Sunday, September 26, 2010

Animal House (1978)

by Jimmy Callaway and the Knights

Thing is, National Lampoon just didn't really do it for me like Mad did when I was a kid. The easy-to-get cartoons and picture stories in the Lampoon, those were only a part of the magazine. But they also ran actual ads (what? In a humor mag?), and these big, long-winded articles that used ten-dollar words. Basically, it was all over my head.

This is also kind of how I came to Animal House. For one thing, I didn't even see it until I was 19 or 20, so I hadn't grown up on it like a lotta guys I know. And when I did finally see it, it had that sorta anecdotal plotline that threw me off, not like the teen comedies I was used to, where there was usually a boy-meets-girl sort of sub-plot to string together the normals-vs.-weirdoes storyline. But really, what it came down to, was that I just wasn't smart enough to appreciate it. Sounds weird to say about a movie dedicated to being fat, drunk, and stupid. But man, there is so much sub-text in this movie, it makes me really glad I was sober enough (just enough) in college that I can see it now.

We open on Pinto and Flounder (although they're still just Larry and Kent at this point) walking across campus at Faber College. The statue of Emil Faber on the grounds has a plaque that reads "Knowledge Is Good." Combine this with Sutherland's little Milton monologue later on, and we have the basic premise of the flick. Knowledge, mostly by way of misbehaving (i.e. tasting of the forbidden fruit), is what sets us apart from the animals. The animal house in this flick is not the Deltas', with their toga parties and Negro music--these guys have the knowledge, the experience, to lay claim to a deeper humanity than most.

Pinto and Flounder are our guides to this movie's world, and they fill the position admirably. Two nice, slightly stupid teenagers who really want to fit in but also want to enjoy themselves--it'd be difficult not to relate. In fact, anyone who couldn't relate at all probably wouldn't even bother with this flick in the first place. The Omegas and the Deltas are rivals, but both are already fairly secure in their positions as college-world-weary students. The Omegas know what their rightful place is--the lily-white upper class--and they are going to stay there. Even young white kids like Larry and Kent might as well be from Harlem, since they are after all "a wimp and a blimp."

It's just this resistance to the Other that is the downfall of the Omegas and their ilk, I'd say. Greg Marmalard takes Dean Wormer's abuse with a smile because he wants to fit in, he wants to go along with the program. Douglas C. Neidermeyer pushes around his inferiors in the ROTC because that's what you do in the military: you make everybody the same by destroying any remnants of personality. This may make them more effective killers, but it doesn't make them much fun to be around. And if Dean Wormer had just laid off these normal young kids, his homecoming parade would have gone off without a hitch. Or at least, less of a hitch than it ended up going off with.

Speaking of the Omegas, though, what I noticed this time around is that Mandy Pepperidge is definitely the exception to test the rule. We can only guess as to why she's hanging around with a slippery little shit like Marmalard, but it's not too crazy to assume she's merely hedging her bets as the real world encroaches. But as we can tell from the cafeteria scene, she has a sense of humor and knows from good sex, unlike the rest of her clique. The fact that she ends up married to Senator Blutarsky is really not that much of surprise, when you think about it.

As Larry and Kent arrive at the Delta House, Bluto pisses on them and immediately marks them as Delta's own (I know I said they weren't the animals here, but bear [har!] with me). Pinto, despite his earlier reticence to join the "worst fraternity on campus," easily slides into his new lifestyle, trying pot for the first time, getting laid finally, and just generally enjoying himself. It can be really awkward at times, but hell, if that's the price one has to pay for new experiences and hedonism writ large, then that's not much of a price at all.

Flounder is by far the more interesting protagonist of the duo, I'd say. He's a really nice guy and just wants to be liked. The fact that the scumbags of Faber College have accepted him as one of their own matters little to him. In fact, even though the Deltas treat Flounder like an overweight doormat a lot of the time, they all genuinely love him, I think. And this nurturing environment is what leads to Flounder eventually becoming a sensitivity trainer, and being able to help others as he has been himself. And what could make a nurturing environment even better than copious amounts of substance abuse?

D-Day claims the motto of Delta House is "Don't get mad; get even." A more accurate motto might be "Don't get mad; get super drunk and naked." And actually, if we accept the premise that living well is the best revenge, the Deltas do get even, always. On double secret probation? Then, toga party. Get all your stuff confiscated? Then, road trip. To paraphrase Eric "Otter" Stratton, the Dean and all the authority figures, they make the rules because it's their game. We, the rest of us slack-asses and no-accounts, we're never gonna win. So let's just have a good time. It's gotta be better than the homo-erotic bondage the Omegas participate in rather than getting high and fucking.

Pinto is pretty much the main protagonist, but the real hero of Animal House is without a doubt Eric Stratton, rush chairman, damn glad to meet you. I can say without great fear of hyperbole that nearly every word out of his mouth is no less than sainted wisdom from on high and applicable to anybody who sees life for what it is: a really vague, goofy, pretty much pointless existence that can still be exploited for maximum joy and happiness.

When Boon says he needs to work on his golf game, Otter says to not think of it as work, but that "the whole point is just to enjoy yourself." The whole point here, folks. It ain't just a golf tip. When you don't enjoy yourself, that's when trouble really happens. Marmalard, Neidermeyer, Wormer, all the antagonists, for them it all comes down to simple repression. The Deltas may be total fuck-ups, but they enjoy themselves and never hurt anybody.

But when Babs suckers Marmalard into thinking Otter is nailing his steady girl, the Omegas lure him into a trap and beat the living tar out of him. And why?

"They're just animals, I guess."

The Omega House is full of animals. Not in the natural, normal way that the Delta House is, full of young, alive, human animals, primed to breed but not having to, all natural impulses met and savored. The Omegas, on the other hand, are animals in the derivative sense: unfeeling, cold-blooded, eager to kill.

A bunch of animals, yet they're running the world. Well, to be more exact, they're running their world. The one full of rules and discipline and punishment. I dunno about you, but me, I prefer what I like to think of as the real world: random, frustrating, but at the same time, full of wonder and orgasms.

More Stratton wisdom: when Flounder fucks up by trusting his frat brothers with his biological brother's car, Otter consoles him: "You can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes" (Frankly, I'm embarrassed to admit that I had to pay a guy just recently to convince me of this [although I do feel much better these days, either way]). And of course, when the Deltas are on the ropes, when the foot that is Dean Wormer finally comes down on them, it is the "futile and stupid gesture" of Otter's, the utter destruction of the homecoming parade (that ages-old symbol of all that is good and wholesome and mid-America), that makes everything okay.

Life is a futile and stupid gesture. Sure, you can play by the rules and end up raped or dead like the Omegas all eventually do. Or you can just have a good time, since things are all gonna work out okay anyways. Because even when things are at their bleakest, a good time can still be had.

Toga, I say to thee. Simply, Toga.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good review. I've always wanted to write a book on how even commercial movies in the late 70s and early 80s were subversive and anti-authoritarian. Animal House is a great example of this. Seems like it took everything Reagan and Bush had to roll back the anarchy that would have erupted in this country had mainstream media continued down the path it started during this period.

    With twenty different federal law enforcement agencies designed to quell the slightest 'gestures' of dissent, looks like those days are gone for good.