A mild caution for readers: Adult language appears in this piece about National Lampoon’s Animal House. It’s not flippantly employed, but rather seems more than appropriate—in fact, unavoidable—given how I mean to invite a relevant look at the movie today.
At the end of a recent “New Rules” segment on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the host summed up his feelings about the recent spate of college fraternity controversies by calling for an out-and-out ban of the Greek system, saying: There was a time when fraternities fit in with society as a whole, but that day is long gone. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Animal House.
Just what I was thinking, Bill!
I hadn’t seen Animal House in ages, and the national conversation makes this a very good time to revisit director John Landis‘ legendary 1978 “slob comedy” to see how well it holds up as the irreverent-but-good-natured farce it is popularly known to be. For the uninitiated—and how well that term works here!—Animal House is the story of two awkward college freshmen looking for a place to feel like they “belong,” and the chaotic insanity that unspools once that new home must fight for its own survival on campus. The movie’s not called Chess Club, or Debate Team, or Student Government, it’s called Animal House—which means we’re talking about a frat.
Already I’m totally at sea with this premise of wanting to join a fraternity, but I’ll admit that as my personal bias. Another thing Bill Maher pointed out during his trenchant critique of the appeal of fraternity culture is how little he could relate to the idea that any young man, finally achieving a first taste of “independence” by moving away to college, could possibly be drawn to the idea of immediately enslaving themselves to the abrasive whims of dozens of other guys. The movie is helpful; the appeal is all about raising your status, and getting access to girls based on that status.
Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) seem to be the types of young men who will need a lot of assistance in that regard, so they aim first for the most elite fraternity on Faber College campus during the fall rush. But “the wimp and the blimp” are quickly ushered by handsomely chiseled and smarmy membership chairman Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf) into a shameful corner of the Omega frat house to, uhm, fraternize with other dead-enders. You know: the black guy with the turban, the Indian guy, the disabled guy.
That’s a nice joke at the expense of the elitist, racist sensibilities of the whitebread snobs of Omega—at least, we read it that way now, rather than reading it like a joke at the expense of Larry and Kent, the joke being that here are two losers as unworthy as the coloreds and the cripples.
It’s not like the movie isn’t reflecting some sense of sharp-edged reality with that first politically incorrect gag; the film is set in 1962. Sure, we squirm the way we squirm at the bug-eyed antics of African-American performers from the era of the Stooges and the Rascals…but that was then; this is now. And by that, I mean, this is now:
This boastful celebration of race-based animus, sad to say, isn’t the only modern-day connection that affords us a fresh perspective on the humor of Animal House. After Kroger and Dorfman realize they’ll never be selected as pledges to Omega, Dorfman convinces Kroger to consider another fraternity house—one where his brother was a member, so he’ll be a sure “legacy” pick and be able to whisk his pal in alongside him on the strength of putting in a good word. This is where we are introduced to the most (in)famous fraternity residence in movie history, and its most (in)famous member—Delta Tau Chi, and John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi), the pudgy mischief-maker who may not be the titular head of Delta House, but is its natural leader nevertheless.
Describing Belushi’s character in his review of the movie, the late Roger Ebert successfully paints the portrait of Bluto’s devotion to living as a creature of unrestrained id: He isn’t a talker. He’s an event…He lusts, he thirsts, he consumes cafeterias full of food, and he pours an entire fifth of Jack Daniel’s into his mouth. He also props a ladder up against the wall of a sorority house so he can peer through the window and watch girls have a pillow fight wearing their bras and panties, or less; he juts the ladder over to the next window so he can secretly observe another taking off all her clothes and preparing to masturbate just as Bluto faints away with ecstasy.
Ebert calls Bluto “almost a natural force,” which is a rather sophisticated way of making the “boys will be boys” argument.
In Animal House, the scene becomes funny when Belushi breaks the fourth wall and makes us accomplices in his prurient act. Were the same scene written for today, we might suppose Bluto would be holding an iPhone in his hand, quickly uploading the results to Pornhub or even live-broadcasting the strip show via Meerkat.
Or, maybe Bluto would simply take a few pictures of these undressed and unsuspecting women and share them in a “private” Facebook group, as was found to be the case recently with members of Kappa Delta Rho at Penn State. And when caught, Bluto might not react with contrition and shame, but instead try to defend himself and his actions by condemning his accusers and maintaining that it’s all in good fun, “almost a natural force”—just as one of the members of Kappa Delta Rho did when he said in response to the controversy:
The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with our female party guests…we did. But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals…for if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you… isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society?
Oops, sorry. That’s from Animal House. But go ahead and have a look at what the anonymous member of Kappa Delta Rho actually said in response to the nation’s collective disgust, and see if you can spot any major differences of philosophy.
Watching Animal House today, we really hit our stride with just how dated the film has become when we get to the scene in which Larry is about to have sex with the extremely drunk mayor’s daughter, Clorette DePasto (Sarah Holcomb). Just as she dizzily unhooks her bra, she topples over unconscious—leaving Larry not just with the handfuls of crumpled tissue she used to enhance her bust size, but with a moral dilemma that plays out with “Evil” Larry and “Angelic” Larry dueling inside his head.
It’s fair to point out that, not too surprisingly, “Angelic” Larry wins this particular battle. What is surprising is the revelation we are treated to when the two of them get together again so that they can do the deed while perfectly sober: Larry, feeling vulnerable and trusting, confesses to Clorette that he’s a virgin. Clorette, whose breasts we got a really good look at during that earlier scene, has a confession to make, too:
I lied, too. I’m only 13.
No, “sexual images that only appear to depict real children engaged in sex” are not illegal. But the revelation of Clorette’s tender age will surely come as a shrieking moment of inner revulsion for most viewers of Animal House today, given how we were invited to leer at her topless body earlier in the movie.
The climax of the film, in true John Landis style, involves a good bit of mayhem—with the members of Delta House obtaining their revenge on Dean Wormer (John Vernon) and the rest of “civilized” Faber by sabotaging the school’s homecoming parade. Bluto, “D-Day” (Bruce McGill), and the rest of the gang have put together an “Eat Me” float and a “Deathmachine” car to wreak havoc on Wormer and the crowd.
But it is absolutely more complicated an endeavor today to watch this scene of young men in sunglasses, making their way through a crowd of innocent bystanders while carrying dark bags tucked under their arms, and not immediately think of homegrown terrorism in general, and the Boston Marathon in particular.
Before you get yourselves all out of joint and claim this is all much ado about nothing, takes Animal House way too “seriously,” and is an example of nothing more than a prissy fussbudget taking all the fun out of life with his devotion to political correctness at best and calling for censorship at worst, let me disabuse you of at least one part of that criticism: I believe Animal House was and is an important movie, and it’s here to stay, and it should be here to stay.
There’s a lot to recommend it. The cast in general are all in top form, with very memorable supporting turns made by Karen Allen and Donald Sutherland (as a pot-smoking teacher); the soundtrack is great, a nostalgia-inducing concoction of authentic Sam Cooke hits and the not-so-authentic “Otis Day and the Knights” group performing “Shout!” and “Shama Lama Ding Dong” in scenes where you feel like you’re truly a part of the party; and yes, there’s John Belushi, carousing through the role that made him a movie star, delivering a nearly wordless performance of boundless energy and sly invention.
And sure, given what we’re told is Bluto’s future courtesy of the last in a series of “what became of them” title cards, it’s more than a little tempting to point out Belushi’s faint physical resemblance to Canadian-born presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Cruz doesn’t quite make for the perfect Animal House analog, however, since he was an academic talent at Princeton and a debating team star, even if he was not necessarily as well-regarded as your average BMOC.
No, for a better modern-day politico to bring in for a timely connection to the Landis film, we need look no further than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker— the college dropout whose unsuccessful run for the student body presidency of Marquette University was tarnished by an (admitted) violation of campaign rules. What’s that got to do with Animal House, you ask?—besides the dropping-out thing and the rule-breaking thing? Just this: Walker’s well-known nickname around campus was “Niedermeyer.”
The flurry of headlines today about racist songs and nude photos has almost eclipsed the aspect of fraternity life previously thought to be the most notorious—the practice of “hazing” pledges with degrading verbal, physical, and sexual abuses. These practices have never been quite so hidden from public knowledge as the rituals of the Freemasons or Scientologists once were, but the extremity—and sometimes deadly results—of hazing incidents had long been brushed aside or treated as simply the price one must pay if one wanted to undertake this particularly aggressive “training” to become a fully-functioning man.
The initiation rites of fraternities are, obviously, something Animal House effectively lampoons (“Thank you sir, may I have another?”), but in the same way that Chaplin mocked Hitler without ever touching upon the truest savageries of the Holocaust, Animal House pokes fun at what we now know to be an atmosphere of no laughing matter.
In Brad Land’s intense 2004 book Goat: A Memoir, the author recounts witnessing fellow freshman pledge Will’s hazing at South Carolina’s Clemson University chapter of Kappa Sigma. Eyes kept shut on demand, the “goat”—the derisive term applied to pledges—has his hands plunged into a toilet to crush up a banana he’s made to believe is human excrement:
He’s gagging. Eyes closed.
Don’t open your eyes, boy.
Fist on the back of the head. White behind his eyes.
Will’s tormentors tell him that now, he’s got to eat it:
Open wide, they say. You can feel his throat locking.
Asking him if he’s “thirsty” afterwards, Will’s “brothers” then provide access to a handy cooler:
Will’s face shoved down into a cooler. Water lapping the side, he’s swallowing it again, pulling it all down.
Here’s what’s in the cooler:
Water. Pghlem. Pubic Hair. Piss.
Land dropped out of the process before Will, who lasted until the very end, and was certain his survival of the ordeal at least guaranteed he’d be chosen for membership. He wasn’t, and shortly after he was rejected by the fraternity, the 18-year-old died of a heart attack.
Tim Mathieson’s Otter did have a point: You can’t hold everyone in a fraternity responsible for the actions of a “few, sick, perverted individuals”—just like you cannot blame the whole of law enforcement for the killing of unarmed black men, just like you cannot blame an entire government for the military policies that lead to the daily suicides of its soldiers, just like it is in fact legitimate to point out that #notallmen are born sexual assailants. You cannot hold everyone responsible, of course—unless your aim is indeed to make some indictment of society as a whole.
On those subjects and a variety of others, there’s no shortage of advocates who will make exactly that broad an argument—that there is a cancer in society at large, and that any rebuttal of these vile attitudes and actions short of admitting total, pervasive corruption constitutes the only evidence required that a just condemnation of whatever group(s) are involved is in order. And there are just as many who will reject that charge loudly—perhaps first sarcastically invoking the recently discredited Rolling Stone story about a gang rape taking place at the University of Virginia—with what amounts to an echo of the cheer-inducing close of Otter’s defense of Delta House:
Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!
More than one commenter on the web has responded to each one of these grotesque news stories with some version of the following: NEWSFLASH: Frat boys are douchebags.
That’s probably a little unfair, and certainly there’s no reason to throw Animal House under the bus. But then, there is that other really funny joke Bill Maher reminded us of during his call to ban fraternities: When a girl learns one of her friends is dating a fraternity man, the first question is never So, what’s he like?