While Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct and Linsday Anderson’s If… are both highly regarded by cinophiles and students of radical politics, neither film is well-known in the United States. If…’s American remake, on the other hand, is one of the most iconic films of the 1970s. It was also one of the most influential, laying the groundwork, not only for the coming of age film of the 1980s, but also for the revived dominance of the fraternity system in the American university.
I’m talking, of course, about Animal House.
Animal House, produced by the National Lampoon, and written by recent Ivy League graduates Chris Miller and Douglas Kenney, is a brilliant, but highly misunderstood film. It is also something of an enigma. How did a film that seems like a rousing call to arms against a snobbish, elitist WASP fraternity and a tyrannical, Richard-Nixon-like college dean become such a massive hit in 1978, only two years before the election of Ronald Reagan? Just like Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, Animal House ends with a student insurrection. Outside the movie theaters, however, the country was only a few years away from the war on drugs, “just say no,” and a massive increase in the prison industrial complex.
The plot of Animal House is so well-known that it’s not really worth going into a detailed summary, but it is worth pointing out how closely it parallels If…
If…’s “Whips,” the seventh form boys who dominate Lyndsay Anderson’s loosely fictionalized Eton College, become the Omega Theta Pi fraternity. Rowntree becomes Greg Marmaland, a young Karl Rove who gets tapped by the tyrannical Dean Wormer of “Faber College” — a loosely fictionalized Dartmouth — as his student informer and right hand man. Anderson’s “Crusaders,” the rebellious sixth form boys lead by Malcolm McDowell’s Travis become the Delta Tau Chi fraternity. Travis himself becomes “Otter,” a smarmy, womanizing preppy played by Tim Matheson. On the surface, Animal House is about a conflict between the right and the left. The Omegas put their pledges through a Skull and Bones like initiation ritual. The Deltas take just about anybody. The Deltas smoke pot with a hip English professor played by Donald Sutherland. An Omega, Douglas Niedermeyer, not only runs the Faber College ROTC program, he takes it far too seriously, savagely bullying his recruits, and riding around on a white horse like some 20-year-old preppy boy General George S. Patton.
A closer examination, however, reveals that Animal House is anything but a leftist film, that it’s actually a very clever attack on the counter culture of the 1960s, a blueprint for the reactionary student culture of the Reagan years. Animal House is, in fact, such cleverly framed right-wing propaganda that its difficult to point out its motives without looking like a politically correct killjoy. Chris Miller and Douglas Kenney, whether consciously or not, have hammered the 1960s stereotype of conservatives as prigs into a potent far-right attack on the left that survives today. Dean Wormer yells “no more fun of any kind” at the Deltas. Today’s social justice warriors demand that young men play “Depression Quest” instead of Grand Theft Auto.
Animal House is, in effect, one long dare to be a “good sport.” The funniest jokes are also the most offensive. Do we laugh? Or do we do the right thing and say “that’s really not funny.” Like pledges at a fraternity house, we are put through increasingly unpleasant, and yet increasingly hilarious hazing rituals. It’s easy, for example, to laugh at John Blutarsky when he smashes a “sensitive” guy’s folk guitar. Who doesn’t hate bad folk music? It gets a little more difficult when Blutarsky and Steven Furst’s Kent Dorfman sneak Doug Niedermeyer’s white horse into the Dean’s office and “accidentally” scare him to death with a gun full of blanks. Do we say “you know killing an animal crosses the line?” Or do we laugh and join all the rest of the fun loving bros?
Animal House gets more challenging to our sense of right and wrong, and even funnier, when it makes jokes about rape. There are, in fact, three rape jokes, each more hilarious than the last. We can probably be forgiven for laughing when we’re told that the Karl Rove like Greg Marmaland got involved in Watergate and later got raped in prison. Who wouldn’t like to see his favorite right-wing asshole Nixonian dirty trickster go to federal prison and get taken to the showers? Similarly, when John Blutarsky, dressed up as a pirate, kidnaps the insufferable WASP cheerleader and sorority girl Mandy Pepperidge, you’d have to be a real killjoy to point it out and say “you know that’s actually rape.” After all, Mandy was the girl who laughed at you in high school. The scene is also so ridiculous, so obviously not real, so over the top that it’s almost a cartoon. She enjoyed it anyway.
The film’s statutory rape is another story.
Like Tom Hulce’s Larry Kroger, Douglas Kenney, who went insane and died in 1980 at the age of 33, was given the nickname “Pinto.” Kroger is clearly meant to be autobiographical. So what are we to make of it when he debates about whether not he should fuck an unconscious drunken girl, then fucks her anyway after she tells him she’s only 13? Sarah Holcomb, the actress who played Clorette DePasto, is actually 18 and looks it. Tom Hulce is 24 and looks much younger. Left to our own devices we would assume they were more or less the same age. So why does Kenney go out of his way to dare us to laugh, not only at the rape of a drunken girl, but at the rape of a drunken, under age girl? Is it an oblique confession about his own behavior? Or has he just rubbed our nose in a pile of shit and dared us to laugh? Have we, in effect, put our sense of right and wrong in a blind trust, and given its control to Kenney and Miller? My guess would be the latter.
Zero for Conduct, If…, and Animal House all end with a student insurrection against corrupt and tyrannical school administrators. But if we look more closely at the “rebellion” at the end of Animal House we realize it’s anything but, that we’ve been duped. It’s not a rebellion at all.
The cause of the violent rebellion at the end of If… is easy enough to figure out. Travis and the sixth form boys are leading the resistance to western imperialism by attacking a mouldy, fascist old British public school. The non-violent rebellion of the boarding school students in Zero for Conduct is initially provoked by the refusal of an androgynous boy to accept a favor from a lecherous, obviously pedophile science teacher. But it’s also about the joy of rebellion for the sake of rebellion. There’s a reason Jean Vigo cast child actors in the role. We can see the joy of resistance in their faces, the anarchic pleasure of slipping the control of the adult world.
But why exactly do the Deltas trash the Faber homecoming parade? Like the boys in Zero for Conduct, it’s partly rebellion for the sake of rebellion. As Donald Sutherland’s English professor says in his class on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is the poem’s hero. It’s more fun to be bad then to be good. But it’s more than that. The Deltas are having fun, but it’s not necessarily about destroying power. Rather, it’s about seizing power.
Wormer, in fact, for all of his Nixonian aura, isn’t a very effective tyrant. Otter has already fucked his wife, Marion Wormer, not incidentally played by Medium Cool’s Verna Bloom. If the authority figures in Zero for Conduct are equally ineffectual, there’s still an important difference. The boys at Jean Vigo’s boarding school rise up, spontaneously, as one. The people of Faber are manipulated like puppets by their intellectual superiors. Rarely have rioters looked this worn out, this apathetic. They look nothing like angry, militant protesters. They look more like stupid sheep.
Who are we laughing at if not ourselves? We have laughed at jokes about rape, racist jokes, jokes about cruelty to animals, anything, in fact, the writers have dared us to laugh at. We have put our ability to think on hold for fear of being “political,” or being killjoys, or of being too stupid to get the joke. But the joke is on us. Indeed, when “Stork,” played by Douglas Kenney himself, steals a baton from a drum major and marches an unthinking marching band right into a brick wall, we like to think we’re Stork. In reality, we’re part of the band.