The wicked queen

Who was the figure that inspired Camille Paglia to realise her vocation as streetwise intellectual, media motormouth and feminist bete noire? Why Walt Disney, of course
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The Independent Culture
On her third birthday, Camille Paglia was taken to the cinema to see Disney's Snow White. When the wicked queen flared on the screen, some of the kids in Endicott, upstate New York, cried. Others cowered and clung to their moms. But Camille was transfixed, transfigured, lost in religious ecstasy.

"It was like `Whooaow! Temperamental diva bitch!' " says Paglia, shielding her eyes at the memory of brilliance. "I thought she was fabulous. The power of her personality as a woman was totally unlike Mary the Virgin, who was the ideal woman being presented to me in Catholicism at that time, OK? Mary, this silent mother, and here was the witch queen who has this weird dialogue in the mirror and it didn't have to be charitable and it didn't have to be nice. I thought she was fabulous."

Camille Paglia has been having her own weird dialogue in a mirror ever since. Author, critic and, as she coyly puts it, "world class intellectual", she is the thorn in the flesh of feminism, who famously said that "if civilisation had been left to women, we'd all still be living in grass huts". Her 1991 book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, stoutly revised the revisionists, plonking Dead White European Males back on their cultural pedestals and "restoring" women to the primal role of pagan sex goddess.

Men, she argued, are in such fearful sexual thrall to women that they had to knock off a few pyramids, palaces and epic poems just to build up their self-esteem. It wasn't so much what Paglia was saying - basic Golden Bough stuff dressed up with extra Freudian frills - that propelled her from academic obscurity to headline news as her talent for riding the maelstrom.

Scary women were big in 1991. Madonna had skewered the world on her stilettos. Margaret Thatcher was doing a more brutally effective job in medium-heel courts. The fashion press twittered earnestly about the semiotics of the female shoulderpad. Paglia was the demented mistress of revels, clapping harpy wings above the clamour and throwing out ever more inflammatory remarks. Women, she crowed, should stop whingeing about date rape, and lesbians should learn to love the penis and generally act more like gay men. She herself, she explained, was "a gay man trapped in a woman's body". She posed with whips outside a porn-store to push her furiously contested point that women who objected to pornography despised their own bodies. She posed in full Princess Xena mode, flanked by a matching pair of body- built black "centurions" for Vanity Fair. She was, in short, a riot.

Today, however, in town to promote "Camille Does the Movies", a series of films she is presenting at the National Film School, Paglia is in her Acme bluestocking kit of severely tailored separates and sensible shoes. Five decades on from her witch-queen epiphany, she retains a mystic passion for the cinema, which she considers "the single biggest cultural threat to the Christian church since Islam in the medieval period".

The personal canon she has chosen to present includes Persona, (the Ingmar Bergman film which inspired the title of her own magnum opus), The Ten Commandments, All About Eve, La Dolce Vita, Suddenly Last Summer and Butterfield 8. There is, pointedly, nothing in the programme that was made after 1967. "I'm on a crusade to return film production to its old standards, OK? To bring back concern for the old fundamentals of film," Paglia explains. "We're at the end of the century, popular culture is, like, this enormous force, but there is a declining quality. And I'm blowing the whistle on it."

She may look like a librarian, but she sure as hell doesn't sound like one. She talks at teleprinter speed, spooling out endless pronouncements and pensees like some endless, automatic oracle. The accent is tough and twangy, with every sentence subjected to a grapeshot of like's and OK's.

The infinite idiocy of other people is underlined by an incredulous "HELLO?" or a disgusted "Puhleese!" If Buffy the Vampire Slayer took up cattle auctioneering, she would sound like this. "I'm rough-edged," she says with a Sinatra shrug. "I'm Italian." She says she models her look on Keith Richards ("I think intellectuals have an obligation to look haggard") but Sinatra in his lean, louche days is nearer the mark. "What makes me a great teacher has made me a terrible academic. To rise in academe in America you have to to fit the Protestant, corporate style. I went to Yale for grad school and the whole time I was, like, walking on egg shells."

Paglia is currently Professor of Humanities at Philadelphia's performance- art-based University of the Arts, dinning general culture into the rock stars and movie moguls of the future. It's a long way from the Ivy League, and that's just how she likes it. "Academe has always considered film a trashy medium. It's easy, it's vulgar, it doesn't belong in an academic curriculum. So there was a kind of compensatory process in the 1970s by film critics trying to do things the way they were done in literature and philosophy. We had all this false abstraction coming from French structuralism and postmodernism and so on and when I burst on the scene, and dismissed Foucault [you just have to be there to appreciate the chewy mouthful Paglia makes of this name] as, like, oh, totally unimportant in the history of culture, the stock response of academe was that I didn't understand it.

"So I was at war. I was, like, Oh really? Well how about this 700-page book from the Yale University Press on the history of culture then? It took someone like me, who has academic credentials to say `Please don't tell me you're writing something so difficult that I can't understand it.' "

Easy swingin' Sinatra has suddenly morphed into De Niro in "you talkin' to me?" mode. She famously punched a man for peeing on her seat at a Madonna concert, and kicked another's arse for shoving a woman in a lecture hall, but this is nothing to her fury at being called out on intellectual matters. And now that feminism is done and dusted, she's going to sort out those fancy French philosophers. "Well, hey, I just feel that film criticism should be enjoyable, that's how reactionary I am. It's almost, like, shockingly revolutionary to say film criticism should be accessible to the masses. Before me, nobody took trashy films like Butterfield 8 seriously. But I personally, as a fan, want to look at films in terms of the mass audience that film was intended for." Certainly, the monograph on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds that Paglia produced for the NFT, a scene-by-scene explanation - "for God's sake don't say deconstruction" - of the film, got a big hello when it came out last year.

But there is surely a risk that Paglia's militant populism will paint itself into a corner. If Butterfield 8, as she argues, is a trashy, totally accessible film, and nothing should ever come between the film and the audience, what the hell is she doing delivering a lecture on it at the NFT? Does it really take an international professor of humanities to make simple things simpler?

"Yes, well, that's what I'm saying," says Paglia, bafflingly. One of the things that makes conversation with her such a uniquely testing experience is that she has all the habits of a good listener, except actually listening. She looks into your eyes, scratches her leg when you scratch yours, but anything approaching an argument is met in mid-air with a volley of yeah, yeah's and OK, OK's while she pursues her own, quite opposite, line. Dialogue- in-a-mirror.

And it's a shame, because when she is engaged, Paglia is like no one else on earth. Maybe she just needs a better theme. Sex was a world-class subject. Going to the pictures isn't. And where, after all, is the chivalric satisfaction in championing the dominant culture which will surely rumble on with or without her good offices? Why not pick a better fight? Why fight at all? Paglia Redux, arguing for a cause, that would really be something.

"My mom always wanted me to be nice," says Paglia, turning, with a hunch of the shoulders, into a truculent teen. "And I always said, `But Mom. If I'm nice, no one will want to listen to what I'm saying.' "

`Camille Does the Movies' continues at the NFT until 17 June. Box office: 0171-928 3232

Deborah Ross is away