When there’s a fight scene in a cartoon, exaggerated kicks and punches with “POW!” and “KABLAM!” popping up are expected.
Or if you’re watching a cartoon and there’s a horror scene and the monster eats the cheerleader — and her body is bloodied and gushing. That’s all right.
Or you’re watching a cartoon of a detective standing over a dead body, realizing a critical piece of evidence on the crime scene. And when he pulls off his glasses and says — “Well, I guess he died of a broken heart!” — that won’t be too jarring.
However, when these scenes are happening in a live-action movie or television show, with actors portraying these exaggerated characters, you can describe this experience as campy.
Cartoons are inherently over-emphasized. That is the nature of the medium. A key principle of animation, after all, is “exaggeration”. However, when we watch real people in the real world, behaviour and emotions are often dialed down. Generally speaking, people are subtle.
Subtly is great! Subtly is The Godfather saying, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” without causing us to cringe.
Subtly is in Gone with the Wind when Clark Gable says “Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn!” and we feel the pain.
Subtly is the snow globe falling out of Charles Foster Kane’s hand and being an emphasis without it being exaggerated.
The refined nature of a subtle performance or design is often regarded as high art, and it can be associated with a bit of pretentiousness.
As you can already tell, campy is the opposite. Campy is not subtle. Campy is flashy. Campy is exaggerated. And because of this, it’s often perceived as being in bad taste or ironic.
The argument against camp is that it’s the result of incompetence and inexperience. If they can’t do it well, so they’ll do it bad. To say you’re trying to make something campy is to say that you want to make something poorly by being ostentatious, sensational, and excessive. That’s why many campy cult classics are described as being “so bad it’s good.”
Proponents of campiness will tell you that the style, in fact, challenges the audience, pushing them to experience the genre, theme, aesthetic, and milieu in an unfamiliar way. It’s not trying to replicate life, it’s attempting to stretch the boundary of our comfort and security. It allows us to lower the mask of seriousness we constantly hold up to the world.
For many years, “camp” was the style adopted by the gay culture. It was a catalyst to have a deeper conversation about the narrow-mindedness that a middle-class society could often trap itself in.
In Susan Sontag’s essay entitled “Notes on “Camp” [Amazon], she describes camp as the love for the unnatural. It is not fake elegance but rather a surreal occurrence of beauty, and it can be applied with intention.
Today, there is a slight difference in usage between the terms: campy and camp. “Campy” describes the misuse of an exaggerated element in a piece, while “camp” is a well-thought design emphasis or aspect that offers an unconventional view.
It’s this gray area that causes many campy works to be so polarizing. Was The Room by Tommy Wiseau a masterpiece created by a visionary of camp? Or was it a troubled project built upon rudimentary plot devices and unfit performances?
Yes, while it’s common for critics to hate campy entertainments, audiences often flock to them.
Horror is one of the most popular genres that thrive on camp. One reason is that we go in not taking it too seriously. We watch horror movies through a cartoon lens, distancing ourselves from the actors on the screen and accepting that those people aren’t real, and their certain demise will not be a tragedy. We can just sit back and enjoy the blood and gore.
Of course, not all horrors rely on camp. Some resemble the anxiousness of reality. Slow and tense. That’s a physiological thriller. That’s Silence of the Lamb. That’s not an amusement ride the way a campy horror movie is.
Audiences love campy movies because it’s not serious. It’s fun — and the moment you start analyzing it is the moment you kill the spirit. However, people are smart, and they can often tell if an element of camp was intentionally added or if it was a clumsy mistake.
A poorly dubbed movie. An out-of-placed romance. An over-the-top fight scene.
Campiness can also ruin an experience when the audience’s expectations are not met. They would wonder what was going on if the actor gives an exaggerated performance in a moment that was supposed to feel real.
That’s why campiness is best done with the audience in mind. You cannot throw a campy element into a piece and expect everyone to respond in the same way. Campiness, in its nature, is a bright color or an eye-catching pattern. So when you use it, make sure it’s pointing the attention at the right thing, because the viewers will notice.
So, let’s get back to the ultimate question. How do you make something so bad it’s good? There is no secret formula. But being purposeful with camp is certainly one strategy.
When you’re judging a piece of work, ask what criteria you’re using to evaluate it. Those that will criticize a movie as campy are those looking for elevated conventional traits. Anything outside of those bounds is deemed bad. They’re comparing it to great movies of the past. However, a good campy movie isn’t like anything they’ve seen before.
Those who appreciate a campy movie are analyzing it through a completely different lens. They are seeking something outside of convention. A novel ride or the surrealness of beauty. If you want to reach this crowd, ask what hasn’t existed before and then bring it to life — and make it fabulous.
Campy has a bad connotation. And it’s not fair, because while something may not be to your taste, it may also not be made for you. So whenever you see camp, ask yourself, “What is the artist trying to portray?” Examine whether it’s done intentionally to make a statement or to give you a surreal experience. Or perhaps it was just a sloppy exaggeration.
Entertainment is riddled with camp. The longer you search, the more you will find. By seeking out camp, you begin to recognize your own taste for genre and style. How can you use camp to highlight a point in your next story?
And for more in this series, check out these articles here:
- What is Pretentious Writing?
- What Does “That’s Deep” Mean?
- What is a Contrived Story?
- What Does “Trying Too Hard” Means?
- What is Crude Writing?
- What is a Didactic Story?
- What’s the Difference Between Cheesy and Corny?
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