Film Esthetics 101: Camp and Performance


(Sharman, 1975)

Foreword

Discussing the esthetics of film can be a challenging task, especially when the term can refer to several issues. In a broader sense, it is a sort of philosophy of art, dealing with the judgment of taste and the authenticity of artistic values. This series deals with the cinematic world and explores the concept of esthetics in two ways: the strong connection between cinematic art and sensation, and how our esthetic categories shape the rules for certain cinematic discourses.


The esthetic categories explored in this series include beauty, the grotesque, kitsch, camp, and the sublime. The articles cover the historical definitions of these categories and the filmic concepts related to them while also giving various cinematic examples.


Film Esthetics 101 is divided into five chapters:

Camp and Performance

The camp esthetic is often associated with kitsch, as both sensibilities are a sort of celebration of bad taste and ironic value. However, camp is a slightly newer concept, often associated with queer culture, and the deliberate rejection of classic esthetic values, therefore providing an audacious perspective toward art. At the same time, camp is less associated with classical works of art and more aligned with performance. In cinema, the esthetic is often associated with the musical genre - a medium that is suitable for showcasing over the top performances and purposefully glamorous sets and costumes.


Historical Context

Over the years, camp has been conceptualised as a deliberate artistic use of kitsch; a sort of collective understanding between artists and audiences to enjoy 'bad taste' with no judgment. However, in contrast with kitsch itself, which is generally childish and doesn’t seek to offend, there is a sense of impertinence when it comes to camp.


An essential writer on the subject is Susan Sontag. Her essay on the esthetic - Notes on Camp - is especially workable in a cinematic context, as Sontag possessed filmmaker sensibilities. Fundamentally, Sontag describes the extravagant abstraction as a somewhat confusing paradox: “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is too much” (Sontag, 1964, p.7). However, the writer touches on the fact that camp is an esthetic that doesn’t treat excess as a simple decoration, but as a principal element of alternative culture.


Camp’s use of kitsch sets it apart from the sensibilities of the other esthetics presented in the series. While beauty and the grotesque arguably strive for a sense of moral purity, revealing both sides of the virtue coin, camp is uninterested in any type of judgment. Its purpose is to promote frivolous glamor and provide “a different – a supplementary – set of standards” (Sontag, 1964, p.7).


Camp in Film

The most common expression of camp in cinema is the musical genre. However, the genre itself is only a framework for an exaggerated sensibility that seeks to provoke and challenge norms through kitsch and glamor. Singing and dancing do not necessarily convey a ‘campy’ esthetic to a film, but they offer a mode within which eccentric performances can be constructed.

(Vadim, 1968)

As mentioned before, it is the performance that ultimately transforms kitsch into camp. The deliberate use of unconventional gestures and facial expressions (usually assisted by tawdry makeup and costumes) seems to augment the films, proposing absurd yet joyful artistic perspectives. Kitsch is by no means restricted to a certain genre; it can still be very much incorporated within the conventions of science-fiction or horror. It is the performative excess of camp that breaks cinematic norms and delivers an exuberant cultural experience to the audience.


Examples

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), directed by Jim Sharman, is probably the quintessential camp film. The plot follows a newly-engaged couple that finds itself at the residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a flamboyant, cross-dressing mad scientist. The narrative is not necessarily the focal point of the film; it is simply a parody of Frankenstein which includes the slow seduction of the couple by the doctor and his randy group. The ludicrously catchy musical acts and the intoxicating, gender-bending performance of Tim Curry as the mad scientist make the film a camp classic.


However, there is also an important element that gave the movie the exposure it needed to grow as a fitting representation of camp: the audience. As mentioned before, this esthetic is based on a sort of pact between the artist and the public, a pact to accept and enjoy excess or over the top performances for what they are. Over the years, this is exactly what has happened to Sharman’s film. The movie started showing in numerous underground cinemas, and “people began responding to the lines in the movie with their own insults, jokes, and pop culture references” (Chapman, 2018). Because of this contagious affinity for bad taste, Frank-N-Furter has become an icon of outrageous musicals and the very embodiment of bold, buoyant camp.


Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) represents another form of camp but it still is a classic in the decades-long development of cinematic bad taste. At its core, the film is a science-fiction B-movie about an attractive space heroine (played by Jane Fonda) fighting a mad scientist. However, the construction of the narrative - the second-rate special effects side-by-side with the sexual connotations - make Barbarella one of the most outrageous movies of the late 60s.


From Fonda’s eccentric outfits to the flat, almost laughable acting, the film goes beyond genre parody, desiccating and deconstructing sci-fi conventions while displacing them to create an absurd narrative filled with lowbrow antics. Nevertheless, the film’s brazen take on visuals and performance left a significant mark on cinema, music, and fashion. It is a cultural product that shocks audiences by taking nothing seriously, except the very superficiality it promotes.

(Zemeckis, 1992)

Death Becomes Her (1992), directed by Robert Zemeckis represents a more mainstream take on camp. The film follows the story of Madeline (Meryl Streep) and Helen (Goldie Hawn), two rivals who fight for the affection of the same man (Bruce Willis) while seeking the secret to eternal beauty. It is an over the top film that acts as a satire of the hollow pursuit of youth, ultimately embracing the very frivolity it critiques.


As is the case with most camp film classics, this film became a cult hit over the years. The exaggerated special effects (which were groundbreaking at the time), ludicrous dialogue, and extravagant acting are key elements that critics and viewers point to when discussing the film’s success. However, it is the electrifying chemistry between Streep and Hawn that makes the 1992 movie a key example of camp cinema, both performances creating “caricatures that are ludicrous and alluring, larger than life and unrepentantly rich in eleganza” (Puchko, 2017).


As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the camp esthetic is closely associated with kitsch and the two sensibilities are often conflated. While there is a constant dialogue between the two, camp acts as kitsch’s cheeky cousin: it constantly pushes cultural boundaries and breaks decorum for the sake of artistic freedom and unapologetic fun.


References:

  • Sontag, S. (1964), Notes on Camp. Partisan Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, p.515-530

  • Chapman, S. (2018, March 9). The Camp and Cult of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. OutWrite. https://outwritenewsmag.org/2018/03/the-camp-and-cult-of-the-rocky-horror-picture-show

  • Puchko, K. (2017, August 3). The Gloriously Queer Afterlife of Death Becomes Her. Vanity Fair. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/08/death-becomes-her-25th-anniversary-meryl-streep-goldie-hawn-gay-classic

Image References:

  • Sharman, J. (1975). The Rocky Horror Picture Show. [Photo]. https://www.vulture.com/2015/10/why-the-rocky-horror-picture-show-still-matters.html

  • Vadim, R. (1968). Barbarella. [Photo]. https://www.empireonline.com/movies/reviews/barbarella-review

  • Zemeckis, R. (1992). Death Becomes Her. [Photo]. https://www.vulture.com/2020/04/booze-up-and-watch-death-becomes-her-with-me-this-weekend.html


Author Photo

Sergiu Inizian

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