Clint Eastwood has resided in my town for quite a while, and when he wasn’t busy trying to philander with anyone who looked semi-decent in a short skirt, he would occasionally bring forward an astute observation. As Dirty Harry once said, “Once you finish a film, it doesn't belong to you anymore—it belongs to the audience to interpret it the way they feel like interpreting.”
As a writer myself, I often wonder how future generations will interpret my work, assuming my writings won’t be incinerated by a cadre of anachronist demonstrators a century or so from now. Part of the fun of being an author is flirting with subtle and ambiguous themes—to implant within your reader a sense of mystery, perhaps even a feeling of angst over what your work’s deeper meaning truly is. Thus, I’m well aware that as surely as may be the case with my texts, my analysis of any other creative products may orbit far beyond the bounds of what its creator intended it to connote. However, it’s human nature for us to attempt to elucidate and understand the world around us—to unravel life’s enigmas. Thus, I don’t view such a dissection as being problematic. Plus, this is America. I can do whatever the hell I want.
The question now becomes, why Heavyweights? How can one gain profound insight from a slapstick, children’s movie about husky kids attending a fat camp? Well, full disclosure—the idea wasn’t initially mine. I began my contemplations after receiving a random text message from a high school friend, talking about how this intrinsic message of this film relates to some of the philosophical quandaries present within our modern world. I did not quite understand this until he followed up with several sentences making his case. Upon considering his contention, I fired up my sister’s Disney +, which I’ve been sponging off of for the last year, and watched it. I took some time to reflect when I had finished, finally deciding that it would be cathartic to etch my thoughts on paper. The following is an explanation of this often forgotten, but ever the more relevant, mid-90s masterpiece.
WARNING: This essay will include spoilers.
The film begins by introducing us to Gerald ‘Gerry’ Garner, an awkward, overweight eleven-year-old boy. After returning home on the last day of school, Gerry meets a summer camp representative who plays for him the promotional video for Camp Hope. Gerry is at first excited about the prospect, until he discovers that it’s a “fat camp.” Despite Gerry’s protests, his parents force the boy to attend Camp Hope, shipping him off on a plane to this hefty, overnight retreat. Gerry’s uneasiness is soon quelled when he is introduced to some of the other campers, along with Pat, the jovial, tubby counselor who was not only once a camper, but has worked at Camp Hope his entire adult life.
Although Camp Hope was marketed as “the fun one way to lose weight,” the viewer gets the impression that it’s completely ineffective at achieving its mission statement. For starters, the returning campers are all rather husky, meaning they definitely don’t keep the pounds off. Plus, most of them annually return to this camp, hence defeating its purpose. Moreover, the campers get away with smuggling in obscene amounts of junk food, which they conceal in various hidden spots as if they were pre-internet teenagers stashing pornographic magazines.
This lenient atmosphere is soon put in jeopardy when it’s revealed that the beloved camp owners were forced to sell it to Tony Perkis, who is played by Ben Stiller. Tony Perkis is essentially the precursor to Stiller’s White Goodman character from Dodgeball, as they share a similar back story, voice, and mannerisms as well as a cultish obsession with physical fitness and body image. Both of these movie characters also enjoy look down on others, and share the propensity to belittle and degrade those they view as being beneath them.
Tony comes from a wealthy family, as his father is dubbed the “lighting fixture king” of Western Pennsylvania. It’s assumed from the outset that, despite his affluent upbringing, Tony’s childhood was not a happy one. According to him, by age twelve he was 319 pounds. Moreover, because he was home schooled, he was robbed of the opportunity of interacting with kids his own age. Tony is also ambitious, wishing to make a name for himself within the fitness guru community. He reveals to the campers that he has hired a cameraman to document the kids’ weight loss journey, which he plans to turn into an infomercial.
Tony, along with his new cadre of handpicked fitness counselors, then begin the arduous process of whipping the kids into shape. However, problems soon arise as it become evidently clear that the kids, as well as the pre-Tony era counselors like Pat, are not buying into the “Perkis System.” Tony’s heavy-handed measures, coupled with his clear distain for the children and anyone whom he deems unfit, are off-putting. For instance, he attempts to shame the children into losing weight by scheduling a one-sided softball game against Camp MVP, the neighboring summer getaway which are essentially the movies’ asshole jocks, who annually humiliate the Camp Hope kids by demolishing their heftier peers in the “Apache Relay.” Tony utilizes this method again, but with a more sinister twist, by organizing a dance with a nearby girls’ camp. The goal here is obvious—that the Camp Hope boys will be embarrassed and dejected by the ladies’ refusal to even interreact will them, and thus they’ll take their weight loss program more seriously.
Yet, it only makes the kids resent Tony more; and as they continually refuse to comply, Tony’s methods become more and more draconian. He destroys every fun aspect of the camp, including its go-karts and pool toy, “The Blob.” He forces the kids to attend useless seminars, cancels meals due to “lack of hustle,” and cracks down on anything resembling free-play or joy. His totalitarian methods extend so far as to him secretly confiscating and reading the camper’s outgoing mail. But the children continue to resist, eventually setting up a system whereby junk food is in smuggled into the camp, as if it was an illegal substance.
And the more the kids pushed back, the more intense Tony becomes, formulating a contentious cycle of crackdown, followed by a struggle. But the boiling point erupts midway through camp, where at the weigh-in it’s discovered that not only have the campers not met their weight loss goals, but many have actually gained weight. Tony finally snaps. His dreams of creating the perfect infomercial are being decimated before his very eyes. Tony’s goal of burning away the campers’ fat, getting them in prime shape, and leading them in victory in the Apache Relay, an achievement which undoubtedly would be the perfect ending to his reality TV saga and proof of the validity of the Perkis System, are dashed.
An incensed Tony then orders that all campers not meeting their assigned weight goals are to accompany him on a grueling outdoor expedition, in which the children are forced to hike for miles without sustenance. While Pat and some of the other sympathetic adults try to figure out a way to get Tony removed via the legal process, the campers have finally had enough. They take matters into their own hands, luring Tony into a trap and imprisoning him. Things quickly devolve into anarchy, as the kids celebrate their triumph by engaging in what can only described as a ritualistic feeding frenzy, glutinously gorging themselves with an unholy amount of unhealthy food, all while dancing around a large campfire, as if they were in attendance at a portly-persons-only Burning Man.
The following morning, Pat addresses the campers, their bodies doused with sugar, chocolate and sauce, sick to their stomachs due to their overindulgence. Pat tells the campers that it’s time they take personal responsibility for their own health; that they monitor their own diets and learn how to take care of themselves. With Pat now as the de facto camp director, things begin to change. The kids take an interest in their health, holding themselves and each other accountable. The movie ends in typical dramatic fashion, as the ragtag misfits of Camp Hope are finally able to win the Apache Relay and put those Camp MVP douchebags in their place.
The Hands-off Approach vs. Stringent Enforcement: How Best to Achieve Aims
There’s a famous saying, “There is no such thing as a problem unless there is a solution.” The idea being that it’s easy to point out a dilemma. Issues such as poverty, gun violence and terrorism are readily apparent. Hence, where the difficulty lies is not in making light of the problem, but in deciding what measures are necessary to solve it.
We may believe that we know how to overcome certain obstacles. Yet when plans are implemented, they can very often either not work or have the opposite effect of its intended outcome. For example, the policy of publishing the salaries of American public companies’ CEOs was actually meant to lower their compensation, as it was believed that executives would feel ashamed when their exorbitant incomes were made public. However, this had the opposite effect of dramatically increasing their earnings, since CEOs could now demand higher wages and bonuses based upon what they knew their similarly situated peers earned. Therefore, whenever a strategy is implemented, there is always the danger that in not only fail, but leave the tactician in a worse position than they otherwise would have been.
The issue here concerns how best to ensure the cooperation of a collective in order to achieve a particular aim. Should such measures be imposed from above via strong-arming, guided with a gentle hand, or perhaps some various combinations of the two? In other words, how much control from above is appropriate over any one individual’s life. This is largely philosophical debate, one which attempts to dissect the enigmatic forces surrounding human nature along with the complex interactions between various individuals. For regardless of if it’s a business, sports team or village, understanding group dynamics is essential for the leader of any organization wishing to accomplish an objective.
Responses to the quandary above, of course, will differ depending on whom you ask. For example, someone from an East Asian culture, in which individuality is often held less sacred than for the common good, might approach this question differently than would a hardcore libertarian. The answer may also vary depending on the era or generation one is from, their profession, or a variety of extenuating circumstances outside of their control.
But what does seem to be true across cultures and time periods is that a societal balance must maintained between leniency and rigidity. If the former is too prevalent, the enterprise may collapse due to lack of structure while latter’s downfall will result from an intense backlash against overreach. Either way, imbalance too much in favor of one over the other inevitably leads to the same outcome—anarchy. And this is what occurred here.
The pre-Tony Camp Hope’s lackadaisical nature made it completely inept at accomplishing its single goal—ensuring that the children lost weight. Then came Tony, who essentially served as the overcorrection, instilling order and clamping down on unhealthy habits. Some of what he did was actually reasonable, such as ensuring that no junk food was hidden in the bunks. The problem was that Tony’s curtailments went too far. His oppressive program was designed to completely dominate the campers’ lives. Tony was determined to do whatever it took to force the campers to comply, including utilizing cruelty and public debasement. Not only were his despotic methods not effective, but many of the campers actually got fatter. Hence, Tony’s policies not only failed, but resulted in an inevitable backlash. This led the kids to reject his entire program, even the positive aspects of it. Furthermore, Tony continued to exacerbate the situation, doubling down on his methods until he was finally deposed and replaced by Pat.
What Pat did was to effectively establish balance between these two extremes. While he rejected the coercive themes the Perkis System embodied, Pat did not reimplement the ineffective and heedless practices of the pre-Tony Camp Hope. He settled in the middle—adopting a policy of living a healthy lifestyle without authoritarian oversight; a method which preached personal accountability to oneself rather than to an overlord who believes they can run one’s life better than that individual can themselves.
It’s also ironic that, in the end, the campers did eventually achieve the criteria that Tony had originally laid out for them. True, they did not leave the camp “skinny.” Nevertheless, they became health conscious, got in better shape, and won the Apache Relay. Thus, it wasn’t Tony’s final goals which were the problem, but rather the means by which he sought to obtain these objectives. Whereas Tony employed an overbearing approach, Pat adopted a modest tactic of encouraging compliance while trust the campers were competent enough to take the initiative themselves.
But all this aside, there is something else at play here. Suppose the campers had just given in from the start, accepted their fate and embraced Tony’s program. Would they have lost weight, gained self-respect, and won the Apache Relay? Perhaps. Yet let’s further assume, for argument’s sake, that Tony’s approach was the optimal means by which these children could achieve optimal health and fitness. And let’s suppose further that the kids knew this to be true and wanted to shed the pounds. Would they have bought into the regiment?
I would argue no. Because it was not just the fact that Tony was unnecessarily stringent and overly domineering that the campers rebelled. I surmise that the other reason the campers so thoroughly rebelled against the Perkis System was due to Tony himself, and how he interreacted with the kids. In other words, it was his leadership style which partly led to his ultimate downfall.
Leadership Style: Tony vs. Pat
The late NFL football coach Vince Lombardi is often hailed as the greatest coach the game ever produced. What made him so spectacular is a question often asked of his former players. The responses somewhat vary in structure, but never in substance. One answer I heard it summed it up best. “If he told one of us to run through a brick wall, we would have done it for him.”
As a former high school and college football player myself, I can tell you that this certainly is true. A coach may be tough and strict, but if you respect him, you will follow him into hell and back. But respect is a two-way street. You have to know the person you play for really does, despite how he may sometimes otherwise act, have your best interest at heart. This isn’t only true on the gridiron however, it applies to the real world as well.
The problem with Tony was that the kids never believed he was actually there for them. From the very moment he arrived on the scene, it was clear to them that he had ulterior motives, made evident by the fact that the camp would serve as a platform for a get-rich-quick style informercial. But more than that, was the way he treated the campers. Tony looked down upon the campers, whom he perceived as fat, lazy slobs. He clearly loathed them, likely because he saw them as representations of his morbidly obese younger self, a group manifestation of his continued shame and self-loathing. He was an arrogant opportunist, a man who would ignore any rules or moral norms in order to get his way—an unscrupulous sociopath on a power trip, who took sadistic pleasure in sneering at those he viewed as beneath him, berating them when they refused to unquestionably accept his superiority.
Tony did attempt to make warm overtures to the kids. His self-anointed title of “Uncle Tony” was his attempt to portray himself as a surrogate father figure. He tried to make motivational speeches, where he told the campers, “I believe in each and everyone of you because I was you.”
But Tony’s efforts to relate to the campers were in vain for one simple reason—they didn’t believe he was genuine, they didn’t trust him. And they were right not to let their fall for his platitudes. Tony proved time and time again that he couldn’t be trusted. This is how Tony alienated himself, which eventually culminated in him losing all legitimacy as the camp director.
Now, let’s move to Pat. Pat’s development as a character is probably the most interesting in the film. He starts off being rather innocuous, good natured, but not someone who one would perceive as having innate leadership characteristics. Early on in the film, Tony actually demotes Pat to the humiliating role of camp janitor. It’s only near the movie’s climax, when Tony is deposed by the campers, that Pat begins to take charge. He’s the antithesis of Tony, not just in terms of physical appearance and personality, but in how Pat relates to the kids.
This is because, unlike Tony, the kids trusted Pat. It’s not just the fact that Pat worked at Camp Hope his entire life, although that certainly helped. It was because the campers know that Pat was there for them. He had no secret agenda or desire for self-aggrandizement. Pat’s sole criteria was the well-being of Camp Hope, it’s staff and campers; and the kids knew it. This was why Tony was always doomed to fail. One may be able to fool people for a while, but even the shrewdest charlatan will be exposed, as eventually their true intentions will seep out, like liquid magna slowly trickling out of the Earth’s thick crust. And in this case, it was undeniable who was the authentic and least self-serving of the two men.
I’ll finish by commenting that for even the seemingly lowliest person, all of us desire to be treated with courtesy and respect. Tony is the perfect example of what not to do, even with people who may be your underlings, such as employees if you’re a boss or players if you’re a coach. This doesn’t mean there aren’t times when a leader must put his foot down—merely that respect is a precious commodity; and once you lose it, it’s difficult to regain, even for the most powerful among us.
A famous author once said, “Sometimes wisdom can be found in the strangest places.” Considering this same man is best known for his writings about a giant, anthropomorphic cat who dawns a comically massive hat, I’ll take his word for it. With all the content constantly flooding the information highway, it’s an almost impossible task to discern what really is deserving of deeper analysis. A 1995 movie about chubby kids at a summer camp would not seem to fit this criterion. But I hope this essay at least made a valid argument for its insightfulness. And who knows, perhaps my next deep-dive will involve something I watch on Porn Hub. We can only hope.
© 2020 RMS Thornton