Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Meatballs (1979)

I know that the subject of Jewish camp movies is a little afield from the main theme of this blog. There certainly were summer camps where Yiddish was used, but not so much in the genre of summer camp movies. In fact, there isn't even much Jewish content to most of them, and I must instead go through them with an eye for small but telling details and subtle references, in the way that author Vito Russo teased out gay subtext in classic Hollywood films in his book "Celluloid Closet."

So let's call this a side-mission, if I may use the language of video games. I'm doing it because it is summer, so it's a good time to watch summer camp movies. I'm doing it because I am a product of Jewish summer camps, in my way. I attended a JCC day camp when I was a boy, then a succession of YMCA overnight camps, and then, when I got old enough, returned to Jewish camps as an assistant counselor and eventually songleader. So I am both predisposed to liking summer camp movies and sensitized to Jewish content in them, even when it is well-hidden.

Let's take "Meatballs" as our first example, which is sort of the ur-text of summer camp movies. (Or, I should say, summer camp comedies; there is another genre of summer camp movies that developed at the same time, the summer camp horror film.) "Meatballs" is a minor example of the slobs-versus-snobs style of comedy filmmaking that was then popular, in which rough-but-likable outsiders took on privileged elitists and won. "Meatballs" came directly on the heels of "Animal House" and shared a lot of DNA, including Harold Ramis as a writer and Ivan Reitman, who had produced "Animal House" and directed "Meatballs."

"Meatballs" likewise acted as a showcase for a Saturday Night Live actor -- John Belushi in "Animal House" and Bill Murray in his first starring role here. But there's a reckless meanness to "Animal House" that is absent here, a legacy of the so-called sick humor of National Lampoon Magazine, who produced the earlier film. The heroes of "Animal House" might be slobs, but they are no less privileged than the snobs, and they are especially awful toward women, who are casually used and discarded.

"Meatballs" is a sweeter film, although Bill Murray does have a bullying quality to his flirting that would continue in "Ghostbusters," which was also an Ivan Reitman film. Mostly, "Meatballs" focuses on Murray, as a summer camp's head counselor,  mentoring a shy young camper, played by Chris Makepeace, and, in total, it adds up to a nicely detailed one-act play about the friendship between an adult who is holding on to childhood a little too much and a child who is uncertainly at the cusp of exiting it. It's also the least Jewish thing in the film.

The rest of the movie looks at an assortment of assistant counselors, here called CITs, or councilors-in-training. They are quite young, most just a few years older than Makepeace, but they've reached young adulthood in the way people did in movies in the 70s, with a focus on partying, pranking, and exploring the other gender. In fact, the movie's staff of counselors and campers are relegated so much into the background that they barely appear, visible occasionally behind the main characters or wandering into the frame once in a while, often oddly.

The storylines for these CITs was truncated to make more room for the Murray/Makepeace story, and so they sometimes just seem sketched in, with two of them, a nerdy fellow and a fat fellow, mostly playing "nerd" and "fat." Even still, by the standard of the films of the era, this is a pretty charming group. The women especially are written and lensed less as objects of desire than partners in fun, and they have a lot of sexual agency. There is one scene where two male CITs act as peeping Toms, and in a film like "Porky's" this is used as an excuse for showing a lot of female pulchritude. Here, the boys witness nothing, are pretty quickly caught, and are driven away. Instead it is the women who pick who they want to be with, and often set the terms. The most striking example of this is a female counselor that Murray aggressively hits on, played by actress and playwright Kate Lynch. She rebuffs his more aggressive behavior while still encouraging him, and clearly communicates that she's interested in Murray, but only when he's not being so cartoonishly Bill Murray. By the end of the movie, he's a lot more subdued with her, and a lot more honest about what he wants from her, and she appreciates it.

"Meatballs" is unmistakbly set at a Jewish camp, although it's pretty well camouflaged. The film was created almost exclusively by Canadian Jews, including director Reitman, who was the Czech-born son of Holocaust survivors, as well as writers Len Blum (whose Zionist mother traveled back and forth between Canada and Israel), Daniel Goldberg, and Harold Ramis, who was a Chicago native but had moved to Canada to work on SCTV. The cast is filled with Jewish actors and the characters have Jewish names. And the film was lensed at an actual Jewish camp, Camp White Pine, in Ontario, and was reportedly shot while the camp was in use, so the campers and counselors seen in the background were often actual campers and counselors. The script was originated by Reitman, who was a graduate of Jewish summer camps, and he specifically contacted Blum and Goldberg because of their experiences at summer camps.

The film was intended for a general audience, and so Reitman downplayed both its Jewishness and its Canadian-ness, although co-author Ramis would later be upfront about what he saw as the essentially Jewish content of his collaborations with Reitman, telling interviewers that he was looking to create a Jewish comic character that was the opposite of the hapless schlemiel and was more heroic. You can see these sorts of characters throughout his career as a film writer, clearly coded Jewish, but not defined by neurosis or oppression: Peter Riegert 's character in "Animal House," Rodney Dangerfield in "Caddyshack" and "Back to School," and Ramis's own delightfully weird performance in "Ghostbusters."

"Meatballs" captures a lot of the day-to-day details of summer camping. The camp director, played by the marvelously oblivious Harvey Atkin, even wears a t-shirt that reads "When the hand goes up, the mouth goes shut," an expression that is about as common to camps as poison ivy. There are campfire singalongs and weird post-meal rituals in massive wooden mess halls. There are gangs of parents arriving to visit homesick children on Parent Day and sobbing girls hugging each other on the last day of camp. The film was written by people who attended camp and remembered it, and so much of it feels authentic, even when nothing much is happening, like when the CITs lazily float along on canoes singing some improvised song on ukulele.

But the camp experience has also been edited. Jewish camps featuring a lot of Jewish content, including frequent use of Hebrew phrases (campers are often silenced with the Hebrew words "sheket bevkasha," which is met with a pair of handclaps). All-camp events inevitably include Hebrew singalongs, and camps are often invaded by visiting Israelis, who seem impossibly mature and alien. Depending on the camp, there may be a few or more very Orthodox campers, who wear yarmulkes and sometimes have visible fringes under their shirts. Reitman and his writing staff certainly remembered this, and chose to leave it out. This will mean nothing to the casual observer, but to somebody whose experiences mirrored those of the filmmakers, the film's Jewishness feels elided, as though there were scenes that should have been in the film but were just skipped over.

It's as though there might be a longer take of "Meatballs" somewhere, in which a scene at lunch doesn't begin when the food is eaten, but before, when the camp says grace in Hebrew, and scenes in which campers weren't in the background, but instead carried a pretend passport on an imaginary trip to Israel, where the Israeli councilors feed them falafel and send them away with gifts of Bazooka Joe gum with all the jokes written in Hebrew.

1 comment:

  1. the sexual jokes in the movie clued me in to its jewish origin. no ususal goy jokes about the 14 year old girl cabin as "jailbait" that you hope the CIT counselors better stay away from.