Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Indian Summer (1993)

There isn't much the 1993 film "Indian Summer" is remembered for. One of the stars, Kevin Pollak, used to mention the film in his comedy act, saying "Thank you for seeing it" to uncomfortable laughs from the audience, who did not see it. Pollak, who is a world-class impressionist, only has one story from the film: He used to call costar Alan Arkin's voicemail and leave messages in Arkin's voice, reminding him to buy food for the dog, which must have been bewildering for the older actor, who would not remember ever having made such a call. There is a thin line between comedy and gaslighting.

I don't know that I get to include "Indian Summer" in my list of Jewish summer camp movies. With something like "Meatballs," even though the camp in the film wasn't explicitly Jewish, it was made by filmmakers who attended Jewish camps, and so it's possible to argue that the film's camps are secretly Jewish. Not so with "Indian Summer" -- it's based on a real camp in Ontario, Camp Tamakwa, and Camp Tamakwa is not a Jewish camp. As far as I can tell, Tamakwa is instead the Platonic idea for summer camps, the real-world equivalent to the Khaki Scouts camp in "Moonrise Kingdom." It has the rustic cabins on a scenic lake, the faux-Indian mythology, the rugged American and Canadian back-to-natureness of the whole thing. There are no mezuzahs on the cabins, no guitar players working their way through "Ani V'Ata," no youth rabbis coming out on shabbos to lead services.

And yet there is a pervasive Jewishness to the whole thing, reflected in the film. The place was founded by a naturalist named Lou Handler, a Jewish former prizefighter from Detroit, and a Canadian outdoorsman named Omer Stringer. Although the camp is nondenominational, it has long drawn a significant number of its campers from the Jewish community -- even to this day, the camp's website says that "Most of the campers and staff are Jewish," and there are nondenominational services for the sabbath, but they are Friday night, when Jews have their shabbos services.

And, I must say, I find something Jewish in the sheer muchness of the camp, if you will. There is something exceptionally second-generation to it, to its dedication to an idealized vision of summer camp. This was a generation that often worked overtime to show they were as American as the next guy, and the results were that they were often more American than the next guy. So it wouldn't be enough just to go to camp. American Jews had to go to Camp, capital C, the most camplike camp ever.

"Indian Summer" was made by Mike Binder, who has had an unshowy but respectable career in Hollywood, and was a longtime veteran of Camp Tamakwa. As a result, of all the films I have written about so far, "Indian Summer" is the one that most carefully details the experience of campers, who are usually just sort of left in the background of these sorts of movies as the counselors and counselors-in-training get into R-rated hijinks. The film is essentially an essay of the folk traditions of Camp Tamakwa, from their private language to the various physical activities the counselors put the campers through.

There are, I should note, no actual campers in the film. Instead, the story is about former campers, invited back for a week by the film's Lou Handler, who is even called Lou Handler in the film, and is played with typically delightful and subdued eccentricity by Alan Arkin. Like at the real camp, the returning campers are a mix of Jews and non-Jews, although it can be hard to suss out who is who. The film's female cast is largely non-Jewish, but for the terrific Julie Warner, but they are the sorts of actresses who have played Jews, and who you're tempted to go to IMDb to see if they might not be Jewish after all: Diane Lane, Elizabeth Perkins, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley.

The men are less ambiguously Jewish, including Pollack, Meatballs-veteran Matt Craven, and even Italian-American Vincent Spano playing a character named Berman. The strangest casting choice is film director Sam Raimi as a klutzy camp gofer, although it did lead to me discovering that Raimi is Jewish and attended Tamakwa. (This may explain why his Spider-Man movies felt the most Jewish of all, despite starring Irish-American Tobey Maguire, and despite the fact that the next Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, actually is Jewish.) Also on hand is Bill Paxton in the middle of trading in the unimpeachable weirdness of his early roles for the aw-shucks Texas leading man of his middle career, and nobody would mistake him for a Jew.

I don't really know what to say about the plot of the film itself, which is sort of like "Love Boat" at a summer camp, in that each of the characters has some sort of romantic entanglement. I don't think the film passes the Bechdel test, in that I don't think there is a scene where the film's women aren't talking about men, but, weirdly, the film's women are much more interesting than the men. With the exception of Pollak, who is a prankster, the remainder of the male cast are mostly amiable nobodies, while the women are generally sharp-witted and believably wounded. I don't know if there is an equivalent of the Bechdel test for a movie where the women are more interesting than the men, but this passes.

If I don't have much to say about the film's plot, I do find myself obsessed with the costume design. Writer/director Mike Binder takes great paints to render the awesome physical beautiful of  Algonquin Provincial Park, the location of the camp, as well as the rustic tweeness of the camp, and somehow found wardrobe that perfectly represent this. Arkin in particular is frequently seen in a striped duffle jacket that just seems like the coziest thing ever. The whole place doesn't so much look like a camp as a set designer's version of a summer camp, with characters dressed in a costume designer's version of summer camp wear. Apparently the wardrobe choices are accurate, so much so that former campers assumed Arkin was wearing Lou Handler's old clothes.

There is a thin line between Jewish camping and glamping, I guess.