‘Camelot,’ the Hollywood Failure That Taught Me to Live Again
I think now, what is life if not a rather ridiculous, fumbling, histrionic, financially ruinous, unwieldy thing?
Camelot My Fair LadyGigiCleopatra
The Once and Future King
My favorite moment in all of it is still the title number. Arthur, having stumbled into Guinevere in the forest (who is convinced he’s only a peasant named Wort), beseeches her to stay in Camelot. His eyes widen, he laughs a little, he kneels at her feet, He insists, “It’s true, it’s true, the crown has made it clear. / The climate must be perfect all the year,” as if, through sheer force of will, he can make the world, and himself, perfect for her.
In this scene, Harris bounds like a boy. His voice leaps and beseeches and cajoles by turns. Vanessa Redgrave, as Guinevere, acts with an honesty that sings from every glance and turn of her lips. Harris and Redgrave act with their sinews and nerves. They’re untidy and tousled as teenagers together, achingly human. Something in me thrilled to it.
It might have been because our house was a volatile one. We lived in a world defined by old limits, the deep ache of apartheid, of the constant, grinding Calvinist strictures. Gender was strictly defined: Women were expected to exercise utter self control and self-denial, and men were expected to be stoic, strong, invulnerable. So much was given to serving ideals we could never live up to, and denying that we couldn’t live up to them. There are things we cannot talk about, even now, things that stuck in our throats, that we covered up with yelling, slammed doors, occasional violence. We struggled, constantly, to understand each other.
We reached out to each other clumsily. It was often only in movies and music that we could meet each other in the dark—moments where we showed each other some glimmering, tender part of ourselves that sang out in an old song or a beloved film.
Camelot was one of those movies, loved by my grandfather and father, especially. It was strange, at first, to me, to have them be the ones to insist I watch it, who sat with me as we saw it for the first time, and many times after. When we didn’t have to risk anything except the words, “Just watch this.”
My grandfather is a bright-eyed, laughing man, who as a boy would recite from Cyrano de Bergerac and hide in the tall grass of the veld to paint. My father, who’d skip class to woo the girls of a neighboring school while reciting Shakespeare, would play chicken with oncoming cars on his motorcycle like an idiot, somehow coming through all of it with a grin. Dreamers, romantics, both of them, poets to their core, but beholden, too, to a roughshod, strangling code of masculinity that allowed only small glimpses into the softer, sometimes tearful parts of themselves. Camelot of all things, was safe for us to meet in, to love and believe in together.
Camelot was so deeply at odds with the life that I lead at home. It was a spectacle of passion: camp, and colourful, swirling and epic in scope. There’s something about Richard Harris as Arthur, his boyish, manic, dewy-eyed performance, and Vanessa Redgrave’s vivid, nervy Guinevere, and Franco Nero’s reverent, elemental Lancelot, that comes together to form something so achingly earnest that it hurts to look at directly, now. But I did, then. I drank it up.
In Camelot, every character believes, earnestly, that life should follow a pattern of beauty. In one of the film’s many playful, self-deprecating winks at chivalric storytelling, Guinevere sings of how she ought to have “the simple joys of maidenhood”—suitors willing to die, kill, and go to war for her. She bemoans the predictability and constraint of being married off to a foreign king she’s never met, who will, in fact, turn out to be Arthur. Lancelot, in turn, holds himself to an impossible standard of purity and honor. The genuineness of his belief is what shocks and endears him to Guinevere, sealing their fates.
But it’s Arthur, of course, who creates an entire kingdom, an entirely new vision for civilization, for the sake of his belief. He suffers and strives for it. He throws himself headlong into the creation of the round table, into the conviction that might should be used for right, into his devotion to Guinevere and Lancelot.
Like him, in my adulthood, I threw myself into love, determined that we’d remake the world around us as we went, that sheer belief could redeem it all.
I proposed to a woman I adored by the side of a stream, on a whim, one afternoon. All of us, me and her and some of our friends, were lying under the trees, dreamily picking at the grass, or dozing. I sat beside my best friend and looked out at my then-girlfriend dozing under the shadows of the leaves, her skin gleaming in the late afternoon sun, flickering on her eyelids. I got up, waded a little into the stream, and cut three tall lilies from the water. I laid them down on my love’s chest, and asked her. She said yes, yes, and we were handfasted within two weeks. We broke up within a year, to no one’s surprise but ours.
In the meantime, I cajoled and convinced. I insisted, desperately, that all our problems could be overcome, could be done away with. The gilded image I had of what we could be was all that mattered.
I believed anything was justified by how beautiful, how right and soaring it felt. I kept trying to bend the world, to form the dream I had in my head, without the courage to really look at how much I was mangling in the process. I loved in ways that were selfish, that replaced the people I valued with gilded images of what I thought they were—and more importantly, what I wanted them to be for me.
Despite my lofty ideals and my feverish insistence that we could make it work—that we could make anything, anything happen, and beautifully—in the course of our relationship: I cheated on her; I was cruel; we hurt each other, often. The steady, real work of love was beyond the powers of the flaky, terrified, selfish, self-obsessed person I was then. I couldn’t bear to look at what I really was at the time, so afraid that the truth might be ugly.
When I came out to my family, it had been in that same spirit of desperate belief: in the force of my love, in the impossibility of anyone to disregard its reality, because it was so vivid and fiery to me. I sat them down, and tried to tell them, “I’m in love with someone, and she makes me want to be good.”
My grandfather told me I was the greatest disappointment of his life. He told me he simply couldn’t believe it of me. This was the man who’d never let anyone else sit next to him at dinner because that was “Mishka’s spot.” The man who encouraged me to start writing in the first place.
Between my father and me, there was just a silence, grown wider than all imagining. He sobbed and asked himself where he’d gone wrong.
I’d been a beloved child at the best of times, merely tolerated at the worst. Now I was neither. They looked at me with fear and disgust. I’d broken some sacred illusion to them and they looked at me like at something broken. It would never be right, never fit into the story of me they’d so loved until that moment. Something fundamental to myself, my childish sense of the rightness of love, of its power to undo all obstacles, went out.
Between us, after that, there was an impassable gulf. It’s still a raw wound. I hid most of my life from them. They stopped being interested in me as a person, as if any closer touch hurt too much. We talk, still. They love me, still. They love the parts of me they can stand to know. The rest is too raw. The rest, they can’t stand to look at.
After coming out, I slid into addiction. I had a mental breakdown. I did a stint in a psychiatric hospital and rehab clinic. I dropped out of university. Later, I’d write a book, I’d get an MFA, I’d win prizes, and travel, thanks to my writing. In my wake remained a deep gash of disappointment, betrayal, and hurt done to and by the people I loved most. All the while, I tried, in my head, to reconcile the many grimy, ugly things I’d seen and done with the gleaming image of what I thought life should be: passionate, noble, good.
Camelot, somehow, stayed inviolate. In my adulthood, it became a little island of refuge among all the things we can never, ever talk about. A dream that goes on dreaming, that none of us try to break. Those things are all we have. On my visits home––between university terms, or during the long, idle days over the Christmas holidays, between the awkwardness of everything that couldn’t be said to each other—we’d sometimes watch it, in a sentimental mood, and each of us find in it that old dreaming self we were.
The film opens with Arthur asking, strangled, into the dark, “How did I blunder into this agonizing absurdity? Where did I stumble? How did I go wrong?” He swallows, his eyes full, “If I am to die in battle, please, please do not let me die bewildered.”
Watching the film again, I find myself sobbing at that. I never wanted to be bad, or to lose what I loved, or to find that all I believed in and held dear was so easily broken. I never wanted to harm what I loved, to undo and sully the precious and beloved times and things and people I’ve stumbled into, and loved—who ever does? But here we are.
I’ve been each of them—the boyish dreamer; the passionate, thwarted woman...It was always there, waiting for me to live through enough to understand it.
You would think that watching it again might hurt too much. That it might embarrass me, with all its camp and grandiosity. Even more so for how it is, fundamentally, the story of a dream shattered, of earnest belief rewarded with tragedy and heartache. And of how impossible it is to ask human beings to shoulder the vast expectations we force on them.
But I’ve watched this film curled up on my parents’ couch. I’ve watched it on my laptop after two days of no sleep. I’ve watched it with the volume way down through hangovers and feeling sorry for myself, through withdrawals, through heartbreak.
Watching it on the other side of everything that happened, watching the moment Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere meet in the grey dawn before the battle that will bury the dream of Camelot forever, I understood something. The film ends back where it started: with Arthur, staring out into the pre-dawn dark, waiting for the battle that will end his life, and end his lofty hopes for a civilized, noble world forever. He says goodbye to Lancelot, the man he loved like a brother, and to Guinevere. They are, the three of them, broken in the grey light. Guinevere’s face frozen into an open-mouthed mask of pain. Lancelot meek as a puppy.
I realize how I’ve been each of them—the boyish dreamer; the passionate, thwarted woman; the man horrified at how far he is from the golden image of himself he had in his head. It was always there, waiting for me to live through enough to understand it.
In Camelot, I see that grand and lovely dream alone can be enough to build a life on. It’s enough to take solace in. Even if everything around it is falling apart, even if we aren’t the lovely people we hope to be, the mere fact that we are still able to dream that we could be, for a moment, is enough. In the film’s campiness, in its over-the-top-ness, it knows we’re playacting. It’s a sacred kind of play: the deadly serious play of children.
I think now, what is life if not a rather ridiculous, fumbling, histrionic, financially ruinous, unwieldy thing? We posture and repeat our lines. We often fail. We punctuate it all with a look, a plea, a touch, astonishing moments of tenderness and power that shake us to the spine, that sing and transcend, when we believe that somewhere, we are capable of a redemptive goodness. In some small, glowing part of ourselves, the dream of that goodness burns so fervently that for one brief shining moment, it becomes real.
Mishka Hoosen is a writer and researcher from Johannesburg in South Africa. Their work has appeared on the Ploughshares Blog, and in Bare Fiction, Plume, Illuminations, Rolling Stone South Africa, The Missing Slate, and others. They write extensively on perfume, madness, and the body. They are currently working on a novel, "Through Smoke", which will examine perfume as an embodiment of desire and remembrance in the postcolonial city.