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.

Cinephile: Analyzing Animal House — An Introduction

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I had an enlightening moment over winter break.

During one of those formal holiday dinners we all have with family upon returning home from college, I mentioned briefly that I finally saw Animal House (1978) for the first time over the course of the previous term.

With what can only be described as a manic glint in his eyes, my father began to grin enormously. I was certainly taken aback: not that he’s not a stoic guy, but he usually reserves that sort of enthusiasm for discussion of the Giants, maybe Alien (1979).

“How great is that scene when John Belushi’s looking in the sorority house window?” he asked. He needed to say no more (though he did proceed to mime John Belushi’s facial expression). It was a magical moment.

As my father impersonated that stupefied look of wonder that has doubtless been immortalized in some GIF over the stroganoff, it hit me. We had just instantly connected over the crudest of scenes (check out 00:35 in the trailer for a refresher), the type cinephiles deride regularly for having no deeper value, and yet it was all so elementally hilarious. I understood in that moment that Animal House is the best of that kind of film. The one you somehow have to watch over and over again with friends because it’s best with a group. The one that brings you together, that you can all agree is so great. The kind of film you throw away any vestige of political correctness or father-daughter decorum to appreciate.

We at Dartmouth may be most familiar with Animal House through a single image, John Belushi sporting a “COLLEGE” sweatshirt and bearing a perplexed look that is our dormitories’ homogeneous equivalent to the Bob Marley or rules of Fight Club (1999) print. This single film still pervades our campus, representing the side of Animal House we cherish—its half-baked vision of Greek and college life as the last and perhaps the most authentic chance to be childish and ridiculous and exploratory.

But as we all know, Animal House bears a complex legacy, aspects of which haunts the College to this day. Its privileged single-sex depiction of college life and binge drinking has indirectly represented the ultimate Dartmouth student as a social-climbing bro who can “drink inhuman amounts of beer, vomit profusely and keep on going, and perform a number of other hard-partying feats,” as Janet Reitman put it in her Rolling Stone article when she referenced the film.

For a low-budget ’70s comedy, Animal House still seems to get a lot of mileage in our present public image, and perhaps even a little our private visions of what student life is really like here. No doubt, Animal House’s legacy represents a double-edged sword for the College that it will never quite be able to shake, no matter how many films like Superbad (2007) or that future college-bound 21 Jump Street (2012) sequel may complicate its perception.

So I’m introducing Analyzing Animal House, a Cinephile series that will analyze the film scene-by-scene with the sort of detailed attention that it was probably never meant to be paid. In the process, I look to place Animal House within a cinematic and analytical context (Bluto and Harpo Marx; think about it) but primarily just want to appreciate its comedic genius (one word: Donald Sutherland), and, finally and examine its relevance to Dartmouth students today. What does it still say about us?

With Winter term in full throttle, we all need to reevaluate why we’re here — for one, it’s freezing out. Second, many of my friends are planning out their post-Dartmouth lives, corporate-bound and otherwise. Animal House is the ultimate film about college as the last hurrah before the plunge into adult reality. Really, who doesn’t want to be a Delta?

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

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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

The Cinephile: The Golden Globes Redeemed, Thanks to the Women

It was a universally-acknowledged truth that the Golden Globes were a sad excuse for an awards show — until last Sunday’s ceremony, when the women at the wheel rendered the much-maligned ceremony, however unlikely, into must-see television.

Historically, the Golden Globes have been haunted by the nebulous nature of the organization that awards them, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Originally a group of journalists intent on dispersing Hollywood products to untapped foreign markets, the HFPA now aims to “establish favorable relations and cultural ties…by the dissemination of information concerning the American culture and traditions as depicted in motion pictures and television,” and donate Golden Globes proceeds to charity.

But what gives a group of journalists and public relations personalities the qualifications to hand out annual awards for film quality? Like many aspects of the HFPA, that is unclear. (For more information, visit The Telegraph’s nifty little explanation).

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