Grease 2 (1982)
Grease 2 (1982) Paramount Pictures
Stories & Ideas

Mon 06 Mar 2023

Paul McClure

Paul McClure


Is the joyous, glitzy vulgarity of films like Grease, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pink Flamingos still present in filmmaking today?

In her 1964 essay 'Notes on “Camp"', Susan Sontag listed the attributes of the camp aesthetic, defining camp in simple and enduring terms: "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration", "the spirit of extravagance", and "too much". The emphasis on “style at the expense of content” makes visual media, especially films, the perfect vehicle for exhibiting the camp sensibility. And Sontag knew about films. In addition to being a literary critic, philosopher, and political activist, she was an astute film critic. In her treatise, Sontag pointed to many older films and actors as examples, from Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) to Marlene Dietrich. But, almost 60 years after Notes was published, we have to wonder: is camp still relevant to filmmaking?

"The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious”, Sontag argued. “One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” The two main points underpinning Sontag’s essay are that, first, camp taste requires an appreciation of a work’s artificiality, where artificiality is directly related to style, but style doesn’t equal beauty. So, a work can be camp without being beautiful. And second, important messages contained in a camp work can’t be conveyed effectively – or at all – because, as viewers, we are too busy admiring the work’s extravagance to process such a message. The aesthetic of camp, then, is about pure enjoyment.

Susan Sontag Photo by Peter Hujar First published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Susan Sontag, 1966 (photo by Peter Hujar, first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Wikimedia Commons)

Campness is not only a way of viewing the world; it resides in people, objects and behaviour. Movie-musicals, given their reliance on excess and theatricality, are quintessentially camp by nature, and often, they incorporate comedy, which fits more naturally with the camp taste. As a movie musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) exemplifies camp, but its campness is further amplified through its characters, particularly Tim Curry’s flamboyant Dr Frank-n-Furter. Sontag points to androgyny – “going against the grain of one’s sex” – as a key feature of campness. But alongside androgyny, camp seeks to expose the masculine inherent in the feminine, the feminine in the masculine. Through his speech and mannerisms, Curry brings to mind the possible origins of the word camp, thought to have been derived from a mid-seventeenth-century French term se camper, which translates as “to pose in an exaggerated fashion”. The connection between queerness and camp was cemented in 1909 when the Oxford English Dictionary defined camp as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual” behaviour. Sontag reinforces this connection, noting that “homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp.”

Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, Richard O'Brien, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Tim Curry (centre) as Dr Frank-n-Furter and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) are examples of camp (20th Century Fox)

La La Land (2016), on the other hand, is not camp. Yes, it’s a movie-musical, but it’s too self-conscious, too character-driven. A necessary element of camp is its naïveté, which La La Land lacks. To quote Sontag again, “A work can come close to Camp, but not make it, because … despite all exaggeration, they do succeed (dramatically)”. Director Damien Chazelle’s homages to camp classics don’t render the film camp by association. The film lacks the stylised emotion crucial to the movie-musicals it emulates. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), West Side Story (1961), Grease (1978), and the works of Jacques Demy, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) or The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), are camp because the content takes a back seat to physical performance, choreography, colour, and composition. That’s not to say La La Land is a bad movie; it’s just not camp.

Speaking of bad movies, it’s often assumed that camp films are bad films. Not necessarily. Is a movie so bad that it’s laughable, or is it so bad that it’s enjoyable? Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) could fall into either category, depending on who you ask. Whereas movie critics considered it irredeemably bad, audiences, especially queer audiences, embraced it. It comes down to intention; the more naïve a filmmaker is about producing a camp work, the more camp it is (for a definitive example of naïve camp, see Tommy Wiseau’s The Room [2003]).

Underlying the distinction between the bad film and the so-bad-it’s-good film is the question, is the filmmaker in on the joke? In an interview with New York Daily News years after the film’s release, Verhoeven said he intended “making a film that was hyperbolic and an exaggeration”. But John Waters, the undisputed master of dethroning the serious, isn’t buying that and has no qualms about calling out the film’s accidental campness. Providing the epigraph to Film Quarterly’s collection of essays about the film, Waters said, “Showgirls is funny, stupid, dirty, and filled with cinematic clichés; in other words, perfect. Even better, the writer and director, no matter what they say today, don’t appear to be in on the joke.” Applying one of the basic attributes of camp to Showgirls, it’s clear that its critique of social themes – black and queer culture, the pitfalls of the entertainment industry – is obscured by the theatricality of the awful dialogue, confused plot, and gaudy spectacle of unrelenting nudity and sex, reinforcing Sontag’s point that a camp film’s message gets drowned out by its aesthetics. Returning to the question of whether a movie is bad, Sontag has this to say: “When something is bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.” Nobody could accuse Showgirls of being mediocre and, for that reason, it’s most definitely camp.

Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995)

Is Showgirls (1995) deliberately bad or deliberately camp? (MGM/US Distribution Company)

Unsurprisingly, camp taste is an integral component of many cult films. The aforementioned Rocky Horror and Showgirls have been elevated to the status of cult camp, taking their rightful place alongside What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Mommie Dearest (1981), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Barbarella (1968) Pink Flamingos (1972), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). The appeal of campy films – what gives them their cult tag – lay in their condemnation of conventional morality while inviting a degree of political and cultural criticism. “Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness”, Sontag said. That’s why queer audiences are drawn to camp films.

Divine, Danny Mills, and Mary Vivian Pearce in Pink Flamingos (1972)

John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) has become a camp cult classic (New Line Cinema)

In 2013, Canadian writer, filmmaker and underground director Bruce LaBruce wrote his own essay on camp, Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp, in which he espoused that camp was a secret language, a signal by which closeted queers could identify other closeted queers. The camp aesthetic allowed for a furtive recognition that, at the same time, provided protection from the sometimes-aggressive conventional world. These practices have become obsolete with the increased visibility the LGBTIQA+ community now enjoys. As a result, the camp taste has evolved into a deliberate display of exaggeration at the cost of its original intention. “It’s a sensibility that has been appropriated by the mainstream, fetishized, commoditized,” LaBruce decries. “It’s still based on a certain aestheticism and stylization. But what’s lacking is the sophistication… something shared by a group of insiders”. Black Swan (2010) is evolved camp. It’s not intentionally played for comedy, yet its over-the-topness makes it funny. Aside from some depictions of lesbianism, there is nothing particularly queer about the film. Sontag’s camp vision of seeing “everything in quotation marks” is noticeably missing; there’s nothing subversive or subcultural about it. Is that a problem? Yes and no. No, because queer visibility is always a good thing. Yes, in that camp’s aesthetic was an extravagant celebration of the arcane queerness of the past, a wink to those in the know. With camp’s transition into high art and popular culture, it has become too visible and lost the attributes that made it special. Modern films are trying too hard to fit the camp mould. And, as Sontag said, “intending to be campy is always harmful”.

– Paul McClure is a journalist who writes about film, TV and pop culture. As a gay man, he is drawn to movies with a strong queer voice. He previously worked as an intensive care nurse and criminal defence lawyer. Follow him on Twitter @mcclurepaul01.

Don't miss these camp classics, screening at ACMI

Join our newsletter

Get updates on the latest news, exhibitions, programs, special offers and more.

You might also like