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Animal House turns forty this year and it was the paradigm of an entirely new genre: the college movie. The movie is tasteless, but that’s part of its message. The first of a new iteration has the most fascinating layers to it because what they’re doing has never been done in that way. Tastelessness is ground-breaking, although us young ones watching it now can’t quite say why. Seems vanilla compared to the now-oversaturated college movie genre. Animal House is heralded by dorm posters with John Belushi in a sweatshirt with the word “COLLEGE” emblazoned across the front, but I’m not sure of many of those poster owners have even seen it. Yet, I think the key to this entire movie isn’t really Belushi, but in a single scene with an “actor” who, until recently, most of us might not have known about. I say “actor” because Douglas Kenney was also one of the writers (along with Chris Miller and Harold Ramis) of Animal House. Furthermore, the masthead of the movie, National Lampoon – a humour magazine itself beginning at Harvard University – had received its comedic trajectory (which the film gladly accepts) from Douglas Kenney. Look at the film A Pointless and Futile Gesture for more information on this. It’s fascinating:
Tastelessness as the New Taste
Kenney’s Lampoon work was a gestation chamber for much of the future direction of American comedy; most of his staff were the first writers on Saturday Night Live. Those associated with National Lampoon’s albums and stage shows include Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest. A sizable portion of many 80s comedies came out of this publication. (Even John “Sixteen Candles” Hughes was a writer for the magazine.)
Animal House is tasteless, but that is exactly its message. Not an indictment of a conservative agenda though, all spectrums of the America’s fabulist binary are gutted. The key component of the film is a calling-out of the nude Emperor, the country with no clothes on if you will. In the film, Donald Sutherland – playing a cool, pot-smoking English professor – notes that the most memorable character of Milton’s Paradise Lost is Satan. Why?
Yes, there’s something intriguing about being bad. Milton’s Satan has also been cited as a noble figure who resists tyranny and is eventually subdued by an equally tyrannical higher power. Nietzsche might even cite Satan’ hubris as a supreme act of human will.
Play Along, Loser
The scenery posits the recalcitrant structure of ‘60s America as always closing in around the characters: everything is seamless as long as people play along. But refuse? You end up being crushed if you are to be so bold. Now, what does “play along” mean? In this case, it means participating in a state fantasy: accepting the cordoning of the young into obedient little groups, accepting the unbiased word of authority, ducking one’s head and fitting into the charade of public promenades like cultural institutions and accepting the threshold of college as, somehow, the harbinger to adulthood.
Animal House is about the plight of Delta House: a fraternity of rejects, individuals on the margin of college status quo. The dean of the university, in league with a powerful fraternity on campus, works to get the members of Delta expelled through a university legal system that he presides over with an iron fist. Those in charge own everything, free speech is squashed and all outlets for resistance go with it. The only way that Delta can disrupt is to dismantle the peaceful mise-en-scene of a small-town parade. All members gather along the margins of the parade path and Kenney’s “Stork” begins hoopla by pushing down the drum major and taking leadership of the parade. He leads the band into a dead-end alley, where they mindlessly collide with the brick face and continue to move forward into the immovable alley’s end. A not-so-subtle synecdoche about the quality of mainstream America’s “dream”.
At the end of the 60s, countless politicians and civil rights leaders would be dead. The Vietnam conflict would be neck-deep in a shitstorm with no end in sight and political leaders were more concerned about saving face and achieving fantastical aims (themselves birthed out of an absurd imagination of geo-politics). The parade ends up becoming a warzone by the end. Smoke bombs cloud the streets. Women and children run for cover. A member of the ROTC – and one of Delta’s primary antagonists – attempts to gun down an unarmed member of Delta. The movie has no moral. Even the pot-smoking professor is revealed to be as juvenile as those he is charged to teach; sleeping with one of his students, who also happens to be the girlfriend of another one of his students.
The façade of 1950s America is, as Douglas Kenney’s “Stork” demonstrates, heading straight into a dead end. The structures relied upon cannot mask the violence that attempts to uphold them. I said the scene was like a warzone, but two images come to mind: the chaos outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the killing of four students and wounding of nine others at Kent State University in 1970. Animal House is just a movie. Granted. It has booze and tits and sex and raunchy humor…but time has crowded around it and given it an uneasy historical clarity. In many ways, it’s who America is now and she hasn’t really changed that much.