Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on January 26, 2014
In his book Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present (2008), John E. Conklin “explores themes of college life in 680 feature-length films set in the U.S. and released between 1915 and 2006.” By now I’m guessing there are close to 800 movies that depict life at institutes of higher learning. Those are daunting numbers. If I were to program campus-themed movies for incoming freshmen, I’d keep it simple and limit it to three titles. For the first film, I would want something that represents the real challenges and stress faced by the earnest and hard-working scholar. For the second title I’d indulge the hedonists with pure entertainment. The third title, however, needs to update both. After all, whether you devote yourself with monastic discipline to your studies or let the years lapse from party to party, it all comes with a price tag. The ideal triptych? My choices would be: The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973), Animal House (1978), and Ivory Tower (Andrew Rossi, 2014).
“This is James T. Hart. Class of ’76. He has a birth certificate. A driver’s license. A high school diploma. A draft card. A college degree. And he’s about to spend three more years of his life chasing another piece of paper.” (From the trailer for The Paper Chase.)
The Paper Chase follows Timothy Bottoms, in the role of aspiring Harvard law student James T. Hart, who just a couple years previous to this film had an auspicious theatrical bow thanks to Johnny Got His Gun and The Last Picture Show (both 1971). The director, James Bridges, passed away in 1993 having helmed eight films, of which I’ve only seen a few; The China Syndrome (1979), Urban Cowboy (1980), and Bright Lights, Big City (1988). The big winner in The Paper Chase was John Houseman, whose performance as the intimidating Professor Charles Kingsfield earned him Goldon Globe an an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. (This surely caused some regrets on the part of some of the actors Bridges had failed to interest in the role, including James Mason, Edward G. Robinson, and Sir John Gielgud.) The film was also nominated for two other Oscars (Best Writing, Best Sound). But the person who really made The Paper Chase stick out for me was the actress playing Kingsfield’s daughter: Lindsay Wagner. The reason for this is simple, as I first saw The Paper Chase on television as a kid sometime around the late seventies, the same time Wagner was on TV as The Bionic Woman. Her face adorned just about every lunchbox belonging to a grade-school crush of mine. She was the “star power” in my book.
As my father belonged to the faculty at the university that was located one block from my house, the academic universe was already a familiar one to me – at least from a professor’s point of view, as I could see him grading papers and hear him talking about classroom lectures. But The Paper Chase was pivotal in giving me a proper insight into what might be expected of me as a student. In hind-sight, my personal experience wasn’t quite as tough as that depicted by the young adults in The Paper Chase. After all, I didn’t go to Harvard (couldn’t afford it), had no interest in law (I double-majored in easier subjects), and I took my sweet time graduating. I wasn’t so much chasing that paper as maybe walking toward it at a very leisurely pace. As my debts caught up to me, I’ll admit to suddenly breaking into a panicked sprint, at which point I graduated within one semester. Either way, The Paper Chase was pivotal in shaping my understanding of how a serious student should behave. At one point, as a college student, I took an honors astrophysics class. After flunking the first exam, I tried to drop the class, but the professor encouraged me to stick it through, and I did. By the end of the class I managed to get a “B” – but only after tapping into my inner James T. Hart. No, I didn’t sleep with the daughter of my astrophysics professor. Instead, I pulled out all the other stops and studied every waking hour, got involved with study groups, and even enlisted the help of a private tutor. It was grueling and hard work, but it paid off.
“Christ. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the fucking Peace Corps.” – Bluto
After an early education doing stunt work (starting with uncredited work on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966), an aptly titled directorial debut (Schlock, 1973), some acting for Roger Corman (Death Race 2000, 1975), and working with the Zucker brothers (The Kentucky Fried Movie, 1977), Landis finally landed his first big contract with Animal House. He’d gone from five digits (Schlock had a $60K budget), to six digits (The Kentucky Fried Movie was made with $650K), to seven digits: $3 million for Animal House. This was money well spent, as Animal House remains, to this date, Landis’ biggest hit, having grossed $142 million dollars. The Blues Brothers (1980), an American Werewolf in London (1981), Trading Places (1983), and several other titles by Landis were also big hits, but the only other title that comes close to making as much as Animal House was Coming to America (1988), which netted $128 million.
How much did The Paper Chase get at the box office? Only about as much as it cost to make Animal House. But whereas The Paper Chase quietly makes the rounds on television (it screens next month on TCM), Animal House launched the gross-out genre which is still popular in Hollywood and is still being screened regularly across colleges today. (As I write this I check to see if the student-run film series on my campus is screening it this semester. Yup. On March 18th. And in the same 500-seat auditorium where I programmed it back in the ’80s. The only difference is that I screened it on 35mm whereas this upcoming screening will be on Blu-Ray via an $85,000 digital Barco machine.)
If The Paper Chase represents the highest ideals of campus life, Animal House is its perfect opposite. If James T. Hart represent the Super-Ego, obviously John Belushi’s Bluto is the unrepentant Id, replacing study groups with toga parties and crushed beer cans. Animal House did for gross-out humor what Jaws did for the summer blockbuster. Its power cannot be denied, and with great power and influence often come unfortunate repercussions. In this case, one film helped deplete the shark population while the other one helped inflate fraternity populations.
Not surprisingly, while The Paper Chase was able to shoot on location at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Animal House – which was based on co-writer Chris Miller’s experiences at the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at Dartmouth – was not shot in Hanover, New Hampshire. Instead, it was filmed around the University of Oregon in Eugene. Scott Moore, the co-writer for The Hangover (the highest grossing R-rated comedy in the U.S. to its 2009 release date) has cited Animal House as one of his favorite films of all time. Small surprise then that when he finally got behind the director’s chair his debut would be 21 & Over (2013) – a film the celebrates excessive campus hedonism. Moore attended my stomping grounds here at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and sought to shoot 21 & Over at various campus locations that might feature the picturesque Flatirons in the background. But administrators read the script and said “forget it.” Much like Dartmouth, C.U. was loathe to do anything that would add to its party school status. Good luck, C.U.! Now that Colorado has legalized weed, I’m guessing our party school reputation will only get (and now, see, here I would normally use the word “higher,” but honestly we Colorado folk are pretty tired of the puns, so let’s leave it at our party reputation getting…) the obvious boost.
Personally, I have no problem with the kids having a good time. Bluto only spent one semester longer at Faber College than I did at C.U., Boulder. And those six-and-a-half years that I spent as a student were among the best of my life. You’re only young once, and you might be even younger before attending college but at that time you aren’t truly free and have parents watching their every move. And you’re still kind of young immediately after college, but at that point there’s a good chance you’ll once again be under the watchful eye of someone else, this time a spouse, and never mind the many other responsibilities that come down the pike, from parenthood to mortgage to who knows what else.
Still, I would, caution students not to go “full-Bluto,” and instead to temper their inner Bluto with a helping dose of (Jame. T.) Hart. Otherwise you’ll simply end up more wasted than an extra in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012), with nothing to show for the experience by the end of the ride other than hangovers, heart-break, and one very big bill. And that leads us to the last film, which is a documentary that screened one week ago at Sundance. If it were up to me I’d make it mandatory viewing for all incoming freshmen.
Director Andrew Rossi’s previous documentary was the highly regarded Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011). With Ivory Tower he tackles another venerable institution facing financial crises: the college campus. The end result is a formidable work that delves into the origins of higher learning, and different models at work today, be they public, private, community-based, internet driven, or open-source. Ivory Tower provides a horrifying look into a system that has been starved of public monies while over-paid administrators increase student tuition to pay for capital constructions meant to seduce wealthy out-of-state students with brochures that advertise tanning salons in every dorm and other glossy perks. If you think those trendy and free massive open online courses (aka: “MOOC“) might help, think again. Ivory Tower shows that nothing quite beats having person-to-person attention. Not that the brick-and-mortar approach will guarantee that students will receive such attention, especially given how many star faculty are pressured to focus on research and publishing, thus leaving adjuncts (aka: slave labor) to teach the large classes.
If James T. Hart were chasing Harvard paper today, how much would he owe upon graduation? Would he lean on a student loan? And if he has problems paying that loan off, how would the interest add up? Ivory Tower looks at those issues, and the answers aren’t pretty.
As in in-state freshmen student back in 1986, I paid $1,780.00 for tuition that academic year. This is one of the reasons I was able to stay there for six-and-a-half years. (Also, I’m stupid.) Now? For one academic year residential freshmen will pay $10,343.00, and non-residents will pay $33,000.00. Hey, someone has to pay for the $64 million dollars in renovations at the rec center, which include a buffalo-shaped outdoor swimming pool. Given how cold it is most of the year, I’m guessing the only people who will be able to take full advantage of that buffalo-shaped pool are the summer students. Admittedly, it will look pretty sweet in an aerial shot for some future brochure. It’ll be enough to tempt anyone’s inner-Bluto. Too bad only the wolf’s of wall street and their cubs will be able to afford it.
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