Monday, July 22, 2013

When Classic Becomes Camp

Last night I went to see Mysterious Island, one in a series of movies the local art-house theater is showing to honor the achievements of legendary stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen, who died earlier this year. If you haven't seen it, it's an adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, with castaways encountering perils and (this being a Harryhausen film) giant monsters on a remote island. Though not one of the master's best films--the drama is slow and plodding, and some of the effects, particularly the glass paintings and traveling mattes on the island, are poorly executed--Mysterious Island is still an impressive piece of special-effects movie-making.

But you know, every time I go to see one of these older fantasy films, whether it be King Kong or The Valley of Gwangi, I have to sit through the lunkheads in the audience cracking up every time an effects sequence appears on screen. Last night, it was an older couple, probably in their sixties, sitting right behind me, yucking it up over Harryhausen's creations. It ticked me off.

I'm more sensitive to this than most, since Harryhausen was my boyhood hero, one of the main reasons (along with Star Wars) I grew up believing in the power of fantasy. But in a broader sense, the hilarity of last night's audience made me wonder: when did classic become camp?

There are campy movies out there, for sure. Many of them were made in the fifties and sixties, when Harryhausen was at the peak of his form. But his films weren't among them. They were designed as spectacle, perhaps, but not as camp. They were meant to be taken seriously: to inspire awe and wonder, not giggles.

Now, as a literary critic and film scholar, I know that what a creator intends for her or his artwork has nothing to do with how an audience receives it. If, in today's era of soulless but realistic computer effects, a film with stop-motion monsters appears silly, audiences will, perhaps naturally, perceive it as such.

But I can't help thinking you'd have to exist in a historical vacuum not to recognize artistry as artistry, regardless of its relationship to present standards. Cave paintings might look quaint today--but they were pretty damn impressive in their time. The acting in Citizen Kane is over-the-top by today's naturalistic standards--but that's still a pretty darn good film. Harryhausen, working alone and with budgets in the mere thousands, couldn't produce what immense teams of technicians equipped with multi-million dollar machines can produce today--but that doesn't make him a hack.

It's inevitable, perhaps, that a consumer culture such as ours--a culture that can't wait to get its hands on the next technological gizmo, simply because it's the next--will equate past with surpassed. It's perhaps inevitable that such a culture will perceive anything classic as campy.

But I'm going to stick with my convictions. Something that was good in its own time--something that was great in its own time, as all of Harryhausen's films were--can still be meaningful in ours. If we fail to acknowledge this, then we're the ones who have become silly and irrelevant.


  1. Harryhausen -- makes me think of Monsters, Inc. every time!

    Anyway, I agree with your assessment on how classic films get viewed today. Stop motion back then was ahead of its time and wowed the movie goers, and I really think that says something for those films. They were being daring and trying to see what more could be done to engage an audience. Camp to me means bad B, C, or D flicks that should've never been produced in the first place. Acting is bad, quality of storyline is bad, and just about everything else is bad. But I must admit, some of the classics do tend to make me laugh a little when I see them. Sorry.

    1. Thanks for the comment! In my case, my awareness of the craft and labor that went into the film suppresses my laugh impulse. But I have no such compunctions when watching, say, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE!