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National Lampoon's False Dichotomy

I’m probably not supposed to admit it on a promotional page like this, where I’m presenting myself as permanently youthful and successful to any potential employers, but what the heck; I’m middle-aged. I’m in my forties. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ve probably figured that out; I was born in the seventies and grew up in the eighties. That latter decade was coming to an end as I entered college. I caught the tail end of an era, specifically in high schools and college campuses, of rampant alcohol abuse, grotesque sexual politics, mindless jingoism, and raging entitlement.

You know, like you’ve witnessed on the news this whole past week.

This is an arts blog, so I’m not going to go into too much detail concerning the Kavanaugh hearings. (Besides, do you need to hear me tell you about how horrific all of this is? Seriously? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?) There is something I’d like to point out, however, as somebody who was alive at the time we’ve all been hearing about. Something specific to the fraternity culture at the center of so much of this horror. And that’s that the whole greek system, in the years leading up to these events, had been on its way out. It was a relic of an older time, rendered irrelevant by the campus upheavals of the 1960s and the restructuring of co-ed campuses in the 1970s. It was something of an embarrassment, something best forgotten.

And then along came National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that Animal House isn’t anything but a stone-cold classic, because it is. It’s got some of the best ensemble acting of any comedy – just look at how even the most minor characters relate to each other, how lived-in the whole world is. The period details are far more specific than they need to be. The music in particular is a marvel of the craft – both the period choices on the soundtrack and the hugely influential Elmer Bernstein score. But if the movie is strong enough to warrant this kind of analysis, that means we can also analyze the effect it had on the culture at large.

And that effect was to bring the fraternity system back to life, and with it a whole culture of binge drinking and sexual behavior that we rightly view today as assault. As hosts of recent think pieces have pointed out of late – this is the movie’s 40th anniversary, after all – it made it all look cool.

Pointing this out, however, doesn’t seem to change anybody’s attitudes or behavior. And I think the movie’s structure has a lot to do with that – specifically, the whole “snobs vs slobs” dichotomy that Animal House popularized, that ruled film comedy for a decade and more thereafter.

In other words – if you watched Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony, and were horrified, you were likely to view him as the epitome of the awful Omega house that serve as the movie’s villains. After all, they’ve been surrogates for evil government types for forty years now. But if by some chance you found him sympathetic (and somehow you spend your spare time reading actor blogs, which is a little incongruous), he was the embodiment of those good-hearted Deltas rebelling against the hypocrisy of the establishment and the system. That would appear to be how he sees himself, after all. In either event, even if you admit that the behavior is horrible, you can view it as belonging to that other house. Certainly not your own.

And that’s the whole problem with the slobs vs snobs dichotomy. Deep down, the two camps have the same messed-up values. They want the same thing. Of course, Belushi is utterly lovable and we can’t help but root for the protagonists. That’s good movie-making.

But in real life?

The thing we need to remember is that in real life, the snobs and the slobs are both the villains.

Do you need somebody from that movie to actually emulate? Look on the margins of the frame. The admirable characters in Animal House are the ones we never see – the students in the background actually studying and trying to learn things. The people of the town of Faber who do their best trying to keep the campus running. Mohammet, Jugdish, Sydney and Clayton – the misfit rush candidates from the very beginning of the movie. I’d trust those guys on the Supreme Court more than anybody else.

So, if you’re looking for some Faber graduate to lead this nation – literally or metaphorically – it’s time to accept that neither the snobs nor the slobs are up to the task. (The judgment of the voters of Senator Blutarsky’s home state notwithstanding.) It’s time to look elsewhere on that campus.

Might I suggest somebody from the theater department?

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