The Cinephile: Analyzing Animal House — the tragedy of the dissatisfied frat girlfriend

By Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff | 3/6/13 6:00am

Before tackling Animal House’s take on college administration (a theme that must be of interest to us all as Dartmouth prepares for the presidential transition in July), I’d like to consider the pause inserted quietly between the behemoth juxtapositions of Delta and the Administration “Bvilding.”

Often overlooked, the scene in which Delta brother Boone unconvincingly comforts his dissatisfied girlfriend Katy nevertheless acts as one of the most applicable moments in Animal House to modern life at Dartmouth. Or at least to anyone familiar with the age-old Dartmouth tradition of consoling friends moping over the un-dateability of guys they meet in basements over FoCo brunch.

Every one of those tired complaints emerges here: frat brothers are immature (Boone charms Katy merely by pouting, it seems). They value bro-bonding over campus romance — as soon as Boone proposes a weekend at Katy’s parents’ place, she automatically assumes the trip will include Boone’s frat buddies riding along to “empty my parents’ liquor cabinet,” and she’s not entirely wrong. Boone says, “It’s just going to be you and me…and Otter and another girl.” (For more on Animal House’s fascinating homosocial bonds, visit the previous Analyzing Animal House post).

We can’t forget narcissistic, either. While Katy has been serving drinks for an hour in Delta’s basement, talking to some guy from Pigs Knuckle, Ark. (note: the scene has Boone revealing a slight Boston accent), Boone assumes she has only just arrived at Delta. “No, Boone,” she corrects him, “You just got here.” While her complaints ring of frat bro stereotypes, the scene evokes real-life resonance in the strain fraternity culture places on the relationships. We’ve all had the friend desperately trying to prove himself (I focus on the frat brother here, but sorority sisters are equally guilty) to a house, neglecting a significant other who nevertheless ends up cleaning up whatever mess Sink Night creates.

Rather impressively, if one were one to watch this scene on mute, the filmmaking expresses the dialogue within the visual tropes of classic romance. Think An Affair to Remember (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Dirty Dancing (1987), movies in which somewhat contrived dramas threaten relationships, accompanied by lush, expressionist filmmaking promising the transcendence of love and the inevitable happy ending. As Boone rushes after Katy, a dolly-out portrays the reckless vitality of his pursuit. You half-expect him to break out into a rendition of “Maria,” or, perhaps more appropriately given the state of Delta, “We Found Love.” The dolly-out also emphasizes the fact that Boone wears shockingly white socks with his slacks and dress shoes—an endearing touch that renders him adorably childlike, however much a modern fashion sensibility may reject the combination. Expert lighting makes the couple’s eyes come alive as shadows that play across their faces. Moreover, as the lovers begin talking, tight framing precludes any visual intrusion of Delta in the background. Otter running by and making a face at Boone marks the only comic touch fragmenting the visual poetry of romance. At the end, Boone dances into Katy’s arms.

As a result, there’s something really quite tragic about the way dialogue transforms the scene into a parody — but a sensitive parody — of the girl who believes in the capacity of her boyfriend to change. With dialogue added, we see Otter’s momentary appearance precipitate Boone’s proposition to drive to Katy’s parents’ house for a romantic weekend (with Otter in tow). He also starts dancing with her because, in the face of her critique about his drinking habits, he envisions a future where “After I graduate, I’m going to get drunk every night.” The incongruity of the words with the visual expression onscreen (and the jazzy romance music in the background) adds a touch of mourning to the comedy. “I’m in love with a retard,” Katy says. Funny as her line is, her love, and the dissatisfaction it provokes, comes through.

The scene not only depicts a current reality but also, perhaps, reveals a little about a larger structure present at Dartmouth complicit in preventing real change. Because dialogue prevents what could be based on visual cues and physical action, the film provokes questions of the value of talk and its deviation from physical action. One can hardly ignore that this theme parallels frequent critiques of the way Dartmouth handles internal problems, such as the forums valorized to combat issues of bias, abuse, and assault. Can talk really transform the system? Or, like in the case of Boone, do words assuage only momentarily and even contradict real action?

On a more intimate scale, it makes those FoCo conversations filled with conjecture a bit guilty, too. Perhaps the best way to help a friend suffering from frat bro disillusionment is to avoid empty promises and do something instead. Perhaps getting up to grab her a cinnamon bun or some more Tater Tots really is the only answer.

Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff