Education, Entertainment

What exactly is “Camp”? (5 films to understand it)

There’s more to camp than meets the eye.

words by: Alee Kwong
Jun 12, 2022

Ah, camp. Since the 2019 Met Gala, the word “camp” has been thrown around a lot. It’s been used to describe fashion, film, and most recently, a state of mind. But what does “camp” actually mean? In 1964, Susan Sontag wrote an essay titled Notes on “Camp” and defined it as such:

 

“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

 

Sontag’s definition of camp is very different and way more complex than the way we use it today. These days, we use “camp” to describe things that are intentionally odd, ironic, and almost cartoonish. But, according to Susan Sontag, its use is reserved for something a little more niche. “Camp is esoteric, something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques,” she says. “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.”

 

In her nearly 60-year-old treatise, Sontag breaks down the meaning of camp through multiple definitions and scenarios in 58 points. I won’t make you read through all of them so here are a few of my favorites.

 

1. Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

 

2. Not only is there a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things. Camp is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behaviors of persons. There are “campy” movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings…This distinction is important. True, the camp eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.

 

3. When something is just 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. (“It’s too much,” “It’s too fantastic,” “It’s not to be believed,” are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm).

 

If you’re looking for an entry point into “campy” media, films are your best bet. You’ve probably watched a campy film or two and didn’t even know it. If you’re trying to get back into it, here are a few recommendations to get you started.

 

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

 

Where to watch: Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube

 

A no-brainer, for sure. A campy legend, any one of the three Austin Powers films will surely give you an idea of what campy media is but there’s nothing like the first film of a series. Mike Myers’ light spoof of 007 is colorful, flamboyant, and unabashedly goofy.

 

Batman

 

Where to watch: Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube

 

Before the Dark Knight was so dark and brooding, he was played by Adam West in 1966. West’s Batman is what you think of when you see the use of “WHAM!” and “KABLOW!” graphics intermixed with live-action sequences. Back then, having Batman on the television screen was more about lighthearted entertainment than it was a film noir piece.

 

The Love Witch

 

Where to watch: Crackle, Plex, Pluto TV, Vudu

 

Campy comedies are always a good time, but there’s really nothing like a campy horror film. If you’re not saying to yourself, “It’s so bad, it’s good” at least 5 times then you might not be watching the right horror film. The Love Witch came out in 2016, but it is filmed just like a horror movie from the 1960s.

 

Wet Hot American Summer

 

Where to watch: Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube

 

Wet Hot American Summer is probably one of my favorite pieces of work to recommend to people, due to the sheer fact that it’s so stupid and fully aware of its stupidity. Set on the last day of sleepaway camp, this film follows a group of teenagers as they fumble around, trying desperately to tie up loose ends, like pent-up sexual frustrations, inevitable annual goodbyes, unannounced crushes, and just about everything else awkward and annoying about being a teenager.

 

Hot Rod

 

Where to watch: Stream for free on Pluto TV and rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube

 

Brought to you by The Lonely Island, Hot Rod is another comedy so good solely on how stupid the humor is. The film follows a wannabe stuntman named Rod Kimble (played by Andy Samberg) and his effort to raise enough money for his horrible stepdad (played by Ian McShane) so that he can get him a heart transplant to save his life. All of this just so he can keep his stepdad alive long enough to beat him in hand-to-hand combat and prove he’s a man.

 

In a mood for movies now? Here’s the best June movie releases to check out.

 

Photo via New Line Cinema