Sunday, April 18, 2004

Video: National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

Several factors made me want to revisit this movie. A recent repeat of a SIMPSONS episode where Homer sings the closing song. The new Mountain Dew ads featuring Elmer Bernstein’s music and a voiceover from Dean Wormer (John Vernon) himself. And an article in the New Yorker’s current humor issue, which I haven’t yet read, positing that Harold Ramis, through his work as a writer or director beginning with this film, codified the rules for a new school of American comedy.

My first reaction: I’d never seen this movie uncut before. All the handjob jokes? New to me. Sad, I know. But the movie was quite controversial in its day. When the Catholic Church came out against it, my parents wouldn’t even let me read the MAD magazine parody of it. My parents always had problems with the magazine anyway. (I could have said they had issues with the magazine, but I didn’t. No need to thank me.) One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking down the hall of our building to throw my copy of MORE SNAPPY ANSWERS TO STUPID QUESTIONS into the incinerator while my mother watched from the apartment doorway. Fortunately, this moment had little effect on me.

Hang on. I need a minute.

My second reaction: I’d forgotten how influential this movie is. It contains so many lines and bits of business that have entered everyday usage (especially among guys, go figure) that looking at the film now is like unearthing the Rosetta Stone of comedy. It has even more of an impact, though, in terms of style. The movie is sarcastic and kind of lazy; not a whole lot happens. The good guys are better than the jerks (it’s giving the movie way too much credit to call them bad guys), but not by much. The main difference is that their jokes are funnier, their pranks more appealing. In essence this is the first big comedy not of manners, character or situation, but of mood. The movie’s not actually all that funny, but it’s still entertaining because you enjoy hanging out with the Deltas. Hell, you could even BE one of them. That’s what ANIMAL HOUSE is: the first hangout comedy.

It has had an outsized effect; most comedies have appropriated its hazy rhythms. Sometimes the filmmakers remember to include the pleasant buzz; I offer as Exhibit A the Broken Lizard troupe’s 2002 movie SUPER TROOPERS, which I’ve seen more times than I can count. But most of the imitators simply cop the attitude without backing it up. Witness 2003’s OLD SCHOOL, which treats its characters shabbily and can’t be bothered to cook up a plot as half-assed as the one in ANIMAL HOUSE.

I wouldn’t mind it so much if we got the occasional comedy made in some other mode, but lately they seem few and far between. There was a nice flurry in the late ‘90s with movies like ELECTION and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, but the movement never quite got off the ground. And I’m unwilling to put any additional pressure on Charlie Kaufman.

TV: The Apprentice, 4/15

Another reality show I was sort of paying attention to. Thanks to the Internet and West Coast living, I didn’t have to watch a minute of the finale. I just logged on to the web once the live telecast ended and found out that Bill has to listen to Trump for another year. This is a prize?