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July 05, 2003

The Politics of Animal House


A few days ago I came across a website devoted to the movie “Animal House,” (which can be seen here.) It informed me that this summer is the 25th anniversary of the movie’s release. I won’t bore you with describing how astonishing it was to find that this relic of my misspent youth is now a quarter century old (either you’ve had this experience and you understand what I’m talking about or you haven’t and you won’t). But it did spur me to go to my local video store and rent a copy, just to see how it compared to my memory of the film.

Appropriately, as it turns out, I watched it on the Fourth of July. I say appropriately because, while I chiefly recalled it as the adventures of a bunch of improbably smooth or lucky adolescent guys in their eager pursuit of women, pickled livers and bad grades, on a new viewing it struck me that the adjective political was the one that best described the movie.

Tim Matheson's "Otter" Preparing to Take Some Liberties

For example, I remembered the kangaroo-court trial of Delta House (in which the vengeful Dean Wormer has orchestrated the official demise of the fraternity) as a not-terribly realistic triumph of fast-talking flim-flammery on the part of Tim Matheson’s character, Otter. On re-viewing, I realized that Matheson's speech was, in its own way, a serious political utterance:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be brief. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female guests. We did. [Winks at Dean Wormer, who is unaware that Otter spent the night in question with Mrs. Wormer.] But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg [the president of the Pan-Hellenic Disciplinary Council], isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you bad-mouth the United States of America! Gentlemen?

The members of the fraternity walk out, accepting that the consequence of their “civil disobedience” will be the dissolution of their frat house by the powers that be.

The film is about how radical and threatening the quintessentially American notion of “the pursuit of happiness” can be when pursued on a social basis. Obviously, the characters of “Animal House,” taken one at a time, aren’t “pursuing happiness” in any remotely novel or unique form (and certainly not in any terribly enlightened form.) In fact, the film makes clear that as individuals they’re not even doing anything novel or unique in the context of its fictional Faber College. What sets up the confrontation with Dean Wormer is the fact that the fraternity boys of Delta House have evolved a society based on principles foreign to the college: they genuinely accept anyone who can pay their dues and is willing to join as an equal, and are un-hypocritically devoted to drunkenness and lechery. It is the “social” dimension of what they are doing that actually drives the Dean and the toadies and fascists of the rest of the fraternity system bats.

John Belushi as Political Philosopher Bluto

And the drunken frat boys of Delta House at least dimly understand the revolutionary nature of what they’ve accomplished. Even after Dean Wormer has expelled the fraternity en masse from the college and they are sitting around bemoaning their fate, John Belushi’s character, Bluto, reminds them of their power:

Bluto: What’s all this sitting around shit?

Stork [another frat brother]: What are we supposed to do, you moron?

D-Day [another frat brother]: War’s over man. Wormer dropped the big one.

Bluto: Over? You say over? Nothing is over until we say it is.

The film’s many references to the Vietnam war, which—in 1978—had seriously traumatized America’s view of itself, make a continuing point: that America’s real power in the world isn’t based on guns or spies or money, but on the fact that everyday Americans actually take it for granted that they have a right to the pursuit of happiness, a truly radical evolution in human consciousness.

Strangely, thinking through this aspect of “Animal House” reminded me in painful detail of my disappointments both with our Lousy Ivy University and with the general run of politics (at the time and since). There was no “Animal House” at our Lousy Ivy University. There was no “pursuit of happiness” by students on our grim campus, if the notion of the “pursuit of happiness” requires being honest in public about what you want to pursue. Various individuals (certainly including me) grumbled about the screwed-up values of the place, but our critique was merely verbal, interior and private. Other individuals publicly railed at the institution, usually from a fiery Marxist perspective, but they, too, failed to translate their indictment into a new way of life. I remember various campus radicals discussing strategies for how to avoid getting “co-opted” by the Establishment (don’t laugh, it was the term then used). What these vest-pocket Lenins never realized was that their whole grim, serious style represented an already successful co-option by the grim, serious university and the grim, serious society beyond the campus. What was lacking was an organized, social attempt to live differently, not to merely speak differently.

Another student at Our Lousy Ivy University once asked me (about a week before graduation) about my politics, and I replied: “I’m a pissed off child of the Sixties.” When he asked why I was pissed off, I said that I was disappointed because there was something fundamentally frivolous about the radical politics of my era. For example, while any number of hippie communes had been established to enshrine the alternative life-styles of the 1960s, by the mid-1970s (when I spoke) they were already in the dustbin of history. I compared them unfavorably to the communities of the Amish, who had not only talked about rejecting modern society but had successfully built an alternative way of life that embodied their talk, and one that had endured for hundreds of years. In short, radical speech (the opiate of the Sixties and Seventies) was cheap; what was needed was a real alternative to the life we were all leading.

Well, after some years of struggle I achieved a very modest “separate peace” with the world by starting my own family and my own business. In many ways, however, I must admit--after viewing “Animal House” in 2003--that I’m still waiting for Delta House to manifest itself in my life. I hope it hurries up; I’m not sure how many more decades I can wait.



P.S. I couldn’t help but contrast the toga party with the dance party/rally of “The Matrix Reloaded” and think how much better the “Animal House” scene was. It also occurred to me that if I were in the position of the beleaguered humans in “The Matrix Reloaded” I would want to have Bluto and Otter rescuing me, not Neo.

posted by Friedrich at July 5, 2003


I always knew that movie meant a little something special to you. Thanks for spelling out what that was. Lovely ruminative posting. What I mainly retain from the movie is a memory of the cutiepie who at one point necks with Tim Matheson in a car. A sweet and funny actress. I wonder what's become of her.

It does stink, this whole thing about not finding some kind of team or crowd you can bear joining, doesn't it. I guess I was semi-hoping to find such a thing too. What I seem to have wound up with instead is a wonderful wife, and beyond that a sprinkling of simpatico friends, scattered thither and yon, alas. I have fantasies of herding them all together and moving all of us to, oh, say Santa Barbara, or Montana -- someplace where we can just move in en masse and thence hang together unto eternity, doing art things and babbling about art. With occasional breaks for hot tubs and yoga classes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 5, 2003 10:51 AM

I'm looking forward to someone saying, "'60s? But you're a rightwinger! 'Animal House,' political?!!!" Sputter sputter. And then your response.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 5, 2003 12:11 PM

You're not alone. Jonah Goldberg has regularly written of his love for this movie.

I never quite got it myself. Next time it's on tv, though...

Posted by: Peter Briffa on July 5, 2003 01:09 PM

As someone who came along just a little later, and was truly a child of the 70's I can say:

1. I DID go to a school with an "Animal House" and my feelings about college are far warmer than yours. It WAS fun. I don't know if that makes you feel better or worse, but your instincts are correct.

2. This movie speaks very fundamentally to all different generations--I was out for drinks with a group from work recently, and the ages went from 23 to 45---and EVERYBODY knew and truly loved this movie. EVERYBODY remembers various beloved lines, including Dean Wormer's comment to Flounder---"Son, fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life!" (The jury's still out on that...).

3. Otter is the coolest movie hero of all time.

4. Tim Mathison has repeatedly been cheated out of his rightful place on the cover of "People" as The Sexiest Man Alive. (Even today, as the VP on "West Wing.").

5. I think a life lived as the Animal House-ers is a delightfully desirable life, and if my era misses anything, it's the fact that "Animal House" type times didn't somehow last forever. Genuine sigh.

6. The girl Otter makes out with is the roommate of the dead Fran Liebowitz. He gets to her by telling her he is Fran's fiance and he is grief stricken over Fran's death, which he discovered by coming to pick her up for a date. (Like her real fiance wouldn't have heard some other way!). If only all men were as gutsy as Otter---they would be BESIEGED with women, and women would be a much more contented lot!!

7. In the "wrap up" at the end of the movie, justice is truly done. Bluto becomes a Senator, Otter becomes a gynecologist in Beverly Hills, and Niedermeyer is killed by his own troops in Viet Nam. Just as good as The Man With No Name is dispensing a just result.

Posted by: annette on July 5, 2003 06:12 PM

One of the strange things about Animal House is that Dean Wormer gets most of the best lines — not just "fat, drunk, and stupid," which of course is immortal, but also "double secret probation" ("Double SECRET probation, sir?"), "Get Niedermeyer on it, he's a sneaky little shit just like you," and "MIS-ter Blutarsky. Zero point zero." In much the same way the Lampoon gang, in its next movie, Caddyshack — a rather political movie in its own right — doles out a lot of the best lines to Ted Knight.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on July 5, 2003 10:38 PM


I'm not sure that's an accident. For one thing, Dean Wormer is the motor of the plot (the film could have been justly titled "The Dean vs. the Fraternity") so it helps to move things along that he's an unusually plain-spoken college administrator. But also remember that they cast John Vernon in the role, and he had a previous moment of glory as the bullshit liberal Mayor of San Francisco in "Dirty Harry." He brought a certain ideological heft to the role as a consequence, and deserved some pretty good lines. (To which, to Mr. Vernon's credit, he brought a remarkable, if rather theatrical, set of line readings.) Of course, if we're celebrating Dean Wormer's great lines, we can't forget his ultimate threat: "No more fun of any kind!" delivered to the exiting Deltas at the disciplinary hearing. (By the way, I checked out his acting resume, and he must be one of the most regularly employed thespians in the business.)


Lisa Baur is the actress who played Shelly Dubinsky (the roommate of the dead Fawn Lebowitz, blown up in a kiln accident). Unlike John Vernon, she doesn't seem to have made any other films that can be tracked down via the Internet. However, she obviously made an impression as a number of websites claim to offer nude photos of her, including a number of foreign language sites!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 5, 2003 11:55 PM

Tim Mathison is on the "West Wing"! Does this mean he'll never make another Lifetime movie?

Lisa Baur probably married money and lived happily ever after.

Posted by: j.c. on July 6, 2003 03:53 AM

I forgot the Dean's greatest line of all, the standing refutation to anyone who thinks Animal House is just some sort of gagfest: "There's a little-known codicil in the Faber College constitution granting the Dean unlimited powers in times of campus emergency." I must have watched the movie three times before I even heard that.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on July 6, 2003 10:22 AM

Another wonderful line is when the Deltas decide to "fight back" at the very end: "This is a situation that requires a really stupid, mindless, futile gesture...and we're just the men to make it!!"

Posted by: annette on July 6, 2003 02:19 PM

Some of my fave lines, the ones above not withstanding:

"Yep, we're doin' it". An excited Flounder as they prepare to decamp for their road trip.

"Take off that beanie".

"Are you guys playing cards?!"

"Lonny, Kent, I'd like you to meet Ahmet, Jugdish, Sydney, and Clayton".

Posted by: Big Ramifications on February 4, 2004 01:46 AM

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