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Defining "Camp" in Cinema
In my experience, people call films campy way too often. People think they know it when they see it. Although the term is considered synonymous with cheesy, corny, hokey, or kitschy, it’s important to know that it actually has a definition that has shifted throughout the course of film and cultural history, as well as an artistic intention (believe it or not).
Susan Sontag was the first to use the term ‘camp’ to describe films in her influential essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964). Before that, campy meant ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, and effeminate behavior. Sontag came to define camp as characterized by artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess. We can still see both of these definitions coming through as camp in films, exemplified by the over-done performances of actors or elaboration of sets, or the downright fake-looking special effects that were around in the 70s and 80s. In some ways these two definitions also feed into each other, because it is that ostentatious or exaggerated sort of excess that leads to a film feeling artificial and campy.
Performances in campy films can often be tied in with performances of roles in society, especially those of gender and class. Often, actors in campy films will exaggerate the stereotypes associated with the role they play, in order to show that these roles are also performed in real life.
Since the ‘60s and ‘70s, filmmakers like John Waters and George Kuchar have been using the ‘camp’ aesthetic to rebel against socio-cultural norms and conventions. To us, their films might look like bad films, but they’re purposefully ‘bad’, in order to demonstrate a rebellion against what is normally considered ‘good’.
A prime example would be John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972), which celebrates everything that is normally considered to be in bad taste. The film exhibits the low production values we normally associate with camp through its low budget, non-professional actors, and improvised script. The main character, playing him/herself, is Divine, a famous drag queen. Even the title is drawn from a kitsch icon, the pink flamingos that are sometimes used as lawn ornaments.
Watching this film was one of the stranger experiences of my life. I always thought that films just so happened to turn out campy sometimes, but this one actually intended to be, and it took it to the extreme. Some people find it funny; others, like me, find it completely disturbing. It taught me what camp was all about but at the expense of some memories I can never erase. If you’re curious about this movie and the true meaning of camp, here is a list of some of the graphic scenes you will have to bear witness to:
- A butler raping a kidnapped woman in a basement while another kidnapped woman is forced to watch.
- A live chicken being crushed between a man and a woman having sex (unsimulated).
- An obese woman wearing nothing but a bra and underwear and eating nothing but eggs.
- A man’s anus opening and closing to the beat of music.
- Two brutal murders followed by cannibalism.
- A mother giving her son oral sex, seen full-on.
- Divine eating some dog doo (unsimulated).
It’s important to keep in mind that many of these scenes may come off as humorous or just plain wrong, and that the film has a significant cult following along with a few of John Waters’ other films such as Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), which was recently remade in 2007.
Since the definition of camp is so broad and still open to interpretation, feel free to leave examples of films you think are campy in the comments.