sexual proclivities. Nonetheless, Kramer has created a thoroughly campy and celebratory ode to queerness that stands as both a timely political statement and a genuinely well-crafted piece of independent filmmaking.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.