While still in his mid-20s, Darren Stein wrote and directed a pair of terrible comedies, 1997's Sparkler and 1999's Jawbreaker, but the seeds of his emerging career were planted much earlier, back when he recruited his Southern Californian friends and neighbors to appear in his screamingly homoerotic home movies. Stein's early days as a flamboyant, pint-sized Ed Wood leading his younger and more docile peers through crazy amateur genre exercises were the subject of a memorable This American Life segment, and now they form the basis for the aptly titled Put The Camera On Me, a self-indulgent, slapdash, but nevertheless funny and entertaining documentary about what it's like to be young, gay, and not particularly gifted at all.
Stein's nascent but still wildly apparent sexuality manifests itself most strongly in the non-prize-winning short "Gay As A Whistle," a sociologically fascinating opus in which a pudgy, effeminate African-American boy in a lipstick-themed leotard and Ghostbusters T-shirt minces about with a coin that turns everyone who sees it gay. As a young filmmaker, Stein—who co-directed Camera—jumped from genre to genre and subject to subject, often making videos based on topics he knew little about, from the Holocaust to the aftermath of nuclear war. Stein's fumbling attempts at narrative filmmaking hold up a sort of funhouse mirror to his youthful anxieties and aspirations. In a similar vein, they reflect the tricky social dynamic between Stein's loyal repertory troop, many of whom are interviewed here and remain friends, and Stein, who nursed a bit of a sadistic streak that found its way into his videos nearly as much as his homosexuality. Stein's videos—which are included in their entirety on the Camera DVD as a special feature—boast a so-bad-they're-good camp appeal, but they're even more fascinating for what they say about their creator, his collaborators, and the culture that shaped them. Like a lot of young people, Stein created what could charitably be described as art in part to help him figure out and give order to a complicated and ambiguous world, a theme that gives the film a universal resonance that transcends any innate narcissism.