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Category: Culture

I have never looked forward to the release of a movie more than Animal House. That was back in 1978, and I had long since left fraternity life behind for the much more structured world of adulthood. The fond memories of my three-year binge of nihilism, however, were still strong in me. I wanted to see how the Big Screen would present that dark culture to the movie-going public.

What made the event especially interesting was my familiarity with the script. Several of the episodes in the movie had appeared years before in the National Lampoon, and before that I had heard them as part of the rich oral tradition of the AD bar — or witnessed them myself. AD (for Alpha Delta Phi) was my fraternity at Dartmouth — and the model for Animal House.

Chris Miller ’63 (called Pinto by some) wrote those stories in the Lampoon and later became a co-screenwriter for the movie. (If you look online, that’s him, third from the right in the cast photo. He and his two fellow screenwriters also appeared as Delta Tau Chi brothers in the movie.) I think one of the reasons Animal House was never matched by any of the frat house comedies that followed it was its quasi-realism. The sickness, the black humor, the tales of creative repulsiveness were based on real events. For the most part, that is, relatively speaking, when adjusted for Hollywood input.

The scene from the movie that has become most associated with college debauchery, however, never happened. There were no toga parties at AD and never would have been, according to some of the older, grumpier keepers of the AD flame (myself included). What costumes there were tended to be impromptu affairs, and they were mostly meant to appall people, not as fun-loving hi jinx. But the toga metaphor persists, and it has spawned similar events all over the country, including at Dartmouth itself. Life imitating art, you might say. A lot of what actually happened at AD, I expect, might not find such favor in popular culture.

In many ways, what went on there was nothing special. Groups of young men have been abusing alcohol since the dawn of civilization, and they have been doing stupid, disgusting things that whole time. I have no doubt that many of those stories would easily trump anything done by a bunch of fine, young Ivy Leaguers with bright futures. Still, we had our fling at nihilism, and it was good.

I won’t apologize for our real-life cast of characters, either. There were some genuine wild men in AD. None exactly like John Belushi’s creation, but they had that same level of fertile, funny dementia. Chris once told me that he built his characters for the movie from pieces of the real brothers of AD. The personae we saw onscreen, then, were cut-and-pastes of the real thing, and to that degree they were real.

I visited Dartmouth a couple of weeks ago for the first time in forty-five years. I have nothing surprising to report; the house has changed, Dartmouth has changed, I have changed. All that is to be expected. There is some news from Hanover, though. While I was there, the Daily D broke the story that the College had hit AD with a suspension (read “double secret probation”). The house, it seems, had hosted an unpermitted party (I told you things had changed). The punishment: no booze of any kind in the house until next September. I am not sure that the current brothers are pursuing their own brand of nihilism, but if they are, this is a serious issue; alcohol, particularly beer, would play a central role in their quest.

I wish them well. As fine, young men with bright futures, they will need that experience as a bulwark against the stultifying tedium of the world they will soon enter.
Got Junk?
There was a time when I did not need a Junk file. I looked at every piece of email that came to me, if only for a moment. There was a little spam, but one click, and it was gone. In those heady early days of the internet, all I needed was an Inbox and a Trash file. Oh, brave new digital age!

That was a time of innocence, when there were no earnest Nigerian princes or nefarious scammers masquerading as members of my family. If I was concerned then that the World Wide Web might somehow become an annoyance, those fears were laid to rest by the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Thanks to this prompt action by my elected leaders —making junk mail illegal — I knew that I would be spam-free forever.

The world has changed in the ten years since then, and I have become more jaded. I see that the state (though all-seeing) is not necessarily all-powerful. I’m on my own now, it seems, against a rising tide of messages from every corner of the globe. Even though each of those messages claims to carry important news that could very easily change my life, I’m not really that interested. I’m pretty happy, you see, with the way my life is already.

Like most people, I have enlisted the help of filters, but that delegation of responsibility has left me uneasy. Those filters are brutal; if an email fails to meet their hard-eyed standards, it is banished to Junk, no matter how urgent it may be. I probably wouldn’t mind looking at some of them, but who has the time to sort through five hundred emails that have already been rejected by my gatekeepers? It is possible that I’ve been sent a message by on old friend, been remembered in someone’s will, or am finally ready to go for that enlargement. Heck, I may already be a winner, but since my email has been corrupted by commerce, I will never know.

I might even have wanted to respond to one of those cries for help from some prince in a pinch. His desperate pleas, however, have been shunted to my Junk file, like rusty old toasters. Since I no longer even look at my Junk file, its contents are destined to go next to Trash, where they will be commingled with my unrecyclable plastic and rotting meat, until finally being deleted for good.

I can’t help but feel a sadness about those lost dispatches…as if an opportunity to connect has been lost, consigned to oblivion by my robot guardians. The mission of those messages — to seek me out and engage with me — was doomed from the beginning, and now they rest, unfulfilled, in a graveyard of digital dead letters. Sure, most of them are intrusive offers of money or sex or “once-in-a-lifetime” deals by the truckload. But one, just one, could be the good news that would change my life for the good.

Let me reach out now to that lone sender with my own fervent communication: so write me a letter already!
Catching the Wave
There was a great action movie on TV last night, perhaps the best ever. I’m sorry if you missed it, because I’m pretty sure it will never be on again. It featured scene after scene of tense battles, sharp dialogue, and strong characters pitted against one another. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen, lest I miss something. I had seen all of these scenes before, many times, but never like this.

It begins with Kirstie Alley (as the fetching Vulcan, Lt. Saavik) ordering her ship into the Neutral Zone. Bad idea, as usual. The Klingons pounce, laying down a withering barrage of phaser fire. Work stations explode, Starfleet officers hurtle through the air, the end is near! Saavik’s misguided decision has destroyed her crew, her ship, her mission.

Suddenly, a viewscreen slides sideways, revealing …William Shatner, in full Admiral Kirk regalia, complete with luxurious toupee! It was all just a training exercise! Kirk, Spock, and McCoy launch into an extended dialogue designed to lay down a foundation for the plot, but I don’t have time for that.

So the scene changes. We’re on a bus filled with convicts, including Harrison Ford as the bearded (do they let you have a beard in prison?) and wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble. Their guards end up falling for the old oh-help-I’m-really-really-sick trick. One bad thing leads to another, and in the end the doc manages to outrun a freight train and make his escape. Love that scene!

I wait long enough to hear Tommy Lee Jones’ order to search every “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse” to find Harrison Ford. Then, the scene changes again…

Jason Bourne (our own Matt Damon) barely eludes his pursuers by ducking into the U.S. consulate in Zurich. After punching out everybody in the building, he escapes by doing his human fly routine down an outside wall. Great scene! He runs into his love interest in the street, and… sorry, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Select four and nine, and I’m …

On a roll! Detective John McClane of the NYPD, better known as Bruce Willis, is in a bit of a fix down at the Nakatomi Plaza. Like Harrison and Matt, he’s got people chasing him, and they’re not looking for an autograph. He kills them, of course, then stuffs one in a Santa suit, sticks him in the elevator, and sends him down to tick off the head terrorist. Bruce, you irrepressible devil! But now it’s time to move on…

Back to the Syfy Network, where the Enterprise is suffering a serious whupping at the hands of Khan Noonien Singh (played with manly cleavage by Ricardo Montalban). Just when things look bleakest, Kirk pulls a fast one on Khan, wrecking his ship (exploding work stations, genetically-engineered supermen hurtling through the air). The Enterprise escapes, and so do I…

Back to SpikeTV, where Harrison Ford has dared to sneak back into his old hospital to do some research on The One-armed Man. But not before he saves the life of a young boy on a gurney (how did such a nice guy ever get convicted of murder?). The plot slows down here, but I’m in a surfing zone now!

Switching to Bravo, as it’s Bourne again, dispatching a trained hitman with a ballpoint while Franka Potente looks on, appalled (that was my pen, you know!)…

Then it’s a barefoot Bruce, escaping a gaggle of vicious terrorists on the roof of a skyscraper by swinging out on a fire hose and crashing through a window below (like he could actually do that — but I don’t care)…

I can’t believe my timing! I return to Syfy just in time to catch Ricardo Montalban leaving William Shatner stranded on an asteroid. Kirk bellows into his communicator as his tormentor flees, “KHA-A-A-N-N-N!” The cry echoes out into space (an impossibility, it should be noted). Truly one of the great moments in cinematic history…

And here’s Richard Kimble, middle-aged physician, leaping to certain death off a mile-high dam (except he lives!)…

Matt Damon deftly killing another trained assassin (Clive Owen, with a 12-guage)…

Bruce, still shoeless, still deadly, strangling Alexander Godunov with a chain…

Shatner floating around in the Mutara Nebula, tricking the superhuman (yet perpetually frustrated) Khan one last time. More exploding work stations, plus a dead Khan Jr.…

Harrison stealing into The One-armed Man’s house and calling Tommy Lee…

Matt/Jason plummeting down a stairwell astride a dead, fat assassin. Wham! And he just walks away…

Willis/McClane sending the evil Hans Gruber (played by the evil Alan Rickman) twenty stories to his (thuck!) death…

And finally, back on the Enterprise, where a dying Spock spiels out his “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” conundrum as Shatner wonders why, if he’s such a great actor, he can’t shed one tear for his so-called best friend.

Fade to black.

Exhausted, I put down the remote. No need to finish any of these plotlines; they were never the point of this exercise anyway. I leave plot, character development, and dramatic arcs to others. I had just had the greatest night of my channel-surfing career — squeezing the very best sequences from four movies into one, super action movie that was shorter than any of them. And better, if you don’t mind me saying so.
The X in Xmas
I am not a Scrooge. I like Christmas well enough as a part of the end-of-year holiday season of feasting and thanking and getting crazy paralytic drunk. I like the presents thing (to a point), and I have nothing but empathy for the people who bite, bludgeon, and tase their fellow shoppers on Black Friday. Plus, Jesus seems to have been a very nice guy. That’s all good.

What I don’t like are my Christmas tree lights. I plug them in, anticipating my own little Festival of Lights, but no. There is always one string that fails. I just bought that string last year, yet it will not illuminate no matter how imaginative my curses are. Those lights were supposed to be there for me at this time of year, along with comfort and joy, but all I get is another last minute trip to Kmart.

Hold on now, you may interject, are you going to let a silly little thing like malfunctioning mini-lights spoil the whole season? My answer is yes — but not just because I got ripped off. Those defective holiday bulb systems are a symptom of a much larger problem, one that undermines not just Christmas, but our entire retail-based civilization.

Allow me to illustrate. I also own a set of Christmas tree lights that were passed on to me by my parents. After seventy years, the color has worn off some of the bulbs, and the ratty wiring threatens to burn down my house every December. Even so, they work. When one does fail, it can be unscrewed, tossed, and replaced with a new bulb. If a socket is so corroded that it can no longer accept a new bulb, the rest of the string goes on shining in spite of it. I won’t call it an elegant design, but it has lasted.

Lasted without, it should be noted, any teeny, tiny fuses in the plug itself. Fuses! My failed string of mini-lights comes with fuses! They are included to keep the system from failing, I guess, but it seems the fuses have also failed. The mini-lights even come with a pair of back-up fuses. Do I really need to tell you that they, too, have failed? Layer upon layer of failure, violation upon violation of the implied warranty of merchantability. I’d sue, but I only paid $4.39 for that string of tree lights (on sale, which only heightens my anguish).

This is what’s wrong with Christmas; this is what’s wrong with the world. My ant poison doesn’t kill ants. My fluorescent lights don’t last a year, much less ten. My collapsible umbrellas disintegrate after one usage. Yet I (and lots of other people, it appears) continue to buy these cheap-ass products. I fear that the engine of our great economy will soon be fueled only by the continued re-purchase of products that don’t work.

As I have said, Christ was a nice feller. He never bought a Christmas present for anyone, but if he had, it probably would have been something of the loaves and fishes variety rather than a useless piece of crap. The holiday that was named for him, however, has taken a different path. For whatever reason, its success has come to depend on the purchase of large quantities of crap. The American economy, in turn, relies on Christmas to stay afloat, and the rest of the world relies on America.

This is the dangerous state of affairs that has soured my enjoyment of the holiday season (not my own Scroogic —or Grinchly— nature). I sense that we, and the entire world, are living in a fool’s paradise. One day, the crappiness quotient of manufactured goods will become so low that our entire retail network will crumble, and civilization will be left holding the empty gift bag that Christmas came in.

What’s worse, we’ll have only ourselves to blame for our own humbuggering.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon