—Whatcha got there?
—This is something just for you.
—Something just for me?
—What’d you cut it with?
—Oh you’ll see. You’ll dig it.
—After all I meant to you…
⍀True Detective, “Who Goes There”
Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.
⍀Susan Sontag, “Notes On Camp”
One of my favorite things about HBO’s latest hit, True Detective, is how the show pivots without effort from funny to overserious to macabre to sexytimes. I mean, and it doesn’t do this in a dextrous way. It lists and reels like a drunken boxer who is also a boat without a rudder/keel. Not to be smarmy, but the show has a tone problem. Well, or, the whipsaw tone problem may just be a condition - perhaps a sensibility. I know I run the risk of embarrassment to give this idea the whole essay treatment, but what I really think best describes a lot of True Detective is the camp sensibility. True Detective is heterosexual camp, and Rustin Cohle is a camp icon.
The most erotic scene in True Detective is not one depicting flouncing titties or a jiggling ass. It occurs 3/4 through the fourth episode, where Cohle re-infiltrates the Iron Crusaders, an East Texas biker gang. The stakes are cut-your-balls-off high, but the scene is pure seduction. It hinges on Cohle working his way back into the role he played when he was in ‘deep cover’. He meets up with Ginger, his old contact in the gang, at a biker bar that’s part backyard bonfire and part Thunderdome.
Cohle makes his play to get to Reggie Ledoux through Ginger by proposing a far fetched drug trade. In a beautiful exchange, Ginger offers a bump of powder on his hand for Cohle to snort. Cohle almost swoons. The two talk with their faces so close that they must feel each other’s hot breath.
Cohle plays simultaneously the role of femme fatale, biker scumbag, and undercover cop. The scene is highly artificial, as stylized and articulated as the police station interrogation room dialogues. It’s straight, but it’s almost too straight. The scene, and really that whole spectacular episode, are so decisive and deeply felt. Marty stupid-resolute to Maggie, “I love you honey, and I ain’t giving up.” The insane long shot of Cohle dragging Ginger through the housing project. It’s like True Detective has a tight-grip on the throat of what the viewers want, and Cohle is the icing on top.
In the introduction to her "Notes On ‘Camp’", Susan Sontag says, “the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Sontag’s “notes” are themselves highly stylized in their lack of adornment. Rather than proceeding “solemn and treatise-like”, she sets out 58 numbered points broken up by various sayings by Oscar Wilde, an historical-spritual cause and effect of the camp sensibility.
Rustin Cohle, one of the two protagonists of True Detective, functions similarly as a pivot point of the show. Detectives Papania and Gilbough interview Cohle, Marty, and Maggie in the present day timeline in order to learn more about Cohle’s possible involvement with a more recent murder. The entire show is set up around the mystery that Cohle represents, both physically, as a character-suspect, and philosophically, as a metaphysical account of the universe.
I think there’s something almost uncanny about camp. Sontag says, “to perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” Camp plays with perception or function. When a person or object functions as the object or function, but not the object or function itself. It objectifies desire itself, leaving an obvious residue of asness, artificiality.