The Art Of Camp Films
Many things in the world have not been named, and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these, is the sensibility that goes by the name of "camp". A sensibility as distinct from an idea is one of the hardest things to talk about, it is not a natural mode of sensibility if there be any such. Indeed, the essence of camp is its love of the natural of artifice and exaggeration. These infamous words were written in 1964 by Susan Sontag in her essay Notes on Camp. But what is camp exactly? It's defined as an aesthetic style and sensibility that regard something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value.
There are many campy turned cult classics that you may be familiar with, like Little Shop of Horrors, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Troll two and of course, the original Batman movie.
In more modern filmmaking, we as a society tend to place a lot of emphasis on realism. Author Andre Bazin even goes so far as to say that we are moving towards the concept of total cinema. That is what he calls the complete replication of reality. Blockbuster movies effects grow more and more realistic and actors who commit to their craft and deliver what we consider to be honest, performances are praised. I'm not only talking about character research, but also body modification i.e getting fat or getting ripped for a part. The average moviegoer relies on perceptual realism, meaning that these movies appeal to our senses and make us believe in what we're seeing as long as the images and sounds matched what we would imagine they'd be like.
For example, we know a bear didn't actually attack Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, but the CGI bear behaved in such a way that we would imagine a real bear would when, you know, mauling someone. André Bazin describes this phenomenon, saying that every new element added to the cinema must paradoxically take it nearer and nearer to its origins. Hollywood's general trends in filmmaking have increasingly attempted to simulate real life as closely as possible, even with wild things like movie physics or bear attacks.
Camp films, however, throw this all out the window, there has been somewhat of a camp revival in recent years with older films resurfacing and newer films trying to intentionally emulate that crazed style and people eat it up. This begs the question, why and how is the camp genre still relevant in the age of blockbuster with it's serious actors and astonishingly good effects. As Susan Sontag describes it, "camp is a certain mode of aestheticism is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon."
That way, the way of camp is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice of stylization. Not only is there a camp vision, a camp way of looking at things, camp is as well a quality discoverable and objects and the behavior of persons. There are campy movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. It is the love of the exaggerated, the off of things being what they are not.
Sontag also says as a taste in persons camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to strongly exaggerated. So is camp acting really a departure from the norm for viewers in one sense? Definitely in another sense, not really. As I just mentioned earlier, camp doesn't conform to the realism standard that modern Hollywood places such an emphasis on.
But film acting wasn't always this way. Francoise Dussart was a French singer, musician and coach who took a strong interest in physical expressions of emotion as he coached people, he emphasized a very exaggerated sort of pantomime that quickly made its way to America, where it was then known as the Dussart system. His followers published many books on the system, one of which saying the system is founded on the great principle of the law of correspondence. That is, every expression of the face, every gesture, every posture of the body corresponds to or is the outward expression of an inner emotion or condition of the mind, be it one of beauty or one of ugliness.
Watching it now, though, these performances doesn't seem realistic to us at all. But back in the early nineteen hundreds, everyone was more or less familiar with the Dussart system, movies didn't have sound yet, so the audiences relied very heavily on these really exaggerated movements so that they could interpret what was going on in the movie. These methods were adapted then for talkies, but these performances were still heavily rooted in Dussart's body positions and the slapstick craziness inherent with vaudeville, as that was what the actors knew best at the time.
Konstantin Stanislavski came on the scene in the 1920s as well, teaching what would ultimately be referred to as "method acting". Method acting is rooted in the idea that actors draw from their Real-Life experiences to perform a sort of authentic interpretation of a character. Actors were taught to think about their characters as real people with objectives, tactics for getting what they want and believable actions and emotions in response to these events. However, what Camp Taste responds to is instant character and conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character.
Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence, a person being one very intense thing. So, of course, camp Films rejects this idea of a character arc of revelations and realism. These acting styles are intentionally heightened, some better than others.
Some of the films were made to be campy and succeeded in achieving relative popularity, some tried to be campy and totally flopped at the time, and some just really try to take themselves too seriously. Susan Sontag even details this phenomenon as one of the distinguishing characteristics of the camp genre, saying "camp is either completely naïve or else wholly conscious when one plays that being campy". In naïve or pure camp, the essential element is seriousness, that ultimately fails.
Despite how they did at that time, many camp genre films are being revived and regarded as cult classics. Is this really such a wild occurrence, though? The term camp itself comes from the French gay community's term, "Camper", literally meaning to pose in an exaggerated fashion. Exactly what Dussart was teaching. In a sense, these films are a return to the earliest days of Hollywood. We can still recognize and interpret these heightened emotional states and physical performances as conveying fear and shock, because it's what we've been wired to do. Plus, we don't watch can't movies for the character development, we watch them because they're just plain fun.
Why then, are these types of films not only succeeding now, but being emulated and celebrated as well? Take Tommy Wiseau, flop "The Room" as an example of naïve camp. What premiered in 2003 as a poorly made and awfully acted in film recently became popular because of its bad quality spawning a real Hollywood blockbuster about its creation. Or movies like Sharknado that are wholly conscious camp with a premise so outlandish that audiences couldn't resist seeing it.
Why do people tune in to such movies? Well its probably digital and meme culture that through the power of the internet such movies are glorified in the counter culture until it surfaces to mainstream memes. Personally, because of the internet, even though I have never seen it, I know all about Tommy Wiseau's film. One could probably say that these movies in the digital age are 1.5 hour meme.
In fact the 2015 short film "Kung Fury" written, directed and starred by Swedish filmmaker David Sandberg. An ex tv commercial director, that left his lucrative job to pursue creating this love letter to camp action movies of the 80's. His venture started with a crowd funder that resulted in him amassing $600,000 dollars in only 30 days. The internet not only loves camp movies but also helped create one. When it was released on YouTube, it immediately caught fire until to this day where it's at 37 million views!
Perhaps another reason for the revival of camp movies is that they give something completely different and in a sense new to the audience. In this day and age, when even sci fi movies are so realistic they leave much for the imagination. Perhaps in this politically correct culture that are limiting the barriers of what can be explored through the medium of film because of their overt "realness", camp movies through their obvious suspension of disbelief have a free pass to be as politically incorrect as they want....since unlike the avengers...ironically they're not perceived as real! In a sense it can be an added aspect to the guilty pleasure that is enjoying camp films.
In their essence though, camp films are successful because of what they are and what they are not, which could be one and the same. They are neither the 3 dimensional characters of the Godfather or have the CGI of the Avengers.
Perhaps this is what Susan Sontag meant when she said "Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds! In being what it is and presumably in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say straightforward relation between intention and performance. But there are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness of high culture and the high style of evaluating people. If one treats oneself as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture"