Distinguishing a film as "campy" is, arguably, as difficult as determining whether or not a film is "good." The definition of "camp" is utterly malleable and, moreover, exists almost purely in the eyes of the beholder. Similarly, a film is rarely definably solely as "good" or "bad"; these are merely opinions. It is oddly fitting, and quite unfortunate, that films which become marked as "campy" are rarely described as "good". This can be partly explained by the fact that the majority of movies known as "camp films" are largely unintentional camp; put simply, camp films with a "so-bad-they're-good" quality receive the most attention. The films of Edward D. Wood Jr. are examples of classic, unintentional camp; movies made famous by the degree to which they do not "work." While unintentional camp is certainly an important part of cinema history, intentional camp often goes unnoticed, or at least underappreciated. Many intentionally campy films are quite noteworthy, and, moreover, are simply good films. John Carpenter's They Live (1988) is an example of a camp film that not only "works," it has something meaningful to say. It is, in fact, a campy film, a socially parodic film, and a good film. Upon its initial release, They Live was dismissed as a campy sci-fi/horror movie with dreadful special effects and poor acting.
[...] One thing is obvious; whatever the reason(s), They Live, upon its initial release, was relatively unsuccessful with mainstream audiences and critics alike. Some may have found the film too others may have dismissed the film has heavy- handed social commentary. Either way, a provocative and entertaining, piece of “camp with a conscience” went largely, and sadly, unseen. The essence of intentional camp, arguably, lies within its ability to make fun of itself before it can be made fun of by others. [...]
[...] The creatures in They Live control Americans with subliminal messages imbedded in all forms of media. Vaccari goes on to point out that aliens walk among humans, drive police cars, wear suits and get all the promotions” (Vaccari 1). The socio-cultural problems of 1980's America are easily explained in the world of They Live; aliens are controlling nearly all human thought, and are bribing the rest. The notion of such a takeover is quite campy, and not meant to be taken seriously in any way. [...]
[...] Writing on the simultaneous co-opting of the John Wayne image by homosexual audiences and the original connotation in which it existed, he states; “Many straight men find him camp now, but they love him just the same [ ] camp can emphasize what a production number the Wayne image is—the lumbering gait, drawling voice and ever more craggy face are a deliberately constructed and manufactured image of virility” (Dyer 115). Although he was a very talented actor, John Wayne became the archetype of American virility by virtually playing the same character in every film. [...]
[...] Arguably, the most effective aspect of They Live is its ability to disguise itself as a run-of-the-mill, silly sci-fi/horror film. On the surface, the film is nothing more than a fresh take on the B-sci/fi movies of the 1950's (Burridge 1). Susan Sontag writes that; whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to serious'. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (Sontag 62). [...]
[...] A film as campy as They Live is most effective when viewed by those who can appreciate it on multiple levels. In his essay “Uses of Andrew Ross states that camp “belongs to those who have the accredited confidence to be able to devote their idiosyncratic attention to the practice of cultural slumming in places where others would feel less comfortable” (Ross 316). In essence, a piece of camp is most successful when one is willing to not only accept its campiness, but also revel in it. [...]
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