On Friday night I had the pleasure of attending a 10th anniversary screening of Camp at 54 Below, with a brief talkback by the writer/director, some of the cast, and one of the songwriters. Afterwards, I reread this piece and felt like I'd been a little too harsh.
Now, obviously the experience of watching a movie at home alone is very different from watching it a) with people b) who are huge fans c) lots of whom went to the camp on which the movie is based d) in a nightclub e) at midnight f) with cocktails. But it certainly triggered something different this time.
For one thing, it didn't feel 114 minutes long (a running time I was afraid I'd be acutely aware of given the 11 PM start time of the talkback). Nothing I said in my earlier review is wrong, exactly. Letterle is still the weakest actor in the bunch, and the sexual zigs and zags still don't quite track, but something about seeing the cast beforehand and realizing how genuinely young they all were then made it all land a little better. They're teenagers, after all. And with an audience the tone problems mostly disappear. The jokes land beautifully, and they're sort of necessary amid the angst. There's something fantastic about the way Ellen as Effie starts as a joke but then she nails the song and it becomes something else entirely. To watch that in a crowd was to be carried along by the performance in a way that drives home the whole point of the movie. And the noises people made at Vlad! Clearly we've all known a Vlad or two. (I knew one in college who wasn't nearly as good-looking as Letterle and still got away with that shit.) And Ellen has to let him get away with it in order to win. She could be all mopey about it or she could enjoy making out with the hot boy, knowing exactly what it means to both of them. Michael loses, generally, but it still beats the hell out of high school, which in a way is pleasantly realistic.
In the talkback, writer/director Todd Graff said, expressing astonishment that the movie got made at all, "It's a gay children's musical!" Watched in a crowd of "teenage fag hags who turned into adult fag hags" (and more than a few adult fags) I saw Camp as the fantasy it is.
There's an actual documentary about Stagedoor Manor, in which a scandal erupts over kids making out on a bus, which is both proof that Camp gets the hormones right and proof that it's complete fantasy (because the real kids are straight -- at least for the time being). Both movies are great, but one is about people who love musical comedy, and one is an actual musical comedy.