Monday, June 06, 2016
Ask JKM a Question: What is Camp? And Why Did It Disappear?
Blogger, reader, and friend Eric Gilliland writes:
You have written extensively on 1970s pop culture.
A frequent word that comes up is "camp."
How would you define camp? Why was it so prevalent in the 1970s? And why did it go away?”
Eric, those are some terrific questions, and I am happy to answer them as best as I can.
First, what is camp?
My answer goes back to the great American essayist and critic, Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004), who wrote “Notes on Camp” in 1964.
You can find that piece, in its entirety, here.
Accordingly, I would define camp, as an aesthetic style based on a sense of knowing theatricality.
Camp is affected in other words, by the knowledge that it exists in a heightened milieu. It is about, in a very real sense, carefully nurtured and sustained artifice.
Sontag wrote that a camp style concerns “exaggeration,” again meaning that a camp entertainment is heightened and seeks out the most artificial of styles to depict or dramatize its narrative. It is the anti-matter opposite of "real."
Sontag also noted that to “be” camp means to “employ flamboyant manners” and to create art that is “susceptible to double interpretations.”
Camp even, she suggests, “corrupts innocence.”
Today, alas (bad) Internet writers have largely conflated words like camp, kitsch, and corny, and actually use them interchangeably.
For example, I have seen Star Trek (1966-1969), Space:1999 (1975-1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) all described inaccurately as “camp” purely on the basis of dated hair-styles, or a dated approach to visualization (special effects, sets, and so forth).
Those factors -- hairstyle, special effects, etc., -- however, were not intentionally produced in a “campy” manner by those programs.
Rather, campiness was ascribed to these productions -- again, inaccurately -- years after the fact by writers who didn’t understand a previous school of creativity or art. Ignorant of history, they could only parse those art works of a previous generation as “camp.”
By contrast, those who made the Batman (1966-1968) TV series knowingly (and quite cleverly…) created a camp production.
For example, they made Batman the ultimate do-gooder, a superhero who drinks milk instead of alcohol at a bar, for instance. To wit, they pushed the envelope to exaggerate Batman’s heroism and virtuous nature.
And according to the definition above, the performers on that TV series did not shy away from flamboyant mannerisms. Every aspect of character was “played up,” in a deliberately heightened sense of reality. Characters who were crooked were not merely exaggerated, the camera actually “tilted” or was crooked itself, in its depiction of them.
Similarly, that sixties series is wide open to Sontag’s “double interpretations.”
Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson routinely make jokes about going to bed, or bedtime, and adults may see this behavior as an allusion to homosexuality, whereas children watching wouldn't read the comments as anything except a surface acknowledgment of familial sleeping arrangements.
Does Batman corrupt innocence, another factor name-checked by Sontag?
Yes, in the sense that by heightening deliberately every aspect of the Caped Crusader’s world, we can abundantly see how ridiculous his world is.
How come every item in the Batcave is assiduously labeled? (And who took the time to label everything?)
How does Batman choose just the item he will happen to need, that day, for his utility belt?
Why don’t the villains buy a gun and just shoot Batman?
The camp approach or style thus exposes the inherent silliness of Batman’s comic-book world. Indeed, this is the very reason many fans have never liked the series. It doesn’t so much as make fun of Batman as it exposes his world as being inherently goofy.
Why was camp prevalent in the 1970s?
I think the camp-style was both a hold-over from the 1960s, and a response to the 1960s in some ways.
For example, some of the Bond films in the early 1970s qualify as “camp,” because there is a knowing-ness or tongue-in-cheek style behind their approach.
What was sincere and straight-up in the sixties was played more easily for laughs in the 1970s for a few reasons.
One was clearly repetition.
How many times can you put the same character through the same set of paces (or formula) before writers realize they need to comment on the repetition; that one way of addressing the repetition is to exaggerate the formula?
Think about it this way, the Scream movies of the 1990s basically re-invented slasher films, but with the knowledge that the slasher movies of the 1980s possessed logistical and situational deficits. The Scream movies commented on and subverted those deficits, in a humorous fashion.
A camp style, applied to Diamonds are Forever (1971), or The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), gave the Bond films a 70s face-lift, and let audiences know that the movie-makers were “in on the joke.”
If you look closely at the 1970s, you can see that movies like Superman: The Movie (1978) and Star Wars (1977) knowingly avoided camp, and instead worked hard to ape a more innocent age. So one might conclude that camp is the ultimate cynicism. Star Wars and Superman: The Movie, by contrast, may be corny…but they are never cynical.
Similarly, look at Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) or Space:1999 before it. Both sublimate or eliminate color, in regards to sets and characters, to make their universes seem real, the opposite of camp. Instead of heightened reality, they go for a more minimalist reality.
Why did camp go away?
Well, it may not be completely gone. Everything old is eventually new again.
But there was another pull, and a stronger one than camp, in the 1970s.
Call it gritty realism.
Films such as Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) revealed that audiences did not seek “distance” from a work of art, which was exactly what camp provided. Rather, audiences sought immersion.
Viewers didn’t just want less distance from the drama, they wanted no distance, or as little distance as was possible.
The great sweep of film history, in fact, is a transition from the overtly theatrical and artificial to the naturalistic or “real.”
Film started out, in essence, as almost filmed plays, based on the organization/structure of the proscenium arch. As film grew into its own unique art form, it began to deconstruct the arch, and move into the “space” the arch had cordoned off, with the camera occupying a position inside the action, rather than outside of it.
Camp, with its heightened reality and exaggerated approach was found to take people out of the storytelling experience, and so art forms that more frequently relied on it (think: the musical)soon fell out of favor with mainstream audiences.
Today, we have gone further down the line towards realism (and away from camp) than ever before.
For example, we have mockumentaries and found-footage horror films, which are the next step in the continuum towards total naturalism; which seek to immerse us in the action fully.
I don't foresee this trend abating any time soon. Batman, in the Nolan-verse, is shorn of all fantasy elements. He doesn't wear a costume...he wears body armor. His Batmobile is a prototype for a military vehicle. We are asked to believe in his world fully, not to understand, through camp commentary, the nature of Batman, or of comic book characters in general.
Commentary is not sought. "Realism" is.
But for every trend and movement in art, there is usually a counter-trend, so who knows?
Camp may yet return.
But first, as a culture, we must grow tired of ultra-realism (an approach that possesses great virtues but is also, generally, humorless, and lacking in real imagination or wit...)
Why else did camp fail in the 1970s?
As films like Doc Savage (1975) prove dramatically, camp is really, really difficult to do well. Done poorly, a camp style looks like filmmakers are simply looking down their nose at a story, or beloved property.