Monday, June 06, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: What is Camp? And Why Did It Disappear?

Blogger, reader, and friend Eric Gilliland writes:

Hi John,

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.

For example;

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. 


  1. John, extremely interesting and honest thoughts on "camp". It unfortunately, infected both season two and season three of Lost In Space(1965-1968). I do not enjoy "camp" when it is used in a drama.


  2. The '66 Batman's camp style affected all of TV in the late 60's. Even my favorite "serious" show, The Man From Uncle, felt it's ripples.
    I loved the bat labels. Now I find them funny and cute but when I was a kid I really did want to know what everything did, or what it was. Especially in the batcave.

    This is a great site on tumblr that lists all bat labels used in the '66 series, with pictures of them:

  3. I definitely agree that it is difficult to do well...but when done well, it is amazing!

  4. A nice breakdown of a tricky term. I remember in the late 80s talking to a co-worker about Star Trek:TNG. She said, "Well, the original series was very campy." This took me aback, because I never saw it that way. Although there were several campy shows on the air at the same time, I don't think Roddenberry, et al, were trying to be anything but serious. It's just that, in the late 80s, we were looking back at a style of theatricality that had faded away from movies and TV. Looking at TNG today, it too could be seen as more stage-y and theatrical than what we are used to now.

  5. I wrote this once:

    Camp is deceptively easy to write and almost impossible to pull off. It's based on a broadly winking compact between the performer and the audience that not only does nothing on the screen really matter but also that we're fools for ever thinking it did. Done well, camp can deconstruct a genre to reveal the eternal human truths underneath and make us laugh in self-recognition. But done poorly, as unfortunately it most often is, the result is an undercooked dish of lazy contempt that's hard to swallow.

  6. Hi John,

    An interesting subject. William Dozier, producer of TV's Batman, said at the time something like, 'audiences are more sophisticated today... they'll no longer buy grown men running around in tights'.

    I don't think that Space: 1999 avoided being "camp" because it took on muted colour palettes -- the two Star Trek pilot shows had muted colours, not that colour intensity would have been the linchpin there, too -- since it didn't really "go there", although the second season did. Cynics would say that a comatosed state hardly grants camp.

    As much as I like the series, I think that Space fell into "cheese", in some ways -- almost from its first run.

    Writer David Gerrold in the early 1970s said 'in about twenty years Star Trek will be considered as camp'.

    Time can make something campy every bit as much as the attitude of the artists.

    Of course the argument becomes horribly complicated through subjectivity... as a commenter above touched upon.

    Intelligent analysis as always, John, especially on the issue of "what constitutes 'camp'?"

    Food for thought: What is "cheese" and what is "camp", and how are they different from one another? Are they different, ultimately?"

  7. I do not think that Space:1999 season one, at least, could be considered "camp".


    1. I agree. But the second year did at times... "Devil's Moon", for instance.

      Using the Brits' common definition of "camp" I think that episodes like "War Games" and "The Last Enemy" would certainly fall into that category. I can hear it: "The aliens are so camp!"

  8. There are cycles of style because people get tired of one approach and adopt another. Decades can be defined by this approach. The 50's, 70's, and 90's favored a more toned down style. Slow pop songs, greens and browns, flatter hair styles.While the 60's, 80's, and 2000's were bigger and louder. Energetic pop, red and blues (a color combo rarely seen in nature), bigger hair.

    I've heard that introverted people tend to favor more drab fashion and music. It's not surprising that movie and music geeks tend to adore the 70's. And yes, the culture of "big" decades tends to be very flamboyant and attention getting, which has the effect of making the period's fashion/art seem very silly and garish not long after the period has ended. Many hair styles of the 60's and 80's are either now uncommon or practically non-existant these days. Star Trek did follow these trends; blacks and bright primaries in the 60's, browns and dull blues/yellows in the 70's, and then crimson and white in the 80's original crew films/blacks, deep reds, turquoise, and gold for TNG in 1987.

  9. What a great question, and you gave it an excellent and well though out explanation. I agree, camp done well is a lot of fun and thought provoking. Camp done badly, well that is just painful.

    I believe that camp is entirely based on artist intent. But Cheese or goofiness, that is a side effect of time and circumstances. Star Trek TOS and TNG may have cheesy moments and goofiness. But aren't campy. "Moonraker" and "Man with Golden Gun" yep, I'd say they were shooting for campy most of the time.