A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.
1978: You Can’t Tell Me What To Do!!!!
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (dir. John Landis)
A thing people love to say when they talk about movies (usually in the wider context of complaining how society is going to hell because the PC thugs/woke police/whatever is stifling us, maaaaaan) is that “this movie just couldn’t get made today.” And the thing is, that’s usually a completely useless observation. Social mores shift and culture changes. That’s natural; it’s always happened and it’s always going to happen until nature or human nature manages to kill us all off. Sure, maybe a studio wouldn’t greenlight Animal House to be shot with this script now; but at the same time, no studio would have come within 30 miles of Bottoms in 1978.
I guess my point is that the boundaries of what’s acceptable just naturally move with time, and movies move within that space. And more than that, comedies in particular exist within the specific cultural context in which they were made.* Comedy comes from breaking social norms, either shared or otherized, and those norms move with time.** Something that’s outrageous and boundary-pushing in 1955 might be completely unremarkable by 1980.
*this is why so many old comedies, and old comedy in other forms, can get so inaccessible. That doesn’t always happen, and it’s a treasure when you get something like a Marx Brothers film that stays funny through the ages; but it happens a lot. If you doubt me, go listen to some audio of The Goon Show, a British radio comedy that a frankly shocking number of midcentury British luminaries cite as the funniest, most formative and incisive thing they’ve ever heard. To my modern American ears it comes off as impenetrable, irritating as hell, and totally devoid of humor. But who am I to tell Johns Lennon and Cleese that they don’t know what’s clever and funny?
**By the way, when I was younger I had an almost superstitious belief that you should never, ever try to analyze why something’s funny, lest you spoil the magic and remove the funny. The older I get, the less I see it that way. If anything, figuring out *why* something’s funny often makes it funnier, and following the humor back to the bigger point is usually pretty worthwhile one way or another.
So, Animal House, a movie of 1978. If it was a comedy of its time, and comedies work by challenging norms, what norms were Animal House challenging? That there should be rules on campus?
I’m kidding, but only kind of. That’s the most literal reading of what’s going on, and not super useful. But it gets a lot clearer if you take exactly one step back in abstraction: the movie’s about the boys of Delta House being sick of being told what to do by the Dean and the more establishment students; the overall point of most of the jokes in Animal House boil down to some form of “YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”
Harold Ramis didn’t look like a guy who walked around simmering with rage at the thought of being told what to do. But if you look at the comedies he wrote, it’s right there. That’s the common theme of almost all of them: Animal House, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, and so on. These are all good-to-great movies, and by classifying them I don’t mean to shit on them. But it’s fascinating to me how much the spirit of “you can’t tell me what to do” runs through Ramis’ filmography (both as a writer and a director). And it’s fascinating how much that message resonates with Americans, especially the boomers who dominated mainstream film audiences in Ramis’ hot run (and who as a group are largely bringing a poisonous form of that same spirit to American politics on their way out). In 1978, and a while after, Americans just really didn’t like the idea of being told what to do. There are days when I still feel like that’s sort of the unspoken national religion.
I’ve gotten this far without really engaging with the movie; to be honest, that’s intentional. What’s left to say? Animal House is either funny for you or it isn’t. For me, these days, it mostly isn’t.
I think I’ve just seen it too many times, and maybe just mentally moved to a point where a guy having an angel and devil sitting on his shoulders debating whether he should rape a girl isn’t really a joke that lands for me. There are definitely still some bits that work for me—Belushi’s “when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech is immortal, as is the bit where he smashes the guitar; the dean pulling out double-secret probation is fantastic; and Kevin Bacon’s ROTC kid insisting that all is well is *perfect*. But overall, these days it’s just not for me. John Landis being a negligent shithead sure doesn’t help.
If it still lands as funny with you, I certainly don’t want to talk you out of it! If there are parts that haven’t aged well for me, well, there are lots of movies that I still find uproariously funny even as I recognize that there’s a lot of stuff in there that has to have a bunch of asterisks attached to it (hello, gay panic subplot in A Fish Called Wanda). We all have our boundaries with older stuff and that’s fine! It’s much more than I’m just kind of tired of it than I am offended by it.
Or who knows: maybe getting kind of tired of Animal House (and, coincidentally, a couple of other movies with the National Lampoon brand attached) is one last way of rebelling against my parents, boomers who insisted that this was the funniest thing ever created by humans.
Next up in 1979: a movie that I like A LOT.