Decoding Camp Videos: A Short (But Necessary) Course for Parents

March 27, 1994|By JAMES BOCK

Not being a true student of the cinema, I only recently became aware of a new genre in American film.

As art, it occupies a niche somewhere between industrial training films and made-for-cable infomercials.

But, raw and unpolished as it is, this new wave of film offers a unique perspective on American society.

I refer, of course, to the summer camp video.

These are not the away-from-home movies your minicam-hefting youngster takes of summer friends on camp visiting day.

These are the sales videos that parents often receive when shopping for a camp at which to deposit Juan or Jamillah (diversity is key at camp these days) for a couple of weeks of peace. Having viewed a small library of summer camp videos this winter, I feel qualified to report on what Americans may expect from them.

Every genuine summer camp must have a hokey, Native American-sounding name, usually emblazoned on a rustic sign made in camp woodworking class.

That name -- Camp Kost Ya Plen Tee or Camp Em Tee Chek Buk TC -- should appear at the outset of any competent camp video.

Camp videos attempt to bridge a deep chasm between two cultures that have little in common: kid culture and adult culture. Camp must look adventurous and free enough for kids, but safe and regimented enough for parents.

Even the theme music serves two masters. The result is elevator music for 11-year-olds -- a dollop of spice for the kids in a sea of blandness for the adults. There's never a trace of rap or heavy metal -- far too scary for parents.

Then there is the opening visual. Summer camp videos offer two basic choices: the aerial shot -- green forest, blue lake, sun-dappled waters -- or the water-skiing shot -- green forest, blue lake, sun-dappled waters, big wake -- with voice-over: "Welcome to Camp Em Tee Chek Buk!"

My favorite opener is the combination aerial/water-skiing shot. (No, this doesn't involve parasailing; any hint of danger is strictly prohibited.) The combo shows green forest, blue lake and ant-sized water-skier slicing across sun-dappled waters.

Next, a little history. Camp Kost Ya Plen Tee for Boys and Camp Em Tee Chek Buk for Girls have been run on opposite sides of the same crystal-clear lake in the same stretch of pristine (insert favorite mountain range) wilderness since Year One by the same slightly pot-bellied family, all of whom had clean criminal records at press time.

Three minutes into any summer camp video, its purpose is clear: to calm your family's raging fears and conquer them.

There is your child's disabling fear of being stuck in a cabin full of dweebs run by a sadistic counselor hundreds of miles from your family's refrigerator.

More important, there's your own totally paralyzing fear of putting the kid in the hands of someone who is even more short-tempered, irresponsible and insensitive than you are.

That is why the counselors in camp videos are inevitably mature, carefully screened and appropriate role models who love kids. What ever happened to those old-time counselors who despised the little runts and spent all summer ogling counselors of the opposite sex?

That's also why safety paraphernalia not normally found anywhere near red-blooded American kids, such as life vests and riding helmets, are ubiquitous in camp videos. (Some videos dare to show archery or riflery, but this is not recommended.)

You can't make a camp video without displaying the accommodations, but accomplished filmmakers don't dwell on this unsavory fact of summer life. Let's face it, most camp cabins -- with their teeming masses stacked in bunk beds -- look too much like U.N. refugee camps.

"Each cabin is comfortably furnished with lavatories, bunk beds and two sinks!" crows the narrator of one video, as the camera zooms in for a close-up of two totally unremarkable, white sinks. "Showers are located conveniently nearby!" (In the same county, presumably.)

Some videos strain credibility by showing the young charges dutifully sweeping out their cabins with nary a whimper of complaint -- just like home, right?

Other touchy issues are covered by stock phrases that capture the yin and yang of summer camp: The program is "structured yet flexible." The facilities are "rustic but totally modernized." And the location is "secluded yet accessible."

Like Hollywood films of old that never showed a bedroom kiss, summer camp videos also have proscribed material that prospective campers or their parents must never see. These include mosquitoes, raindrops, mud, tears or close-ups of camp food.

Note to African-American parents: If your child attends a predominantly white camp, expect to see him or her make repeat performances in next year's video. Diversity sells. The fewer black kids at camp, the more appearances your child will make.

Some videos insist on dealing with the painful subject of homesickness. They collect testimonials from kids who were miserable but got over it or counselors who are great at making campers forget just how much they hate being there.

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