Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
The hills are alive with the sound of crap: An essay that attempts to deconstruct the utter shittiness of Todd Graff's Camp
Camp is an independent film about musical theater summer camp based on Stage Door Manor, a famous (and very expensive) establishment that Robert Downey Jr. once attended. His counselor there was Todd Graff, who wrote and directed this film.
On paper, this concept seems perfect for a movie. At first glance it may sound like only actors or former theater campers would like it, but theater people are entertaining to everyone. If you are one, you can appreciate the indescribable joy and soul-crushing agony that they go through each and every day, usually associated with casting choices and/or infatuations with each other. If you are not one, you can simply have fun watching their bipolar behavior from a safe distance.
As a former theater person myself, as well as the holder of my own set of theater camp memories, I had very high expectations for this movie. In my eyes, it could have gone in two different directions and still have been a success. It could have been a sincere testament to how seriously campers feel about their camp, and actors their craft. In that instance, it would be refreshing to show on screen how being in a play can be as visceral and satisfying as any other leisure activity. Every performer has a story about sneaking into an empty theater and feeling as though they were in a sanctuary. Once, in college, a theater major I knew injected herself into a conversation about religion by saying “Well, the closest thing I have in my life to religion is theater, and …” If this phenomenon could be captured on film, it would go a long way in explaining the passionate behavior that marks an actor. Alternately, it could have been an all-out comedy. There are many broad yet distinct stereotypes that nearly every performer falls into. Assembling these character types into a situation as unique and bizarre as theater camp could be a fascinating and hilarious dissection of the theater world.
This movie, however, attempts to do both of those things, and accomplishes neither.
Camp begins with a musical number peppered with introductory vignettes of the characters – all of which presage the badness to come. It features the actors in the film, though since we have not seen the film yet, we don’t know this, and as such are confused. The song is called “How Shall I See You Through My Tears,” and it is clearly meant to be taken seriously. However, the characters are all dressed in strange orange togas, and the choreography is extremely consciously artistic. The director, in his “making of” featurette, says that he wanted the piece to exist outside of time, or something like that. That choice might be really “deep” and all, but what does it tell us about the movie that comes next? Is the subsequent film supposed to exist out of time, or is it supposed to be of today? Is it a comedy, or is it supposed to be taken as seriously as the opening number? What, in other words, the fuck is going on?
Once the movie begins, we are then introduced to the characters as they all make their way to Camp Ovation. There are the traditional stereotypes of theater people, including the pretentious and bitchy diva, the waifish skinny boy who knows everything about musicals yet nothing about sports, and the heterosexual girl desperate to find a guy to date who shares her theatrical passions and still wants to see her tits. Oh okay, it’s going to be a broad comedy of clichés. But then, we also meet other characters, including the slightly overweight girl who has her jaws wired shut so as to lose weight, the six-year-old bespectacled black boy who is largely silent, and the girl who willingly enslaves herself to the diva. Ah, now I see. It’s a screwball comedy. Lastly, we meet a boy who goes to the prom dressed as a girl, is denied access, and gets the shit kicked out of him on camera by thugs in tuxedos. So it’s … serious? This ambiguity pervades the entire thing.
The “story” of Camp begins when Vlad enters the picture. Vlad is a good-looking boy with a great body who becomes the object of desire for everyone in the movie, male and female. While there are a few lines dedicated to questioning his sexuality, the answer is given when he removes a football from his bag and places it on the dresser. He likes sports – therefore he’s straight! This is an enormous shock to the entire camp, as he is the only heterosexual boy there. (In one particularly queasy episode, Vlad auditions by singing a song and accompanying himself on guitar. One of the directors leans in to another and whispers her astonishment that there is a real straight boy at their camp). Now, no one is denying that there are a lot of homosexual men in theater. In fact, it is safe to say that they are the majority. However, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that the presence of a single, solitary straight man would cause such an upheaval. (To put it another way: I went to theater camp, and I was a theater major at school. While I certainly had an advantage as a straight guy in the department, I have to admit that I did not have sex with a different hot chorus girl every single night.) While the writer/director might see this as an act of empowerment (in that featuring many gay characters as leads allows them to be seen as people and not sidekicks), it also implies that all guys in theater are gay. All this does is create another stereotype, or at least reinforce one that already exists. Are we now able to conclude that every boy in every play you ever see is gay? I guess so.
Anyway, once Vlad is introduced, just about every other person is characterized by how they deal with their uncontrollable lust for him. Michael (the cross-dresser) bats his eyelashes and blushes whenever Vlad pays him any attention (and tells us that he’s doing it each and every time), Jill (the diva) brings him back to her room (made up somehow to look like a princess’ room, complete with huge, heart-shaped bed) and fucks him, and Ellen (the fag hag) falls hopelessly in love with him, even though she knows she’s not pretty enough for him.
This plot would be bearable in two circumstances: if Vlad was a really great guy, or if we was a real douche, and gets his comeuppance at the end. Unfortunately, neither of these things happens. Vlad knows that the nice yet not gorgeous Ellen has a crush on him, yet still sleeps with the diva. Then, when he and Ellen are together (sort of), he then attempts to sleep with her (willing, of course) roommate. He also knows that Michael is in love with him, and despite not being gay, he flirts with him throughout the summer. At one point, when people are angry at him, Vlad and Michael are alone by the lake. Vlad takes off his clothes and approaches Michael, saying that he’s confused. However, he quickly admits that he’s not interested; he just did that because he wanted Michael to like him. When we finally learn Vlad’s deep dark secret – the quirk that humanizes this otherwise perfect character – it turns out to be … OCD. Yeah. He has to take a pill, or else he’ll count letters in other people’s sentences. He reveals this after Michael talks about how unhappy he is with life (as a gay cross-dresser, remember), and Vlad expects to receive real sympathy. This is the equivalent of someone describing the brutal ways that they had the shit kicked out of them, and another person detailing a terrible paper cut they once got as a way of empathizing. We all know people who act as though their problems are always worse and more worthy of attention than anyone else’s. We hate these people. Vlad is an incredible dickhead who pretends to be a good guy, and the movie ends as it begins: with everyone loving (and wanting to fuck) him.
Before I go further, let me share a lesson of screenwriting that a professional friend of mine recently taught me. When creating a story, it is important to make sure the characters all have a complete story arc. In other words, if you leave a string untied, or make a character do or say something that goes against what you’ve set up for them, then the piece will feel incomplete. This is a common problem for a first draft of something; when writers edit their work, these things will hopefully all be found and corrected.
This rule was running constantly through my head as this movie ran, mostly because it was never followed. Let me run through some of the character arcs as seen in Camp as an illustration of what I mean.
Ellen: Ellen falls in love with Vlad, yet watches him get seduced by the diva, and then walks in on him making out with her roommate. She then later learns that he has had a girlfriend the whole time. When she confronts him, he tells her that he never liked her romantically. At the end, he asks if they can see each other during the school year. She says yes. They go swimming together.
Michael: A complete pariah at home, Michael feels home at camp. He intends to move out of his house at the end of the summer, but Vlad (with whom he is desperately in love) convinces him to make amends with his parents (who told him he got what he deserved at the prom) and invite them to come see him perform as Romeo. They don’t come. He is devastated. This problem then goes completely away.
Fritzi (the diva’s lap dog): Fritzi wants to be the diva’s best friend, but when she goes too far, the diva tells her off. In response, Fritzi poisons the diva, and steals her role in a play mid-performance. She then sabotages the diva’s makeup, and the ensuing fight renders them both unable to perform in the end show. Neither of them are ever seen again in the movie.
I could go on and on. The entire movie is a conglomeration of stupid storylines and hackneyed conflicts. People show up and disappear with no real rhyme or reason, sometimes just for stupid punchlines (Look! The tall black boy is dressed as an orthodox Jew from Fiddler on the Roof! HA! That was great. Now get the fuck off screen.) When it was over, not only did I find it extremely unentertaining and stupid, but it actually made me think less of my own theater camp experience. It is a special movie that can touch some of your most precious adolescent memories, and then shit on them.
In summary: I love women. I love theater. I hate Camp.