SF Sketchfest Review: Animal House 40th Anniversary with Cast and Crew Panel Discussion

by Becka Robbins on January 23, 2018

The Deltas in front of their frat house.

The cast and crew from the classic movie Animal House assembled at the Castro Theatre for a panel discussion of the comedy classic in honor of its 40th anniversary. It is, as you may remember, vibrant with jokes that stand the test of time. The movie was groundbreakingly raunchy for its time, with sexual humor that seems tame now, but in 1978 challenged the ratings board, and caused the studio to resist its production until Donald Sutherland joined the cast. It was risque to show dildos on screen, and the gross out humor and blatant sexuality was new for the day. There were several scenes in which women, on a date, in a car, overlooking the city, were giving hand jobs in convertibles, expressing irritation and boredom at the laborious process of pleasuring their date, a scenario familiar to many adults. This was also one of the few jokes that seems to have been specifically penned for audience members who aren’t white men. “Is it supposed to be so soft?” asks the woman on their second encounter in the car.

There’s a lot to love about Animal House. The zit scene, in particular, stands out among the great moments of comedy, and there’s heart and realness to parts of the story – the scrappy outsiders don’t emerge with purely simple victory, but emerge triumphant from their carefully crafted chaos. The antiheroes who are sympathetic to the audience are well meaning in some ways, idiots in others, and experience genuine losses in the film. The villains are wealthy, narcissistic white men who browbeat those with less status than themselves – booing this sort of villain is as timeless as cinema and as American a pastime as a toga party. But there’s so much of the movie that hasn’t stood the test of time, and says a lot about the work we still have to do to create a more inclusive world. It’s true, as the director points out, that this movie was a product of its time. The director also talked a lot about the scriptwriting process, and how he came in and brought the screenplay to its final version because originally it was incredibly racist and misogynistic. I’m dying to know what elements were improved upon, because this movie fails on both of these metrics.

That’s the rub here — the director saw this version as an improvement, and it’s still, as awareness goes, pretty terrible, qualifying as a guilty pleasure. This movie, as magic as it is – the madcap ending in particular, with a wry visual play on the absurdity of marching bands, is particularly delightful – is painful to watch for those of us who work to be better. There’s animal cruelty, incessant fat shaming, liberal use of the words “faggot” and “retard” as blithe insults, and rape jokes. There’s an underage girl, and a confederate flag in a dorm room. There is a blatant lack of black people in meaningful roles. Those who do appear are either at the bar or in a band. There’s manipulation employed in order to get sex, and there’s casual racism, ableism, and antisemitism.  

The bar scene is noteworthy because it’s the only one in which any black character has a speaking part. The Deltas – our antihero protagonists –  pick up some dates from an all women college by pretending to be connected to a woman who was killed in a kiln explosion, and they venture to a bar with an all black clientele. Their attempts to ingratiate themselves go poorly, and they’re intimidated by men who demand to dance with their dates. They’re frightened and confused by the setting and while at the time, racial relations were even worse than today, the white point of view in this story is troublesome. The scene in which black men demand to dance with white woman seems to draws from some particularly dark history, particularly when one factors in the confederate and Tennessee flags that are displayed in the movie, all of which together bring to mind the story of Emmett Till. The white men ran in fear, while the women stayed back; it’s a display of white idiocy that often manifests as paranoia, and today, cuts a little too close to American racist narratives without actually being self aware.  

But again, the great scenes are epic. The golfing scene is deeply satisfying… how many of us have wanted to watch our most bitter of rivals pulled across a field by a startled horse, their feet trapped in the stirrups? It’s a nearly universal desire, once considered as an option. There are sublime details too. In the lobby of the dorm for the progressive women’s college there’s a flyer advertising a workshop on “Existential Dance Forms.” It rings as funny and close to home for anyone who’s ever been around progressive feminist spaces.

It was hard to watch director John Landis swell up with unquestioned pride at this movie, with no apparent self reflection, rattling off stories about haircuts and fighting with studios, while his movie splits evenly between comedy genius and references that are painfully out of touch. We’re plagued these days with a kind of edgy humor today that feeds like parasites on fat jokes or gay jokes or immigrant jokes, punching down and taking cheap shots at normal traits, like weight, that are seen as weaknesses. Animal House, for all its sublime brilliance – the pot smoking scene with Donald Sutherland will always be timeless – is guilty of this, and we have to acknowledge that our fave, in this case, is highly problematic.

 

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