The aesthetics of camp in reference to a ‘failed’ or ‘bad’ film.
A ‘failed’ or ‘bad’ film may leave itself open to camp readings of aestheticism, and none more so than Battlefield Earth (2000). What Andrew Ross refers to as “an operation of taste,” (Ross: 2008, pp.54), the camp aesthetic is embodied throughout Roger Christian’s film, which touches almost all of the bases of camp. Battlefield’s failures both critically and commercially extended also to the realm of technical failure, and for a film with real cult connections that met the reception that it did, it is fairly straightforward to examine it in reference to the camp aesthetic, even though there are a few aspects that are considerably “just bad” (Sontag: 2008, pp.47) as opposed to camp.
Reception Versus Intention
A discussion of the way in which Battlefield Earth was received will play an important role in examining how the film embodies certain elements of the camp aesthetic. Met with a critical reception that was “borderline hysterical” (Lambrie, 2012), the film became a commercial flop, gaining less than half of its $73 million budget in return (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). It becomes easier to recognise Battlefield Earth’s failings through the eight nominations and seven wins at The Razzies, who refer to the film as a “Certified Camp Classic” themselves (HeadRAZZBerry, 2005). With its Golden Raspberry connections, Battlefield is placed firmly within “cult cinema practices” (Mathijs & Sexton: 2011, pp. 86), as it holds multiple awards from an organisation that champions “bad taste” and revels in the attitudes of paracinema (Sconce: 2008, pp.100).
With John Travolta’s strong ties to Scientology, and the film being based on the novel by founder L. Ron Hubbard, it is the assumption that they did not intend for the film to be read or received as a camp or bad film, marking the film as what Susan Sontag would call “naive, or pure camp” (Sontag: 2008, pp.47). That the seriousness of the film failed, bringing to the fore the “exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive” (Sontag: 2008, pp.47) is why the film can be read within the camp aesthetic boundaries, with the intended seriousness being foregrounded through the involvement of Roger Christian who had prior involvement in the Star Wars films and Alien (1979). The intention of a serious, action-oriented science-fiction blockbuster was clear, and the film failed on this level spectacularly.
Finally (and possibly most importantly) in the relation between intention and reception, is Mathijs’ notes on the reputations of bad films. In this discussion, he highlights that historical and topical contexts and the discourse which takes places prior to and after the release of a film (Mathijs: 2005, pp.451-2) can greatly affect reception. When applied to Battlefield Earth, which held overt connections to a cult that has not necessarily been looked positively upon, it is evident that this discourse may well have affected the film’s reception and reputation long before it was even released, a thought mirrored by Travolta himself (Marlow, 2014). That Quentin Tarantino is said to have enjoyed the film, telling Roger Christian to “wait ten, twelve years” (Brew, 2008) as if he expected the film to gain a cult status is of interest. Sixteen years have now passed, which would suggest the film has reached its “final moment” with its cultural meaning now embedded (Mathijs: 2005, pp.453); it is easy to assume that Battlefield Earth will not achieve Star Wars-level of success, instead remaining that obscure science-fiction film with strong ties to Scientology.
Performance and Camp
In terms of the camp aesthetics of Battlefield Earth, one need look no further than that of John Travolta’s performance as Terl, the Psychlo. Described in a US Weekly review as “over-the-top” (Johnston: 2000, pp.44), Travolta’s villainy could often reside in a “panto-level” of camp (Newman: 2000, pp.40). Every one of his actions and gestures is “flamboyant and extreme,” marking his performance as a performance (Pike: 2001, pp.14). His long, wild bursts of laughter throughout the film, as well as the script in combination with his delivery of lines the likes of, ‘While you were still learning how to spell your name, I was being trained to conquer galaxies!” exceed, as Sontag puts it, the “love of the exaggerated” (Sontag: 2008, pp.44), marking him as the epitome of camp. Travolta’s campy performance does not end there, however, due to the over-stylisation of costume (the overly large crotch guard, the knee high leather boots and the dreadlock wig come to mind), implying that there is a degree stylisation, artifice and “unintentional badness” (Sontag: 2008, pp.41) which permeates through John Travolta’s very onscreen image.
Though not performed in a “deliberately exaggerated manner” (Mathijs & Sexton,: 2011, pp.86), a camp reading holds Travolta’s artificial appearance and performance in high regard due to the “politics of taste” (Mathijs & Sexton,: 2011, pp.91) that envelops camp. Essentially, one person’s Darth Vadar is another’s Terl; where Star Wars sits comfortably in popular culture as a successful franchise, Battlefield Earth remains pitifully below the radar of high culture with its degree of failed ambition, extravagance and strong passion (Mathijs & Sexton,: 2011, pp.88) on the part of Travolta, making it possible for camp readings to be taken. Deemed worthless, the film is championed by those who “proudly differentiate themselves from cultural consensus” (Mathijs & Sexton,: 2011, pp.90) in the name of paracinematic taste, rebelling against the “proper taste” (Sconce: 2008, pp.100) cultures that, for instance, Star Wars belongs to, which thereby contrasts the diverging matter of taste even between subcultural groups such as science-fiction fans.
It is the intention of Travolta as discussed previously that really makes Terl a campy character, as it is likely the actor did not wish to portray any aspect of his cultish lifestyle in a negative light. A camp reading which “converts the serious into the frivolous” (Sontag: 2008, pp.42) takes the moment in which Terl bumps his head on a low ceiling and places it as a moment of over-the-top, exaggerated action that would not be out of place on children’s television. Terl is also never truly developed, maintaining his man-animal hating “exaggerated he-man-ness” (Sontag: 2008, pp.44) throughout the film, and therefore increasing the chances of camp readings, as the“glorification of character” (Sontag: 2008, pp.48) over, for instance, script substance, plays an important role in camp aesthetics. In taking himself and his beliefs too seriously in his performance, Travolta oversteps the boundary of seriousness and into camp, or as Sontag puts it, the “sensibility of failed seriousness” (Sontag: 2008, pp.49).
It is Sconce’s mention of “technical ineptitude” (Sconce: 2008, pp.112) which holds very true to Battlefield Earth. It would not be a hyperbole to note that much of the film, for no specific reason, is shot on Dutch tilts. Usually reserved to imply that something is amiss, the to and fro of the tilted shot, specifically in shot-reverse-shot conversation sequence, is over-used in extreme excess, providing nothing creatively to the film but for a nauseating practice in cinematography. Moreover, such angles within the film will cut to a very similar angle, though now placing the same subject in a different position on the screen, foregrounding the editing technique and flaunting its dire technical practices without a sense of irony. This is where the film possibly dips into the “just bad” category (Sontag: 2008, pp.47) as there appears to be a massive technical failure on the part of the filmmakers. Were it not for the camp performance of Travolta, the exaggeration of dialogue and costume, the film may not have been referred to (or read) as camp at all, rather just a bad film. One can laugh at and ironically enjoy Travolta’s over-the-top performance and passion for the project, though one cannot laugh as easily at poor craftsmanship in the vein of the overly technically inept.
As Taylor notes, however, “even minimal aesthetic success (fulfillment of sophisticated intentions) can disqualify a work from the camp appreciation” (Taylor: 1999, pp.52), and one would be hard-pressed to find any success within Battlefield Earth. It is evident that the vision of the filmmakers was not met. For example, the CGI is subpar even for its time and overly artificial to the point of hilarity, and in another moment of being overly-stylised as a “slight to content” (Sontag: 2008, pp.43), the protagonist (Jonnie) is chased by a hidden Psychlo; the area he runs through is an area the audience has already seen just moments prior, yet now features low-lighting with a harsh green filter, silhouetting Jonnie and casting the Psychlo’s shadow on the walls. Where lighting effects work logically within the diegesis of Blade Runner (1982), for instance, (as a science-fiction comparison) in the neon-lit city, this scene in Battlefield Earth enters rather disjointedly with no logical reasoning. It is clear that there is a level of revelling (albeit unintentionally) in style or the sake of a stylistic sequence of shots. After all, to be camp is to be decorative, according to Sontag, placing “style at expense of content” (Sontag: 2008, pp.43), and Jonnie’s slow-motion trip through several panes of glass allows the audience nothing from a narrative perspective.
That the filmmakers were evidently trying to encapsulate the Star Wars tone by deploying similar wipe transitions is a bonus towards the camp aesthetic of Battlefield Earth, in that camp theorists may “see this recycling as a positive thing” (Pike: 2001, pp.17). The filmmakers attempted to link their film to similar popular films unironically, “thus inviting a specific reception” (Mathijs: 2005, pp.456) which clearly failed. The obvious borrowing of techniques from a well-established franchise add yet more ironic amusement and reason camp audiences and those who seek out ‘bad’ films on camp merits.
Camp and Homosexual Affiliation
Finally, though a stretch, there lies the possibility that Battlefield Earth’s connections to the camp aesthetic may not end at artifice, exaggeration and failed ambition, among others. As time indeed allows for a certain level of detachment (Mathijs & Sexton: 2011, pp.89), audiences have been distanced from the critical and commercial failure of the film for well over a decade. What may be of note during this time period in reference to the concept of camp is the tabloid journalism covering rumors of John Travolta’s alleged homosexuality (Sieczkowski, 2014). The “homosexual affiliation” (Pike: 2001, pp.11) tied to camp aesthetics, in hindsight, may allow a richer camp reading to be taken of the film for camp audiences. Whether the tabloid stories that purport to be true are or not, Travolta now has a connection, however small it may be, to the gay community. While there may be some crossover with paracinematic readings of the film, wherein those who value the obscure film do so based on challenging “dominant notions of taste” (Mathijs & Sexton: 2011, pp.86), there is much value in the camp aesthetics of the film. In 2016, the film’s camp aesthetics and the rumors surrounding Travolta may allow gay audiences and those who enjoy camp movies to take an alternative reading of an expensive action/science-fiction film, thereby “working with and through existing definitions and representations” (Ross: 2008, pp.64) that audiences have become accustomed to in more straightforward, overtly heterosexual representations in science-fiction.
Fairly evident is the fact that Battlefield Earth is an aesthetically camp film whichever way one looks at it, however unintentional it may be. When aligned with Susan Sontag’s list of camp aesthetics and concepts, it is hard not to argue that Battlefield manages to embody many notions of camp even in its almost entirely naive manner (Sontag: 2008, pp.47). After all, Travolta purportedly spent much of his own money on the critical, commercial and technical failure of a project but still believes that “it’s a beautiful film” (Brew, 2014). What really matters in camp culture is the way in which we can celebrate a truly failed film that receives awards that emphasise and simultaneously champion its overall badness, allowing us to read it as no more than a pure and aesthetically camp movie.
The Film Fanatic
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