“So bad that it’s good” is a phrase that creeps its way into many conversations revolving artistic taste and sensibilities, particularly ones involving film. The phrase voices the paradoxical joy of finding gratification in something that’s tasteless, an aesthetic car crash that you can’t look away from. Of course, as any connoisseur of bad movies can tell you, just because a film is bad does not mean that it’s automatically enjoyable. There is a reason that The Room is so widely celebrated, and The Emoji Movie is reviled. The distinction largely comes down to the artistic sensibility known as camp.
Considered the authoritative work on the subject, Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” delineates the titular aesthetic quality. When it comes to defining camp, she declares that its essence is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” It’s failed seriousness. It’s naked imitation, the kind so glaringly ersatz that it makes you scrunch up your eyebrows and, with a smirk finding its way onto your face, ask, “who do they really think that they’re fooling?” It’s drama so poorly executed that it could easily be considered tasteless and tacky. As Sontag so brilliantly puts it, camp is always “in quotations.” A lamp is not a lamp, but “a lamp.”
Sontag makes another vital distinction in camp sensibilities, introducing the vital, yet blurry dichotomy of innocence and experience. Camp, in its perfect form, is innocent, unaware of its obvious artifice. Yet, many try to emulate its aesthetics, usually failing despite their efforts. Take Arcade Fire, a band that has embraced kitsch and camp (not the same thing) more and more as their career has progressed. Yet their self-knowledge, their smug awareness of the tackiness of their source material, resulted in them hitting peak pretension with their latest album, Everything Now. What they meant to be fun is instead cloying and unbearable. This is not to say that emulated camp is immediately inferior – Arcade Fire is only on one end of the spectrum – rather, camp is at its most pure when it is unaware of its own artifice.
Sontag lists off certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards, Swan Lake, King Kong and The Enquirer (headlines and stories) as things that are camp. An updated version of this list may include attitude tees, The Fast and Furious films (before they became self-aware), green screen wedding photos and The Enquirer (headlines and stories).
Perhaps my favourite example of recent camp (ie. since the original publication of Sontag’s article) is the cinema of John Woo, in particular, his 1997 film Face/Off. Woo’s Mandarin-language films, like The Killer and Hard Boiled, are filled with soap opera-like melodrama and articulately overblown action sequences. But while many of his earlier films contain campiness, Face/Off is bonafide, 100% pure camp. As Sontag points out, camp is chiefly concerned with spectacle, which is all that Face/Off is. It is, after all, a film in which an FBI agent switches faces with the criminal who killed his son. It is nothing but failed seriousness, with lines like “Hey Sean, how’s your dead son? [maniacal laughter]” being delivered without a hint of irony. Face/Off is even co-starred by none other than the king of camp acting himself, Nicholas Cage, and its prince, John Travolta. (Sontag describes camp taste as responding to “instant character,” the kind that is “understood as a state of incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing.” This, above anyone else, describes Mr. Cage.)
Camp is revolutionary, covering up the distinction between high and low culture with the best patterned wallpaper that money can buy. It’s bizarre and wacky, and generally an acquired taste. But, if you take the time to toss your pretensions to the side, embracing the unorthodox ingenuity of camp can be a truly freeing experience.