It’s here! Fourteen years later, we finally return to Camp Firewood (unless you count the 50 or 60 times you’ve watched Wet Hot American Summer as “returning” – which I most certainly do.) In 2001, the parody of 1980s summer-camp-sploitation movies that no one asked for (and if they did they would have asked about twelve years earlier) debuted at Sundance to four sold out crowds and zero buyers. Eventually it was released in approximately 30 cities, made approximately zero money, and was pretty much ignored to death. But that is how legends are born (isn’t it?).
14 years later, the film is a full-fledged cult classic beloved my many, and has even reached a status where some who haven’t seen it pretend they have (the true sign of a cinema classic). At my old video store there were wars fought over which employee was entitled to have it in their “Employee Picks” section.
The new Netflix series of the same name is a prequel, blissfully ignoring the opportunity to follow up on the “ten years later” reunion our beloved counselors planned in the original film. It’s pretty amazing how many from original film are returning for this new show and how well most of them have aged. And Michael Showalter is back too.
I’ll talk more about the series itself and my fond memories of watching the film this morning when it becomes available for viewing at the end of the month. I’m very excited. But I feel something else, deep down. And even though I want to see this more than anything, I’m sad I’ll never again live in the world where Wet Hot was a little-known, mostly dismissed romp (as well as the only place to see Bradley Cooper have anal sex, to date).
If I were tied down and cuffed and blindfolded and starved and forced to come up with a list of positive things the internet has given us, I would probably concede that one perk has been the new life given to films that were “failures” upon release. These are the films that in an earlier age may not have gotten a proper home video release (or at best a single initial release, so when someone never returns it, another copy can’t be reordered, too bad, so sad), or in the B.C.E. era when there was no home video at all. According to mythology, movies would play in the theaters and then disappear.
If the movie were a success, maybe you’d see it again on tv someday. Or maybe it would do another theatrical run. But if it were a failure, it would be all but gone forever. They actually melted down the film because it was worth more as raw material than as content. There was no time to wait for films that were “not appreciated in their own time” to find their audience.
But our ancestors paid their dues. And soon Prometheus brought down a VCR and rewinder for us, and then as prophesied by the elders, cinema was freed from the confines of the body and now exists in spirit as pure content, soaring through the cloud(s). It has shuffled off this mortal coaxial, and we seem to have been freed from the space/time constraints that plagued primitive cinephiles. We now have access to everything that ever was and coming soon. Everything that ever will be too.
The internet enables us cult-members to find and connect with each other, strengthening our resolve to understand and cherish that which the masses who live “society” have dismissed. We, who are all united in our believe that as individuals we are the only person who truly “gets” the film, mobilize our troops and fight for our beloved’s place in history.
I would imagine that this is very exciting for studio executives who are more forward-thinking and not tied to the old testament of the opening weekend box office. Movies can now life forever (Rachel Weisz in The Fountain would be pumped), and eternity is plenty of time for a studio to make its money back. Imagine, a world where even the “flops” can become hits if you take the time to find and nurture its audience. Maybe we’ll finally get that Mallrats sequel!
But are we forgetting what drew us to these artifacts in the first place? Wet Hot American Summer is obviously a comic masterpiece, but isn’t what makes it magical the fact that upon release barely anyone saw it and nearly all who did didn’t get it?
(Roger Ebert found the film so unworthy of consideration that he actually wrote the single worst review of his career for it. I don’t mean that he thought the movie was the worst he had seen—I mean that his review was of the lowest quality out of his entire body of work.)
All of us obscurity-fetishizing fanatics with our “cult films” and “deep cuts” [or Deepest Cuts] love to act all excited when they make a sequel, or bring the show back, or reunite the band to record another album. We relish the opportunity to school our plebeian friends on these little-known gems. The function of loving cult films is that it helps us to forge some separateness between us and mass culture. And in the arena of cinephilia, in which we literally gather in an arena to watch the same screen, it’s often hard not to feel like one of the masses.
But cult films save us from feeling like another tool, and help us to feel like we’re at least part of smaller, exclusive cliques, if not actual individuals. But when every dog gets its day and Peter Criss writes the number one hit of KISS’ career and every dismissed film gets re-visited and re-evaluated and your dad catches some of the first episode of the Wet Hot American Summer Netflix show because it was recommended to him “because he watched Louie,” will the original mean the same to us?
Is this the price we pay for living in the “utopia” where everything that ever was is available to all of us all day everyday? Or is this utopia? Did you ever see that Twilight Zone where the gambler dies and goes to “heaven” where he wins all the time. Eventually winning loses its magic for him and begins to torture him. He begs his spiritual guide to be allowed to go to “the other place,” thinking he’s asking to go to Hell. Turns out, this is Hell. He’s already in “the other place.” Are we in the other place? Maybe it’s just me. Comic book fans seem to still enjoy their superheros, right? Comics were once the outcast’s reprieve from the torment that befell them from the well-adjusted. But now nerds, normies, and bullies all gather together and watch masked peeps duke it out, and everyone seems pretty happy. So maybe I’m the asshole.
Still worried we’re losing that magic, though. Long live the cult.