Cinephile: Analyzing Animal House — An Introduction

By Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff | 2/6/13 10:30am

I had an enlightening moment over winter break.

During one of those formal holiday dinners we all have with family upon returning home from college, I mentioned briefly that I finally saw Animal House (1978) for the first time over the course of the previous term.

With what can only be described as a manic glint in his eyes, my father began to grin enormously. I was certainly taken aback: not that he’s not a stoic guy, but he usually reserves that sort of enthusiasm for discussion of the Giants, maybe Alien (1979).

“How great is that scene when John Belushi’s looking in the sorority house window?” he asked. He needed to say no more (though he did proceed to mime John Belushi’s facial expression). It was a magical moment.

As my father impersonated that stupefied look of wonder that has doubtless been immortalized in some GIF over the stroganoff, it hit me. We had just instantly connected over the crudest of scenes (check out 00:35 in the trailer for a refresher), the type cinephiles deride regularly for having no deeper value, and yet it was all so elementally hilarious. I understood in that moment that Animal House is the best of that kind of film. The one you somehow have to watch over and over again with friends because it’s best with a group. The one that brings you together, that you can all agree is so great. The kind of film you throw away any vestige of political correctness or father-daughter decorum to appreciate.

We at Dartmouth may be most familiar with Animal House through a single image, John Belushi sporting a “COLLEGE” sweatshirt and bearing a perplexed look that is our dormitories’ homogeneous equivalent to the Bob Marley or rules of Fight Club (1999) print. This single film still pervades our campus, representing the side of Animal House we cherish—its half-baked vision of Greek and college life as the last and perhaps the most authentic chance to be childish and ridiculous and exploratory.

But as we all know, Animal House bears a complex legacy, aspects of which haunts the College to this day. Its privileged single-sex depiction of college life and binge drinking has indirectly represented the ultimate Dartmouth student as a social-climbing bro who can “drink inhuman amounts of beer, vomit profusely and keep on going, and perform a number of other hard-partying feats,” as Janet Reitman put it in her Rolling Stone article when she referenced the film.

For a low-budget ’70s comedy, Animal House still seems to get a lot of mileage in our present public image, and perhaps even a little our private visions of what student life is really like here. No doubt, Animal House’s legacy represents a double-edged sword for the College that it will never quite be able to shake, no matter how many films like Superbad (2007) or that future college-bound 21 Jump Street (2012) sequel may complicate its perception.

So I’m introducing Analyzing Animal House, a Cinephile series that will analyze the film scene-by-scene with the sort of detailed attention that it was probably never meant to be paid. In the process, I look to place Animal House within a cinematic and analytical context (Bluto and Harpo Marx; think about it) but primarily just want to appreciate its comedic genius (one word: Donald Sutherland), and, finally and examine its relevance to Dartmouth students today. What does it still say about us?

With Winter term in full throttle, we all need to reevaluate why we’re here — for one, it’s freezing out. Second, many of my friends are planning out their post-Dartmouth lives, corporate-bound and otherwise. Animal House is the ultimate film about college as the last hurrah before the plunge into adult reality. Really, who doesn’t want to be a Delta?

Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff