Film Reviews

Swish Cheese

If you spent a lot of time during the early Eighties watching what were known in those days as "T&A" comedies--low-budget youth sex farces like Hardbodies or Private School--then the new film Butch Camp may amaze you. It's made perfectly and unselfconsciously in the same cruddy nonstyle. It's technically shoddy, and its jokes are not only dirty but dumb and broad and childishly coarse. It's full of stock characters--horny bimbos, apish bullies, and stuffy authority figures with names like "Mr. Whittlebottom." In short, the film looks exactly like something that would turn up, heavily edited, on USA Up All Night. There's just one distinction: Butch Camp is a gay comedy.

And for that audience, at least, it appears to work: It was well-received this year at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Film Festival. Sloppy as it is, I rather enjoyed it myself--it has a good-natured party atmosphere. It's not a good movie, or even, always, a funny one, yet its guile-free messiness keeps it likable. It even has a moment or two of cornball sexiness.

Essentially, it's a feature-length spin on the crowd-pleasing scene in The birdcage where Robin Williams tries to teach Nathan Lane how to act like a "real man." Matt Grabowski (Paul Denniston), a single, lonely young gay man living in Chicago, is put-upon and taken advantage of by almost everyone in his life, from his roomie to his boss to his co-workers to a gay-basher. He can't find a new boyfriend, as no one can tolerate his political correctness, or his intellectual nattering on about, say, the history of lipstick or the etymology of barroom crudities.

In despair, Matt enrolls in "Butch Camp," a training camp run by dominatrix Samantha Rottweiler (Judy Tenuta) to teach gay men to stick up for themselves, fight back, not get walked on, and to act manly, which this movie seems to equate with a capacity for using elaborate slang terms for female genitalia.

Gracelessness aside, the major problem with Butch Camp is that it's hard to fully buy its premise. In my experience, gay people are not, as a group, less assertive than other people, or more tiresomely intellectual. And very few gay people I've known have bothered much with political correctness, or squeamishness about obscene language--indeed, they'd have a hard time enjoying Butch Camp if they did.

The writer/director is Alessandro de Gaetano, a Chicago-based filmmaker who specializes in TV commercials, though he made a 1974 obscurity called UFO Target Earth, which he claims was the first film to use computer-enhanced special effects. He probably came up with Butch Camp's premise just to provide a persona-appropriate role for Tenuta, the popular standup comedienne who is the "name" star of Butch Camp. Despite her billing, her scenes are short and self-contained, and the real star of the picture is Denniston.

This isn't a bad thing, as it turns out. Denniston, who resembles a cross between Michael J. Fox and David Hyde Pierce, is a good actor with a sympathetic way. As the film progresses, less and less attention is paid to the Butch Camp business, and more to Matt's adventures as he becomes involved with both halves of a straight couple (Jordan Roberts and Jason Terisi). Things don't get much more sophisticated--having the straight guy ask for a drink, saying, "I could use a stiff one," is the film's idea of subtlety--but, removed from the Butch Camp setting, the comely actors can make their characters more compelling.

If Tenuta's role and the Butch Camp concept were necessary to get the movie made, why couldn't de Gaetano have made her, say, the drill sergeant of some sort of anti-gay-bashing strike force? That could have allowed Butch Camp to be both funny and legitimately angry. Combating gay-bashing has some relevance to real life in the gay community. On the whole, teaching gay men what to call female genitalia does not.

Butch Camp
Directed by ALessandro de Gaetano.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead