April 22, 2015

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE and the Reality of Anarchy

Starring John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, Thomas Hulce, Stephen Furst, Karen Allen, Bruce McGill, John Vernon, James Widdoes, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Verna Bloom, Sarah Holcomb. Directed by John Landis. (1978, 109 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON
The cultural influence of National Lampoon’s Animal House loomed large when I was in high school. Until then, there really hadn’t been another film like it, one which not only made it cool to be an irresponsible slob, but suggested the college leaders, athletes and beauty queens were the real clueless assholes. Though very much a subversively-clever satire of campus culture and societal norms at the time, Animal House whole-heartedly encouraged impressionable young adults everywhere to raise a hearty middle finger at anything resembling authority…long-term ramifications be damned. But unlike the nihilistic & self-righteous pretensions of such films as Easy Rider, Animal House appealed to those who probably had no real issue with authority, but its brand of anarchy seemed too cool to resist.

The film’s influence on Hollywood is arguably equal to Star Wars, present even today in the uninhibited teen comedies we’ve been inundated with ever since (though Animal House, despite its reputation, never truly crossed the line into pure vulgarity). But unlike Star Wars, where we could never realistically be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, it wasn’t much of a stretch to emulate Otter, Boone or Bluto…

especially Bluto. As played by John Belushi, Bluto isn’t actually the film’s main character, though he is its centerpiece, an intentionally-stupid symbol of anarchy for anarchy’s sake. Hence, Bluto provides a majority of the movie’s most blatantly heavy-handed, slapstick moments. But even if being as cleverly-lecherous as Otter (Tim Matheson) or laid-back & sarcastic as Boone (Peter Riegert) seemed out-of-reach, anyone could be Bluto. All you needed was the willingness to know where the line of acceptable behavior was drawn, then gleefully step over it.

Virtually every high school party I attended after Animal House had at least one dude ready and willing to unleash his inner Bluto (though they were often uninvited)…the guy prepared to drink the most beer, accept the most outrageous dare and freely urinate on the host’s houseplants.

But a true Bluto disciple didn’t reserve such decadent behavior for weekend parties. He lived it 24/7...in class, at the mall and during the occasional road trips like the ones my friends and I used to take, also influenced by Animal House. Sure, we weren’t driving around during the wee hours of the night (you know...curfew), but there were a few times in high school when we decided seventh & eighth period was too much to endure that day and collectively chorused “Road Trip!” But unlike the film, where Belushi was not part of the venture, our own version of Bluto was always up for skipping his History class, and he had the coolest car.

His name was Travis.

Travis wasn't like a lot of guys. He was huge, with bushy black hair and really thick glasses, looking like a cross between Buddy Holly and a caveman. Travis was well-liked among the kids at my high school. Why? Well, it sure wasn't his looks. I don't recall anytime he ever went out on a date. Nor was it the way he carried himself. He was vulgar, crude and foul-mouthed even by high school standards. It wasn't because he lettered in sports. Travis was the goalie on our varsity soccer team, which wasn't too respected as a real sport at the time. It sure as hell wasn't his academic performance, because I believe he graduated with one of the lowest GPAs of all time.
Bluto...everybody knows one.

Part of his popularity was aided in no-small-part by his aforementioned car (definitely more awesome than Flounder’s brother’s Cadillac in Animal House). He drove a loud, black 1969 Mustang with tires fatter than my grandma's butt and could lay rubber in three gears. But personally, I think the biggest reason for his likability was Travis was one of the few guys I've ever known who truly didn’t give a single shit what anyone thought of him…he was Bluto personified. And yeah, Animal House was is favorite movie.

Best of all, Travis could vomit on command. And I don't mean that wimpy stick-your-fingers-down-your-throat vomit. All Travis had to do was inhale and launch. To the guys I hung out with, this gift was the coolest thing since the invention of boobs. He could spew-back whatever he just ate that day. I'd witnessed this talent on several occasions, either to shock classmates or convince a teacher he had to go home sick. But the puke-fest that topped them all happened when we climbed into his Mustang after school and headed into downtown Portland (our definition of a road trip).

Back then, if you were bored and had access to a car, you went downtown, usually at a place called the Galleria, an old building constructed in the 1920s, later gutted and refurbished as an open mall with a skylight roof. From the fifth floor, you could look down and see everyone on the first. We often hung out at a record store called Crystalship or at Taco John's, located right next door. We'd load up on burritos and Pepsi before wandering around the record store, checking-out new releases by Judas Priest or Rush or AC/DC. On rare occasion we actually bought a record, but we were mostly there to be obnoxious, buy rolling papers or meet girls. Actually, the last part almost never happened. But when you're sixteen you don't know any better, even though Jason, one of our road trip crew, was always hopeful he'd meet the punk rock queen of his dreams there.

One day in the spring of ‘81, we went downtown and sat for awhile at Taco John's, where Travis ordered his usual: two stuffed beef burritos, large tater tots and a 32 oz. Pepsi. He could really put away the food, at least twice as much as the rest of us. Afterwards, we strolled around the Galleria a bit, making fun of old folks, trying to act cool and generally being jackasses.

Maybe a half hour later, we decided to leave. Travis had parked his Mustang in the lot on the next block, connected to the Galleria on the third floor by an open walkway. It was on this walkway that we discovered just how lethal Travis' special talent could be....

While we were on the walkway, Travis suddenly stopped, a devilish grin spreading across his caveman face. He said "watch this," then ran to the edge, leaned over and with a grand gesture, unleashed the two stuffed beef burritos, jumbo tots and Pepsi he'd just consumed, which rained down upon the unsuspecting motorists below.
The rest of us barely had enough time to reach the railing before his meal pounded the hood of a Chevy Vega, immediately dousing it in fluitic brown chunks. It hit with such force that I swear the hood caved in a bit, and so loud that they must have heard it in nearby Beaverton. The car immediately screeched to a halt. The driver - a rather shell-shocked young woman - climbed out and gazed in horror at the vomitous mass drenching her hood. Despite the myriad car horns, idling engines and pedestrians, all of us could clearly hear her cry out, "oh...my...god."  Though not actually a gift from God, it didn't take her long to figure out this predigested puddle did indeed come from above. We waited around just long enough to catch a glimpse of her horriflied face before taking off, laughing hysterically and confident that we'd reach the safety of Travis' car long before anyone would catch us.

We figured wrong. None of us considered that anyone else would be watching, such as the Galleria security, who had been following us for about a half hour after receiving numerous complaints about our behavior. We didn't even reach Travis' car before security grabbed us...so much for thinking all authority figures were stupid.

This never happened in Animal House. The guys in Delta House got away with everything. It turned out being Bluto (or any of his cohorts) was much harder in real life than onscreen.

Our parents were all called to pick us up. I was grounded for skipping school and forbidden to hang out with Travis again. I suppose I got off light, since Travis' parents had to pay for the damage done to the lady's Vega. Despite getting in such trouble, I have to think part of him had to be a just a little bit proud. After all, how many of us can claim our own stomach chowder is capable of damaging cars?

Travis and I sort-of lost touch shortly after graduating, so I have no idea whether or not he continued down the Bluto path. Today, like D-Day in Animal House, his whereabouts are largely unknown (I haven’t been able to find him on Facebook, anyway). Such was the power of this classic film on impressionable youth at the time.

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