Ivy On Celluloid: How High

How High

In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I look at college-set movies and check them for plausibility and accuracy, I’m going to take a look at the 2001 higher education stoner comedy, How High.

The plot of How High is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Two guys by the name of Silas and Jamal decided to one day smoke something magical, which eventually helps them to ace their college entrance exam.

The film’s director was Jesse Dylan, who has also helmed the films Kicking and Screaming and American Wedding, as well as a number of music videos and concert films.

The screenwriter for How High was Dustin Lee Abraham, who later contributed significantly to the hit television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The cast of How High includes Method Man (Keanu, The Wackness, Garden State), Redman (Seed of Chucky, Dark), Obba Babatunde (Dear White People, The Temptations), Mike Epps (The Hangover, Nina), Fred Willard (Best In Show, Anchorman), Jeffrey Jones (The Devil’s Advocate, Beetlejuice, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman, Necessary Roughness), and Anna Maria Horsford (Minority Report, Friday).

The cinematographer for How High, Francis Kenny, has had a long career shooting comedy features like Coneheads, Scary Movie, She’s All That, Heathers, and Wayne’s World 2.

The editor for the film was Larry Bock, whose other credits include Critters, Fright Night, Bring It On, The Mighty Ducks, Final Justice, Joysticks, Alligator, and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, among others.

For the external shots of the campus, the University of California, Los Angeles stands in for Harvard University, the setting for the story: a common practice for films about Harvard and fictionalized Harvard stand-ins.

A How High sequel has been in various stages of development for going on 10 years now, and rumor has it that it will begin filming in 2018, though that remains to be seen.

The character of Dean Carl Cain is mostly referred to simply as Dean Cain, which is also the name of a well-known actor, who famously played Superman in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

How High was made on a production budget of $20 million, on which it took in roughly $31.1 million in its lifetime theatrical run. Critically, it received mixed scores, with audiences appreciating it far more than professional critics. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.3/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 27% from critics and 79% from audiences.

To be honest, stoner comedies aren’t really my thing, so I don’t have much of a barometer to judge this by. To me, most of the jokes seemed to land flat, or were just shallow and crass to start with, if not pushing the bounds of racism (in particular, the portrayals of foreign students were less than flattering), but that seems like it might be par-for-the-course in the genre. However, there are a handful of comedy highlights here to be sure, such as Hector Elizondo’s exasperated crew coach and the buttoned-up, straight man antics of “Dean Cain”.

That said, what How High might lack in comedy, it makes up for by bringing up a litany of topics and issues within higher education: there’s no shortage of interesting discussions to be had from this movie.

The very foundation of How High is built on the idea that smoking marijuana, grown in the right conditions, can help a person score higher on tests. While I haven’t seen anything about specifically marijuana giving students an academic edge, there is a fair amount of information and research on academic performance enhancing drugs, particularly stimulants and nootropics.

Although current nootropics offer only modest improvements in cognitive performance, it appears likely that more effective compounds will be developed in the future and that their off-label use will increase. One sphere in which the use of these drugs may be commonplace is by healthy students within academia.

– Chan, S. (2009). Smart drugs for cognitive enhancement: ethical and pragmatic considerations in the era of cosmetic neurology. Journal of Medical Ethics, 35(10).

As the story in How High progresses, the character Silas begins excelling in his Botany class, due to his extensive experience cultivating marijuana plants at home. In 2017, Northern Michigan University began offering a degree program in Medicinal Plant Chemistry, which is “the first program to offer a 4-year undergraduate degree focusing on marijuana,” which gives apparent credence to the academic legitimacy of Silas’s extracurricular practices.

Of further interest, there is a closely guarded laboratory at the University of Mississippi that has a massive stock of cannabis that “is grown, processed and sold by the federal government. The stockpile represents the only source of pot allowed for researchers who want to conduct Food and Drug Administration-approved tests on using marijuana for medical purposes.”

Early in the film, there is a sequence in which Jamal’s family pressures him into focusing on his college entrance exams. In this scene, it is revealed that Jamal is a would-be first generation student, and that both of his siblings completed non-degree certificate programs. In the same sequence, Jamal’s mother casually mentions that he is not just expected to go to college, but to not go to a community college.

Stigma towards community college degrees is a topic I personally find really fascinating: there is a lot of history and politics tied up in why society doesn’t value community college degrees, and a lot of it is tied up in classism, and a desire for upward social mobility that community colleges are not seen as offering. In an article titled “The Stigma About Going To Community College That No One Talks About” for The Huffington Post, Bizzy Emerson writes:

there is…stigma surrounding community college. Many believe it isn’t “real college,” or that it’s much easier than a typical four-year university. This is just simply false. While it offers a different lifestyle, the course load and academics can be just as rigorous as any other school. Community college is an excellent option for any student in any situation, and many will use it as a financial or academic primer before transferring to a four-year university after completing their sophomore year.

Following their perfect entrance exam scores, Jamal and Silas are courted by representatives from a number of different schools, which allows the film to poke at a couple of different types of higher education institutions. Among them is a school called the Reparations Technical Institute, which is represented by black nationalists with a heavy, intense pitch for the duo. RTI, if I were to wager a guess, is a stand-in for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which includes schools like Howard University and Morehouse College, which are known as hubs for activism and racial studies. I assume this portrayal is meant to be a knock at those schools for taking themselves too seriously, but I think it undercuts HBCUs as well by equating them with community and technical colleges.

During the same sequence, a priest is shown trying to recruit the duo to a religious university (presumably Catholic), which is immediately and repeatedly shot down once the issue of sexual morality and celibacy is brought up. While this is played for a joke, the strict sexual constraints of many religious higher education institutions in the United States has created a multitude of issues for students over the years. Whether it is the suppression and oppression of LGBT students or a failure to deal with reports of sexual assault on campus, the problems with the stringent sexual codes of many universities go beyond just being prude, and are a hot topic of discussion in progressive and higher education circles.

All of that said, I was able to dig up an interesting tidbit of information that Jamal and Silas might have appreciated: according to a paper titled “Hooking Up At College – Does Religion Make A Difference?”, researchers from Mississippi State University, the University of Miami, and the University of Texas – Austin concluded that:

Women who attend colleges and universities with a Catholic affiliation are more likely to have hooked up while at school than women who attend academic institutions with no religious affiliation, net of individual-level religious involvement.

There is an interesting sequence in How High which shows Silas and Jamal in an African American History class, taught by an aging white man. According to a 2009 feature in the Los Angeles Times, “blacks make up the majority of the faculty” in African American studies programs, but “white scholars increasingly are making their mark.” Among the handful of white African American studies professors working today are Martha Biondi at Northwestern University, Shawn Alexander at the University of Kansas, and Mark Naison at Fordham University.

In one of the more shocking and horrific sequences of the film, Silas and Jamal rob the grave of President John Quincy Adams, and mutilate his corpse in an attempt to smoke his remains to pass a test. The actual grave of John Quincy Adams is only a short drive from Harvard University, in Quincy, MA. So, as far as proximity is concerned, this is plausible. However, John Quincy Adams and his wife are both buried alongside John and Abigail Adams in a subterranean crypt underneath the United First Parish Church, which is a national historic landmark. So, the practical likelihood that a handful of desperate stoners could penetrate the church and successfully extract the Presidential corpse is pretty low.

One of the big reveals of the film is the discovery of a giant bong designed and used by Benjamin Franklin. There isn’t any evidence to indicate that Benjamin Franklin actually had or used a giant bong, or even that he was a marijuana enthusiast, but there are unconfirmed rumors that he utilized hemp as part of a paper mill. What is more interesting to me is that this artifact would wind up in the hands of Harvard University. Benjamin Franklin was granted honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale, but the man is nearly synonymous with another Ivy League institution, which he notably founded: the University of Pennsylvania. If such an artifact were to appear, regardless of what it was, I’d wager it would wind up in Philadelphia one way or another.

I would be remiss to not mention the history of racism and Harvard, and how that comes through in How High. The upper administration of Harvard University in the film are shown to be clueless as to the value of having a diverse student body, and ultimately only recruit and admit Jamal and Silas simply because they are desperate to meet a diversity quota. Harvard University has a long history of deliberate exclusion, particularly of women, Jewish people, and people of color, which is outlined efficiently in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel, which is a book I highly recommend. Essentially, these schools came up with an admissions system that allowed them to accept or reject whichever students they wanted based on “character,” an ill-defined concept that was (at the time) intended to give white Protestants an edge in admissions decisions over those who were regarded as the “wrong” type of student (Jewish, women, black, etc.).

On top of that, Harvard University once had slaves that worked the campus: something that the current administration is trying to atone for.  On the school’s website, there is a clear statement that “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783.” Given Harvard’s history of racism, it might not be so much of a surprise that Jamal and Silas have trouble culturally fitting in at the institution: if the institution were adequately diverse, they wouldn’t be fish out of water in the first place, and the very premise of the movie wouldn’t be comically sound.

At one point in How High, characters are shown stealing a historic campus statue in the middle of the night. Apparently, there is a long and rich tradition of campus statue thefts: on a cursory search, I was able to dig up articles about cases at Pepperdine University in 2010, Salisbury University in 2010, Mercer University in 2011, University of North Carolina – Wilmington in 2014, and East Carolina University in 2016.

Another sequence of note is one in which a prank on the stuck-up administrator Dean Cain goes awry, which ends with a bunch of birds violently exploding in his office. I wasn’t able to find any record of pranks coming even close to this level of violence and madness: for the most part, the college pranks I’ve read about have been limited to goofy mischief, like putting pumpkins on top of buildings or any of the nutty misdeeds of MIT’s “hackers.”

As far as other highlights of the film worth discussing go, there is a bizarre sequence in which Jamal and Silas are shown selling pornography in public on campus, which brought to mind the “Smut for Smut” campaign at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in which an atheist campus group handed out pornography in exchange for bibles. Both events, real and fictitious, are equal parts tasteless, needlessly provocative, and inexplicable.

There is whole lot more I could talk about in regards to higher education and How High, but I want to save a few topics for future movies in this series. I already touched on nepotism in a previous review, and I will be covering issues like hazing, financial aid, and the party pathway through future films, but be assured that there is plenty more to be found in this movie.

Overall, I thought that How High was a pretty forgettable comedy that should probably stay locked away in the decade that made it. However, there were a surprising number of interesting topics and issues related to higher education that came up over the course of the film, which gave it some entertainment value for me. As far as a recommendation goes, I think enjoyment of this film relies on two things: First, nostalgia. If you have fond memories of this movie, then you might enjoy seeing it again. Second, I think you have to be stoned out of your mind to find some parts of this movie funny.

 

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Ivy On Celluloid: Doctor Detroit

Doctor Detroit

In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I look at college-set movies and check them for plausibility and accuracy, I’m going to dig into the 1983 Dan Aykroyd comedy, Doctor Detroit.

The plot of Doctor Detroit, according to IMDb, is as follows:

A timid college professor, conned into posing as a flamboyant pimp, finds himself enjoying his new occupation on the streets.

The director for Doctor Detroit was Michael Pressman, who also helmed The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, numerous episodes of shows like Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Blue Bloods, and Elementary, and even produced the creature feature Lake Placid, which I have covered previously here.

There were three credited writers for Doctor Detroit: Bruce Jay Friedman (Splash, The Heartbreak Kid), Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3D, The Jerk), and Robert Boris (Little Hercules in 3D, Oxford Blues).

The cast of Doctor Detroit is made up of Dan Aykroyd (Nothing But Trouble, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers), Howard Hesseman (WKRP In Cincinnati, About Schmidt), Donna Dixon (Spies Like Us, Nixon), T.K. Carter (The Thing, Domino), Lynn Whitfield (Head of State, Eve’s Bayou), Fran Drescher (The Nanny), Kate Murtagh (The Car), and George Furth (Blazing Saddles, Megaforce, The Cannonball Run).

The cinematographer for the film was King Baggot, who also shot such movies as The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, and The Hand.

The editor on Doctor Detroit was Christopher Greenbury, whose other credits include American Beauty, Kingpin, Wild Hogs, Loaded Weapon 1, Where The Buffalo Roam, and Bio-Dome, among others..

The music for the movie was provided by Lalo Schifrin, whose long history of film scores includes Cool Hand Luke, Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, Rush Hour 3, The Dead Pool, Class of 1984, The Amityville Horror, Dirty Harry, and Enter the Dragon.

Doctor Detroit served as a major career and personal mark for Dan Aykroyd: not only was it the first film he did after his comedy partner John Belushi’s death, but it was also his first top-billed role. On top of that, he also met his future wife on the production: Donna Dixon.

Doctor Detroit was made on an $8 million production budget, on which it took in just under $10.4 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This was a significant financial disappointment for a film that most of the cast and crew assumed would be a hit. The critical reception was equally unenthusiastic: currently, Doctor Detroit has an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 41% from audiences.

To put it mildly, Doctor Detroit is built on an outlandish foundation, and by design it relies on zany characters to propel its comedy. Unfortunately, from the eponymous Doctor Detroit on down, the characters aren’t strong enough or memorable enough to support the movie, and the writing doesn’t do anyone any favors. Jokes routinely fall flat, the acting is terribly forced, and would-be comedic moments are whiffed through a lack of timing or chemistry. As a movie, Doctor Detroit is a bit of a train wreck. However, what Doctor Detroit lacks in cinematic quality, it compensates for with a litany of characters and subplots in the sphere of higher education.

While Doctor Detroit is not strictly a movie about higher education, there are some interesting higher education issues and topics brought up throughout the story, given the lead character’s occupation as a professor, and the campus setting for much of the story.

To begin with, the very premise of Doctor Detroit brings up a key question: has there ever been an academic who lived a double-life as a pimp? Apparently, there has been, though it occurred many years after the release of Doctor Detroit: David C. Flory, a Physics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, was arrested in 2011 in Albuquerque, NM on 40 counts of promoting prostitution. Professor Flory had apparently been running a website called “Southwest Companions,” which was a social networking platform utilized by “1,400 sex workers and johns.” Ultimately, he was caught because he used his official university email address to start the website. According to the Albuquerque Police Department:

[Professor Flory] was not in this for the money. He flat-out told us his thing was he wanted to create a safe place for prostitutes and johns to get together. He called it a hobby.

While professors moonlighting as pimps is far from a common practice in the field, there is a growing convergence between academia and sex work.  Many higher education institutions have increasingly relied on adjunct faculty, who are typically part-time faculty who are paid minimally, and are rarely afforded any of the benefits or luxuries of their tenure-track peers. According to a feature in The Guardian in September of 2017, ill-paid adjunct professors are increasingly turning to practices like sex work to supplement their income, just to make ends meet.

Another key element of the plot of the movie surrounds a financial crisis for the fictitious Monroe College, which is on the verge of closing within weeks, unless a significant donation is made by a notable alum. While the idea that a college can secretly come within days of closure for lack of finances may seem ridiculous, a similar situation happened not too long ago. After a loan was denied from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, St. Gregory’s University abruptly announced on November 8, 2017 that it would close at the end of the calendar year, giving faculty, staff, and students roughly 50 days of notice.

Speaking of the college featured in the film, the Monroe College that serves as the backdrop of Doctor Detroit is fictitious. However, there is a real Monroe College in New York, though the fictional one in the film is located in Chicago. Northwestern University and the University of Southern California were both used as filming locations to create Monroe College for the movie, though neither school completely fits the details we are told about Monroe College.

While there doesn’t seem to be a specific stand-in, we know from the film that Monroe College is located in an urban part of the Chicago metropolitan area, that it is a private college, that it is almost certainly residential, that it offers four-year degrees (and specifically has an English department), that it is not outwardly religious in nature, and that it is likely liberal arts focused. Also, given its financial situation, I think it is fair to assume that it is a pretty small institution with a minimal endowment. Using the Wikipedia list of colleges and universities in Chicago, I narrowed the list down to a handful of likely candidates to be the “real” Monroe College: Roosevelt University, East-West University, Lake Forest College, and Columbia College Chicago. Of those, I’d wager that Roosevelt University is the closest approximation, given it also boasts a Presidential name, and otherwise matches the descriptions of Monroe College.

At one point in the story, Dan Aykroyd’s Professor Skridlow refers to himself as a “Full Assistant Professor.” As far as I can tell, that title is nothing short of academic word salad. Typically, an Assistant Professor is the beginning rank for a tenure-track professor. Once an Assistant Professor receives tenure, their title usually becomes Associate Professor. The title of “Full Professor” is usually given to senior, already-tenured faculty, who go through an additional round of approvals from peers from both within and outside the institution. The idea of a “Full Assistant Professor” is absurd: the best I can figure, based on the character’s age, is that he is an Associate Professor who recently achieved tenure, graduating from his previous rank of Assistant Professor. My guess is that the screenwriters didn’t do their research, and weren’t sure what terminology to use in that situation.

Speaking of Professor Skridlow’s title, there is something to be said about his position and the historic proliferation of nepotism in higher education. As is shown throughout the film, Skridlow has a tenure-track position at the university where his father is the President, and he is shown as being given opportunities for advancement and notoriety (interaction with large donors, speaking at school functions) that are never offered to his peers. Nepotism, as it is defined by the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, is “favoritism…based on kinship.” In most fields, nepotism is strictly frowned upon, but in higher education, the practice has a complicated history. It is not unusual for married faculty to be hired together at universities, for instance, or for spouses of administrators to be given faculty positions. That isn’t even getting into the popular role of nepotism on student admissions, which is a whole different can of worms. All of that said, many universities are quick to say that they strictly avoid the practice, such as The University of Chicago:

Nepotism is favoritism in the workplace based on kinship and ordinarily consists of making employment decisions based on a family relationship. Nepotism is inconsistent with the University’s longstanding policy of making employment decisions based solely on unit needs and individual qualifications, skills, ability and performance.

However, there is no denying that the practice of nepotism is alive and well at many higher education institutions, and there are many who go to lengths to defend it. In a piece for Inside Higher Ed titled “Is Academic Nepotism A Good Thing?”, Jane Robbins writes:

Universities go to great lengths to put a positive spin on…[nepotism]…They assert that it helps them in recruiting, increases loyalty, and adds stability to the university

In Doctor Detroit, Professor Skidlow’s “Full Assistant Professor” position at Monroe College is inarguably the result of nepotism, whether he was qualified for the position or not. The fact that his father is a top administrator at the school creates a clear conflict of interest. There are numerous occasions where Skidlow fails to complete tasks or responsibilities, for which he should face dire consequences. However, he never does, implicitly because of nepotistic favoritism within the institution.

Overall, I think that Doctor Detroit has been rightfully overshadowed by other comedic works, and is justifiably relegated to a footnote in Dan Aykroyd’s film career. There is a seedling of an idea here, but it doesn’t develop into much, outside of an obnoxious accent and one-dimensional persona. For the most part, this is a movie that should be skipped over. The only exceptions to that are higher education dorks like myself, who might find some interesting elements in the background, or die-hard fans of the career of Dan Aykroyd. For anyone else, I recommend that you continue not knowing (or remembering) that this movie exists.

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Today, I’m going to look at the 2009 3D remake of the 1981 horror movie, My Bloody Valentine.

The plot of My Bloody Valentine is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Tom returns to his hometown on the tenth anniversary of the Valentine’s night massacre that claimed the lives of 22 people. Instead of a homecoming, Tom finds himself suspected of committing the murders, and it seems like his old flame is the only one that believes he’s innocent.

The cast of My Bloody Valentine includes Tom Atkins (Maniac Cop, The Fog, Halloween III), Jensen Ackles (Supernatural), Jaime King (Pearl Harbor, Sin City), Kerr Smith (Final Destination, Dawson’s Creek), Edi Gathegi (Gone Baby Gone, X-Men: First Class), Kevin Tighe (Rose Red, Newsies, K-9, Another 48 Hours), and Megan Boone (The Blacklist).

The screenplay for the film is credited to Todd Farmer (Drive Angry, Jason X) and Zane Smith, the latter of whom has no other listed credits on IMDb. Additional credits are given to the writers of the original 1981 screenplay: John Beaird and Stephen Miller.

My Bloody Valentine was directed and co-edited by Patrick Lussier, who also directed Dracula 2000, The Prophecy 3, White Noise 2, and Drive Angry, and cut such films as Scream, Vampire In Brooklyn, Mimic, Scream 2, Scream 3, New Nightmare, and Red Eye.

Lussier’s co-editor for the film was Cynthia Ludwig, who served as an assistant editor on Carnosaur 3, Rush Hour 2, Scary Movie 2, and numerous episodes of Mr. Robot, Warehouse 13, and Justified.

The cinematographer for My Bloody Valentine was Brian Pearson, whose other credits include Into the Storm, Final Destination 5, Step Up All In, American Mary, and Drive Angry.

The musical score for the film was composed by Michael Wandmacher, who also provided music for the films Drive Angry, Piranha 3D, Punisher: War Zone, and From Justin To Kelly.

My Bloody Valentine is distinctive in that it was one of the earliest films in the modern 3D gimmick boom, and was even the first R-rated movie to use the modern 3D “RealD” technology. Part of the movie’s eventual financial success can almost certainly be attributed to the novelty of the technology at the time.

Interesting, there is a notable change in this remake from the ending of the original My Bloody Valentine – the killer’s identity is swapped, possibly to deliver a surprise to audience members familiar with the original film.

My Bloody Valentine was made on a production budget of $15 million, on which it took in a lifetime international theatrical gross of $100.7 million, making it hugely profitable. However, it didn’t fare as well critically: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.5/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 57% from critics and 44% from audiences.

In my opinion, the biggest issues with My Bloody Valentine are the central performances. Outside of a couple of stalwart character actors, the burden of the movie falls on a weak central cast of television actors who don’t seem equipped to bear the weight. The nature of this story relies on central characters that the audience can identity and empathize with, but in this case, they are all paper thin and far from realistic in their language and demeanor.

It is to the point that I am curious if there was director influence in the matter: did Lussier want the actors to put in shitty performances, for the sake of homage to the golden age of slashers? In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen notes that “the filmmakers have created something too authentic in spirit to the original film, as it also fairly quickly becomes a plodding chore to watch.” Other reviewers have noted the film’s adherence to “old school slasher rules,” and its general appeal to horror genre fans in particular. I think it may be too easy to say that the movie is “bad on purpose,” but I think there was some consideration of the genre’s traditional expectations and norms incorporated into the casting, directing, and writing of the movie.

Next to the less-than-ideal central performances, the biggest issue with My Bloody Valentine are the 3D effects. Frankly, they have aged incredibly poorly less than a decade after the film’s release, to the point that they look amateurish and cartoon-like now. Unfortunately, this is the nature of computer-heavy digital effects in a marketplace that sees constant technological development and improvement: the effects age very quickly as the standards rise. That said, the effects were the primary selling point for the film to begin with, and the 3D gimmick is what brought people to the theaters and made the movie money. Essentially, the movie wouldn’t exist without them. So, it is probably a fair trade-off that the movie lacks longevity because of the effects, given the effects gave it life to begin with.

Overall, My Bloody Valentine has the right spirit of wanting to be a throwback horror film, but it is significantly hindered by the modern 3D gimmick, and it is harder to watch now because of it than it should be. Despite the glory of Tom Atkins being present, too many other movies have done this same sort of concept better. That said, this is still one of the better and more watchable horror reboots of the 2000s, and is a fun enough ride for genre fans.

 

Ivy On Celluloid: Necessary Roughness

Necessary Roughness

Today, I’m kicking off a new segment for the blog: “Ivy On Celluloid.” This new series will spotlight movies about higher education, and delve into their inspirations and inaccuracies. To get things started, I’m going to take a look at the 1991 college football comedy, Necessary Roughness.

The plot of Necessary Roughness is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Due to NCAA sanctions, the Texas State University Fightin’ Armadillos must form a football team from their actual student body, with no scholarships to help, to play their football schedule. With fewer players than most teams, the makeshift team must overcome obstacles that the best teams in the country couldn’t deal with. Using a thirty-four-year-old quarterback, a female placekicker, and a gang of misfits, Ed “Straight Arrow” Genero must take his team to play the number one Texas Colts.

The director for Necessary Roughness was Stan Dragoti, who was also behind the movies Mr. Mom, Love At First Bite, and The Man With One Red Shoe. Interestingly, he has not directed another movie since making Necessary Roughness in 1991.

The screenwriting duo for the film was also responsible for the Sidney J. Furie movie The Taking of Beverly Hills, which also released in 1991. However, they have very few other credits between them.

The cast of Necessary Roughness includes the likes of Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap, Star Trek: Enterprise), Sinbad (Jingle All The Way, Houseguest), Jason Bateman (Ozark, Arrested Development, Teen Wolf Too), Robert Loggia (Big, Scarface, Independence Day, The Believers, Gladiator), Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman, Taking Care of Business, Leviathan), Harley Jane Kozak (Arachnophobia, The House On Sorority Row, Santa Barbara), Kathy Ireland (The Player, Loaded Weapon 1, Alien From L.A., Mr. Destiny), Larry Miller (The Nutty Professor, Chairman of the Board, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Foodfight), Fred Dalton Thompson (The Hunt For Red October, No Way Out, Cape Fear), and Rob Schneider (Real Rob, The Animal, The Hot Chick, Judge Dredd, Demolition Man).

The cinematographer for Necessary Roughness was Peter Stein, whose other credits include Mr. Nanny, Pet Sematary, C.H.U.D., Ernest Saves Christmas, and Friday the 13th Part 2.

The cutting on Necessary Roughness is credited to two editors: Steve Mirkovich (Con Air, Big Trouble In Little China, 16 Blocks, Theodore Rex, Cool World, Prince of Darkness, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan), and John Wright (Heaven is For Real, The Passion of the Christ, Rollerball, X-Men, Apocalypto, Speed, Last Action Hero, Broken Arrow).

The music for the film was composed by Bill Conti, who is best known for his work on the Rocky franchise, as well as The Right Stuff, The Karate Kid, For Your Eyes Only, Bad Boys, and Masters of the Universe, among others.

The poster design for Necessary Roughness was meant to imitate the iconic one for 1989’s Major League, which was a significant success for Paramount just a couple of years previously.

Necessary Roughness features a number of high-profile cameos, primarily in a sequence featuring a scrimmage with a state prison’s football team. Among those appearing are noted football figures Jerry Rice and Dick Butkus.

The Texas State University featured in Necessary Roughness is fictitious. However, it is an amalgam of a number of real higher education institutions from throughout the state. For instance, the story is based loosely on the NCAA “death penalty” given to Southern Methodist University following the 1986 football season, after years of repeated infractions by the program. The school’s colors and setting, however, are that of the University of North Texas. The insignia featured on the team’s helmets (reading sTu), closely resembles the one traditionally worn by the Texas A&M University Aggies (which reads aTm). Likewise, the intense rivalry game depicted in the film’s climax, which features two large Texas universities with a long history of bad blood, bears a strong resemblance to the Texas – Texas A&M football rivalry, which met annually from 1915 to 2011.

Among the opponents featured in Necessary Roughness are a couple of real schools: the University of Kansas Jayhawks, and the Southwest Texas State University Bobcats. Interestingly, in 2003, Southwest Texas State University had its name changed to Texas State University: the name of the fictitious institution at the center of Necessary Roughness. However, they have yet to jettison their Bobcat mascot in favor of a revolver-toting armadillo.

One of the issues brought up in the film is if women have a place playing in competitive college football. Early in the film, the team’s coaches recruit a member of the women’s soccer team to be their kicker. In the context of the film, this decision is initially treated as complete lunacy, and a number of her teammates and opponents alike are shown to be dumbfounded and shocked. While she proves to hold her own, and is crucial in the team’s ultimate success, the sexism portrayed is notable.

In reality, a number of women have since found success in college football, particularly as kickers. In 1997, Liz Heaston of the NAIA’s Willamette Bearcats was the first woman to play and score in a college football game. Since then, many others have followed suit: Katharine Hnida of the University of New Mexico, Ashley Martin of Jacksonville State University, and Tonya Butler of the University of West Alabama, just to name a few. In 2017, Becca Longo became the first woman to receive an NCAA football scholarship, which prompted significant media coverage, and brought the conversation about opportunities for women in college football back to the forefront.

Another interesting issue that is central to the plot of Necessary Roughness is whether there is a place for non-traditional students in  university sports, or in university culture as a whole. The protagonist, played by Scott Bakula, is a 34 year old student who is recruited to be the football team’s star quarterback. On top of dealing with the physical challenges of playing with an older body than his competitors, the character also has to confront the cultural challenges of being older than his peers, which is a very real issue facing nontraditional students in higher education today.

Nontraditional students are far less likely to complete their college degrees than their younger counterparts, not only because of the cultural challenges, but because of their responsibilities outside of school. Necessary Roughness interestingly evades the latter issue: we never see Bakula balancing his schoolwork and athletics with his responsibilities to his farm. In truth, a student in Bakula’s position would almost certainly have to drop something major from his schedule: likely football, or school in its entirety. It is worth noting, however, that many schools are making an effort to provide more support to nontraditional students, and the potential methods for doing so are a hot-button issue du jour in higher education circles.

In regards to nontraditional students in athletics, I wasn’t able to find any similar cases of nontraditional undergraduate students finding success in college football, like Bakula’s character in the film. However, there is the interesting case of Christie Cazzolla: a nontraditional student who attended the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, and successfully won numerous accolades in track & field.

All of that said, there is another nontraditional student on the Texas State Armadillos that does have precedent in reality: Sinbad’s early-graduating, PhD candidate offensive lineman. In 2016, Jarrod Barnes, a PhD student at Ohio State University, played as a Special Teams Safety for the Buckeyes, after previously graduating early from undergrad at the University of Louisville, and finishing his Masters at Ohio State University in 2015. While students are limited to four years of eligibility to play in the NCAA, between red-shirting (effectively adding a fifth year of eligibility by forfeiting playing during Freshman year) and graduating early, it isn’t impossible for a PhD student to play NCAA football, as is done by Sinbad in the film. However, in the words of the NCAA, there are “certain criteria” that must be met, or the student must “obtain an NCAA waiver” to do so.

Yet another interesting issue in Necessary Roughness is the ethical concerns surrounding an intimate relationship between a nontraditional student and a professor, as portrayed by Bakula and Kozak. While the pair face no serious repercussions in the movie beyond veiled threats, the reality of such a situation would have been far different. Here is an excerpt from a Cornell University document, which specifically outlines that romantic relationships are prohibited between faculty and students at that institution, and why:

The relationships between students and their faculty…should be conducted in a manner that avoids potential conflicts of interest…a conflict of interest arises when an individual evaluates the work or performance of a person with whom he or she is pursuing or engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship. Romantic or sexual relationships between students and persons in positions of academic authority may compromise the relationship between students and the university.

Specifically in regards to relationships between nontraditional students and faculty, the document outlines the following:

No faculty member shall engage in romantic or sexual relationships with undergraduate students. Unusual situations, such as…a relationship between a member of the faculty and an undergraduate student of non-traditional age, must be disclosed and remedies sought to avoid real or apparent conflict of interest.

It is notable that, in the film, not only is the relationship not disclosed (a point of great conflict between the two participants), but the professor is in a clear position of authority over the student she is engaged with, as she is teaching one of his courses. This creates an inarguable conflict of interest, which would have made for dire consequences for both participants. The fact that the Dean discovers the relationship and doesn’t use it against the pair is a bit perplexing, however: apart from a brief threatening moment, he doesn’t have either the student or the professor punished, as he could easily have done, which makes little sense for his conniving and malicious character. In reality, the student’s grades for the class would have almost certainly been forfeited, and the professor would have likely been shamed, disciplined, and possibly dismissed for her surreptitious and unethical actions.

Watching Necessary Roughness today, it is impossible not to note the trivial treatment of injuries to the characters. Since the mid-2000s, the issue of traumatic brain injuries among athletes has become widely discussed, particularly Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In the wake of extensive research testifying to the impact of head injuries in contact sports with shortened lifespans, it is hard to find any kind of comedy in the physical humor surrounding injuries on the football field, particularly those with concussion symptoms. In this way, Necessary Roughness feels particularly dated: hard hits are played for laughs, and injuries are comically juxtaposed with cartoonish sound effects. By today’s standards, these portrayals are at the very least unfunny, if not completely unacceptable.

Necessary Roughness brought in $26.2 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This take was hardly earth-shattering, but I wasn’t able to dig up a production budget, so it could have easily been a significant success with that number. The critical reception, on the other hand, was mixed at best. It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 31% critics and 46% from audiences, alongside a 6.1/10 IMDb user rating.

Noted film critic Roger Ebert was one of the film’s more vocal supporters, giving it 3/4 stars in his review, remarking that “as the Armadillos creep toward greatness, ‘Necessary Roughness’ generates a genuine charm,” despite the fact that that plot is “in almost every other movie ever made about an underdog sports team.” On the other hand, Jay Boyar of The Orlando Sentinel panned the movie, noting that “it’s presented with all the bone-crunching hilarity of a staged blooper reel. The whole movie, in fact, is one big blooper.”

I fall somewhere between Boyar and Ebert on this movie. On one hand, the characters are far too cartoonish, often pushing into the realm of caricature, and the humor is dated in its off-color sexism and tone-deaf racial portrayals. On the other hand, Ebert is right to note that there is a “genuine charm” to this film: unlike a lot of underdog sports movies, the team here is exceptionally sympathetic. Personally, I think this is because the members are fully cognizant of how terrible the team is, from the head coach down. There is also the fact that they have no expectations: everyone assumes they will lose out, so no one is particularly disappointed or shocked by their successive losses. That makes their eventual triumph all the more potent.

The biggest positive of Necessary Roughness is, without a doubt, the supporting cast. Without the performances of Robert Loggia and Hector Elizondo, there is a chance that this movie would have been completely unwatchable and devoid of genuine comedy. As it stands, the two character actors carry the highlighting comedic moments of the film, such as Loggia’s halftime speech. However, even they struggle with some of the unpolished and uneven dialogue that runs throughout the screenplay.

Speaking of which, Necessary Roughness debatably has all the makings of being a great sports comedy, but it is severely hampered by what feels like an unfinished and unedited screenplay. Comedic moments often fall flat, and numerous lines of dialogue sound clunky and forced, as if the screenplay was never read through or tuned up after the initial draft. Had there been a little more work put into the screenplay, Necessary Roughness could have been exponentially more entertaining.

Overall, Necessary Roughness is an uneven and mostly unremarkable sports movie, though it does have some brief moments of brilliance. The supporting cast make it worth sitting through on their own (Loggia is a blast), if you can swallow the bad physical and off-color humor peppered throughout that should have been left in the 1980s.

For folks who specifically like sports movies, this one is worth digging up, particularly because it has been somewhat lost to the ages. For anyone else, it is a bit of a toss-up. Personally, I found that it made for an interesting time capsule to look back on in regards to higher education and college athletics, but as a piece of entertainment, it was just ok.

For more interesting reading on Necessary Roughness, check out “The Oral History of Necessary Roughness” on Outkick The Coverage,  the 25th anniversary coverage of the film on UPROXX, and the overview written by the University of North Texas Special Collections Librarian.

Ivy on Celluloid

A good portion of my readers are probably unaware of what I do outside of obsess about “bad” and “failed” movies. Currently, I’m hard at work on a MEd in Higher Education Administration at Vanderbilt University. If you don’t know what exactly that means, you certainly aren’t alone. I suppose you could say that my degree is training me to be something like this:

Well, not really, but this brings up something important. Through studying higher education, I have quickly learned that the general public has no idea how it really works on the inside – we all have a dramatically distorted image of the institution in our heads. The strange reputation of higher education, its personnel, and its culture has been built through decades of popular culture and film, which have pulled content from bizarre inaccuracies, half-truths, and tall tales stretched to their limits. These cultural portrayals of higher education ultimately inform politics and education policy, so their underlying influences are important to discuss. Given I am both a bad movie blogger and an aspiring academic in the field of higher education, I’m going to do the obvious: dive into movies about higher education, and discuss their issues and inaccuracies.

So, in the near future, I’ll be talking about some films that involve higher education institutions. Expect to see me examine the proliferation of degree mills by way of Accepted, dissect the history of collegiate secret societies with The Skulls, dig into modern greek culture with the Van Wilder franchise, cover the unfortunate racist legacy of the Ivy League with Soul Man, and much, much more. I might even do an interview or two with higher education practitioners and researchers: we’ll see where the winds take me. Think of this new segment as something akin to History Buffs or Bad Astronomy. Keep your eyes peeled for the first installment soon!