Put the Camera on Me (DVD)

Every childhood needs a little direction.

In the early 1980s, an adolescent boy with the dream of making movies rounded up the other children in his neighborhood. With camcorder in hand, he let his imagination fly, with his fellow kids along for the ride. That footage has now been put together into a documentary, in the hopes of offering insight into how young people think.

While growing up, Darren Stein kept himself and his friends entertained with a home video camera. Starting out with fake news broadcasts and a talk show format, Stein eventually took the camera out into the neighborhood for mini-epics about ninjas and soldiers, comedies with a slight raunchy tone, and even a violent depiction of a post-nuclear apocalypse.

Today, years later, Stein and his childhood pal Adam Shell have compiled several of their filmic outings into a documentary, spliced together with interviews with their actors, all now in their 20s.

This is one of those films where how much you enjoy it depends on what you take into it personally. OK, that’s more or less true for every movie, but especially so for this one. If you had a childhood similar to these kids, then the film is a harmless little nostalgia trip, and nothing more. But if you had a wildly different upbringing, you might be fascinated—and even shocked—by the ideas and statements made by these young minds.

Despite the prominence of kids in Put the Camera on Me, parents should know right off that this is not a movie intended for the age 10-and-under crowd. Some very adult topics are discussed here, seen through the viewpoint of a few adolescents. At the time, these budding filmmakers and actors didn’t consider any underlying themes in their movies. They were just playing around. Looking back on them from a freshly adult perspective, the participants in these backyard blockbusters now see that what they were really doing was searching out their own identities.

The first shock value component to the film is violence. Like so many other aspiring filmmakers, Stein tried his hand at the zombie genre, complete with gallons of gooey red blood and a skinny young preadolescent chewing on a piece of gore, which we’re to believe was yanked out of a hapless human. In other attempts, two camouflage-clad young GI Joe wannabes duke it out in mom’s kitchen. Sure, to us it looks like two boys goofing off, but to them, they were making a serious action movie, complete with butt-kicking fight choreography. The one that really gets us inside the kids’ heads, though, is the “nuclear war” movie, in which a handful of survivors turn on each other with petty fighting and murder. On the one hand, the kids are creating a sci-fi thriller. But on the other, it’s clearly a reaction to the pre-Glasnost days of the early ’80s, when the Cold War was still something of a reality.

But, boys will be boys, right? So they splattered some ketchup around as fake blood for a movie. It’s the sort of thing every kid does on Halloween, right? Well, it turns out there’s even more to Stein’s movies. In the present day interviews, Stein and a few other participants admit that they didn’t fully understand what it meant to be homosexual when they made the films, but, without realizing it, they felt an emotional connection to some gay-themed movies they made. Whether it’s a music video with the young male singer taking on a feminine persona, or a comedy with a gay character scaring off a bunch of tough athletes, Stein was acting out feelings he didn’t completely understand at the time. There’s nothing overtly sexual in the movies, of course; it’s all played for laughs. But the subtext is there, even if the kids didn’t know it at the time.

But despite all the underlying and half-subconscious themes, at the end of the day this documentary is still just a collection of home movies. Some observations are interesting food for thought—but is there really enough meat here for a full-length documentary? Near the end of the film, the narrative turns to Lisa Weiner, the younger sister of one of Stein’s actors, who was usually picked to play “the girl” in any given movie. The segment alternates between one of Weiner’s starring roles, and the adult Weiner reading from her childhood diary about the making of the movie. This is where the movie does what the packaging promises: give us a glimpse into the thought process of a kid. All the weirdness and violence are forgotten at this point, and Put the Camera on Me becomes a nostalgia trip about some adults looking back on happier, more innocent times.

Audio and visual quality varies. The modern day footage is pristine, with no defects and bright, vivid colors. Audio during these segments is mostly dialogue-driven, and also shows no flaws. But the home video footage, as expected, is in bad shape. The picture is hazy and filled with grain, while the audio is so muddled and distorted there are times when it’s nearly impossible to understand what the kids are saying. Subtitles would have helped here, but there aren’t any. If you didn’t get enough old home videos, the extras include a few more of Stein’s homemade films in their entirety. A film festival question-and-answer session fills in a few gaps from the movie itself, and the extras are rounded out with a collection of trailers for this and other Wellspring releases.

Put the Camera on Me mostly glosses over the fact that Stein went on to become a genuine filmmaker, helming the 1999 dark comedy Jawbreaker. Based on the active imagination and love of filmmaking displayed here, we look forward to whatever his next project might be.

The Verdict

Darren Stein and his enthusiastic young friends are free to go. For being amusing, this documentary will not serve time. But for trying to be more than what it is, it will have to pay some severe fines. Court is adjourned.

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