Free to be you and me

"Camp" plays with our perceptions of gay youth culture

Gabriel Shapiro

The world is a tough place, tougher everyday. As the theme song from “Cheers” asked: “wouldn’t you like to get away?” While the denizens of that T.G.I. Friday’s precursor might have been getting away to drunkenness and sarcasm, “Camp” takes us somewhere else.

Broadway musicals have allowed countless multitudes to leave their troubles behind. However, as “Fame” averred, there’s more behind the scenes than glamour and parties. Many critics have drawn comparisons between “Fame” and “Camp.” Both are about kids who want to act, but where “Fame” showed the grittier side of working to become a Broadway actor, “Camp” looks at kids becoming comfortable with who they are.

“Camp” follows a group of teenage wannabe-stars comprised of awkward nebbishes, flamboyant gay kids and cruel prima donnas through their summer at Camp Ovation, a drama camp somewhere in upstate New York. First-time director Todd Graff leads his cast of unknowns on a musical journey through five decades of Broadway hits.

The result is as clumsy and uncomfortable in its skin as the characters are in theirs, which might sound worse than it actually is. The blend of hormone-fueled mayhem and zaniness is akin to Bill Murray’s 1980s teen comedy “Meatballs” (and clearly to “Fame” as well.) Mixed with big production numbers featuring some classic Broadway tunes, the zaniness works. Although the sexual peccadilloes and elaborate set pieces are occasionally over the top, they seem normal enough in this context. The song and dance moments work better than the dramatic scenes, which are far beyond cliche. Prepare to cringe as the bitter, once-great writer stops just short of dumping out his vodka after finding himself moved by a performance of one of his secret new songs.

Despite subplots that go nowhere and a few hackneyed characters, “Camp” is very funny. At several points during the screening, the whole theater was roaring with laughter. It’s interesting that the jokes all worked while the drama was so dreary and predictable. The first half of the movie is packed with laughs. That’s fortunate, as we get to know and like the characters before they become one-dimensional stereotypes.

“Camp” isn’t the only thing zeroing in on homosexuality this summer. Cable television is currently rife with ads for new programs featuring gay men. This season has brought us two shows that have generated quite a bit of discussion: “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Boy Meets Boy,” both on the Bravo network. Meanwhile, news that the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law and Canada recently passed a law allowing same-sex marriage (becoming only the third country to allow these unions) has also stirred up some debate. The response has ranged from outrage and rabid condemnation to glib “duh” or “it’s about time” remarks and outright cheering. Indeed, the Episcopal Church recently ordained its first openly gay bishop right here in our little burg, which set off its own maelstrom of controversy.

What is going on? The right wing grouches at the Media Research Center think all this is a harbinger of the end of the world. But hey, if the world is ending and it looks this good and has this much fun doing it, who cares? Brent Bozell, president of the ultra-conservative Media Research Center believes that “Queer Eye” is “Heterophobic Ö (a) gay supremacy hour,” and “drenched in references to raw, perverted homosexual sex. In the premiere, the lads wonder whether stains are from ‘soy sauce or boy sauce,’ wear aprons from the ‘Horny as Hell Kitchen’ and goad the straight man with constant pleas to undress, try out the new bed with a friend and kiss the designers.”

Of course we’ve never seen straight people act like this, right? Every time we turn on the television we’re bombarded with people acting out their stereotypes for our amusement. Buxom blondes bat their eyes and giggle, strapping lads kill something and eat it and conservatives shove their feet in their mouths while crying about liberal media bias as they keep hitting the flush lever on the toilet of our economy.

The conservatives can feel their strangle-hold on their favorite things slipping as Americans vote with their feet, or with their remote controls. Bravo’s ratings have gone from 38th place at other times to second during “Queer Eye,” with approximately 1.7 million viewers.

Heterophobic is a nifty word, but is this the best the right can come up with? They sound like somebody who got picked last for kickball and is now calling the whole game “sour grapes.” Here’s what the conservatives really hate: They’re being beaten at their own game. The American viewing public likes these shows. It’s the free market at work; unfortunately, it’s stopped working for them.

“Camp,” “Queer Eye” and “Boy Meets Boy” might not be the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment, but they are interesting and important. The evolution of American culture from a terrain of closets and censure to being more tolerant, or at least more honest, admitting that not everyone is an upper-middle class heterosexual with two kids and a dog, is a series of steps, and it’s certainly not over yet. If the guys on “Queer Eye” and the gay kids in “Camp” seem like they’re just acting out stereotypical behaviors, consider the alternative of having no representations of gay men on television, and this seems better for now. There are certainly other alternatives, and Showtime’s “Queer As Folk” has tried to depict multifaceted characters that are more believable and interesting, but basic cable may not be ready for that yet. But these are steps in the right direction.

“Camp,” like “Queer Eye” (and every other text), operates on stereotypes. At least this film shows all kids, not just a certain kind, in a largely positive way, and as accepted and loved, talented and creative. “Camp” encourages kids to create their own support groups out of friends and mentors if they can’t find support at home and to be themselves. Few people remember how hard that was when we were younger. The film’s charm is a certain naivete, which is also the charm of youth, bright-eyed and full of hope and wonder. It’s great to see a movie so unflinchingly ebullient, joyously celebrating being young and being yourself, even if it does make the cynics among us feel like we’ve binged on maple syrup while tapping our feet to the music.

Along with watching these new TV shows, lots of us are supporting gay bishops, supporting same-sex marriages, supporting Canada and dancing on the grave of this conservative free-for-all that thankfully seems to be winding down. Now, if we can only keep it going until November 2004!

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]