how the movies captured life on campus
Tired of the same old cliche's that surround American college life? Hope is on the horizon as Richard Linklater is working on a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, set on campus in the 80s. But before then, these are the best films that captured...
The US college experience, if we're to believe the majority of college movies, is centred around chugging beer through rubber tubes at frat parties, licking whipped cream off of naked strippers, or, if you're Bret Easton Ellis, feeling alternately apathetic and nihilistic at a prestigious East Coast liberal arts college whilst listening to the Talking Heads. Maybe that was your college life, maybe it wasn't, but the vest-sporting frat boys behind the kegs are evidently the same douchebag jocks they were in high school. And so it's hardly surprising that most of the clichés that straddle the college movie are rooted in the teen movie - the insatiable desire to get laid, the ubiquitous red plastic cups that litter the lawns of every house party you've ever seen on screen. These are the things that encapsulate the worst type of college movie.
In most movies about college - and I'm thinking of the tawdry likes of Old School, Road Trip, College, etc. - the emphasis is placed squarely on the misadventures of the undergrad, meaning the booze as opposed to the books. And sure, booze and socialising is a huge part of the college experience. This stuff happens. And, really, who wants to watch a preppie protagonist dutifully attend their lectures and bury their head in a mountain of tomes for 90 minutes? It's hardly a compelling premise for filmmakers, is it? Yet still, there's something predictably OTT about the aforementioned films that strikes a false chord.
These movies failed miserably at capturing campus life. But hope is on the horizon. Richard Linklater's campus comedy Everybody Wants Some has already been described as "the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused". It may be set in the 80s and therefore features a load of lols mullets and moustaches - things you probably can't relate to - yet if Linklater's Dazed and Confused could be hilariously 70s and still say something universal and resonant about coming of age, I don't see why his college film can't do the same. And let's not forget: Linklater has ploughed this ground before…
There's no talk of "going Greek" in the latter part of Boyhood. No frat boys. No wife-beaters. No beer pong. In Linklater's cliché-free portrayal of college, we see a mother break down as her son sets sail to navigate the choppy waters of campus life. We see him driving to college, alone with his thoughts. We see him set his bags down in his new room. Mundane things. Things most people - hopefully even the bros - can identify with. If movies can work as a roadmap of college life, as a way of showing teens what they can expect when they eventually pull up to their shitty student accommodation, then Boyhood is probably a more reliable guide than American Pie 2 - or indeed Frat House Massacre. It captures that feeling of starting a new life from scratch with zero friends, that strange thrill of uncertainty. It feels authentic, as if anchored in the experiences of someone who, you know, actually went to college.
The Social Network
You probably spent some time doing inane things on your computer during your degree. You might have even had the genius idea of photoshopping an image of your friend's face onto the body of Justin Bieber and pinning it to a communal fridge. But you probably didn't use your computer to launch an insanely popular social media site called Facemash - Facebook's seedy predecessor - while blogging simultaneously. While drinking simultaneously. That's what Mark Zuckerberg did. Somewhere in the drab dorms of Harvard, as depicted in The Social Network, he cracked his knuckles and got to work on what would eventually take the whole college experience and put it online. Because - light bulb moment - everyone on campus wants to know who's single and who's not. And that means hanging a virtual 'relationship status' around your neck. In a post-Facebook world, campus life would never be the same again.
Damsels in Distress
While Jesse Eisenberg looked every inch the caffeinated computer nerd in The Social Network, with his Adidas slippers-and-socks combo, the preppy students of Seven Oaks college, the fictional campus in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, look as if they've spent way too much time and money in Jack Wills. Among them is Greta Gerwig. She heads a clean-freak group of female students committed to saving students from suicidal depression and grunge lifestyles. They're an articulate, slightly stuck-up bunch with sensitive noses. Kind of like the Heathers, only more into tap-dancing. "Tap is a highly effective therapy, as well as a dazzlingly expressive dance form that has been sadly neglected for too many years," says Gerwig's Violet. That's actually how she talks. The well-groomed characters that Stillman depicts, while seemingly high on god knows what, also have something in common with the bookish protagonists of Noah Baumbach's 1995 indie Kicking and Screaming. That film is about the tail end of college life, the graduation party, the anxieties that swiftly kick in, and the post-college relationships that can't sustain themselves. Again, these guys are in their twenties yet they're dressed like they're going to dinner with their grandparents. And like the Damsels, they, too, talk like eccentric literary essays.
Whatever crazy shit you got up to at college, I guarantee this film, subtitled "The only HBO documentary to be banned from broadcast", will make your experience look positively sedate. The Sundance-winning film delves deep into the dark world of boot camp-style fraternities and their gang-like mentality. It unmasks the sadists and alpha males - essentially the bottom of the jock barrel - who abuse and exploit their 'pledges'. Unsurprisingly, these macho meatheads eventually realised that having a film crew poking their heads about probably wasn't the best idea. And so, after the filmmakers spent a year infiltrating fraternities, the documentary was shelved due to being tangled up in various legal battles (the wealthy fathers of these douchebags, it's suggested, had something to do with keeping a lid on it). But with the internet being the internet, the doc does surface from time to time, and so people have finally seen that all those ritualistic toga parties, those deep-rooted frat traditions that you see in dumb Seth Rogen movies, aren't just a load of crap. It's real. It's scary. And it can end really, really badly.
Another thing about college is the unlikely friendships. Not all of us made friends with our teachers in school, but maybe some of us did at college, when we grew up a little, when age gaps suddenly weren't a huge deal anymore. In Wonder Boys a prodigious creative writing student (Toby Maguire) smokes weed and gets wasted with his professor (Michael Douglas). They go to bars and they hide a dead dog's corpse in the professor's trunk. For the enigmatic student, it's all copy. His home life is so painfully mundane and non-eventful that he decides to become someone else, bullshitting to his professor in order to keep the good times rolling. Like so many seemingly withdrawn students, it only takes a few beers before he's pouring his little heart out. And, hey, maybe these experiences will make him a better writer.
It's hard to imagine what Jack Nicholson might have been like at college. But Carnal Knowledge might give you a pretty good idea. In it, Nicholson shacks up with Art Garfunkel at a snowy Amherst College. They're never in class or studying for exams. We only ever hear them talking about love and sex. Mostly sex. Things get complicated when Nicholson - who's basically the roommate of your nightmares - decides to pursue Garfunkel's girl. She puts off sleeping with Garfunkel for some reason or other - probably because he's not Jack Nicholson - and soon a love triangle takes shape. Anyway, putting aside the fact that both men look way too old to pass for college students, director Mike Nichols (of The Graduate fame) serves up a pretty nuanced picture of undergraduates in the 70s, focusing on what guys supposedly talk about in their dorms ("you should have put your hand on her tit") as opposed to the plain spectacle of debauchery that most films opt for (hi, Bad Neighbours).