Our Man Flint is not the best film to wield as a cipher for the amorphous concept of “camp”, but it is sufficiently campy to justify bending an analysis in the direction of camp. Arguably, a better film would be the following year’s Batman: The Movie, but although Batman is probably the better film as far as outright absurdism goes, Our Man Flint feels more honestly campy. This may seem patently ridiculous, but a further dissection of what exactly camp is (and exploring pop in the ’60s absolutely insists on a discussion of camp) helps us understand why Flint is a work of camp while Batman moves back and forth between camp and something more openly satiric. The privilege of Batman is the privilege of satire, namely that it has the confidence of its own superiority to the world of the “serious”, and that is not something Our Man Flint even considers.
Admittedly, Batman is a work of camp, and thus it is never openly a satire in the way, say, Dr. Strangelove is, but what is obvious in Batman to an experienced viewer of ’60s cinema, and what is much less obvious in Our Man Flint, is that Batman hints that it is aware of the fact that it is mocking what passed for everyday entertainment. It approaches the line of the self-serious and then pulls back just so that we aware of what it is doing, although, I must admit, it is a mark of the film’s great skill that it takes a nuanced nose to understand that it is a theater of the absurd take on satire. Batman exists in relation to other objects, namely the objects of 1960s pop culture; it is not a world in itself.
Our Man Flint does not wish us to know, at least not as much as Batman, that it is in on the joke, which is were pure camp comes in. Batman is camp, and it is satire, and its brilliance is defined by the way it casually moves between the two like a cat sauntering between a cat nip plant and, I don’t know, a second cat nip plant. That is what makes it unique. Flint is much more singularly stricken with camp, which means like most camp films it is easily mistaken for a serious work of the form that happens to be bad. Camp is not satire, nor is it parody; those genres persist on holding to the normative framework of film logic. They insist on doing so specifically by opposing that normative framework, defining themselves as knowing critiques of serious films, critiques with an argument and which define themselves in their opposition to the serious films they are discussing. They address, functionally and openly, the conventional rules of film, thereby upholding those conventional rules even in their critique of them.
Camp does not oppose the “serious” and turn toward the “silly” or the “comic”; it rejects the dichotomy wholesale, seeking not so much to rely on the language of conventional filmmaking to critique that language but to move beyond that language into a new language all its own. It does not seek to use the master’s tool to dismantle the master’s house, to quote Audre Lorde, but to invent its own tools. Obviously, camp films are still films, so this is always limited definitionally, but what camp has that satire does not is the total and complete commitment to its own existence internally. Satire must definitionally reference other films, those works it is making fun of. Thus, Dr. Strangelove is referencing cold war thrillers and even Batman sometimes references its object of critique in a way Our Man Flint doesn’t. Satire exists directly to expose something about another object. Camp accomplishes this as well, but less directly. It exists primarily for its own sake.
Which is why it is much easier to write off camp. It is less easy to figure out what it is doing, ala the Batman television show upon which the film is based, which is slightly more earnest in its camp compared to the film. Satire has a high art quality, a high moral ground, in that it must let the audience know that it is intending to critique, while camp blends the idea of seriousness and silly in a way satire does not. If satire exists to subvert, camp perverts, it plays, it engages in debauchery and its own private whims simply for the sake of it. Our Man Flint is ostensibly a spy parody, but it doesn’t hold much interest in joking, or in making fun of the Bond aesthetic, at least as we would normally define fun. It is much more “playing with the Bond aesthetic because that aesthetic amuses it, and it would like to have fun”, a key difference from the more belabored, and more obviously parodic sequel In Like Flint which is more akin to “let us make fun of Bond”.
Fun, by the way, it has, although in an extremely sedate way as far as camp, satire, or parody goes, so subtle in fact that it is very easy to mistake for a genuine spy film of the form that happens to be poorly conceived and constructed. At some level, in fact, and this is where the camp comes in, it essentially is a spy film of the form, rather than a film that wishes to joke about spy films. It simply happens to be a spy film that is more limber, expressive, and patently unusual than the other spy films popular at the time. So much of Flint recreates the spy film genre carte blanche that it is, like many ’60s camp films, easy to misinterpret it as a theatrical, unbelievable, and, to use one of the most vile and meaningless words ever in the film critic’s lexicon, “cheesy” variant of a serious spy film. The plot, about Derek Flint (James Coburn), who we assume is a super spy but seems more apt as a man who lounges around in his own self-amazement before occasionally performing a bout of spying as if to amuse himself, is pithy and unimportant. There is a need for spying, and Flint answers the call. He does some spying, and then he goes home.
What matters much more is the tone with which all the resident spying is played: pompous artifice and an inexplicable measure of laconic energy. Two things, by the way, which describe the idea of “60s pop cinema” about as well as anything ever could. The artifice, well, that is obvious, for there was always a playful bent to pop in the ’60s, a demeanor that was much less interested in rationalism or sense than in folding that rationalism in on itself. Artifice we see steaming out of the film’s gadgets, which pervert Bond formula until they seem alien and arbitrary. The sets are sublime, particularly Flint’s bachelor pad, which looks like bits and pieces of assorted ’60s memorabilia thrown together with an eye for nothing but haphazard cool (the way the nude busts and paintings are exchanged for abstract paintings with the flick of a switch says more than anything in the film, or any film perhaps, about the aesthetic of the 1960s: sexy but arty, and sophisticated but never sober).
That Flint’s bachelor pad matters at all tells us something about the “laconic energy” as well, namely that Flint, as with the ’60s, always had a certain ease and confidence to its demeanor. It didn’t ever really race to entertain us with moment after moment of wit or energy, but instead to slowly saunter and chill with us as old friends. Flint is a very relaxed film, taking on the fate of the world with a certain detachment and lack of suspense, which leads to a less-than-serious text that is easily mistaken for open comedy, or a failed thriller.
Our Man Flint, more than maybe any other film of its decade however, has fun with the “pompous”. Flint is a ridiculously pompous character, so totally committed to his own ability and cool that he is almost inapproachable. He is a smug jerk, in other words, but the film believes in him even as it knows he is a smug jerk. Part of this has to do with James Coburn himself, a man who defined 60s cool as much as anyone, and a star tailor made for being likable in any situation, even when he was being a jerk. It is a laid-back performance, but also a daring one, largely because Coburn has to push himself up against his own smugness and smarmy qualities and then still convey a likability. He is daring himself, and he succeeds. He walks away with the film, even as he is one with it. But then Coburn was that kind of movie star.
Yet it isn’t all Coburn, frankly. It is, again, “the camp”, the way in which the film wishes to accentuate its exaggerated qualities and create something non-real without necessarily mocking these non-real qualities, which is why Flint seems too earnest to come off as a parody or a satire. It doesn’t make fun of spy movies; it has fun with them, modifying them ever so slightly so that they seem less realistic while still holding true to them. It is not realistic, nor does it wish to make fun of the ways in which Bond movies were not realistic, so we do not have an easily defensible reference point for its intelligence. Satire and parody would imply the film’s good taste, but that it where the camp comes in, revealing that the film doesn’t care about good taste. It has its own taste, a taste that is easy to mock today for how silly and slight it seems, how loopy it is and how it refuses to conform to our expectation by addressing its own loopiness. It has its own idea of fun, an idea that is admittedly not nearly as fun as the film thinks it is, but an idea that it sticks to and never doubts. It is too busy kicking around in its own cool, even stumbling into it accidentally, to try to do anything else.
This act of stumbling is very much part of the camp aesthetic, something which is artificial but doesn’t imbibe in the holy artifice so that it can say something about reality; that, again, would be “satire”. For this reason, we don’t want to jive with camp because we have trouble measuring its effect in relation to its intent, we have trouble understanding how it intends to relate to our lives and intends to make fun of what we consider “serious”. We have trouble understanding what it “wishes to do”, because part of the camp aesthetic is that it doesn’t specifically wish to do anything, nor does it wish to say anything about our lives so much as it wishes to be its own thing that happens to say something about our lives. It simply does things, and we have to accept them, to conform to their wavelength to “get it”, or to go along for the ride even if we don’t get it.
Do I “get” Our Man Flint? Not really, and I am not entirely sure that I like it; this particular brand of camp is so subtle that it almost doesn’t register, but then, as mentioned, that is the nature of camp, almost functioning like a bad version of “the real deal” rather than something high on its own stuff. But, again, it doesn’t care if I get it. In its unstudied, spur-of-the-moment charm and casual non-compliance with film vocabulary, Flint certainly is high on its own stuff, but you really have to be on its peculiar wave-length to hold on for long. It is magnetically anti-cinematic, and that is something to appreciate, even if you don’t love it proper.