[This is part two of a series of posts on and around the idea of cult pleasure; part one is here, and I have written more on Trapped in the Closet here. ]
Trapped in the Closet is the name collectively given to a bizarre (to put it mildly) series of music videos created by and starring the R & B lothario R. Kelly. It began life as a cycle of songs which together told a slowly unfolding story, divided into chapters, and featuring the same backing track and sung melody. It was later developed into a 41 minute video called Trapped in the Closet Chapters 1-12, released in the Summer of 2005. The songs and video told the dramatic saga of a group of couples whose lives are gradually revealed to be intertwined by one another’s infidelities. Each chapter ended with a pointed cliffhanger – a surprising revelation intended to keep the viewer eager to know what will happen next. Kelly is both star and narrator of the video, and all other characters are also voiced by him.
The apparently unintentional hilarity of Chapters 1-12 caused the video to quickly become a viral cult hit on the internet. It was widely viewed and shared through the then-newly-created Youtube, blogged about by enthusiasts, screened at sing-along parties, championed by pop culture commentators like Adam and Joe and Charlie Brooker, and repeatedly spoofed (never quite successfully, in my opinion) both by fans, and professionally by Weird Al Yankovich, Jimmy Kimmel, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Mad TV, and South Park. In short: its reputation as an enjoyable cult object was clearly very much built around its seeming naïveté and the idea that Kelly didn’t, for the most part, intend the video to be comic.
In 2007, ten more chapters were released on the independent film website IFC.com. The tone of these chapters seemed different, and there was apparently little doubt that Kelly now seemed to be often attempting a broad comic style. I liked them far less.
In this post I will both detail some of the pleasures that make Chapters 1-12 so enjoyable, and also suggest that their lack makes Chapters 13-22 less successful. I will argue too that the cult pleasures afforded by the first group of chapters, and resisted by the second, are deeply tied up with assumptions about authorial intention. As such, I will be claiming that the difficult question of intention can often have a very important role to play in the success or failure of cult pleasure.
The particular kind of cult pleasure I’m concerned with can be linked with Susan Sontag’s famous definition of camp as usually constituting a “failed seriousness”, specifically one marked by “the proper mix of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve”. Also relevant is Sontag’s distinction between ‘naïve’ and ‘deliberate’ camp; as she puts it:
Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be camp is usually less satisfying.
These points are important not only because I think we can see Trapped in the Closet as straddling both these forms of camp, but also because of their implicit claim that intention – even if only imaginary – can play a major role in how we respond to cult objects.
Before I get into this, though, you will need to see at least some of Trapped in the Closet for yourself, if you haven’t before, since it is almost impossible to describe to the uninitiated (personally, I would strongly endorse watching the first 12 chapters in full). The moment below comes from Chapter 2, and takes place after Sylvester, played by Kelly, has been found hiding in a closet by the man whose wife he slept with the night before.
This scene is fairly representative of the tone of the first batch of chapters: although the action is over-dramatic, there are no overt gags, and emphasis seems to generally be firmly placed upon trying to convey the emotions of the characters. By and large, chapters 1-12 are are played, as we might say, with a straight face. For one thing, the acting is relatively naturalistic throughout: indeed, one of the incredible things about the first half is that the actors actually manage to look rather convincing whilst ‘speaking’ Kelly’s words - as if their characters were merely talking normally and believably, but their real-life soundtrack has for some reason been dubbed over with a melodramatic R & B track that is synchronised perfectly to their words. There is little mugging, little over-the-top comic physicality, and little campy caricature.
Secondly, there are very few 'gags', and when jokes are made, they tend to be jokes shared between characters in the world of the fiction, which are then laughed about. The fact that these jokes aren’t funny, yet the characters think they are, is actually one of the sources of pleasure of the first half. For example, Kelly and his wife fall about laughing when he adds that, on top of a whole list of other traumas he’s experienced that day, he was also given a speeding ticket:
"Baby, first of all: I got a hangover, been trapped in a closet, slept with who-knows, threatened to kill a pastor..."/ She says "What?!"/ "Baby this is no lie: he had a lover, turns out to be a gay guy!"/ She says "Damn, you've been through a lot of shit..."/"Plus I got a ticket!"
Finally, the story itself is relatively naturalistic: it takes place mainly in domestic spaces, involves conventional themes of family drama like adultery and marital jealousy, and – although full of surprises and excessively violence-prone characters – stays just about within the bounds of believable fiction.
Overall, its intention seems primarily to be to tell an engaging, surprising story, full of twists and turns – not to mock the telling of that story. Although the infamous appearance of a midget hiding in a cabinet in Chapter 10 stretches plausibility, and is certainly intended to be funny and shocking, we have to ask for what reason he is supposed to be funny.
'Big Man' isn’t intended, I don’t think, as a device that shatters the illusion that what we are seeing is a believable drama – though this, coupled with a hysterically un-PC laugh of disbelief, is precisely his effect. His appearance doesn’t seem to be in quotation marks; instead he seems meant to be surprising first and comic second – and this comedy, far from seeming ironic or self-conscious about its offensiveness, instead feels raucous and excitable. This plot development is, I think, intended to be ‘crazy’ in the sense of ‘wild’ or ‘unforeseeable’ rather than ‘insane’ – or, put another way: it is meant to make us think that it is the characters’ situation, rather than the film we’re watching, that is crazy.
Now let's look at a quick clip from Chapter 13, the first chapter of the second crop, in which Kelly is now playing both Sylvester and the previously unseen character of an elderly husband, Randolph. (Note: the clip is preceded by a framing device that I'll be addressing in a moment).
The contrast with the first clip is, I think, obvious: we now have Kelly wearing an abundantly fake belly, and a beard that seems to almost fall off; we have the use of exaggerated voices and physical comedy; we have pauses in the dialogue being used for comic effect; we have the sometimes almost surreal comedy dialogue; furthermore, the whole scene with Rosie and Randolph is almost entirely irrelevant to the plot, so can be seen mainly as an independent comic set-piece.
Admittedly, this scene is a relatively extreme example of the kind of comedy in the second lot of chapters; but, in Chapters 1-12, even where overt comedy exists – and it does exist – it is nowhere as broad as it is here; by contrast, recognisably comic details such as those I just outlined are inserted continually throughout Chapters 13-22.
The second batch of chapters takes the raucousness that appeared so late in the first (with the midget) and runs with it. We now meet aggressively over-the-top characters (like the one Kelly plays here), wishing birds would shit on their wive’s faces, and a stuttering, massively caricatured, pimp (also played by Kelly) who vows to never stop “p-p-p-pimpin’ all these hoes”. We have other highly stylised characters too, like a fat Sicilian mob boss eating a giant plate of pasta, a James-Brown-in-Blues-Brothers-esque preacher, and a gold-toothed ‘gangsta’ named Streets.
As these characters suggest, the plot too becomes far less naturalistic, taking in mob movies, urban 'gangsta' pictures, and even film noir – each of which are pastiched for all their genres are worth. Also, while the story of the first half was, for all its inspired madness, actually very tight and focused, the second half constantly diverges from its main plot for unconnected comic set pieces like Rosie and Randolph’s or Pimp Lucious's.
Finally, the music and lyrics themselves are often used for clearly comic effect, the beat sometimes cutting out at moments to add to comic timing, and the 'dialogue' now containing lines like “You must be crazier than a fish with titties if you think I’m gonna let you smoke that shit up in my car...!”
There were a number of reasons why these new chapters disappointed much of Trapped’s cult fan base, myself included, but an important one was the sense that much of it had been created with comic intent due to the cult appreciation of the first chapters. In short, it seemed to be attempting to create ‘deliberate cult’. Speaking as a fan, I wasn’t disappointed because the comedy of the second half somehow suggested that the first half was also intended as comedy – I was disappointed that this intentional comedy wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the apparently unintentional comedy of the first 12 chapters. Kelly seemed to have tried to give us what he thought we wanted, but instead made Trapped into a parody of itself.
However, following the release of Chapters 13-22, a number of journalists began suggesting that Kelly had always intended the series to be intentional parody, and that those cult fans who believed it to be unintentionally funny were (a) missing the point, and (b) merely expressing a condescendingly superior attitude. The fact that the second batch of chapters were released on IFC.com, and that each was preceded by an interview between Kelly and a white, bespectacled, 20-something host, also made commentators uncomfortable – some essentially accusing those who wished to see the video as naïve of a veiled form of racism being practiced by, as one writer put it, “silver-spoon hipsters”.
One of the arguments used to back up this view is that Kelly is known, within the R & B community, as an artist who does sometimes use humour as a tool within his music – something that might not be known by many fans of Trapped who weren’t previously R & B fans. Another is that, at least in the second batch of chapters, it often seems as if Kelly is trying to ape the style of what’s sometimes known as 'chitlin’ circuit' theatre: a style of broad comic theatre, created mainly by and for African Americans, which often uses instantly recognisable archetypal characters and an exaggeratedly comic performance style.
These debates are clearly centred around the question of intention. It has often been argued that it doesn’t matter what the intention behind a work is – or, equally, that we can never know it for certain, so it’s meaningless to debate it. Discussions of authorial intention have become increasingly unfashionable within the academic study of the humanities ever since the publication of ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ in 1946, and the concept has received more and more apparently deadly blows over the last forty years, from Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ to postmodernism’s challenges to the very concept of coherent textual meaning. Nevertheless, I think that there are still many contexts in which the issue of intention can still be seen to be relevant – if never simple – and one of these is in the area of cult.
I say this because it is very common indeed for a film to achieve cult status through the reception of fans who see their appreciation of the film as being opposed to, or in some sense other than, the work’s original intentions. In the introduction to their Cult Film Reader, Ernest Mathius and Xavier Mendick write that
Traditional fandom remains largely respectful to a film’s interpretive integrity, but other ways of commitment involve challenges to its interpretation, either by robbing it of its meaning, or replacing it with one that may counter its intentions.
While this talk of challenges to interpretive integrity has the ring of a reader-response criticism and the rejection of singular textual meaning, it also in an important sense assumes that we can know – or presume to know – what the authorial intention of a work is in the first place.
I must confess that I’m not an expert on cult theory, but it seems to me from the research I’ve done that the issue of intention may be an under-explored area in cult studies. I say this because, speaking as a ‘fan-critic’ (to use I. Q. Hunter’s term), it is important for me – as it is for other fans of Trapped in the Closet – to be able to see Kelly as 'naïve' in order for the cult pleasure I gain from chapters 1-12 to feel valid.
Seeing Kelly as 'naive' means, for one thing, that I can construct an image of him as a fascinating and rampant egoist based on the evidence of Trapped. He wrote, produced, co-directed, sings, and stars in the video, giving him Ed Wood-level of creative control, and thus potential self-absorption. On top of this there is the fact that in chapters 1-12 he appears not merely as one character, but two: the main protagonist, Sylvester (which is, incidentally, Kelly’s middle name) and the story’s nameless narrator who comments on the action from chapter 8 onwards. Combine with these factors the film’s main conceit, that he also sings every other character’s part too, and Trapped thus consists of one R. Kelly relating to us a narrative in which another R. Kelly comments of the actions of a third R. Kelly, who is constantly having arguments with characters who all sing with the voice of R. Kelly. One seeming byproduct of this is that he seems to become confused by all this himself at times, since he will sometimes refer to his protagonist in the third person, as Sylvester, and sometimes in the first person, as “Me”.
It’s also important that I see Kelly as 'naïve' for Trapped to appear to be, as Sontag puts it, a “passionate failure”. In the commentary, Kelly tells us that, the more he delved into the story and its themes, the more he realised how profound they are – how we are all, in a sense, trapped in closets, and that there exists, in his words, “this global closet thing…” Such vague delusions of grandeur seem unbelievable and instantly comical; they also, however make me love the man a little too. In much the same way as, say, Glen or Glenda’s confessional nature makes it into a strangely moving experience, so does Trapped in the Closet’s apparent basis in an attempt to say something meaningful make it seem charmingly, touchingly, bad.
It's particularly vital for my appreciation of chapters 1-12 that I am able to assume that its plot is not calculatedly ridiculous, but that it relies upon a mesmerizingly child-like conception of storytelling, character-motivation and tone - one that values surprise over cause-and-effect, and action over traditional forms of plausibility. It’s important that I am able to conclude that drama in Kelly’s mind appears to be synonymous with potential danger, and that, in order to achieve potential danger, he must create characters who are unimaginably highly-strung, constantly on the edge of launching into violent frenzy, and who perennially own and carry weapons. The first example of this bizarre narrative tendency comes at the end of the very first Chapter, when Kelly is about to be discovered hiding in the closet: his immediate reaction is to “pull my Beretta out”. At this point we didn’t yet know that he even had a Beretta, let alone can we see why it should be appropriate to instinctively brandish it now. This continues to happen throughout, usually at hilariously unnecessary moments: when Sylvester learns that Rufus is gay, when James thinks he hears Gwendolyn crying, when Sylvester hears an apparently inoffensive knock at his front door, and so on, and so on…
Even more than this, it's important that I am able to assume that the chain of events in 1-12 shows that Kelly has never thought particularly hard about how to tell a story that flows in conventional narrative terms - or is even physically possible. There are numerous instances that seem to display a bizarre grasp of storytelling basics, containing many incidents that are simply impossibilities (such as a policeman flashing down Kelly from behind when it later transpires that he must just have come from the direction Kelly is driving), or unfeasible, such as Bridget’s decision to call a random telephone number she found in her husband’s pocket at a moment of crisis.
Being trapped in a world that operates in this bizarre way – a way that suggests not mere bad writing, but rather an entirely different conception of our world’s logic – is addictive, intriguing, and thrilling. One of the main things that makes chapters 1-12 so fascinating is that they seem to be not just another example of something that is so-bad-it’s-good: rather the specific ways in which they seem to be ‘bad’ are so peculiar, so unique, and so baffling, that they practically require judgment by a whole new set of criteria. As a fan, I have put a lot of stock in the idea that this must be because it is the brainchild of a man whose mind works in a very different way to the kind of person who we usually find telling stories. This seems to be a man who doesn’t consider the very concept of a 41 minute hip-hopera voiced entirely by one person a funny concept, but does think that calling a decrepit, spatula-weilding old woman “a G, no doubt” is hilarious. It is important that Kelly’s mind appears to be a twilight zone – one that it is infinitely entertaining to feel one is getting a glimpse into.
So have I just had my elitist, condescending cult fun stopped and am petulantly aggrieved? Have the new chapters simply made plain what was always there – an essentially spoof-like nature – and I just don’t want to admit this fact? Because of the huge cult pleasure I’ve derived from the first 12 chapters, I have a great deal emotionally and intellectually invested in answering No, since this would not only irretrievably alter the way in which I’m able to enjoy chapters 1-12, but would also suggest that my original pleasure was not only misguided, but also rather arrogant and distasteful.
I also, however, genuinely believe that this isn’t the case, and that I can demonstrate this by pointing to things such as Kelly’s director’s commentary, in which he talks about the “intensity” and “realism” of the video far more than its comedy – and when he does discuss comedy, he’s usually claiming that he had to lighten the mood with a comic set-piece because we’ve just undergone a particularly "intense" series of scenes.
More important for my broader argument, though, is the very fact that I feel I need to convince you of this at all. This is because whether Trapped is an instance of naïve or deliberate camp makes a huge difference both to the ways in which I can value it, and to the validity of that judgment. I want to be able to treat it as naïve camp because I gain so much pleasure, fascination, and excitement from understanding that its brilliance is at least partly accidental. I appreciate the idea that it is akin to the poignant unintentional camp of Ed Wood much more than the notion that it’s a lesser version of the intentional camp of, say, John Waters – to which it has also been compared. If the latter were the case, I wouldn’t be able to love it nearly as much as I do (and camp taste is always, as Sontag says, “a kind of love”). Equally, if I am mistaking a work of deliberate camp for naïve camp then that opens me up to accusations of, not just critical narrowness, but cultural insensitivity – or even racial prejudice. I strongly believe I’m not making this mistake, but it’s nevertheless important that I have been forced to address the possibility that I could be.
I believe that it is sometimes imperative to try to deduce the intentions of a work – if not necessarily the intention of the author, then at least what Umberto Eco called the “intention of the text”. As Eco warns us in The Limits of Interpretation, even if we admit that texts are open to multiple readings – as we must – we must simultaneously acknowledge that these potential readings aren’t unbounded, and we can’t make a text mean simply anything. We can at the very least often see what kinds of meanings a text discourages; for example, it would be rather meaningless to argue that, say, Double Indemnity is a musical, or that Singin’ in the Rain is a film noir, because we can plainly judge that their intentions are unconcerned with these genres. This is a caricatured example, but it illustrates that we are in fact making assumptions about intention in different ways and on different levels all the time. Whether it’s possible to ever come to a definitive conclusion in a particular case or not, attempting to do so is sometimes inescapable, since confronting intention is often an important, indeed necessary, part of the process of cult pleasure.