I was already drafting this post when I caught the new Canadian action/thriller Ice Soldiers. Which seems oddly appropriate, in a way.
Ice Soldiers is an action/sci-fi flick about cryogenically frozen Soviet-era super soldiers rampaging through Northern Canada. Some affectionate reviews see in it a deliberate homage to 1980s action flicks that used to star ex-bodybuilders and kick boxers.
These reviewers seem to be saying Ice Soldiers isn't a good film, but that's OK -- because it's an homage to movies that weren't very good to begin with.
But is that enough when trying to get bums on seats?
Ice Soldiers isn't, perhaps, soul-crushingly terrible. And at least it's played straight. But it's not very good. And I think it serves as an appropriate segue to today's Regularly Scheduled Screed.
When talking about storytelling terms the basic definitions are understood, but oft times the specifics will get debated among fans. MacGuffins. Jumping the Shark. Retcons. People know the basic meaning, but might quibble about details.
Such is camp (or campy, or High Camp). I suppose, at its core, you could say camp is something where if you take it seriously, it would be considered bad. But if you don't take it seriously, it can be entertaining. But is camp simply doing something badly to the point of comedy? Or does it require its own creative efforts?
The 1960s American TV series Batman required just as much talent to do it as camp as it would to have produced it as a straight series. Its popularity established the template for super hero movies and TV series for years.
Camp was usually applied to borderline respectable genres (super heroes, sci-fi), as though the filmmakers worried they'd face a critical drubbing if they tried to approach the material with gravitas. "See?" the filmmakers desperately seemed to be saying to pre-empt detractors, "We don't respect the subject either!" But at least I could acknowledge the creative effort.
Unfortunately, camp was also adopted by those who saw it as a quick fix. Don't have the budget to pull off a sci-fi movie? Don't have a script that's strong enough to make the audience care about the characters? No problem -- do it as camp.
Camp also referred to unintentional campy efforts. Movies that became regarded as "so bad it's good." Perhaps the most famous torch bearer for that particular designation being the 1959 American movie Plan 9 From Outer Space. And this possibility of resurrecting a camp phoenix from the ashes of box office failure resulted in some bad dramas being relabelled as comedies.
And this has led to an even greater blurring of the line. And to movies where the filmmakers aren't even trying to make something worth seeing -- but they figure if they don't try hard enough, somehow it will miraculously turn into art!
I remember a few years ago there was a movie called Swarmed -- belonging to the "killer bug" genre. This movie starred Michael Shanks (currently on Saving Hope, but at that time with a significant sci-fi profile thanks to the TV series StarGate: SG-1). And in an interview at the time, Shanks admitted the actors knew it was a bad movie -- so they decided to play it for camp.
But Swarmed was still a bad movie. Playing it for camp didn't miraculously turn it into a comedy. It simply meant that they weren't even trying to salvage it.
All this is of special relevance to me because it relates to two things for which I have a special fondness: science fiction & fantasy and Canadian movies & TV.
Swarmed was Canadian. And is part of a whole cottage industry of Canadian-made sci-fi and fantasy movies (many commissioned by the U.S. Sy-Fy Channel) -- and a lot of them are pretty bad.
Worse, they often have no pressure to be good so long as they show up on budget and with the appropriate breaks for commercial spots. At the IMDB you'll see movie after movie boasting ratings of 2.8 out of 10, or 4.2 out of 10 -- and this is from the very target audience for which these movies are intended! Often the few good reviews are almost patronizing: "It's not as bad as I expected --" or "I've seen worse --"
Not exactly winning endorsements, eh?
And now this "so bad it's good" mentality just makes it worse. Not only are movies like, for instance, Avalanche Sharks, bad, but those involved brag about how bad they are as if somehow that shows what creative geniuses they are!
Lots of filmmakers start out making bad movies. James Cameron's first film as director was Piranha II. But guess what? His second was The Terminator. Honestly, if your career is comprised of making "deliberately" bad movies, there comes a point where you have to start asking hard questions about your abilities.
I have a fondness for fantasy/SF and I've long been an observer of and advocate for Canadian film and TV. And I see deliberately "bad" films as corrosive to both. It doesn't build anything. It's the creative equivalent of clear cutting: sustainability sacrificed for a short term perk.
Whether we're talking "so bad it's good" wannabes like Avalanche Shark or simply mediocre-for-mediocrity's sake movies like Ice Soldiers. It's just a bunch of bad movies for which even your supposed fans have little respect.
Recently the American film Sharknado is the poster child for the hip n' trendy "so bad it's good" camp-fest. But are those who buzzed about it on Twitter going to give it a second thought five years down the line? When the actors or cinematographer put it on their resume is that really going to win them their next gig?
So I say to all you filmmakers -- up-and-comers, or established pros. All you Sy-Fy and Space Channel executives. All you actors who get a bad script and decide to play it like it's bad. I say to all of you: don't.
If you want to do a serious horror/SF/fantasy movie -- great, give us a rich plot and deep characters. If you want to do it as a comedy -- sounds fun, but give us actual witty lines and pratfalls. If you want to do it as wry camp -- remember it takes as much effort as non-camp.
Don't just make a bad movie and then pretend that makes you an artist -- or that the audience is supposed to derive pleasure from thinking how untalented you and your actors are.
You, me, them -- we all deserve better.
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