I had to drive to Toronto to see one of last summer's most overlooked films, but this Saturday night, thanks to the Dryden Theatre, you'll be able to treat yourself --- without leaving the country --- to Wet Hot American Summer. It’s a brainy spoof of those popular bawdy teen sex romps from the late '70s and early '80s. Set at a summer camp full of horny counselors, Summer is too smart to simply be a send-up of Meatballs or Porky's. This isn't Not Another Teen Movie --- it's got brains and a bit of heart, as well.
Anyone familiar with MTV's short-lived but extremely funny sketch comedy show called The State (circa the Real World season with Puck) should turn out in droves, as the film's creators were all members of that comedy troupe (most of the other members appear in the film, too). Fans of that show will certainly dig the way screenwriters David Wain (he directs, as well) and Michael Showalter approach their story, which plays like an after-school special crossed with the worst sitcom imaginable (even worse than Emeril!). Then again, Summer’s humor may be lost on viewers who didn't go to summer camp, or who are not steeped in the tradition of those teen sex romps. Those non-Gen-X outsiders might mistake the deadpan, ironic humor for utter stupidity. Admittedly, it's probably a very fine line.
Set in August 1981, on the last day of the season for Camp Firewood in Waterville, Maine, Summer is comprised of a series of stories that are barely fleshed out enough to be successful comedy skits. Wain haphazardly shuffles back and forth between these with little thought, which makes it all seem even more like the films Summer is sending up (the bad haircuts and disturbingly short shorts help foster the illusion). Since it's the last day of summer, the characters all seem desperate to accomplish something, whether it's pulling off a successful camp talent show or getting laid.
Janeane Garofalo plays shy camp director Beth, who can't pronounce the names of her largely Jewish charges, but does manage to fall for nearby vacationing astrophysics professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce), whose recent calculations have determined NASA's Skylab will most definitely crash into Camp Firewood. Showalter is Coop, the nerdy counselor with a crush on cute Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who is involved with self-centered prick Andy (Paul Rudd). Molly Shannon is Gail, the recently divorced arts-and-crafts teacher who frightens her tutelage with scary diatribes on men. Christopher Meloni is the camp's cook who thrills (and disturbs) everyone with stories of being in the shit in Nam. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, especially when it comes to the film's sexual hijinks. Each actor plays his role straight, as though Summer was a contender in this year’s Oscar race. It’s nice to see an ensemble comedy where the stars aren’t trying to outdo each other via outrageously over-the-top performances.
In short, it's the funniest cinematic camp experience since Pugsley and Wednesday freaked everyone out with their rendition of the first Thanksgiving in Addams Family Values. As they mock bad films by making one equally as unprofessional, Wain and Showalter have created a cult classic that, along with Michael Patrick Jann's hysterical (and overlooked) beauty pageant spoof Drop Dead Gorgeous, shows that those crazy kids from The State were just as creatively fertile as The Kids in the Hall or any version of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players.
If you thought hiphop was all about the effeminate rapping of Fred Durst or the posturing gangsta bullshit of every other big rap talent that can rhyme "air" and "care," you need to haul your ass down to the Little Theatre and catch Doug Pray's Scratch, a wickedly cool, no-frills documentary that charts the popularity of DJing over the last 30 years. No, not the phony-voiced "deejays" you hear on commercial radio, but DJs --- the people with the fader, two turntables, and the wicka-wicka-wicka.
Pray, who also deftly documented the rise and fall of Seattle's grunge scene in Hype!, tackles his subject here in a similar fashion. And Scratch nearly follows the same trajectory, as well. After reaching a glorious crescendo in the mid-'80s (with Breakin' 2: Electric Bugaloo, I think), it seemed like DJing and the other three arms of hiphop culture (MCing, breakdancing and graffiti) would go the way of the Atari 2600 as America collectively returned to listening to Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen. Scratch shows us that the spinning and scratching never really stopped.
Pray introduces us to about a dozen DJs, ranging from the old and generally unknown (GrandWizzard Theodore, Jazzy Jay, GrandMixer DXT) to people you may have actually heard of (Qbert, DJ Shadow, Mix Master Mike). The subjects who weren't there in the beginning all point to DXT's Grammy performance with Herbie Hancock (remember "Rock It"?) as the defining event in their lives, which seem to be comprised solely of a love of music and a bizarre infatuation with outer space. We hear them all talk about how they got started and how they were influenced, and, most importantly, we get to see them in action. Be prepared to pick your jaw off the floor, because some of these scenes look like they were sped up for dramatic effect (but they weren't).
Pray also clears up a common misconception --- DJing isn't all about cribbing entire songs from Sting or Buffalo Springfield. It's about finding the "break" in a song (i.e., the good part --- the one that lasts for two or three seconds) and using it to create something new. There's a scene in Scratch where one of the DJs manipulates a Robert Johnson song into a very un-Robert-Johnson-sounding concoction. And when was the last time you shopped for records? In Scratch, we accompany actual DJs to actual record stores and watch as they hunt through actual stacks of dusty vinyl for that one "break" that could make their next performance at a competition.
This doc reminded me a lot of Dogtown & Z-Boys, which beat Scratch in the documentary competition at the Independent Spirit Awards. Both are among 2002’s best. Each focuses on the history of a very specific section of the entertainment community about which many know very little. And both films give props to significant people who seem fairly content to sit back and watch the new generation make piles and piles of dough while they scrape by. You don't need to be a hiphop fan to appreciate Scratch (though if you downright hate that style of music, the film might be a tad much), and that's the mark of a documentary that works.
To help kick off the opening of Scratch, the Little Theatre is holding a very special event this Friday night at 7:00pm. For $10.00, you get to see the film and listen to guest speakers including DJ Jaythreeoh (WITR), DJ Dee Imperial and California's DJ Midas, (WRUR). Oh, and they'll be giving away all manner of merchandise related to the film, as well. For more information, call the Little at 258-0403.
For more of Jon’s movie ramblings, visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER’s Friday Morning Show.