Tag Archives: Jean Vigo

Animal House (1978)

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.

Zero for Conduct (1933) If…(1968)

While Lindsay Anderson’s film “If….”, the story of a violent rebellion at a fictional English boarding school, is usually considered a classic of the 1960s counterculture, it’s always left me feeling cold. As I wrote last year, I’m not English. I’ve never been to a “public” (that is private) school, and I’ve always hated Malcolm McDowell. I also found the use of professional actors in their 20s to play teenage boys confusing.

“Another difficulty is the decision the director made to cast actors in their mid-20s as public school “boys.’” The lead, Malcolm McDowell, was born in 1943. That made him 25 when they filmed “If!.” Christine Noonan, “the girl,” was born in 1945. That made her 23. Since the premise of the film is a rebellion by the juniors against the “whips,” upper sixth form boys who are given the power to discipline the younger students in lieu of the school’s faculty members, that adds yet another level of complexity. Robert Swan, who plays “Rowntree,” McDowell’s nemesis, was only 23 at the time of the film, but he’s got thinning hair and looks positively middle-aged. It’s easy to go through the whole film just assuming “the whips” are teachers.”

If…. is an homage and a loose remake of Zero for Conduct, a film by the great French director Jean Vigo.

Vigo,who died at the age of 29 after directing the classic film L’Atalante, was the son of the French anarchist Miguel Almereyda. Almereyda, a well-known opponent of French militarism, was imprisoned twice, once in 1908, for writing in favor of the mutiny at Narbonne, and the second time in 1917. Accused of treason – of taking payments from the German government – he was later found dead in his cell, strangled with his own bootlaces. The official cause of death was suicide.

Since Jean Vigo and his parents had to spend most of the First World War on the run, the stress of his childhood probably contributed to his early death. Nevertheless, while Zero for Conduct, which was banned in France for 13 years, was inspired by Vigo’s early years of being shuttled from boarding school to boarding school, living under assumed name, always one step ahead of his father’s reputation, it is not an angry, or a hopeless film. Quite the contrary, Zero for Conduct, like If…., is a celebration of youthful rebellion against tyranny. The difference between the two films, however, is that while If… is violent and heavy-handed, Zero for Conduct is light and playful. If…. is a political attack on the authoritarianism of the English ruling class. Zero for Conduct, on the other hand, while also a political film, goes deeper. It’s an assertion of spontaneity against the rigid mentality of bourgeois civilization, of play against work, a gesture of rebellion against the very idea of becoming an adult.

After having watched Zero for Conduct, I believe that Lindsay Anderson intentionally cast adult actors in his remake. The world is a much darker place than even Jean Vigo realized, Anderson is saying. Vigo’s playful teenage rebels become, in Anderson’s film, violent young adults. The British Empire has colonized, not only India, but childhood itself. If….’s Rowntree, a sneering middle-aged adult in the body of a 23-year-old teenager, is an example of how imperialism not only changes borders, but human nature. There can be no playful assertion of childhood against maturity because the class-bound English system of education has preempted it. The teachers in Zero for Conduct are either benign or ineffectual. The headmaster in If… is a distant old man, but he’s anything but ineffectual since he’s successfully delegated his authority to the older boys, who have become, by consequence, swaggering bullies, leering pedophiles, or effete snobs. The “deatheaters” (to use a term currently popular on social media) have reached their grubby fingers into the dreams of boyhood and strangled the poetic imagination in its cradle.

Malcolm McDowell’s Travis, therefore, and Christine Noonan’s The Girl, therefore, are not only violent rebels against the authoritarian class-system, they are a warning of what kind of monsters even the diminished British Empire can produce. Where Jean Vigo’s prep school rebels throw fruit, Anderson’s young adults fire machine guns and throw grenades. Indeed, while If… was filmed in 1968, Lindsey Anderson effectively predicted the Columbine and Sandy Hook Massacres. If the childlike instinct of play is not allowed to grow and flourish, it can, in extreme cases, come back in its demonic form, as the young adult urge to commit mass murder. Anderson, who probably saw McDowell’s Travis as a hero and a rebel, did not quite realize how far ahead of his time he was. That would take Stanley Kubrick, who would cast Malcolm McDowell, only two years later, as the young fascist Alex in his nightmarish A Clockwork Orange.

L’Atalante (1934)

Jean Vigo, the director of L’Atalante, has always had a certain mystique.

“The ranks of the great film directors are short on Keatses and Shelleys,” Andrew Johnston of the New York Times writes, “young artists cut off in their prime, leaving behind a handful of great works that suggest what might have been. But one who qualifies is Jean Vigo, the French director who died of tuberculosis at age 29 in 1934.”

Jean Vigo was also the the son of the French anarchist Miguel Almereyda.

Almereyda, a well-known opponent of French militarism, was imprisoned twice, once in 1908, for writing in favor of the mutiny at Narbonne, and the second time in 1917. Accused of treason – of taking payments from the German government – he was later found dead in his cell, strangled with his own bootlaces. The official cause of death was given as “suicide,” but Almereyda, who had enemies ranging from Léon Daudet on the far-right to Georges Clemenceau the social democratic left, was almost certainly murdered.

The stress of Jean Vigo’s childhood probably contributed to his early death. He and his parents had to spend most of the First World War on the run, and he had to go to boarding school under an assumed name. Sometime in his early 20s he contracted tuberculosis. His first film, Zero for Conduct, was banned in France for 13 years.

Getting banned in France, like getting banned in Boston, is more often than not the sign of genius. Godard’s first movie, Le Petit Soldat, and the revolutionary epic The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo both shared that honor. Had Vigo died even before he made L’Atalante, Zero for Conduct would have assures his place in the pantheon of cinematic rebels.

At first glance, L’Atalante is no Zero for Conduct, Le Petit Soldat, or Battle of Algiers. It’s an intimate, seemingly apolitical film about a working-class couple who marry in haste, quarrel, separate, and, in the end, fall into each other’s arms to live happily ever after. But L’Atalante is no more apolitical than one of Joyce’s Dubliners. A quiet slice of life that leads to an epiphany can be just as revolutionary as a riot, or an NLF bomb in the European quarter of Algiers.

Dita Parlo plays Juliette, a village girl. The film opens with her wedding to Jean, a riverboat captain. There is no wedding banquet. They barely even know the wedding party. What’s more, the bride and groom go straight from the alter to L’Atalante, the barge Jean pilots up and down the Seine from Paris to L’Havre. It’s a working honeymoon. Dita Parlo was 28 when she starred in L’Atalante, but Juliette seems more like 18 or 19. She had no real idea of what she was getting herself into. L’Atalante is no luxury liner. It’s not one of Mark Twain’s Mississippi riverboats. It’s Jean’s workplace. To put yourself in Juliette’s shoes, try to imagine going to your husband’s office, shop, or factory every day to watch him work, but not having a job there yourself.

Juliette has little to do but stare at the riverbank and make a nuisance of herself. Soon, L’Atalante’s crew, a young man known only as “the boy,” and Pere Jules, an eccentric old sailor played by the 39-year-old Michel Simon, begin to resent her presence. She’s disruptive. She hates the old man’s cats. She tries to take control of the housekeeping. They call her “the boss lady,” partly to mock her, but also partly in acknowledgement that she’s a genuinely formidable character under her initial naiveté.

Jean, in turn, resents Juliette when she succeeds in making friends with Jules. She listens to his stories. She looks through his more experienced eyes as the window into the world of travel and adventure she had dreamed about. She sees a photo of a good looking man in his 20s and initially thinks it’s a young Jules. Jean bursts into Jules’ cabin, surprising his wife and his employee. He shoves Juliette. He starts breaking Jules’ keepsakes. He’s no longer a loving young husband. He’s an abusive boss.

L’Atalante shows how in many working-class families there’s no distinction between the workplace and the home, no difference between sex and the economy. What’s more, it does it so subtly that halfway through the film we’ve half forgotten Jules and Juliette are on their honeymoon. Jean and Juliette aren’t the poorest of the poor. Jean has a job during the Great Depression. But the more you think about L’Atalante, the more you realize that Juliette has the patience of a saint. At times she seems too beautiful to be married to a dull, river barge captain. Jean doesn’t seem to know how lucky he’s gotten. She wants to play a game where you look into a bucket of water and see your lover’s image. Jean makes fun of her. She’s excited about hearing a radio broadcast from Paris. Radio was new in 1934. Jean doesn’t think it’s a big deal. When they finally get to Paris, Jean offers to take her out for a night on the town, but Jules spoils it by sneaking off L’Atalante first to go visit a fortune teller/hooker. When Jean finally takes Juliette out to eat — he seems to think it’s an extraordinary act of generosity to take his wife out to eat on their honeymoon — he resents how much she’s entertained by an itinerant street musician/magician and flies into yet another jealous rage.

Yet Jean isn’t a horrible person at all. He’s just a working-class guy so consumed with his job that he neglects his wife. After he assaults the street musician, and Juliette jumps ship to explore the city for the night, he continues on his way to L’Havre. It’s an extraordinary act of selfishness and cruelty, but he soon realizes just how much he’s lost. Juliette, in turn, realizes that while Jean isn’t exactly Prince Charming, she genuinely loves him. A few days of separation feel like a lifetime. They start to dream about each other, their dreams complete with a very frank depiction of them masturbating while they think of each other, a scene that surely never would have passed the Hays Code in Hollywood. They reunite. We realize that they won’t separate again, that Jean and Juliette, like my grandparents’ generation, have decided to make their marriage work in spite of all of the difficulties. There’s no fairy tale happy ending in L’Atalante, just two working-class people who have decided to see the beautiful in their mundane proletarian existence.

Vigo’s camera reflects Jean and Juliette’s sense of “poetic realism.” Indeed, he’s credited with founding the tradition. The light and shadows on the Seine, the fantasy sequences underwater, the city lights along the riverbank, even the radio news bulletin from Paris, ordinary life becomes wondrous and enchanted. The working-class will not only survive, Vigo is telling us. Jean and Juliette will raise a family, have grandchildren, grow old and die together, a practical utopia that Vigo, with his playboy radical father, life on the run, and early death by tuberculosis, never got to see for himself.