Summer Stock 

Low Camp, grand Hotel

Thursday, Jul 24 2003

Camp wants you to like it — really, really wants you to like it — and that’s precisely the movie’s problem: It’s way too eager to please. Directed by screenwriter-actor Todd Graff and drawn from his own experiences attending the Stagedoor Manor performing-arts camp in upstate New York, the movie is so rigged to elicit the audience’s empathy that it becomes difficult to watch; it’s stifling. Every one of the film’s characters — a who’s who of teenage neurotics, each with his or her own garden-variety hang-up (negative body image, confusion about sexual identity, low self-esteem) — gets his or her moment to shine, that “big scene” in which he or she proves his/her naysayers wrong and we all learn that it’s okay to be different, that being black/gay/overweight is actually beautiful. Camp proceeds for two hours along this well-trodden path, as though there were something novel in its message, as though there had never been a movie before about how nobody’s perfect. Which makes Camp endemic of something that’s been gnawing away at the integrity of American independent cinema for some time now: a self-reflexive, self-congratulatory fascination with rebel-outsider subject matter that’s so superficial it makes you want to scream, “We get it already! What now?”

A movie like Camp might have seemed a lot more vital two decades ago, before Miramax had become a household word (at least in the households of those likeliest to see Camp) and every third film at Sundance was a labored defense of the “principles” of indie filmmaking. But even today, there are takers for Camp’s brand of heavy-handed pedantry; the movie was a popular Park City attraction back in January, and now seems poised to do quite well as a “sophisticated” offering deliberately counterprogrammed against the major summer blockbusters — even if such a marketing strategy is about as crassly opportunistic as those employed by said blockbusters.

Deliberately or not, Graff — who spent years developing and workshopping Camp before finally getting it made — ends up taking the safest possible route through this material, underestimating his audience’s intelligence, and overestimating its tolerance for clichés. Consider, for a moment, the movie’s main characters: Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a blond pretty-boy skateboarder who can also strum a mean guitar and just happens (unlike most of his fellow campers) to be straight as an arrow; homely Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), the introspective, sisterly-advice giver who’s so unlucky in love that she has to ask her older brother to accompany her to the high school prom; plump Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose insensitive parents have had her jaw wired shut for the summer; and black, pimply-faced Michael (Robin De Jesus), who imagines himself at the center of a rousing gospel number (Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s “How Shall I See You Through My Tears”) while being beaten to a pulp by school bullies who disagree with his decision to wear an evening gown and stiletto heels to his own prom. These aren’t characters so much as character types, all bundled together for a summer at the Stagedoor-esque Camp Ovation, where this year’s guest director is a has-been Broadway legend (played by Don Dixon) who once had a hit show, before alcoholism and writer’s block set in. (Actually, maybe he wrote this movie.)

Related Stories

  • Voice Film Club Podcast: Glenn Beck, Gloria and a Defense of The Wolf of Wall Street

    L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson weighs in briefly on the recent Glenn Beck-energized social-media attacks that have developed  in the wake of her Lone Survivor pan. Because of the aggressive reader/viewer responses, Nicholson admits the following: "I had to spend my  first few days at Sundance without being able...
  • Sundance Next Weekend Fest: Three Best Films to See

    Our top picks for Sundance's Next Weekend fest: Blue Caprice Talk about sympathy for the devil. Alexandre Moors' biopic of 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond), the teenage Beltway sniper who helped his "dad" kill 10 people in three weeks, shows how the minor fell under the mental sway of...
  • A Sundance Festival in L.A.

    Last November, director Chad Hartigan was in line to see Lincoln at the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz, wondering if it was time for him to get a job. He'd spent all his money — plus the cash from two Kickstarter campaigns — making his second feature, This Is Martin...
  • Elijah Wood Explains Grand Piano

    Like James Bond, Elijah Wood spends his latest film in a tuxedo trying to save a beautiful blonde from an assassin. Only he's gotta do it sitting down. In Spanish director Eugenio Mira's tidy thriller Grand Piano, opening in L.A. March 14, Wood plays first-class concert pianist Tom Selznick, a...
  • Will Anyone Buy My Amazing Festival Movie?

    As tends to be the case, several of the best films made in the last year have yet to screen outside of the festival circuit. For some this is because their scheduled release date simply hasn't arrived; others are still waiting to be picked up by a distributor in the

Like Gus Van Sant’s forthcoming Elephant, Camp revels (albeit less portentously) in the very stereotypes it purports to contradict. And given that Graff’s idea of debunking stereotypes is giving the all-American Vlad a foreign-sounding name and a minor case of OCD, you shudder at the thought of the less “edgy” and “honest” proposals for making Camp that Graff, according to the movie’s press notes, turned down. In the end, and despite his personal connection to this material — in addition to his tenure as a Stagedoor camper, Graff worked there for two years as a counselor — Camp never resonates with the feeling of authentic experience. It’s as though he has distanced himself from the untidy reality of camp life in favor of the routine underdog story with which he feels more comfortable, or, at least, with which he thinks the audience will feel more comfortable. (Can it really be that, in Graff’s many years at Stagedoor, it was never once the flamboyant drag queen who rode in on a skateboard? Or the acne-stricken minority kid who turned out to be a smooth-talking Lothario?)

Camp talks a good game about how we’re more alike than different and can’t we all just get along, but when the movie arrives at its climactic scene, in which Bert Hanley, Dixon’s burned-out Broadway scribe, chastises the eager campers for their enthusiastic oddballness (“What planet are you from?” he exclaims, before launching into a passé tirade about the “death of Broadway”), you realize that Graff has, for most of Camp’s running time, been viewing these kids in much the same way Hanley does — from the outside. The thought of attempting a movie that begins (rather than ends) with the realization that most people are square pegs desperately trying to fit into round holes — a movie like Ghost World or Camp’s Sundance competitor American Splendor — seems to have instilled Graff with a paralyzing fear of the unknown. He’s so desperate to please all of the people all of the time that he second-guesses himself into mediocrity.

But it’s worse than that, really. Even were all of Camp’s ideological confusions to somehow straighten themselves out, we’d still be left with Graff’s shoddy script and nail-your-camera-to-the-ground, unenthusiastic direction (particularly during the musical numbers), with a cast of newcomers clearly chosen more for their singing voices than for their acting abilities, and with a soundtrack that — inexplicably, for a movie that so professes its love for musical theater — employs as many undistinguished pop ballads as it does Broadway classics. Oddball, indeed.


Camp is built upon the flimsiest “let’s put on a show” foundation, and so is Mike Figgis’ latest, Hotel, which suggests what Camp might look like if it took place in Venice instead of New York and substituted Jacobean tragedy for contemporary Broadway. On paper, the movie (which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2001) sounds dreadful: a collection of actors, filmmakers and paparazzi all shacked up in the Lido’s crumbling Hotel Hungaria for the making of a Dogme-style film based on John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. The director (Rhys Ifans) of this film-within-the-film is at odds with his producer (David Schwimmer). The hotel staff (led by Danny Huston) may be cannibals or vampires, or both. And, as you might expect, Hotel isn’t Webster so much as it’s a thinly veiled excuse for Figgis to indulge once more in the kind of improvised dialogue and digital-video antics that sunk his atrocious Timecode in 1999.

But Hotel is surprisingly enjoyable, even if you’d hesitate to call it a complete success. Indeed, Figgis expects you to sit back and roll with the pleasurable moments (like Salma Hayek, who’s never been better, in a sequence that’s a deft skewering of The Blair Witch Project) while ignoring the clunky ones (where the experimentation gets the better of the movie, like in bad Peter Greenaway). The starry cast (which also includes John Malkovich, Julian Sands and Valeria Golino) isn’t so much in on the joke as they are the subject of it — Hotel is like a parody of the little movies that big actors work in from time to time because they enjoy the “artistic freedom” of doing so. Which was, I suppose, the basic scheme of Timecode as well — except it felt disingenuous, an angry rant against Hollywood superficiality by a guy who has never seemed that beholden to Hollywood in the first place.

This is actually what makes Figgis, despite his many inescapable indulgences, such a welcome presence on the scene, a harbinger of what’s right with American independent filmmaking nowadays. Like Steven Soderbergh, Figgis freely goes back and forth between two extremes: movies made for himself and those targeted at a bigger audience. (His latest Hollywood project, a Disney thriller called Cold Creek Manor, will open this fall.) Only Figgis seems even more comfortable inside his own head and even less needful of ever going back. And unlike Todd Graff, who’s ostensibly doing his own thing but with an obvious eye to mainstream acceptance, when Figgis tells you that he doesn’t give a fuck, you believe him.


HOTEL | Written and directed by MIKE FIGGIS | Produced by FIGGIS, ANNIE STEWART and ERNST ETCHIE STROH Released by Moonstone Entertainment | At ArcLight

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Tue 15
  2. Wed 16
  3. Thu 17
  4. Fri 18
  5. Sat 19
  6. Sun 20
  7. Mon 21

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending