Best Picture: Argument for Animal House
The inevitable question: as filmmakers, what’s your favorite film? It’s the kind of question that can make a filmmaker squirm. There are many moods and hundreds of favorites, all important for different reasons. The pressure is overwhelming to veer off onto a long diatribe on the recognized master works: Citizen Kane, Rashoman, 8 1/2… Our love for these movies and their influence cannot be denied. But what is there to say that hasn’t already been said? And how does a filmmaker talk about them without sounding like a pretentious swine who should be wearing a black mock turtleneck, matching beret and chain smoking hand rolled cigarettes? So on this day we choose a film that frequently provokes the declaration that it’s not a serious film and, therefore, has no place in this discussion. But we are deadly serious when we declare Animal House to be one of the greatest films ever made. Not only is it relentless in its hilarity (and isn’t making a human laugh the most difficult and important thing to do in life?) but the story also happens to be a retelling of one of the most serious works of all time: Milton’s Paradise Lost.
You probably responded with a guffaw and a quick dismissal of our hypothesis as absurd. By the end of this argument we hope you will agree that Animal House should take it’s place on the all time lists. Let’s start by considering the log lines for both Milton’s work and Landis’s:
Paradise Lost: the story of how Adam and Eve are corrupted by Satan and cast out of the Garden of Eden. The act of Satan is one of vengeance, for he and his minions are at war with God over their refusal to bow down to his authority and have been cast out of heaven into the pits of hell.
Animal House: the story of how Pinto and Flounder are corrupted by the Delta House and ultimately thrown out of college. The Deltas are in the midst of a knock ‘em out drag it out war of insurrection with the brutal regime of Dean Wormer, to whom they will not kneel. Wormer ultimately casts them all out to be drafted into the hell of Vietnam.
Not only are the stories the same, but they both share the same disturbing (to some) thesis: that the logical choice on this earth is to align oneself with the devil, for it’s much more fun and God is an asshole.
Garden of Eden = Faber
The opening shot of Animal House is of the statue of Emil Faber. On the base of the stature is the maxim, “Knowledge is Good”, a reference to the tree of knowledge which spelled doom for Adam and Eve. We then find Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman, a wimp and a blimp, strolling across the utopian quadrangle of Faber on a fine evening. Like Adam & Eve they are total innocents, oblivious to the ways of the world,
yet to be seduced by Satan. The forbidden fruit, however, will soon be laid before them in the form of a keg of beer hurled through a window of the Delta House. The door swings open and, after urinating on Dorfman, the inviting nectar is proffered by Bluto Blutarski (Beezlebub). Kroger and Dorfman make their irrevocable choice to drink from the cup and their fate is sealed: they are transformed into Pinto and Flounder. By the time the Deltas are through with them one will steal meats and have sex with a 13 year old, the other will break his brother’s sacred trust by destroying his car, practice insurance fraud and throw up on Dean Wermer. They will be both be thrown out of school for their misdeeds, cast out of the garden, whatever system of values they had trashed; but we root for them all the way. For the alternative is Neidermeyer, Marmalard and the heavenly assholes of Omega House.
Heaven = Omega. Hell=Delta. Choose Hell.
Consider the scenes of initiation: the Delta pledges are rounded up in the night, taken down to the basement of the dank, filthy Delta House, illuminated by faint red light of moral decay, where they are read mocking vows of obedience by Hoover, a man literally wearing horns on his head. Their silly names are bestowed upon them by Bluto then they get drunk and sing a song whose words cannot be understood due to hard core inebriation (Louie, Louie). In other words, they have a hell of a good time as they debase themselves, laugh and squeal with delight, and learn how to have fun.
Then we pan over and glide upward to the heavens of their neighbors: the Omega House. At Omega we find Kevin Bacon and his mates in their tighty whiteys taking the deadly serious ‘bow of obedience’, during which they are paddled in the ass in a homo-erotic ceremony run by Bishop Neidermeyer and forced to declare: “Thank you Sir, may I have another!” WHACK! They bow down to their Lord, the Deltas do not. Who would you rather hang out with?
Wemer = God
The Lord of the AH world is Dean Wermer. He demands order in his universe like the God of PL, but his every moment in the film is disturbed by the chaos of the Deltas: a golf ball, struck by Otter, smashes a glass on his desk, a meeting with the Mayor is disturbed by a chain saw ripping apart the legs of a dead horse, his wife falls out of bed after getting taken advantage of by Otter at a toga party, his toilets explode, toilet paper litters his trees, medical cadavers are delivered to his senior honors dinner, fizzies into the pool for the swim meets.
Werner vows to crush this rebellion and, frankly, he has just cause. The world of liberal arts institutions has been set back decades by college students imitating the behavior of the Delta, and much harm has been done. Wermer must stop it. But we hate him for it.
Wermer’s foot soldiers in this war are the Omegas, who willingly serve: Marmalard his JC, Neidermeyer his Michael. They gather intelligence for him, carry out his schemes. But often they prove incompetent. [Recall how Satan slips past Michael and into the Garden, even though he knows Satan is coming. WTF?]
In PL when Satan and his minions find themselves on the losing end of the long battle, stuck in hell with no way out, a rousing speech is made by Beezlebub from Paladium. He urges the troops on, declaring an impossible victory possible. His words rally the troops for a desperate, futile gesture that has no chance to succeed. In Beezlebub’s place Mr. Landis gives us Bluto Blutarski. After Otter has been beaten to a pulp and the Deltas are placed on double secret probation, only Bluto stands tall. He gives such a rousing speech that it’s played in sports arenas to this day.
Lest there is any doubt remaining concerning the fact that AH is a retelling of PL, consider the role of Dave Jennings (Donald Sutherland) who teaches a class on Milton and Paradise Lost. While Founder sketches a plane destroying civilian targets, Jennings stands before the class and lectures on Satan, “the most compelling character” in PL. As he kicks back and bites into an APPLE, he asks the class, “if Milton was trying to tell us if being bad was more fun than being good?” Yes, he was, and so is Landis.
All of this aside, Animal House is the all time great with respect to the Piss Test. Try and walk out of this film at any moment to use the loo. When you are in there you will hear howls telling you that you missed something epic. There is no greater test in our books; and with that we hope you will once again view the masterpiece that is Animal House (uncut of course and with ample supply of canned beer, pizza and company). Upon doing so you will undoubtedly agree that this is an all time great film, perhaps the best ever made.