The Cinephile: Analyzing Animal House — the tragedy of the dissatisfied frat girlfriend

Katy and Boone

Before tackling Animal House’s take on college administration (a theme that must be of interest to us all as Dartmouth prepares for the presidential transition in July), I’d like to consider the pause inserted quietly between the behemoth juxtapositions of Delta and the Administration “Bvilding.”

Often overlooked, the scene in which Delta brother Boone unconvincingly comforts his dissatisfied girlfriend Katy nevertheless acts as one of the most applicable moments in Animal House to modern life at Dartmouth. Or at least to anyone familiar with the age-old Dartmouth tradition of consoling friends moping over the un-dateability of guys they meet in basements over FoCo brunch.

Every one of those tired complaints emerges here: frat brothers are immature (Boone charms Katy merely by pouting, it seems). They value bro-bonding over campus romance — as soon as Boone proposes a weekend at Katy’s parents’ place, she automatically assumes the trip will include Boone’s frat buddies riding along to “empty my parents’ liquor cabinet,” and she’s not entirely wrong. Boone says, “It’s just going to be you and me…and Otter and another girl.” (For more on Animal House’s fascinating homosocial bonds, visit the previous Analyzing Animal House post).

We can’t forget narcissistic, either. While Katy has been serving drinks for an hour in Delta’s basement, talking to some guy from Pigs Knuckle, Ark. (note: the scene has Boone revealing a slight Boston accent), Boone assumes she has only just arrived at Delta. “No, Boone,” she corrects him, “You just got here.” While her complaints ring of frat bro stereotypes, the scene evokes real-life resonance in the strain fraternity culture places on the relationships. We’ve all had the friend desperately trying to prove himself (I focus on the frat brother here, but sorority sisters are equally guilty) to a house, neglecting a significant other who nevertheless ends up cleaning up whatever mess Sink Night creates.

Rather impressively, if one were one to watch this scene on mute, the filmmaking expresses the dialogue within the visual tropes of classic romance. Think An Affair to Remember (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Dirty Dancing (1987), movies in which somewhat contrived dramas threaten relationships, accompanied by lush, expressionist filmmaking promising the transcendence of love and the inevitable happy ending. As Boone rushes after Katy, a dolly-out portrays the reckless vitality of his pursuit. You half-expect him to break out into a rendition of “Maria,” or, perhaps more appropriately given the state of Delta, “We Found Love.” The dolly-out also emphasizes the fact that Boone wears shockingly white socks with his slacks and dress shoes—an endearing touch that renders him adorably childlike, however much a modern fashion sensibility may reject the combination. Expert lighting makes the couple’s eyes come alive as shadows that play across their faces. Moreover, as the lovers begin talking, tight framing precludes any visual intrusion of Delta in the background. Otter running by and making a face at Boone marks the only comic touch fragmenting the visual poetry of romance. At the end, Boone dances into Katy’s arms.

As a result, there’s something really quite tragic about the way dialogue transforms the scene into a parody — but a sensitive parody — of the girl who believes in the capacity of her boyfriend to change. With dialogue added, we see Otter’s momentary appearance precipitate Boone’s proposition to drive to Katy’s parents’ house for a romantic weekend (with Otter in tow). He also starts dancing with her because, in the face of her critique about his drinking habits, he envisions a future where “After I graduate, I’m going to get drunk every night.” The incongruity of the words with the visual expression onscreen (and the jazzy romance music in the background) adds a touch of mourning to the comedy. “I’m in love with a retard,” Katy says. Funny as her line is, her love, and the dissatisfaction it provokes, comes through.

The scene not only depicts a current reality but also, perhaps, reveals a little about a larger structure present at Dartmouth complicit in preventing real change. Because dialogue prevents what could be based on visual cues and physical action, the film provokes questions of the value of talk and its deviation from physical action. One can hardly ignore that this theme parallels frequent critiques of the way Dartmouth handles internal problems, such as the forums valorized to combat issues of bias, abuse, and assault. Can talk really transform the system? Or, like in the case of Boone, do words assuage only momentarily and even contradict real action?

On a more intimate scale, it makes those FoCo conversations filled with conjecture a bit guilty, too. Perhaps the best way to help a friend suffering from frat bro disillusionment is to avoid empty promises and do something instead. Perhaps getting up to grab her a cinnamon bun or some more Tater Tots really is the only answer.

The Cinephile: Did the Oscars Play it Safe This Year?

Django Still

With much of the post-Oscars attention focused on a ceremony some called banal (the choice of Seth MacFarlane as host really upped expectations of provocation), the real question remains —how safe were the Academy Awards choices this year? Yeah, Argo won Best Picture, Anne Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress, Amour for Best Foreign Language Film and Paperman for Best Short Film, Animated, as everyone predicted (that last one maybe only for film nerds).

But that doesn’t mean the choices weren’t controversial. In fact, this was probably the most exciting year for debate about the actual accolades in recent history. Here’s a look at some other potentially scandalous wins — and why or why not they should be questioned.

Best Picture: Argo

Leading the contentious tone of the choices is undoubtedly Best Picture winner Argo, whose screenplay’s inaccuracies and themes have been dismissed as promoting “a retrograde ‘white Americans in peril’ storyline.” The Iranian Mehr news agency even called the film’s Oscar success an “an advertisement for the CIA.”

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

As much as Django might have been the most fun to be had in theaters all year, Christoph Waltz’s win evokes all that seemed so problematic about the film’s racial politics. Waltz’s character functions as the real hero of the Tarantino revenge paradigm: he abruptly commences the violence, plots it ingeniously and generally plays the most charismatic and utterly present character within the majority of Tarantino’s savvy screenplay — Django himself didn’t even come close. Waltz’s win lends credence to this prioritization of the Dr. Schultz character over Django. Then again, some — like Hillary Crosley over at The Root — didn’t find a problem with the fact that “Django doesn’t seem to be told from Django’s perspective.”

Best Original Score: Mychael Danna, Life of Pi

Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall most likely failed to pick up the Oscar because the Academy openly discriminates against big box office results (see the classic 2008 example of The Dark Knight). I will admit, however, that Danna’s score absolutely completed the ethereal tone of director Ang Lee’s film.

Best Short Film, Live Action: Shawn Christensen, Curfew

Okay, so like everyone else, I adore Curfew. However, its hipstery, paradigmatic plot — when will dancing girls stop making angsty men reevaluate their lives in film? — didn’t quite live up to the brilliance of its opening scene. Equally worthy is Death of a Shadow, which makes abundant references to Lacanian theory entrancing—and stars a certain Matthias Schoenaerts.

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Despite the aforementioned questionable race dynamics, Tarantino probably deserves his second Best Screenplay win since Pulp Fiction introduced us to the “Royale with cheese.” Django reminds us how important the screenplay is to the entirety of a film — fictional revenge pulled off incredible feats in the film almost entirely due to snappy dialogue.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Argo 

Classic Hollywood: laud a film whose plot has Hollywood saving the day, despite leaving out a fair bit of historical fact, as exposed by Slate this October.

The Cinephile: Analyzing Animal House — An Introduction to Delta, or: Why We Frequent Frats

We all remember our First Time at Dartmouth, our introduction to the subterranean world for which our campus is so (in)famous. Maybe you first experienced it with a big group from your floor during Orientation, or perhaps when a friend told you to meet him or her at some unfamiliar Greek letter or other and you plunged into the deep of the frat basement alone (quel horreur!).

Upon descending those steps, you may have first been struck by the assault on one’s senses — the acrid scent of beer, the percussive knocking of pong paddles against tables as players self-congratulate or fling their unlikely instruments of glory in pursuit of The Save, music slavishly promulgated from top 40 pop-filled playlists, the fluid cycle of introductions that may or may not be acknowledged the next day. But I don’t want to get all David Foster Wallace foot-notey on you, because this is a world we all know too well. And while the First Time, our communal induction into Dartmouth’s dominating social structure, may be somewhat traumatic, it is also undeniably exhilarating. Our introduction to Delta House in Animal House suggests why. Continue reading

The Cinephile: Analyzing Animal House — “Knowledge is Good”

National Lampoon's Animal House

From a close read of the first few scenes of Animal House (1978), I’d like to rupture the illusion that its comedy does not merit further thought than the surface laughs we get every time we read the Faber College motto, “Knowledge is Good.” These first few scenes (credits included) show it to be a movie that should be taken seriously. Director John Landis was largely untested at this point in his career, but his instinctual grasp of how to begin a great battle of us versus them prefaces his tremendous, commensurate later work such as The Blues Brothers (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Trading Places (1983).

Consider: the film begins with a stately neoclassical building looming over the frame, reading “Faber College 1962.” Cut to two young, suited men emerging from an L-shaped dorm that looks it may have been the height of architectural style at the time. Recall that Chris Miller ’63, a former member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity — now Alpha Delta — penned the script, along with The National Lampoon’s Harold Ramis and Douglas Kennedy. Did Miller have any say in location scouting? With the dormitory’s resemblance to the River residential cluster, a modern Dartmouth student has to wonder. But I digress.

With its emphasis on the dignified exteriors of campus architecture shot from low angles to evoke monuments, this opening two-shot sequence establishes the grave grandeur of the iconic college campus. Enveloped by its edifices, the two students become anonymous entities merely passing through the doors of the institution. The beginning remarkably captures the essence of the college campus tour: because each tour guide promulgates the same information as the last, the listener becomes transfixed by the various columns and engraved Roman numerals.

But as the title “National Lampoon’s Animal House” is superimposed over this made-for-admissions-like prelude, the film clues you in to its intentions: it is about to fracture, interlope and generally decimate all your respectable impressions of college. All sorts of little comedic brushstrokes start to interrupt the staid landscape — as Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) and Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) pass by the neoclassical building, Kent fixes his fly; they walk behind an imposing statue of the founder college Emil Faber with the inscription “AD 1904, ‘Knowledge is good.’”

In addition to completely undermining all the stuffed-up gravitas of the campus, the brilliant, oft-quoted “Knowledge is Good” motto is significant for the way it fades into the next insignia in the film, the Greek letters of stuffy fraternity Omega Theta Pi (ΩθΠ). The implication is clear: the fraternities determine the real order of law at Faber College. Within this alternate administration, Omega House is really just an extension of the administration, provoking the film’s first thematic emphasis on the limits and prejudices of tradition.

The gilt frames of its paintings, the Jackie O.–like outfits of its female greeters at fraternity rush (all of whose dialogue is tinged with Southern accents and weak wit, for emphasis) — and of course the madras blazer and carnations of the fraternity’s greeter — all signal that stepping into Omega is practically voluntary confinement to the values of the Man. Though Larry hisses to Kent, “Take off that beanie!” before entering — the blue-and-yellow headware signals he’s a freshman — there are plenty of potential new members inside with them on. Being cool in Omega, it seems, requires adherence to Faber’s old-boy tradition. Practically the entire infrastructure of Faber’s respectable side is an Omega, including the captain of the swim team and the editor of the school paper. Oh, and the guy playing piano.

As the president of Omega House says to his most promising PNM, Chip (a young Kevin Bacon, wearing the sneer that will make him famous in so many films after), “We have our share of campus leaders. Something that never looks bad on your permanent record, Chip.” Just like the faux-intellectuality of “Knowledge is Good,” Omega’s well-coiffed president talks a bit too slowly.

Meanwhile, the not-so-promising candidates are sequestered on the couch, including any non-white visitors and the blind kid in a wheelchair. At one point, the viewer gets a nice point-of-view shot from the blind kid’s position, portraying us all as outsiders to this bastion of exclusivity.

In many ways, the Omega House set piece reveals just how different Dartmouth’s current system Greek system is from our fictional counterparts at Faber College. For one, it is very difficult to envision even a single fraternity on this campus as a mere extension of the administration (or any brother wearing that deadly combination of madras and a carnation, even for flair). Second, the presence of women at men’s rush today is practically unthinkable. Omega’s exclusive recruitment of the white and privileged still, however, echoes of choice Greek criticism today. The latest Duke University scandal comes to mind.

For me, one simple gesture — and Animal House is so expert at these simple, candid moments — completely encapsulates the experience of rushing, even today. Omega’s rush chair tells Larry and Kent as they enter the fraternity’s lavish parlor, “We just want you to enjoy yourselves while you’re here.” And as both head towards the piano, the rush chair forcefully maneuvers them in the opposite direction to the couch. If that moment doesn’t express the elaborate social ballet that is rush, I don’t know what does.

The Cinephile: The Fateful Marriage of J.J. Abrams and Star Wars

Courtesy of Laughing Squid
Courtesy of Laughing Squid

Though this week saw the Sundance Film Festival and further Oscar politicking, The Wrap’s big reveal on Thursday that J.J. Abrams will direct Star Wars Episode VII (2015) has trumped all other news. Though just a few months ago Abrams told us he wouldn’t take on Star Wars, Disney’s choice rings of destiny. The marriage of J.J. Abrams and Star Wars, the ultimate consummation of devoted fan and pop culture icon, seems to be ordained by the Fates — or the Force.

In all his work, Abrams masterfully evokes pop culture touchstones and assembles referential material into something modern and new — he’s Tarantino for the sci-fi set, with less pretension and a good helping of awe. Abrams’ previous film and television endeavors flirt regularly with Star Wars, deliberately or unintentionally and his oeuvre is a treasure trove for the Star Wars fan.

In Abram’s early genre-mashup televison series “Alias,” the double-agent protagonist Sydney Bristow echoes Princess Leia in her intelligence, determination and notable acting chops. Like Leia infamously playing slave to Jabba the Hutt, Sydney assumes feminine wiles with the true intention of pursuing the ultimate goal of equality with the intelligence agency father figures that pepper the show. (Full disclosure: Sydney and Leia were my most beloved childhood fictional role models).

Though several of the many sci-fi elements of Lost can be construed to reference Lucas’ series, the most striking homage is in the character of Sawyer. Wisecracking, broody and handy with a gun, Sawyer is the Han Solo of Alabama — and also a bounty hunter of sorts. His famous nicknames for nearly everyone on the island particularly recall Han’s witticisms. (For more on the influence of Star Wars on Abrams’ other TV shows including “Fringe,” check out Moviefone’s list.)

Abram’s reimagining of Star Trek (2009) referenced Star Wars with winking abandon, from Kirk’s bar fight that ends up launching him into an intergalactic adventure (all that was missing was the Cantina Band) to his jaunt to an icy planet that looks remarkably like Hoth. Not to mention the Ewok-like creature that helps him along the way.

Abrams’ most revealing and personal film to date, Super 8 (2011) — a personal favorite — examines the nature of fandom with sweetness and candor. Wisely, Abrams pays his respects to Steven Spielberg instead of George Lucas (there is really no doubt who is the better director). Ostensibly just another knockoff alien flick, the film ultimately reveals just how strongly formative movies have permeated Abrams’ creative work. Fittingly, he metaphorizes these brushes with magic and the otherworldly as first love.

In the wake of the news, Abrams’ much-anticipated Star Trek sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) will face even more intense scrutiny this summer. With Abrams at the helm of two rival fan-based space franchises, one cannot help but be apprehensive. As Christopher Orr put it in The Atlantic, “I cannot be alone in fearing a rift in the fabric of space/time.”

Perhaps it would have been wise to hand Star Wars over to another director, say Bryan Singer or Guillermo del Toro. However, I can’t help but celebrate the choice: in an age of jaded and mocking blockbusters such as X-Men: First Class (2011) and bloated, self-important vehicles for special effects like The Avengers (2012), Abrams is still making movies with old-fashioned emotion and character development. He remains enchanted with the characters, and he enchants us right along with him. In my mind, his interpretations of Star Wars and Star Trek can rule the galaxy together.

Cinephile: Oscar-Nominated Scores

Picture 2

With such rich offerings in theaters, film awards season always produces an unavoidable sense of guilt. The limited-release availability of the nominated films — this year, those may include Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Amour (2012), and The Master (2012) — and the requisite two-hour time investment make it utterly impossible, even for the most enthusiastic, to see all the nominees. Continue reading