Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Gorp (1980)

When a film is not very good, I sometimes like to go back and see what people said about it at the time. Take "Gorp" as an example: This 1980 American International Pictures' release, the last they ever made, was not well-liked. Joe Leydon of the Dallas Morning News wrote that the film's gags "belong in a garbage can." He continued: "No one in his right mind could accuse Gorp of being a good movie," although he allowed the film had an "oddball charm."

I am not going to accuse "Gorp" of being a good movie, but I am going to focus on its oddball charm. But first let me get a few criticisms out of the way. Although Dennis Quaid and Rosanna Arquette are frequently listed as the film's stars, they are minor characters. The film made the poor choice to cast as its leads Michael Lembeck, most famous as the son of AIP stalwart Harvey Lembeck, and Philip Casnoff, who since has had a reputable career on Broadway and television. Both have a sort of rough charm about them, but it does not compensate for the fact that, as written, their characters are utter heels.

Set in a Jewish summer camp, the film is remarkably chaotic, but returns again and again to Lembeck and Casnoff, two staffers hired to work in the camp's kitchen. The two are sex-obsessed, and their amorous moves rarely rise above harassment, and sometimes fall below it to outright assault, including scenes in which they roofie the camp nurse and expose themselves to a sleeping assistant counselor. Even in the 1980s in a sex comedy, this behavior was decidedly creepy; by modern standards it is criminal.

Fortunately, they are surrounded by cast mates who fare far better. Quaid and Arquette are fine, and Quaid gets the showier role as a military obsessed maniac, which he limns without a shred of self-consciousness. Arquette is barely in the film as an assistant counselor dating a Puerto Rican staffer, but it's nice to see her in a film where her character is Jewish, as Arquette actually has a Jewish mother. Also on hand is David Huddleston, who is most famous for playing the big Lebowski in in "The Big Lebowski." Here he plays an opportunistic camp director, and his performance isn't that far removed from his role in the Coen Brothers film, and he is an actor who knows how to make bluster amusing.

This is also one of the earliest film roles for Fran Drescher, and she's typically delightful. She's sort of a corrective to the two main characters, in that she's also sexually aggressive, but only on her own terms, and when the two male leads get out of line she is the first to scream at them and drive them away. However, she's not in the film enough to really offer any correction, and ends up being shoved into a locker, and you sort of get the sense the filmmakers think she deserves that fate.

The film frequently wallows in crudeness, and I suppose if you have a taste for that sort of comedy, you won't mind it. I'm not fond of it, but there is an additional, absurd anarchy that fills the frame that seems inspired less by, say, "Meatballs" than by "Mad Magazine." Examples: Once character, called Dracula Kesselman, actually looks like Dracula, and briefly reveals himself to have fangs; another character seems to have moved into one of the bathroom stalls and, over the course of the film, increasingly decorates it like it is a small apartment. A lot of the smaller roles are filled by actors that look less like real people than like Jack Davis caricatures, and they are forever in the background of scenes, just sort of doing crazy things.

The filmmakers obviously consider the camp's Jewishness to be part of this absurdity. A lot of time is devoted to the camp rabbi, played by character actor Robert Trebor, who is less a youth rabbi than a too-young rabbi, and the film repeatedly stops to show him reciting prayers in a sonorous voice. Otherwise he is mostly ignored, even by the camp director, who fights with him over whether the camp should serve pork.

However, the filmmakers apparently didn't think the experience of camp was especially worth exploring. The day-to-day experience of the camper is as short-shrifted here as it is in "Meatballs," and we barely spend time with the film's assistant counselors, except during occasional raids on their cabin. Instead, almost the entire film is spent with the kitchen staff, mostly in their remote cabin where they plot to wage war on each other or in the horrifically unhygienic kitchen. They only interact with the campers during mealtime (and generally the campers abuse them) and otherwise are left on their own.

So this is one of the most explicitly Jewish summer camp films in this series, and yet barely spends any time with anything we associate with summer camps. I'd puzzle about this, but, with "Gorp," once you start puzzling about artistic decisions, man, there is no end.