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Low Camp, grand Hotel

Thursday, Jul 24 2003
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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.)

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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.

CAMP | Written and directed by TODD GRAFF | Produced by DANNY DeVITO, PAMELA KOFFLER, KATIE ROUMEL, MICHAEL SHAMBERG, STACEY SHER, CHRISTINE VACHON and JONATHAN WEISGAL | Released by IFC Films | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5

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

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