An exploration of camp in three of Netflix’s guiltiest pleasures.
An Ode to Bad Netflix Movies
I am a purveyor of the finer things in life. After strenuous days at the office (campus library), I enjoy strolling through Manhattan and home to my quaint East Village brownstone (shared studio). I make my way through the foyer (split living room/kitchenette) and melt into the couch to enjoy a glass of wine (White Claw). Now it is time to fully indulge. I flip open my laptop, head to Netflix, and settle in to their newest buzz-worthy film. This picture has it all: historical fiction, gripping character arcs, and a star-making turn. The Irishman… escapes my mouse as I click on the movie I have been waiting for: The Knight Before Christmas.1
The Knight Before Christmas (2019), starring Vanessa Hudgens as a heartsore science teacher who falls in love with a time-traveling fourteenth-century knight, is the latest entry into the canon of Netflix films that are so bad they’re good. This film, in particular, a true feat in the advancement of medieval Hallmark storytelling, suffers from one fatal flaw: the male protagonist is named Sir Cole. At first, this moniker did not strike me as anything out of the ordinary. I was about halfway through the movie when, after characters had repeatedly called for Sir Cole, it hit me: our leading heartthrob’s name is Circle.
Accidentally naming a central character after a shape could be seen as a silly concomitant of the genre. However, I believe it symbolizes much more. In naming the lead of The Knight Before Christmas “Circle”, its screenwriters have—intentionally or not—embraced ridiculousness and entered their movie, and in my opinion, other Netflix movies of its stature, into a class of art based on artifice and exaggeration; an aesthetic that focuses on style at the expense of content; a genre that transcends sophistication and enters into pure delectation: It is camp.
Defined in 1964 by its preeminent scholar Susan Sontag, camp is an enduring phenomenon characterized by a love of the exaggerated that relies on the tenant of failed seriousness.2 Whereas critically acclaimed films focus on such mundane aspects as “cinematography” and “technique,” “Camp is frivolous about serious things and serious about frivolous things,” as Thomas Meehan identified in his 1965 New York Times article “Not Good Taste, Not Bad Taste—It’s ‘Camp.’”3 The best works of camp are completely unaware of their own campiness—they are ambitious enough in their nature to escape the trap of being plainly bad but fail to move past their stylistic quirks to succeed in achieving the original intention of the film. It may seem that devotees of camp are cynics who revel in watching the failures of others, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Those who enjoy camp prefer looking at the world through a comical lens and find “fun and delight in things that others find banal, boring, worthless or hopelessly out-of-date.”4 For those who are brave enough to venture past high culture, camp offers unparalleled joy. In that vein, I have chosen three of Netflix’s campiest films to take a closer look at; Hopefully, this list inspires others to take life less seriously and give in to the powers of Noah Centineo.
Like a shooting star, Tall Girl (2019) lit up Twitter this summer upon the release of its (heavily mocked) trailer, which promised the hopeful story of a teenage girl who stands at six-foot-one and a half and must endure life in “size 13 Nikes. Men’s size 13 Nikes” We are reminded several times of her shoe size throughout the film, which received some deserved backlash for insinuating that a beautiful, well-off, able-bodied white woman is marginalized enough to warrant a film about her struggles.5 This is a valid critique of the movie, however, the tall girl herself is not who I’m interested in. Any viewer of Tall Girl knows that the film has one star, one standout performance that, by comparison, renders every other character dull. The star in question: foreign-exchange student Stig. His thing? He’s also tall… and European, and he is doing more than enough in fulfilling his purpose of being lanky, foreign, and hot. Therefore, it came as a sweet surprise upon viewing the movie that Stig is no piece of dry toast, but a farcical, well-meaning simpleton who unironically belts out a show tune from Guys and Dolls as he sits alone in the school theater, tickling the ivories. Stig can’t speak English very well, and while he thinks America’s great, he doesn’t know much about his new city, he humbly admits: “I do know nothing about New Orleans.” In my favorite scene of the film, Stig realizes, at seventeen years old, that he is extremely attractive. You see, back in Sweden all of the girls wanted to date Ingvar Krueger, a “super good-looking, super popular, tall guy.” A look of unbridled joy crosses Stig’s face as he realizes it: in America, “I’m Ingvar Krueger. I’m Ingvar Krueger, Dunkers!” What was supposed to be a dreamy, charismatic love interest morphed into Stig, one of the most aloof characters I have seen on screen in years. Susan Sontag describes Camp as “the glorification of ‘character’.”6 More specifically, she claims that camp favors “instant character”, referring to those who don’t notably develop throughout the art piece and instead embrace their intense (if one-dimensional) personalities. If it fails everywhere else, Tall Girl succeeds in creating a theatrical, stagnant character—my beloved Stig, an instant Camp icon who I can only pray leads the sequel.
We begin in the clouds. As the camera weaves through the wind past distribution company logos, we hear the voice of Gwyneth Hayden—played masterfully by Lacey Chabert, better known to the public as Gretchen Wieners—tease her “kooky” path to faith. She ends with a confession: “I thought I was looking for a guy to stick a ring on my finger, my Mr. Right. And along the way, something wonderful happened. I found Him. That’s Him, with a capital H.”7
According to its Netflix description, Christian Mingle (2014), a not-so-carefully disguised propaganda film for the dating website of the same name, follows as “A career woman who has everything but romance finds her values challenged when she starts dating a good man she met on a Christian matchmaking site.” Admittedly, this movie belongs to a very specific genre (ultra-religious, feel-good rom-coms presented by Christian distributors) that may question its inclusion in the general canon of campy Netflix-produced movies. Nevertheless, I ultimately discovered this piece of cinema on Netflix and onto the list it goes. Like Tall Girl, Christian Mingle capitalizes on the assumption that we, the audience, will sympathize with a leading character that is perhaps undeserving of all that sympathy. In this case, it is with Gwyneth, a single marketing executive who can’t find love until she meets Paul Wood, a corny Christian construction worker, and a group of Mexican orphans who didn’t receive the most respectful treatment from the screenwriter (in a letter sent to Gwyneth near the end of the film, one orphan writes, “Dear Senorita, me sorry for my English not so good”).
Christian Mingle is perhaps the most definitive example of camp on this list: When it comes to fulfilling its intention of instilling a desire for Christ in its audience, Christian Mingle fails. While Sontag believes that the essential element of camp is failed seriousness, she recognizes that not every serious failure is camp, that only those failures with “the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive” can be so lucky.8 What allows Christian Mingle to join the oeuvre is the brazen passion and naivete it exhibits along the way. So what if there are visible boom mics; Gwyneth is having a meltdown in front of them! Maybe it is illogical to have the male lead track his lover’s location to a small village in Mexico after a year of not speaking, but how else does one make a surprise grand entrance? Christian Mingle is a highly enjoyable watch, just not in the ways its director, screenwriter, or cast likely intended. Perhaps this is because it strays so far past the point of sanity that one can not help but give in to the fun. I know I am not the target audience for this movie (I’m not Christian, I don’t see sushi as laughable “raw fish”), but I have watched it four times nonetheless. As Pauline Kael states in her 1969 article “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” “You don’t have to believe in a movie to enjoy it—you just have to be interested.”9 I may not believe in Christian Mingle, but you better believe I am glued to the screen every time it begins.
After his fame skyrocketed with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an endearing Netflix rom-com, demand was high for Noah Centineo. It was in this renaissance that Netflix began bumping older, considerably lower-budget teen flicks that Centineo had previously appeared in. Through this campaign (which felt targeted at me specifically), I discovered a movie so ludicrous, so ill-advised, and so laughably misogynist that I had to write this essay if only to mention it. Swiped (2018), the story of a nerdy college student and his popular roommate’s journey to creating the city’s most popular hookup app, is a masterpiece. Sure, it features enough dropped storylines and gaping plot holes to make one’s head spin, but each scene seems to be daring itself to outdo the previous one in lunacy, and remarkably, each scene succeeds. Characters will go on complete narrative tangents, often repeating lines and reminiscing on important events prior to the timeline of the movie that are rarely explained. My favorite example: after outrunning a group of boys who are after his skull, protagonist James, panting, converses with the friend who has just helped him escape:
“I’m okay with helping you,” she says.
“Why?” he questions.
“Why am I okay with helping you?”
“No, why are you so shy.” 10
Swiped was either written as fan fic by a Centineo-obsessed tween or by a mastermind satirist. I see no logical in between. There is no way to intellectually or emotionally defend Swiped but to quote the old saying, “It’s so bad, it’s good.” And what else is camp but good taste in bad taste?
For years I have questioned my affection for these movies. They are so obviously terrible, and yet I find myself returning to them time and time again. It was only after learning about some of the tenants of the camp aesthetic that are employed in the films—glorification of character, failed seriousness, outlandish screenplays—that I was able to explain my reverence for a film like The Knight Before Christmas. I’d like to believe that those of us who indulge in bad Netflix movies are not shortsighted, but active scholars of the most intriguing aesthetic to emerge from the twentieth century. Besides, life is long and too often mundane. We have been programmed to believe that high art is the only art that matters, that indulging in trash is a crime. But I am tired. Tired of accepting “good taste” over personal enjoyment. Tired of “cultural snobbery” that leads to “calling boring movies ‘good’ and ‘art’,” 11 I became drawn to Camp when, as Sontag put it so eloquently, I realized, “‘Sincerity’ is not enough.”12 At the end of the day, I would absolutely rather watch Vanessa Hudgens learn how to joust than watch Robert De Niro be a gangster for three-and-a-half hours (no offense to Scorcese). For a genre that celebrates the comical view of life, campy Netflix films have taught me something quite sincere: pleasure needs no justification.
- Monika Mitchell, The Knight Before Christmas (Netflix: 2019).
- Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Partisan Review, 1964.
- Thomas Meehan, “Not Good Taste, Not Bad Taste — it’s ‘Camp’: TOUJOURS CAMP,” New York Times, March 21, 1965. ProQuest.
- Thomas Meehan, “Not Good Taste, Not Bad Taste — it’s ‘Camp’.”
- Nzingha Stewart, Tall Girl (Netflix: 2019).
- Sontag, “Notes on Camp.”
- Corbin Bernsen, Christian Mingle (Capitol Christian Distribution: 2014).
- Sontag, “Notes on Camp.”
- Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 238, no. 1425, February 01, 1969, pp. 65. ProQuest.
- Ann Deborah Fishman, Swiped (Netflix: 2018).
- Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”
- Sontag, “Notes on Camp.”