Ever since the 2019 Met Gala themed was revealed as Camp: Notes on Fashion, it seems as if the term "camp" gained a newfound resurgence. Not only did this lead to confusion among attendees in terms of what "camp" even meant, but ever since, the word has been misused by young and old audiences alike. But camp did not start in 2019, it's a style that has been around for decades and has its roots in queer culture. Today, we are here to talk about the true meaning of camp, its origins, and most importantly, it's role in the world of film.
Wikipedia defines it as "an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value." You can look at it as an intentional over-exaggeration, something that gets its charm from its flaws. It is often seen as offensive to societal norms and is certainly not something that everyone will have a taste or understanding of. In simple terms: Madonna is camp, Lady Gaga is camp.
I think an important part of camp that people often forget is that it's intentional. I see the term "camp" the most underneath viral videos of someone doing something unintentionally embarrassing, whether that's wrongfully believing they can sing/dance or they simply don't know how to put an outfit together. I believe that equating "camp" to failure is a disrespectful to those who have fought to make camp a cultural staple. Camp is rooted in art, expression, and rebellion, not someone who just doesn't know what they're doing, making a fool of themselves. It's important that we keep the true definition of camp alive and not dilute it to the point where its meaning is lost.
The best example there is of camp in film is the catalogue of John Waters, elevated by the fact that he worked with famously obnoxious, over-the-top drag queen, Divine. Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-baby, Serial Mom, Female Trouble, and literally all of his other films are great examples of the offensive charm of camp. If you don't have the time to sit down for a few days straight to marathon all of those movies, a great example to watch instead is Divine's speech in Pink Flamingos. When the self-proclaimed "filthiest person alive" is asked "could you give us some of your political beliefs?" the red fishtail dress-clad queen replies "KILL EVERYONE NOW! CONDONE FIRST DEGREE CANNIBALISM! EAT SHIT! Filth are my politics filth is my life." I can think think of nothing campier than a 300lb man in a dress, with the most dramatic makeup and hairline I've ever seen, screaming into a mic about how murder and cannibalism should be encouraged. That's true camp.
While John Waters might be the best, most iconic example of the camp style on screen, he is far from the only filmmaker to try their hand at capturing it.
A filmmaker that I feel exemplifies camp but is often overlooked is Australian director, Baz Luhrmann, who has been making camp film since his feature debut. Now, these films aren't nearly as shocking and offensive than those of John Waters but they are still camp nontheless. Luhrmann's first film is not a very popular film worldwide, but it's an Australian cult classic, 1992's Strictly Ballroom, which has been one of my favorite movies since I was a kid. In addition to that, Luhrmann also directed the far more famous, Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and Moulin Rouge! in 2001. These three films are often referred to as the "Red Curtain Trilogy." All three of which, I consider camp films, and this is due to the cast members, editor, director, and costume designer.
Baz Luhrmann's films would not exemplify camp without his team consisting of his editor, Jill Bilcock, and his wife/costume designer, Catharine Martin. With Bilcock's chaotic, fast-paced, exaggerated editing, Martin's flashy, over-the-top costumes, and Luhrmann's creative vision, these films turned out to be camp masterpieces. The films of Bad Luhrmann are a great introduction to camp if you are a beginner and aren't ready to dive head-first into the raucous world of John Waters. It's also a much safer bet to watch around your family. There are no drag queens screaming "CONDONE FIRST DEGREE MURDER" but these movies are still some good ol' campy fun. I mean, who doesn't love that scene of Jim Broadbent and Richard Roxburgh singing, "Like A Virgin" in Moulin Rouge?
Lastly, n0 discussion about camp would be complete without a mention of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whether it be a film or a stage production, Rocky Horror is a perfect example of camp. It's kooky, fabulous, non-sensical, and above all, pure camp. If somebody ever asks you what camp is, simply point to Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N Furter. While it's not explicitly queer, it is a treasured movie by the queer community. Thousands of people can testify that Rocky Horror is what introduced them to the world of queer culture and cinema. From the very first scene, Rocky Horror is over-exaggerated and silly, it's a film that doesn't take itself too seriously which is a crucial aspect of camp. From the cross-dressing aliens, to the raunchy humor, Rocky Horror is a great introduction to camp as well as being a fantastic Halloween movie.
While often misrepresented or misunderstood, camp is a culturally important movement and style that has been around before pictures could even move. If you have a free afternoon, I'd recommend exploring the genre, whether that be in film or fashion. But whatever you do, please look further than the Met Gala.