Animal House: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Film Reviews | June 27, 2008 | Comments ()
Pop Culture Item Consumed: 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House, the prototype “slobs versus snobs” comedy, featuring John Belushi in an ensemble piece with a host of well-cast comedic actors such as Tim Matheson (the villain from Fletch) and Tom Hulce (the ne’er-do-well brother from Parenthood). In early 1979, when I was mere lad of 11, my hell-raising older sister and her Allman-Brother-esque boyfriend took me to see Animal House while my parents were out of town. I was never the same again. For a generation landing on the 40-spot during the Aughts, Animal House was a formative event for challenging the bullshit dished out daily by society and its authority figures. Thank you, National Lampoon.
Beverage Consumed: Continuing our tottering trip down Nostalgia Lane, a six-pack of Budweiser tallboys, or “Bud bullets” as we called them in high school. During the time period in which my sister was corrupting my mind with images of drunken, fornicating college students, my father started sharing beers with me during fishing trips, barbecues, and the like. A sip here, a sip there … within six months I’d probably consumed a whole beer. This was a simpler time, when Budweiser sat at the top of the beer quality pyramid in the United States. While tastes have matured - with roughly 55,000 superior beers available nowadays - an ice-cold Bud can still hit the spot when you want to drink a lot without getting shithammered.
Summary of Action: I’m going to close my eyes, click my heels together, and hope really hard that everyone in the ‘jibaverse has seen this film. As the opening title card “Faber College, 1962” appears, two freshman fraternity pledge wannabes walk across a darkened campus to the noble strains of Gershwin’s “Undergraduate in D-Minus.” Ersatz protagonists Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) and Larry Kroger (Hulce) visit two fraternity houses in quick succession. They begin with Omega house, where they are marginalized as losers; followed by Delta house, where they are marginalized as losers … and welcomed into a brotherhood of former losers, continuing losers, and future ex-convicts.
The fabled introduction to Delta house is as iconic as the cruise in American Graffiti or the stocking-clad leg in The Graduate: An Amityville Horror house rises from the dark earth; stained plank siding askew, windows glowing red and yellow like demons’ eyes, garbage cans afloat in a sea of beer cans and whiskey bottles. Who better to guide our young scholars into the Inferno than half-cherub/half-satyr John “Bluto” Blutarsky (Belushi), watering the front lawn until interrupted by the visitors, at which point he turns … to water their pantlegs.
Welcomed into Delta house, Dorfman and Kroger join the Deltas’ quest to drink, prank, and fuck their way into adulthood. One need not re-visit the depravity of their freshman campaign of binge-drinking, shoplifting, pot smoking, toga partying, road tripping, and test cheating … unless one wishes to have a really, really good time. Led by Rush Chairman Eric Stratton, aka Otter (Matheson) and his best friend Donald “Boon” Schoenstein (Reigert), the Deltas find their foil in the Fascists Next Door, Omega house.
The Omegas represent the unholy ass end of the late fifties: pompous Eisenhower-era privilege that will not be satisfied until every strand of individuality and humor is stomped out of the world. Iconically named Greg Marmalard and Doug Neidermeyer, the clench-sphinctered ringleaders of the Nazi Omegas, embody everything a child of the 60s would come to loathe: smug, unironic self-righteousness and bullying, right-wing conformity. Determined to bulldoze the Deltas’ resistance to faceless assimilation, the Omegas ally with the Nixonesque Faber Dean, Vernon Wormer, who never met a problem too trivial for a sinister, corrupt plot.
The result? Not to put too fine a point on it, but Animal House is the Beatles of mainstream cultural smartass. Whether one enjoys absurdist, sarcastic ensemble comedies like Vacation, Ghostbusters, or Anchorman; or prefers more sophomoric fare (yay!) like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Old School, or Road Trip; one has Animal House to thank. That’s right: no Bluto, no Stifler.
I don’t mean to say that Animal House was the progenitor of this sort of thing. Director John Landis was selected largely because of his work on the amazingly original Kentucky Fried Movie, and the 70s had already seen smart-alecky comedies ranging from experimental sketch films like Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex to the absurdist genius of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Animal House demonstrated, however, that the bright young minds of American comedy were decamping from the pointed situational humor and farcical plot-driven comedies of the 60s to a more concept-driven brand of humor finding its roots in the characters’ lunatic peccadilloes - the censored promise of “Saturday Night Live” writ large, with cursing and bare tits.
In keeping with this archetypal promise, the vibrant, beating heart of Animal House is the revelation of Tim Matheson as Otter; not Bluto, a Three Stooges outgrowth of bare-bellied slapstick, but Otter, the plaid-clad playboy occupying the pristinely James-Bondian bachelor pad in the Deltas’ penthouse and heralding a new day in the comedy kingdom. It is highly doubtful that swinging hipster irony even existed prior to the birth of Otter, whose famous speech at the Greek Council’s kangaroo court trial of the Deltas falls within the I’m-using-your-language-but-totally-mocking-you rubric found on every comment thread of every meaningful website in the English-speaking world. Whether it’s CNN, TMZ, or Pajiba, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Otter’s “I’m not going to stand here while you badmouth America” readily equates to “If I don’t get my Avengers sequel, then the terrorists have already won.”
Matheson’s entire characterization of Otter is designed to create an anti-hero who abuses his position of relative privilege in the established societal structure to accomplish his goal of not caring about anything except (a) partying with his friends, (b) nailing attractive coeds, and (c) fucking with ass-twister fascists like the Omegas. Otter’s lines invariably drip with sarcastic, weapons-grade irony, tinged with an air of smug superiority that arises not just from being in on the joke, but from having an innately superior vantage point from which to observe that society is the joke.
Otter is the direct thematic forebear of Trent Walker. If there were a credits list for the Swingers universe, Otter would be Trent’s thrice-divorced father, a 54-year-old swinging Beverly Hills gynecologist. Thus we learn that Trent grew up with his mother, Mrs. Eric Stratton No. 2, but models himself on his mostly-absent jackass of a father.
Without a careful re-viewing of the film, it’s easy to lose track of how much of our everyday smartassedness comes directly from Animal House, with people frequently parroting the movie without even realizing it. In the opening pledge party scene, Otter and Boon squeeze through the crowd muttering, “Excuse me, ‘scuse me, pardon me, ‘scuse me ….” I hear people rapid-fire that routine all the time at bars and ballgames. Or how about those rare moments when a group of people are taking an oath beginning, “I [state your name]”? Who in the Western world doesn’t repeat the exact words of the prompt, mimicking, “I, state your name”? Um, yeah: That’s from Animal House.
Animal House also broke ground with its frank presentation of young people drinking and carousing, essentially without consequence. It wasn’t the first mainstream movie to show topless sorority girls drinking, but using the subject as mere wallpaper for the gags was unprecedented in mainstream cinema. Also, the topless girls in Animal House didn’t end up getting the Michael Myers treatment - there’s no implicit disapproval or scolding about ritualized debauchery. Not only do the Deltas typically have a beer in hand at any given moment - as when Dean Wormer pays a surprise visit - hard liquor is prominent throughout the film, whiskey being the primary selection. When Belushi makes his famous glug-glug of an entire fifth of Jack Daniels, a tacit barrier is broken for 1978 America: College kids binge-drink, and that’s … okay. It’s easy to minimize the tectonic shift that occurred thirty years ago, when a mainstream movie admitted that it’s pretty fucking cool for college kids to carouse like alley cats.
Beyond its cultural signifiers, Animal House is just a damn fine comedy. Full of precision-timed, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, Animal House specializes in bizarro action comedy - not slapstick, but kinetically driven hijinks. As Bluto escorts Larry and Kent into the Delta house for the first time, he walks through the door, knocks a box of empty beer cans from another guy’s hands for no apparent reason, and continues forward, smiling serenely at the bacchanalian rampage the viewer has yet to witness. From out of frame, a bottle of beer zings toward his face on a frozen rope, Bluto plucking it from the air like a fine rose and immediately looking over his shoulder at Kroger with the classic line: “Have a brew. Don’t cost nothin’.”
Much has been lost from ye olden tymes. What cannot be replaced in the foregoing scene and so many others like it in Animal House is the sense of understated, meticulous timing. After Bluto fields the beer-bottle fastball, there’s no pause to raise an eyebrow in how-funny-am-I appreciation. They probably had to shoot that twenty times to make it look right, but no one is hanging around to fellate themselves about how funny it was - Bluto moves right to the most random-yet-welcoming comment ever to grace a kegger.
The film is so carefully crafted that, watching it for this review after about 33 prior viewings, I still found a couple of gags I hadn’t noticed before. When the boys walk by a statue dedicated to the college founder, Emil Faber, the camera pans to the statue’s base, where the inscription reads, profoundly, “Knowledge Is Good.” At the end of the movie, when the Deltas’ “Deathmobile” attacks the college parade, whose head is mounted front and center on the hood? None other than good ol’ Emil. Not everything has to be subtle to be brilliant.
To some extent, modern jackasses have coopted the Animal House esthetic for a fraternity culture that is more a descendant of the Omegas’ conformist intolerance than the Deltas’ easygoing antics. In reality, Animal House paved the way for the modern smartass living just outside cultural norms and expectations.
How the Pairing Held Up: Animal House and super-cold Budweiser make me feel young.
Tastes Like: Three parts Eric Stratton’s cocky sarcasm, two parts Karen Allen’s ballsy girlishness, two parts Mandy Pepperidge’s patented nipple rubbing oil, and one part D-Day’s special plastic explosive igniter. Delicious.
Overall Rating: All there is.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.