There exists a type of stage play that’s so absurdly over the top as to defy belief. I’m speaking of the pantomime. Burlesque is another one that comes to mind. The subject matter of these productions could be anything, from teenage romantic angst to the Holocaust, and goes so completely across the line of good taste that they circumnavigate our imaginations and strive come out the other side where things are so ridiculous they’re awesome again. It can be a very tricky thing to do, and it doesn’t always work.
In a similar vein, we have an unspoken sub-genre of films called ‘camp’. The degree to which a film tends to be considered camp is directly proportional to the degree to which it takes itself seriously. If it tries one time too many to make a legitimate point or be more than camp, it’s going to fail and the campier bits will just seem silly. Let it take the piss, however, and the overall effect is one of a fun if meaningless romp.
MovieBob mentioned camp in his review of Red Riding Hood, and cited two examples that I feel serve as great ‘bookends’ for camp. On the one hand, we have Batman & Robin. Now more than once, this little flick tries to harken back to the campy days of the Adam West television series, but more than one serious story point, complete with straight-faced sincerity and somewhat bland delivery, is tied to the absurdity the way a concrete block is tied to the ankle of someone who disappointed the boss. I’m not saying Batman & Robin would have been saved if you’d taken out the subplots involving Alfred & Mister Freeze’s wife, but it’s definitely one of the movie’s many problems.
On the other end of the scale is Flash Gordon. It in no way takes itself seriously. Horny evil overlords, impromptu football games and breathing in space are all handwaved in the name of having a good time. The color palette is vibrant, the actors larger than life (especially in the case of BRIAN BLESSED) and the whole thing is powered by the music of Queen. I can’t think of a campier movie that still manages to be enough fun to not overstay its welcome and make the audience feel like they spent their time well.
There are a plethora of films in between these two. Some will try to tap the same vein and not quite get it right, like Masters of the Universe. Others will keep the special effects, music and sensibilities modern while keeping the level of seriousness quite low, like Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. From Independence Day to Moulin Rouge, there’s plenty of camp out there, and it isn’t all bad.
Sometimes you want to crack open that doorstopper and take in some serious long-form fiction, and sometimes you reach for a comic book. Camp is that comic book, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It has its place in our libraries, a space where it belongs, where our need for escapism exceeds our desire to remain in the real world. And it can work very well, unless you try to take it too seriously or otherwise muck it up.
I’m looking at you, Schumaker.