. . . Animal House

. . .

It's nice to find out that Lynda Barry is a fellow member of the Class of Jimmy Carter. During that high tide of financial aid, my fancy-pants liberal arts college was pretty much as affordable as Northwest Missouri State. And though the shock of those first encounters with the upper crusts was painful, it was also way too central and complicated an experience to regret.

Not that anyone was waiting for my opinion to resolve its ambiguity. By the time I graduated, a few years of Reaganomics had ensured a shock-free campus whose incoming class seemed split between rich kids who wanted to be the heroes in Animal House and rich kids who wanted to be the bad guys in Animal House.

Which is how it should be, says Nicholas Lemann, who I quote:

I'm more with the American people on this.
mostly 'cause of the patrician tang of that old speakeasy password "the American people": Nicholas Lemann, the American people; the American people, Nicholas Lemann... Nicholas Lemann is the one with the suit.

Lemann is appalled that scholarship kids, in contrast to preppies, are so often intent on selfish ends. But if we drop that nasty pseudo-egalitarian testing crap, how do we decide who should be allowed four years of private school? Simple: we only pick those who have already successfully completed four years of private school!

You should make judgments about people not prospectively based on a score but in real time based on how well they perform the activity for which they are being selected.
Which makes sense as long as you never want anyone to learn anything new. And Plato says you can't really learn anything new anyway, so there you go.

. . .

Movie comment: National Lampoon's Animal House

I'm dumb, I know, but even so, I know a thing or two I learned from school.

Like I learned that America has a class system.

I learned limits to my charm, and to my death wish.

I also tried to learn French, but that didn't go so good.

With the aid of Animal House I learned two especially useful lessons.

  1. The first doesn't need teaching any more, but screen comedy was different in the 1970s. Leaving Neil Simon adaptations outside the category of the cinematic, there were Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and the hippie sketch compilations; Allen had just begun making his self-adoration more explicit, but we hadn't yet realized just how exclusive the townhouse was, it was so startling to see any warmth at all. Otherwise, nothing but parodies: very cold, very stand-offish.

    Reviewers called the subgenre established by Animal House "slob comedy," which missed the point. These weren't just any slobs; they were lovable slobs. Bluto didn't just smash the folkie's guitar; he apologized for it. Like the Shakespeare comedy, the Congreve comedy, and the Lubitsch comedy, the slob comedy assured us that everyone failed, everyone was foolish, everyone was immoral, and that everything would be OK once everyone recognized these things.

    The definitive slob comedy would come a few years later, while John Landis's best film would be in that other great '80s genre, high-budget horror (albeit with a slob comedy protagonist). But Animal House came first.

    That's the historical context. There was a biographical context too, but suffice it I learned that the comedy of forgiveness temporarily shrinks swelling and relieves burning in an inflamed soul.

  2. The second was what happens to lessons that don't need teaching anymore.

    Over the next few years, the incoming classes had all seen Animal House, and they knew what a small liberal arts Quaker college was supposed to be like: A fraternity in a segregated football school in the early 1960s. And they'd picked up an essential point I'd missed. In lovable slob comedies, the lovable slob POV was always a teenage boy. He was forgiven; everyone else could go to hell.

    Meanwhile, somewhere off-campus, Reagan took office. Financial aid went under the knife and emerged as the stomach-stapled system of today.

    Thus began the reign of the self-satisfied preppie, which turned out no better than the reign of the self-satisfied hippie. These boys had been presented with a platinum credit line of forgiveness even before their consciences had dropped. And they put it to use.

    What I learned from this, I suppose I could have learned just as well back home, by more closely observing the indefinitely renewable spiritual bankruptcy of those bible-thumpers who sinned at length, and were caught, and loudly and briefly repented, and then, excuse the interruption, returned to the fire and brimstone.... In my adult surroundings, folks have tended to switch brandnames -- Earth First to Transcendental Meditation to EST to PETA to the Atkins Diet -- but otherwise the cycle stays the same: Wash in the blood of the lamb; a new lamb born every minute.

    I might even have derived my lesson from the ruination wreaked on the National Lampoon itself by that shit-eating manicure-licking hound, P. J. O'Rourke (who's just slapped his name on the front of a cheap-ass reprint of liberal Doug Kenney's High School Yearbook).

    But the point is I learned it. And it's stood me well as I've seen feminism used to attack and exploit women, and Affirmative Action used to club financially-based assistance and financial need used to club Affirmative Action, and humor and honesty used to justify ignorance and intolerance, and middle class vertigo used to eliminate taxes on lazy parasites, and hip-hop's exuberance harnessed to reinforce racist fears and fantasies, and the bizarre rise, flight, and fall of the techno-utopian flock, and, back in the world of warm forgiving movie comedies, as Wes Anderson decided to drop the pretense that less-than-wealthy characters held any interest for him.

    It may be the only lesson ever learned by my fellow mediocre student, George W. Bush, whose every blundering disaster has been picked up and applied without a moment of hesitation or shame.

    That lesson being:

    Any effective liberatory tool will promptly be re-purposed to make the powerful more powerful.
    Or, from a higher viewpoint:
    Park Avenue finds its own use for things.
    Or, from a lower:
    Free your ass and your wallet will follow.

. . .

Errata Diaeta

A reader puts words or something like them in our mouth:

nobody likes me, everbody hates me just because i eat worms

Speaking of unwisely tossed off asides in rants about straitened access to higher education, Peli Grietzer writes, regarding my Animal House tribute:

I stumbled, in an old post, upon a peripheral declaration I found very interesting and provoking - "... as Wes Anderson decided to drop the pretense that less-than-wealthy characters held any interest for him." - and felt an urge to comment, as old as it was. I'm not quite sure if it was meant as an accusation or merely an observation, and consequently not sure if I'm attempting to practice apologetics or am just riffing, but as I see Anderson has no interest whatsoever in the wealthy - He is purely interested the extravagantly rich, and that's a fundamental distinction: It's no longer an issue of an aristocratic choice of social-economic milieu, obfuscated as natural and commonsensical, but of writing about the stuff of legend.

In his work there's a romantic, imaginary artifice of aristocracy that has more to do with Oberon's court or the minor Olympic Gods than with the modern upper class. (Though with Paris Hilton and everything I might not have a good grasp on how surreal the upper-class truly is, but still.)

His interest seem to be in characters utterly removed from life's usual concerns not in a manner mimetic or reflective of any social phenomenon, but in a glorified, accented and fantastical way, either because they went so far up the social ladder they are utterly unaware of its struggles (the Tennenbaum kids), and thus even when broke and working as elevator-boys they do not feel any hardship (Royal Tennenbaum), or because they have no intention to struggle up the social ladder, but have a pretty easy time getting by with nearly no money (Dignen from Bottle Rocket), or because they're still kids and have no obligations or constraints (Rushmore), or because they live on a submarine and go hunting sharks (Life Aquatic). But the key feature here is that all those life-styles a presented in an equally magnified, unrealistic manner, not as defaults but as extravagant imaginations- a kind of an idealized projection of fundamental emotional and existential (god I wish there was a better word for this) concerns into a plane without necessities or concrete outside limitations where only choice and emotional constraints are factors (thought it's only about 70% true about Bottle Rocket).

Anderson isn't producing a biased, snobbish vision of social reality- he isn't producing a vision of social reality at all. I like to think of Wes Anderson as kind of the ultimate Fuck You to Jameson (not the whisky).


Paul Kerschen writes:

I was talking yesterday to our mutual friend J.F., and she was explaining how in the stories she used to write at age eleven the main characters were generally princesses, because they were the only ones who had the right resources -- if you want to write a scene at the ocean involving whales or something, the princess can just up and go to the ocean. Given how Anderson's films are either about childhood or weird overgrown children, I always figured that was his idea also. I quite like the later films, but don't find anything in them as affecting as the scenes in Rushmore where Max, who can't always rely on Bill Murray's millions, actually has to work to protect his fantasy and ends up lying about his poor barber dad, etc. There's a binocular vision there, while later on, in order to preserve the integrity of the fantastic, Anderson elects to close one eye.

The original context of my remark probably made clear that it sprang from an idiosyncratic case of class resentment or maybe class petulance. I enjoyed the fantasy of a non-wealthy character being painfully but harmlessly ridiculous; it was nice to get that break. Clearly, though, a large American audience doesn't require such eccentricity. And The Life Aquatic's dud tragedy clearly indicates that Anderson should continue to stay far away from consequences.

I like your way of putting it. It's fun to picture Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou pulling out a spy glass, making like Popeye, and scanning the backdropped horizon....

. . .

The cultural hegemony which brought you Like Water for Chocolate and Kolya proudly presents

From a place you've never heard of...
with people you'll never meet...
comes a story you've heard before.

A story...
of forbidden passion...
between attractive actors...
fully-clothed on a table top.

A story...
of three children...
and Grandpa...
and laughing or crying or quietly smiling or with their incomprehensible gibberish drowned out by music...
in a land of peace...
and landscaping...
in the shadow of broken glassware...
and of the secret that will forever change their lives...


Yap. Our American Pie equivalents [or our Animal House equivalents if you want to be really nice about it] -- the "Lemon Popsicle" series films -- are marketed in the U.S as art-films. Peli

And the closest thing the USA has to a high-culture broadcast network showed endless re-runs of Are You Being Served. Because any inanity turns intellectual in a British accent.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.