Put the Camera on Me‘s queer wunderkind speaks
I first saw Put the Camera on Me at the 2003 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, and wrote about it in a review of that fest in Bright Lights. The following remarks are adapted from that review as an introduction to the film, now available on DVD. This fascinating documentary by Darren Stein and Adam Shell looks at the weirdly sophisticated short films made by Darren in the 1980s starting at age 7, with excerpts and interviews with his parents, siblings, and stars 20 years later. Darren’s subjects were unusually broad, and often queer in theme or subtext: “sexuality, cruelty, cross-dressing, games, friendships, rivalries, and childhood,” according to the doc’s tagline. Titles included Satan’s Ferrari, Vietnam, Crazy News, The Shoot Up, Lost Baby, Concentration Camp, and Gay as a Whistle. His stock company consisted of the other kids, straight and (future) gay, who lived on his middle-class cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley. Stein (who appears in most of the productions, along with his younger brother and several other slightly younger kids, mostly but not all boys) is brazen in his efforts at rethinking the gore and glam of Hollywood movies as vehicles for his imagination and as attempts to make sense of a daunting world. In one of the dramas, actor Allen, in drag, declares “I’m gay as a whistle!” under Stein’s direction. Later, one of his stars, now a hunky man, says with amusement, “Darren zoomed tight in on my crotch!” in scenes shot from below an attic entry when one of the parents, disturbed by all these hijinks happening in the attic, demanded they stop production and vacate. Stein’s movies are a time capsule of the period, but also a surprising stroll through the brain of a highly creative, dictatorial, unabashed queerboy who flourished in the seemingly hostile terrain of suburban America in the Reagan years.
It’s unusual enough for a kid in his pre-teens to assemble a “stock company” of pals and make movies, but more so for a gay kid to do it. Did you know you were gay on any level while you were making the films?
I always knew I was different. And yeah – attracted to boys. I don’t know if I’d call it “gay.” I was definitely in denial about the whole label thing – as a kid, that was sort of admitting defeat. To be gay was to be an outsider. And who wants to be left out when you’re a kid?
What were your influences for these films, which hit just about every genre from sci-fi to horror to melodrama to social commentary – TV? movies? Did you get input from any other adults besides your father, who gave you the camera? A teacher, perhaps?
No adult influence or input whatsoever. My main influence was movies. I was an avid filmgoer as a kid – and I used to create storylines for what I thought the R-rated films I wasn’t allowed to see were about – I remember Tommy, Alien, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show really capturing my imagination.
My parents also had a subscription to the Z Channel when I was growing up, which was the first cable station in Southern California. There were all kinds of art house films, foreign films, and auteur-driven films that I saw that I would never have been exposed to in the suburbs of Encino. Films of Paul Verhoeven, Brian DePalma, Ken Russell in particular had an enormous effect on me. Then I saw gay films like Parting Glances and Boys in the Band and Cruising. Horror films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and erotic films like The Hunger and Crimes of Passion – I was always drawn to more subversive material.
I remember my parents used to drop us off at double features in the ’80s at an outdoor shopping mall in Encino. Usually they were Disney films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Tron, but once they paired Close Encounters of the Third Kind with The Manitou – this bizarre horror film where this woman gives birth to a demon through a hump in her back and I had nightmares for months!
What particularly inspired your “diva boy” persona, both in front of the camera as actor and behind it as a kind of domineering auteur in the Fritz Lang mold?
That’s just the way I’m wired, I guess. I’ve always been pretty theatrical and outspoken. I was always a big fan of Tim Currey in Rocky Horror. My brother was playing with his Star Wars and He-Man action figures and I was dancing around in my mother’s control top panties, singing “Sweet Transvestite.” I was a sweet and sensitive kid, but also a bit of a child tyrant. I’ve definitely mellowed out with age. I try to temper my intensity when I can.
How aware were your and your friends’ parents of what you were doing? They seem a bit oblivious in the documentary – particularly your mom with her endless kitchen activities – which is of course great for artistic freedom!
All the parents on our street encouraged artistic freedom. I think the parents loved the idea that we were running around the cul-de-sac with a video camera making movies. We were always building creatures or mixing karo syrup with red dye and peanut butter to make blood, or using my mom’s leftover pork ribs for zombie films. There was always a hive of activity when we were making a film, and the parents were probably thrilled that we were keeping ourselves occupied – and impressed by the lengths we’d go to execute our ideas!
I think there’s something to be said for parents being oblivious to a certain extent. It allows kids to do their own thing and express themselves, and it allows the parents time for themselves. We were just making little movies. Of course some of them were pretty twisted, but like my Dad said in the documentary – it was just a form of self-expression – better filmmaking than drugs or violence! I was so fortunate that my parents weren’t overly judgmental about the way I chose to express myself. I never once remember them thinking it was weird that I was so obsessed with horror or sexuality. They just thought I had this really crazy imagination.
Some of the effects were ambitious for amateur efforts like this – especially the nuclear attack stuff. What inspired this particular film, and how much planning went into this and the other films?
The nuclear war film was inspired by the “fear of the bomb” we had in the ’80s. In particular, it was inspired by a TV movie called The Morning After. The whole city was radiated and you saw the graphic effects of the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. It was terrifying and I think that was definitely always on my mind. Of course there was a great deal of The Terminator thrown in there too. Anything with guns, violence, death, and destruction and we were into it!
Did you feel at the time that you were pushing the envelope with efforts like the Nazi film, or the child abuse film?
I was just telling stories about the things that I had the need to express or work through. Child abuse and the holocaust are horrific because they’re real and so out of our realms of experience. I was so into horror when it was fictional. But real life horror just didn’t sit well with me. It was incomprehensible and horrifying so I made movies about it in order to better understand it. Maybe I knew it was controversial or inflammatory and that’s why I put it on film – to press people’s buttons. I don’t know. I think it was a little bit of both. I definitely liked to elicit reactions from people.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Put the Camera on Me is the complexity of the relationships among you kids, particularly the shifts of power, the fights, the hurt feelings over lost roles, etc. Any thoughts on this?
I took the movies very seriously, and I think that set the tone for the relationships on the street. The films were a big deal because I made them that way – so being in them became important to kids that wouldn’t necessarily care as much. Ironically, the one who cared the least was my brother, but that was okay since he was a conduit to all of his friends. The only other kid on the street who showed a level of intensity like mine about his hobby was Adam Shell’s (my co-filmmaker) brother Scott – he wasn’t in any of the films because he was too busy taking apart Radio Shack computers in his room. Now he’s programming cell phones for Microsoft.
In retrospect, I think I could have been more sensitive to people’s feelings – I was a bit of a control monster. But back then the films were everything to me. I lost sight of the fact that the kids in the films had feelings too. That’s why it’s ironic that Adam and I collaborated on making this documentary. He was the one who got picked on the most. And here we are close to 20 years later working through it as adults in a documentary.
How’s your relationship with all the “actors” now, several years after the documentary was first released? Are you all still in contact?
We’re all still friends today. It’s rare to find people that are still in touch with their childhood friends. We may have had our share of antagonism as kids, but it was nothing we couldn’t overcome. Our friendships have persevered, and I think part of it has to do with the bonding that went on over the films. As adults, we would always talk about them and show them to friends at parties – it was like this frame of reference – a time capsule. A lot of people tell me the film stirs up their own childhood memories, and that’s a great thing because our lives as adults become so all-encompassing that we rarely take time to think about our past – of the magical parts of it.
Did you feel at the time that you were doing something that had significance beyond the obvious play aspect with these films?
I was just doing what I loved. It wasn’t until I watched the films as an adult that I realized I had a pretty major body of work between the ages of 8 and 17! If only I could match that output now! I set the bar pretty high for myself. I feel like I have a lot to live up to.
I’ve heard comparisons of your documentary to Tarnation. Any comments on this?
I love Tarnation. But that film is a completely different animal. It’s about a boy healing his relationship with his mother. Jonathon Caouette is working out their relationship through that film – he’s linking himself with his family, but at the same time he’s breaking free of the mental illness that he always felt plagued by and establishing himself as an artist in his own right – by filming his family, he’s freeing himself in a way.
PTCOM isn’t about my relationship with my family. It’s about how I discovered my identity through making films. It’s about what kids will do if they are left to their own devices and how subversive expression can manifest itself in the most idyllic of environments with the most supportive of families. It’s about the complexity of children, the development of imagination and the lengths we’ll go to exert some kind of control over our lives and confusion over our identities. Hopefully it’s a film you can watch again and again. It’s happy inducing. It’s a portal to a simpler time where things were anything but simple. I really just want people to enjoy it.