Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Proper Mix of Elite Universities in Film

Strolling down memory lane this week got me thinking about how I translated my college experience to my family. My parents would often ask about my college experience while I was there. My dad never went to college and my mom went but lived at home. None of my aunts and uncles went away to college. They did not grok the school rituals but were curious. No generation gap, but a "going away to school" gap.

I would try to explain it to them, and sometimes fail. My cousin at Dartmouth and I would compare notes as well as breathe a sigh of relief to come home in the summer with normal people, to hang with our great, normal circles of friends and to fool around with normal girls. We had a hard time translating our experience to our family. If I was watching a movie and something caught my eye, I would point it out to my family as reality. Even now, I find film is the best way to do so but with a proper blending.

My "college experience" is gone. Whatever the college experience was has changed. What the Internet was doing to college life was already changing the college experience while I attended college. Social media has changed college even more, but change is constant, so this is no surprise. If I could capture the elite university experience discussed in "The Morning After" and my own memories in film, I would set up this formula. (Note: this isn't today. It is '80s/'90s elite unis.)

1/4 Animal House + 1/4 PCU + 1/4 With Honors + 1/4 Real Genius

Animal House might have been set in the early '60s, but it captures many of the timeless things about private schools with elite pretensions. Just the guys going to an all girls school to get laid is an echo of Harvard guys trying to score BC-BU girls. The anti-fraternity movement is an old one and reflects Dean Wormer's shenanigans. It has obvious economic advantages for the school, as suddenly they can buy at a bargain price nice off campus housing near or on campus. Ask Williams University in Williamstown, MA why they got rid of frats. They won't admit it, but they have a lot of nice upperclassmen housing they confiscated acquired from fraternities. Because of it's 1978 release date, Animal House afterwards inspired every goddamn fraternity to emulate the antics in the film. If you went the frat route, Animal House is a good description of your time on campus. The dumber legacy kids were often found in frats. There was a significant contingent of strivers in this group. Frat crush parties, specific sorority bar nights, and dumber classes for legacy admissions/athletes were where you met Animal House Girls.

PCU was a great 90 minute joke with some weak spots about politically correct and slacker culture on campus that was entrenched already by the late '80s. Jeremy Piven's shitlord crew was a good stand-in for the folks at elite schools who still liked to have fun and rage it. Smart proles. PCU did catch onto the joke of "college is a scam" decades before everyone else exemplified well by the character writing a thesis on Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson being in a film on television at all times. I had a friend who wrote eighteen pages on the symbolism in the song American Pie; I wish I kept it. PCU was already onto the game that if you mouth the right things, the administration and professors will take care of you. I had friends who pretended to be gay so suspected lesbian Rachel Weil would give them As. This was a T-shirt and jeans crowd or beer 'n' weed crowd. These were friends you could count on to laugh at the protestors and go party on a Friday. They were not frat people since frats were too structured. House parties, bars, where you bought your weed, concerts, humanities and social sciences classes, studying in the sun in open space and random judo/free pizza in the lounge nights were where you met PCU girls.

With Honors covers the strivers and the well off kids at the elite schools who attend to network and learn to "run the world". This crowd and the frat types had significant overlap and shared traits but were eager to slap at the other crowd. The classroom scenes or mentions in this film are complete hogwash. The movie might as well be the proto-SWPL college drama. This flick does reflect the crew of kids who think, "I gotta obsess over one midterm because it will affect a grade that will affect my chances for the right law school that will affect who I clerk or intern for that will affect if I can be elected/made partner by age 30, goddamit leave me alone while I study for the 10th straight hour!" I felt bad for these kids, but they brought it onto themselves. These students also dressed really well. The preppy Ivy crowd and later Abercrombie and Fitch demographic is represented here. After hours select house parties, bars, more exclusive unadvertised frat gatherings, in a bathroom doing lines, student organization meetings, History/English Lit/Psychology classes, and secret society get-togethers off campus were where you met With Honors girls.

Real Genius is an '80s, cult classic comedy showcasing the great comedic talents of Val Kilmer in a movie full of pranks. It is based on Cal Tech. This film is 100 minutes of good fun that does capture nerd school tics and traits. Would've made a great TV series, that, if successful, could've last beyond four years as the leads went to grad school there. If you were a STEM major or had many STEM major friends, it spoke to you. The archetypes are all there: the prodigy, the never-studies-for-his-classes genius, the weird happenings in steam tunnels, the cute autistic girl unaware she is cute, the suck up grad student, and the scheming professor. The great thing about this crew is that it applied to anyone at a nerd school who really loved their major, not just the STEM kids. Tremendous conversations could be had with anthropology majors if you just got them out of their rooms. You didn't meet Real Genius girls; you randomly bumped into them when they left their room.

That's the formula for how those elite unis were then. Funny bit is how PCU and With Honors are both 1994 flicks, reflecting the climate Roiphe wrote about in her book. Higher Learning does not make the cut because John Singleton is retarded, it's an awful movie and blacks barely exist at elite schools. If no fraternities at the college, no worries. Young men will find the roles they want to fit onto their crew through the Animal House cast. In the absence of structure, groups of men create structure, even MTV Real World-Road Rules Challenge teams do this. I am out of touch with today's elite campuses, so I will have to do "research". Find out what the mix is now.


If you are wondering where I fit into this:

1. My social circle was heavy PCU, some With Honors and a dash of Animal House. We would drink, smoke up or party, and then on walks back to our apartment, shake the cages of progs who slept in them to protest animal testing. We made fun of every political group or event. We broke our way onto the roof of our Low Rise dorm and launched yogurt and oatmeal filled condoms from a slingshot at obsessive nerds returning from the libraries at night (of course we knew the math/physics to hit people on the walkways). We caused plenty of property damage. Might explain why I had friends kicked out of school. I still knew too many status striving types, and tolerated their whining for far too long. I never complained about coursework and studying; it was why I was there.

2. My relationships were with the With Honors girls (often Downstate NY, status obsessed & wealthier) and a few Animal House sorority types (often buxom). They all wore tight black pants and pastel tops. It was like a uniform. A few times I hooked up with PCU pot smokers, and I still recall those short lived flings fondly. Should've replaced some of my With Honors flings with PCU girls.

3. I gave up on most of my Real Genius friends by junior year. One was fun, kept in touch and was/is straight out of the film. He now works for a defense contractor. For the first two years of college, I reenacted the scene where Val Kilmer cajoles the nerds into partying on a weekly basis. I had to talk nerds into drinking and socializing. Lost causes. It got old.

I learned. I laughed. I loved. I got the fuck out of there.


deconstructingleftism said...

A better college reference for any would be "Loser", with Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari. The writer/director Amy Heckerling said college was not fun for her, she was mostly worried about money and just getting by.

Portlander said...

Cool metaphor. College is the same 4 basic groups wherever you go because people are the same wherever you go. It's just the ratios that change.

I've known one guy that went to Dartmouth. He was, like yourself, largely PCU. No surprise, we get along great.

My school was a selective mid-western engineering school. We were 40% Animal House, 40% Real Genius, 10% PCU, and 10% With Honors. The Animal House aspect, though, was not so much dummies struggling to get by, but more like the M*A*S*H guys self-medicating intense stress with alcohol. The PCU types usually washed-out after one year never to be heard from again. I suspect they became business majors at state school and coasted for 4 years with A's.

If it's not obvious, I was in the Animal House circle.

Angry Midwesterner said...

I am still in my 20s, albeit late 20s, and as an alum of one of the elite unis, I will say that the the person who gets the pulse fairly good is Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons, as in eerily on point. Maybe the experience of the title character is a bit exaggerated because working class whites do not exist whatsoever on elite campuses though.

One character that stuck out to me in that book was the frat star who unassumingly/"effortlessly" has the awesome grades and lands the unicorn i-banking job. These people are so absurdly prevalent, amongst the pre-meds, pre-laws, engineers, future bankers, those future super phd geniuses, etc. Appearing to try is probably just as not cool as getting shit grades (catch 22 right?).
With hookups, the name of the game is "nothing past the weekends" as the ideal scenario, with the hope of optioning said partner into a friend with benefits. Sure you have some couples here or there. Also, the one unassailable thing is the obsession with U.S. News rankings

Son of Brock Landers said...

Angry Midwesterner - Thanks for the insight into today's campuses. Charlotte Simmons is a much discussed book for hook up culture, and that does seem a fair description. We should start crafting up what the modern collage of college is.

Portlander - Great point on the ratios. Nerd schools gonna have more nerds. You do bring up a good point on self medicating in the Animal House crowd. I'd say the same for the PCU crowd. I had a fun bunch of friends, but as you noted about washing out, I had several of my 'crew' kicked out or pulled by their parents by the end of sophomore year. I had to re-assemble a social circle due to how many were tossed. The few of us remaining of the original 8 ended up going separate ways and creating circles elsewhere.

Deconstructingleftism - I think "Loser" was the movie that ended Mena Suvari's career. I never saw it.

Andrew E. said...

I suspect college life these days is pretty uniformly like the Duke f**k list from a number of years ago.

That is two groups: those living this life and those wishing they could but aren't charismatic/attractive/hot/ enough to and just end up trying to approximate it as best they can. Studying is only when a distraction is needed from the frustrations stemming from failing to fully live this life.

Anonymous said...

Still remember running into an MIT Real Genius chum a few years out. To the question "what are you doing nowadays," he deadpanned "I build triggers for thermonuclear weapons." Ohhh-kay.

Elites are far more Asian nowadays than when you went. Berkeley is 44% Asian, Cal Tech 43%. Harvard must surreptitiously fight to keep them out (hey, they're the new Jews). And that doesn't count Indians. Huge overlap of Venn Diagrams of those groups and the Animal House crowd. As if.

Son of Brock Landers said...

Cornell peaked for Asians when I was there. The Asian cap applies there too

Angry Midwesterner said...

Andrew E: I do not want to say that studying is exclusively a distraction from frustrations. It might vary a bit school to school, but most of the kids in those social circles fear one thing more than being lame and that's being considered stupid. The social stigma of a transcript full of Cs is just as bad as being a 20 year old virgin, if not worse, because at least "being religious" is something to respect about someone.

SOBL - I personally consider myself this comedic genius based on how sharply I recognize reality of the snooty world, but since I am in medicine, which has been hijacked by the self-righteous, I have been forced to shut up. I used to be more open about these and similar quick projects, but I do have this joke rubric I called the "social sorting mechanism," which so far based on reviews is pretty damn funny, mainly due to how remarkably in touch with the attitudes of my college compatriots it is. I would love to share it with you, and you can do with it what you please because if my name is attached to it, some administrator will hunt me down and make sure I get the blacklisted from residencies (they do this shit and not a full doc yet). Nonetheless, if you PM through my twitter handle @Angrymidwestern, I totally want to help you make a collage of what college is too!
Side note - In summary, I was nearly expelled in medical school for making the wrong, politically incorrect jokes OFF-CAMPUS multiple times ("pattern of disturbing behavior"). Every classmate is potential rat these days. Thank god for a lawyer and a threat to deposition the school on everything disciplinary related and my ability to take notes on the dumb shit administrators say these days. School settled, and I returned a student in good standing though the bullshit lasted long enough to almost knock me a year back in the residency application cycle.

NZT said...

I really like your blog, but here's how this post came off:

"Yeah, in college you've got the fratbros, the preppies, the party animal burnouts and the nerds. Back in my day I effortlessly glided between all these groups, imitated their best qualities while sneering at their foibles, and fucked their women. Damn I was good at college. Boy am I glad I don't have to deal with those college student losers anymore."

Good for you I guess?

I recently walked through a college campus for the first time in years, and was mostly amazed at how slutty the girls were dressed. Practically every single one wearing booty shorts/crotch-length skirts/paper-thin yoga pants/crop tops/halter tops/backless sundresses. I'd bet a red light district 30 years ago would've been more chaste. Yeah it's nice eye candy, but I feel sorry for young men trying to concentrate or accomplish anything in an environment like that.

It ties in pretty well to agnostic's recent post about how college is now less about career prep and more about learning to be a proper lifestyle striver, with carefully curated tastes, clothes, hobbies, social media presence, etc. It's all very "look at me, look at me, look at me!" Also his general theme of how Millennial chicks really crank up the attention-whoring without having much in the way of warmth or real social grace (shit like Tinder wouldn't fly with genuinely outgoing people).

Son of Brock Landers said...

Yes. That is how it sounded because I revealed how I fit into it all. It's the truth though. I was PCU, drank waaaay too much to self medicate as another commenter noted and only by recognizing my friends burnt out and wasted their Golden Ticket by bad decisions did I correct my bad behavior.

Agnostic is a great writer. His shit is so on point and he always comes across reasonable.