Bunks on film.

Notes from the wilderness.
July 20 2006 7:33 PM

Bunks on Film

The heady adolescence of summer-camp cinema.

Slate's "Summer Camp" anthology is available as an e-book for your Kindle. Download it now.

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Since 1979, camp movies have told the same story again and again, summer after summer: A motley group of teens are thrust into a parentless anarchy of panty raids and color wars. They have sex, they torment each other, and then, a few weeks later, it all comes to an end. They've either grown up, or they've had their heads chopped off. But there are only so many ways to make the same point about adolescence. Once the films of the golden age had explored this theme as comedy, drama, and horror, there was nowhere left to go; the movies that came later could only follow the blazes.

That's why the only good summer-camp movies to come out in the last few years have been the ones that mock the conventions of the genre—the films that are to camp movies what Scream was to horror flicks. Wet Hot American Summer pushes the clichés of summer-camp cinema into absurdity. Set at a Jewish camp in 1981, the movie chronicles a day in the life of some tube-socked counselors who defiantly refuse to grow up. A love story falls apart when the hapless lead confronts his dream girl in their final moment together: "I like you more than I like Andy," she tells him. "But I'm 16. And maybe it'll be a different story, like, when I'm ready to get married, but right now, I am entirely about sex. I just want Andy. I wanna take him and grab him and just fuck his brains out, you know?"

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The straight-to-video Happy Campers strikes a similar note. The script (by Daniel Waters, who penned the classic tale of teen clique-icide, Heathers) gives its characters a supreme self-consciousness about the genre. "Who needs a serial psycho with a chainsaw when we have ourselves?" asks one of the counselors at Camp Bleeding Dove. And in the closing minutes, a voice-over reflection lashes out at the central premise of summer-camp cinema: "No one really changes at summer camp. They become who they are more than ever."

The same could be said of summer-camp movies: They got old but they never changed.

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