Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy which runs from July 17th to August 29th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Having just attended the Animal House Reunion, I was excited to see this cult-classic college comedy which I hadn’t seen since I was a child. I was full of energy—like everyone else in the near-sold-out theatre—and prepared for hilarity to ensue. The guests certainly shored up some of the great ideas behind the film, as well as provided some interpretation and analysis themselves. I went into the film highly prepared to look for those moments mentioned during the Reunion. I think this definitely made my experience better that it would have been otherwise; however, I’ll be sure, in this post, to review the film itself.
Quicker than the eye can see, as he enters the house, Budo knocks the beers out of a partygoer’s hands. This, to me, is the moment that the film demonstrates that it is far greater than your average comedy. The physical acting involved here is absolutely brilliant. After the longer takes, music, and clean mise-en-scene of the earlier shots, the sudden plunge into Delta with a surprising smashing of bottles is the last thing one expects.
The film begins with a series of establishing shots while Larry (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst) walk through campus on their way to their first frat party. It’s a quite serious and formal event. The music juxtaposed with this scene gives the impression of academia: order, sophistication, and organization: exactly what the film anarchically rejects. Once they leave and go to Delta, the mood and temperament of the film changes drastically: Animal House (1978) begins.
After Bludo (John Belushi) pees on the boys, he lets them into the frat. Quicker than the eye can see, as he enters the house, Budo knocks the beers out of a partygoer’s hands. This, to me, is the moment that the film demonstrates that it is far greater than your average comedy. The physical acting involved here is absolutely brilliant. After the longer takes, music, and clean mise-en-scene of the earlier shots, the sudden plunge into Delta with a surprising smashing of bottles is the last thing one expects. This remains one of my favourite scenes in the film; it’s a testament to John Belushi’s comedic timing, physical acting, and charismatic personality. The way he is always acting without thinking is something few comedians are ever able to do. With Belushi, he becomes the character, and there’s nothing inauthentic about it.
That said, I believe the strongest aspect of the film is the physical acting. Matched with the comedic presence of John Belushi, the scenes of the film almost always have something funny going on in the background. While there are some hilarious one-liners, of course, jokes must be interpreted. As a result, part of the purity of that joke is lost. Physical comedy, on the other hand, is pure comedy. It is formal, it is apprehensible by the sense, and it doesn’t require interpretation. Think about it this way: if you hear something funny stated, there’s a slight pause because you need to understand it before you laugh. But with physical comedy, the humour is immediate. When hearing the one liners, I can sit and analyze how humorous they are. When experiencing physical comedy, one can’t help but laugh. It cuts straight into your sense of humour. And John Belushi in Animal House is the king of physical comedy. His eyebrows might as well have been listed as a cast member!
The cafeteria scene might be the best example of Belushi’s physical comedy. Grabbing whatever he can and stuffing it into his pockets, his mouth, or his plate, Bludo makes keen glances one way or the other to check who’s watching but continues his ridiculous quest for all the food. He then turns to the sergeant and nays like a horse: a brilliant measure considering the dead horse from the last scene. Finally, of course, he pops himself like a zit. Everyone in the audience was on the edge of their seats laughing out loud. In the entire scene, he says but a few words. It’s his presence and his physical movements that are hilarious.
Later, in the scene with the girls undressing, Bludo watches Mandy undress and turns to the camera. With his eyebrows he makes a direct address to the audience, and we all get what he means. It’s a naked girl after all. Then the ladder falls, and while some may not get this, it is not only hilarious but highly intelligent. In another comedy, he would’ve just seen a sexy girl and in shock fallen over. Scenes from films today will even do this in homage to Animal House, without paying attention to why the scene works. He has a boner, and it’s the boner which pushes him backwards. The ladder falls because of an erection.
[…] the strongest aspect of the film is the physical acting. Matched with the comedic presence of John Belushi, the scenes of the film almost always have something funny going on in the background. While there are some hilarious one-liners, of course, jokes must be interpreted. As a result, part of the purity of that joke is lost. Physical comedy, on the other hand, is pure comedy.
The last scene with John Belushi which I’d like to look at is when he smashes the guitar. A charming guy plays the traditional Riddle Song, and Bludo just stands their listening. While he’s listening, we watch him roll his eyes and shift his eyebrows. Then, with the same energy as the glass bottle breaking I mentioned earlier, he grabs the guitar and smashes it to pieces. This is followed by his only word spoken, “sorry.” Throughout the film, Bludo doesn’t say much, and yet he is the one remembered best for his role in this film. The scenes without him, such as when they go to a negro bar, the film doesn’t quite have the sense of spontaneity or energy that it does when he’s around.
Another reason for this great comedy are the brief pauses that invite the audience to sense the humour of the actor. If the character is found in a funny situation, and they make a brief pause, it’s often that during that pause the actor feels humour but holds it in. Stephen mentioned that during the scene where Bludo tries to cheer him up, Stephen couldn’t stop laughing, and they had to make several takes. At other times, this brief pause is done purposefully, and still it invites the audience to be a part of the humour. For example, after Larry accidentally blows the candle out, there’s a fade to black, a pause, and then the scene continues and the film pauses on Jenning’s (Donald Sutherland’s) ‘what the fuck’ face. The expressions made by the characters during these pauses is highly performative, engaging, and, most importantly, funny.
In terms of the filmmaking, it is quite conventional—as expected from a comedy film. I think it is for this reason that many critics will still pan a great comedy film. If the filmmaking is typical or conventional or isn’t somehow merited based on how it serves the subject matter, then the filmmaking isn’t good. Typically, camera movement and the like are used to support the subject matter by relating to it in some way. This is a problem of Hollywood continuity editing, wherein every film is shot the same way. Comedies and many blockbusters today fall victim to this. To me, the elitist critique about comedy features is not strongly supported. The film is meant to be about something else: the comedy, the acting, the story. One may, if those things are done well, overlook the problematic filmmaking.
Regarding Animal House, there really isn’t any problematic filmmaking, but there’s also not much done to support the film’s comedy and story. Most of the film is shot conventionally with straight cuts. At one point in the middle of the film, there is condensed storytelling where diagonal wipes are used in alternation. It doesn’t really serve much of a purpose though, besides perhaps demarcating a change—growth—in the narrative’s arcs. One great thing that Landis does, however, is cut to figures already in movement. This choice, for example to cut to a car that is just about to crash, keeps the film’s energy up without resorting to montage editing. In the end, while the filmmaking isn’t amazing or even just exceptional, the comedy makes up for it, and the film as a whole becomes so.
[notification type=”star”]90/100 ~ AMAZING. Animal House has strong writing, brilliant performances—especially John Belushi—and demonstrates physical comedy at its finest. [/notification]