Sept. 11, 2014
Remember Animal House? The insane debauchery of John Belushi and his Delta brethren? That was some crazy, hilarious, make-a-Roman-emperor-blush behavior. I love that movie. Everyone does.
Except you don’t remember Animal House. Not really. No other book, film, or TV show has done more to shape American higher education. But it’s not what you think it is. The difference between the Animal House of your imagination and the actual movie is a matter of cultural influence so profound and malign that it has become all but invisible. It’s the story of how we all became Deltas now, and why we should start trying to become something else.
If Friday Night Lights is a parable of internal migration, Animal House is the tale of the immigrant’s first year in the New World. It starts with newly-arrived freshmen walking across the campus landscape. There are two, because movies need dialogue, and that way they can make observations to one another about what they see and feel. We follow them on a journey of discovery, meeting strange people and seeing incredible things as they join the legendary Delta House and do battle with rival Omega House and the university administration. We also experience their moral development as they’re faced with choices that define who they are.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because (A) this is textbook Hollywood screenplay structure, and (B) Animal House established the mold for almost every other college movie made in the last four decades. You haven’t just seen the original a bunch of times on cable; you’ve seen the many variations on the theme: social outcasts (Revenge of the Nerds), delayed adulthood (Van Wilder), restored childhood (Old School), middle-aged guy (Back to School), children’s cartoon characters (Monsters University), a capella singers (Pitch Perfect), stoners at Harvard (How High), smart bimbo at Harvard (Legally Blonde), fake black guy at Harvard (Soul Man), and so on. 22 Jump Street was released three months ago and has already made $300 million. Thirty-six years after it opened, Animal House is going strong.
What does Animal House teach us about college? First, that academics are peripheral to the core experience of socialization. (Arum and Roksa’s Aspiring Adults Adrift has a good summary of the sociology literature here). Faber College’s motto, “Knowledge is Good,” is a joke. There is exactly one member of the faculty in the film: Donald Sutherland’s hapless, pot-smoking English lit professor. He’s only there because the producers needed a big-name movie star to get the film made. We meet him standing in the well of a lecture hall in a scene that appears roughly 20 minutes into every college movie. He says a few things about Milton that resonate with the movie’s larger themes (Animal House is smarter than nearly all of its successors) before the bell rings and the students leave, ignoring his warnings about incomplete assignments. “I’m not joking!" he says, pleading. “This is my job!”
Sincere, unimportant, slightly absurd--this is every movie professor since. Patton Oswalt reprises the role, beat for beat, in 22 Jump Street. Same lecture hall, same establishing sequence, with the camera switching from the student’s-eye view down onto the professor and his view up toward the students, sitting impassively behind desks. And the same kind of futility in conclusion: “I have tenure, ha ha! I can do whatever I want!” In Back to School, Sam Kinison is the variant of professor as deranged weirdo. They exist only to amuse.
College administrators play a more important role. They are always villains. The Animal House score was written by the composer Elmer Bernstein, who made a career with movies including The Ten Commandments and The Magnificent Seven. Director John Landis told Bernstein to score Animal House in the same dramatic style. So when an exterior shot of Dean Wormer’s office in the administration building first appears at the 12 minute mark, the musical cue drops from light to ominous and low: duh duh DUH….
John Vernon is fantastic in this role. The evil dean (never the president, always the dean) invariably gets some of the best lines. See Jeremy Piven’s Dean Pritchard in Old School (“absolutely not, it’s been good seeing you guys”), or Lisa Kudrow’s Dean Gladstone in Neighbors (“The way I do my job is, I’m always thinking about the headlines, right? So, ‘Duke Lacrosse Team Rapes Stripper’? Bad headline.”). Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble is a terrifying monster. Ted McGinley is the only man to play both of the iconic college movie hate figures, staring as the rival fraternity president in Revenge of the Nerds and returning as the evil dean in Revenge of the Nerds 3. And, of course, “That foot is me.”
The dean is the villain because Animal House, set in 1962 but released in a very different 1978, is structured around conflict with traditional authority, both institutional (college, local government) and class-based (Omega House is full of fascist WASPs). Delta’s position is best summarized by Otter, their smooth-talking leader, at a campus disciplinary trial:
Classic. Especially when he says, “The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests. We did. (Wink.) But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals!”
Hold on. What?
“A few liberties with our female guests?” What’s that supposed to mean, exactly? Sick and perverted how? Because honestly, that sounds messed up and possibly criminal. Tell me why these are the good guys again?
This is the problem with Animal House.
In his book, Fat, Drunk, & Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House, the movie’s producer, Matty Simmons, explains that he ordered all of the truly offensive elements of Delta House excised from the script. He understood that in order for the movie to become a big, profitable hit (it made almost $500 million in 2014 dollars, on a tiny budget), the audience needed to see the Deltas as unambiguous heroes.
Take the infamous “toga party,” which Neidermeyer (dead!) describes at the trial as featuring “individual acts of perversion so profound and disgusting that decorum prohibits us listing them here.” The actual toga party is nothing like that. Here’s how it goes: As guests arrive, a keg flies out the window. Some girls are welcomed in by Otter, who then drops their coats on the ground. Flounder and his date arrive, dodging a thrown drink. John Belushi comes down the stairs and destroys a folk singer’s guitar. Everyone goes to the basement and dances to a joyful rendition of “Shout” by Otis Day and the Knights. Mrs. Wormer shows up drunk and is seduced by Otter in his super-tricked-out senior crash pad, which would be copied by Zac Ephron’s frat president in Neighbors ($266 million gross on an $18 million budget since it was released in May.) Pinto’s date passes out and, after a brief bout of conscience, he decides to do the right thing and leave her be.
That’s it. Nobody hurts themselves or anyone else, except for Bluto and the guitar, which I think we can all agree was an act of civic heroism. It’s all good fun, albeit not clean, because a big part of Animal House’s sleight-of-hand is substituting physical degradation for moral turpitude. Delta House is filthy. Coats are dropped, drinks thrown, beer sprayed, and the fake sound of breaking glass is a recurring aural theme. When Belushi stuffs his face with food in the cafeteria and Babs says “That boy is a P-I-G pig!” she can only mean it literally. When he gets drunk, he pours mustard on himself, nothing worse. Beneath the layer of stale beer, the Deltas are all good boys.
Animal House instructed two generations of students that college was all about getting drunk and committing disgusting acts of perversion. But because it doesn’t actually show anything of the sort (with one exception), the viewer isn’t forced to acknowledge the actual human and moral consequences of those choices. We’re allowed to be completely on the Delta side, with no reservations or strings attached.
This creates a weird separation from reality. Remember when Belushi, clad in his iconic “College” sweatshirt, downs a whole bottle of Jack Daniels in front of Delta House and says, refreshed, “Thanks--I needed that” before tossing the bottle aside? (Cue sound of broken glass.) Every year, scores of college kids do the same thing and end up dead of alcohol poisoning, drunk driving and misadventure. Belushi himself was in the grave within four years. Drunk Mrs. Wormer crashes her car in the Delta parking lot and emerges without a scratch, flask in hand. Other people aren’t so lucky.
In the real world, “taking a few liberties with our female party guests” means an 18-year-old freshman, three weeks into college, drunk and incapacitated after a party at the Kappa Sigma house, “bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching and laughing.” This happens over and over again to thousands upon thousands of college women every year.
Why do men treat women this way, as less than fully human? In part, because movies like Animal House tell them to. The film is supposed to be about standing up to authority. The Deltas are rebels and free spirits, and Belushi is always described as “anarchic.” But how do they fight authority, exactly? Not by doing anything that actually changes the balance of power. Mainly, they stick it to the Man by having sex with his women.
This happens no less than three times in Animal House. First, off-screen, when Otter sleeps with Babs, girlfriend of the Omega House president. Again, when Otter has sex with Mrs. Wormer. And again, when Pinto deflowers the mayor’s 13-year old daughter. Because it's all consensual, we're supposed to think it's okay.
The strategy of using women as vessels for petty revenge is repeated over and over in Animal House’s many successors. In Revenge of the Nerds, Robert Carradine’s head nerd tricks the Babs-equivalent character into having sex with him by pretending to be her boyfriend. Naturally, they fall in love and eventually marry. In Old School, Luke Wilson’s blonde young one-night stand turns out to be his evil boss’s daughter, a high school senior. In Neighbors, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne use Dave Franco as their proxy, setting him up to sleep with Zac Ephron’s girlfriend as part of their escalating residential war. Exactly no one is surprised to learn that Jonah Hill’s improbably beautiful dorm room hook-up in 22 Jump Street is the daughter of Ice Cube, his authoritarian boss. This is so awesome -- not for her, but who cares -- that Hill’s partner, Channing Tatum, runs around the police station for five minutes, cackling with glee.
These conquests accomplish nothing real. They happen because Animal House was the first movie born out of National Lampoon, which was staffed by writers from the Harvard Lampoon circa 1975. Sleeping with your rival’s daughter or girlfriend is the petty anti-authoritarianism of white male privilege. It’s what you do when the stakes are low because, regardless of who wins and who loses, everyone ends up in charge. Animal House concludes with Belushi grabbing Babs against her will, forcing her into a stolen car, and driving away. Ten minutes later, we see her contentedly in his embrace, under the where-are-they-now caption, “Senator and Mrs. John Blutarsky.” Of course.
And let’s not forget Belushi’s famous NSFW peeping tom scene, where he climbs a ladder to stare into a sorority house at night. After leering at a purely fantastical R-rated pillow fight, he moves over to watch Babs undress through her bedroom window. She relaxed and softly lit, dressed all in white. Because we know she slept with Otter, we’re allowed to enjoy her as both Madonna and whore. Then, at the height of it, Belushi turns around and breaks the fourth wall, looking right into the viewer’s eyes, eyebrow raised. It’s all good, he’s telling us, c’mon, join the fun. Women don’t mind. She’ll belong to me someday.
Revenge of the Nerds ups the ante with an elaborate closed-circuit nude video surveillance system. Today, the sorority house window is an iPhone pane, the movie screen is a device of your choosing, and Belushi has been replaced by a bunch of dudes on Reddit and 4chan. But nothing is really different. Stolen pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and dozens of other celebrities, all women, are leaked online, and the entire Internet stops to stare.
The comedic appeal of Animal House is so total that large parts of the movie operate in a kind of night-is-day inversion. Otter’s next line in the disciplinary trial is, “For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system?” Well, yes, we should in fact blame the whole fraternity system. Systematized cheating on exams and serial non-attendance are perfectly valid grounds for kicking people out school. Fat, drunk, and stupid really is no way to go through life.
Animal House and its brethren have taught millions of students how to think about college: Professors are fools, women are objects, and administrators are evil incarnate. Drink as much as you want and nothing bad will happen. In fact, you’ll be the hero. After 36 years of this and counting, college movies should find something better to say.