All posts by Gordon Maples

Writer of the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog and the (Plot)opsy Podcast. A bad movie expert, if there ever was such a thing. Movie nerd, professional organizer, and political progressive.

Ivy On Celluloid: Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at 2017’s Happy Death Day: a time twister of a slasher movie.

The plot of Happy Death Day is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A college student must relive the day of her murder over and over again, in a loop that will end only when she discovers her killer’s identity.

The screenplay for Happy Death Day was written by Scott Lobdell, who is primarily known for his extensive comic book writing for series like Uncanny X-Men and Generation X.  The director for the film was Christopher Landon, who has worked as both a writer and producer on a number of entries into the Paranormal Activity franchise. Some other notable crew members include editor Gregory Plotkin (Get Out, Game Night) and cinematographer Toby Oliver (Get Out, Fantasy Island, Breaking In).

The primary filming location for Happy Death Day is New Orleans, LA, on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans and in the surrounding area. As an aside, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this campus, as I attended my first two years of college next door at Tulane University.

To begin the higher education analysis of Happy Death Day, let’s see if the fictional “Bayfield University” is actually a loosely fictionalized version of a specific university. As mentioned previously, the movie was filmed on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans. If Bayfield was meant to be any specific school, it would make sense for it to be Loyola-NO. However, there are some key details of Bayfield that indicate that it is likely a distinct institution from Loyola-New Orleans, rather than a stand-in. First, Loyola-New Orleans is a private Jesuit university, one of 27 in the United States.  While it is not explicitly stated, Bayfield University appears to be a stand-in for a public, state university, given the prominence of athletics in campus life, and the apparent absence of religiosity on campus. Another detail that distinguishes Bayfield from Loyola-NO is the presence of a university hospital and medical center – while this location has a prominent role in the film, Loyola-NO does not have such a facility. Notably, Bayfield University does retain the color scheme of Loyola-New Orleans – red and gold. However, Bayfield University’s iconography is perhaps the most significant change from Loyola University – New Orleans.

The mascot for Bayfield University featured in the film is a giant baby, whose image is co-opted by the killer(s) throughout the story via a creepy baby mask. The “Bayfield Babies” would certainly be in the running for one of the worst university athletic team names in the world, though there are perhaps some weirder examples in real life.  As I covered in my post on Van Wilder, schools like University of California – Santa Cruz (Banana Slugs) and Evergreen State College (Geoducks) have exceedingly strange team names, but today I am going to focus specifically on horrifying mascots.

There are a few college mascots that merit acknowledgement when it comes to the uncanny and unnatural ability to conjure nightmares.  First, I think Wichita State University’s mascot, known as WuShock, deserves recognition. Officially described by the university as “a big, bad, muscle-bound bundle of wheat,” both iterations of WuShock I have seen are equally unnerving.

Another terrifying university mascot of note is Purdue University’s hammer-wielding Purdue Pete, whose unfeeling, void-like eyes can burn their way into your soul. The University of Louisville’s Louie the Cardinal has a similar overt aggressive energy to WuShock, with the added intimidation factor of having grinding, omnivorous human teeth inside of his over-sized bird beak.  Perhaps the most unnerving of college mascots, however, is Western Kentucky University’s Big Red – an undefined blob-like creature with a gaping maw that has been described as the “amorphous, ambiguous, asexual and always lovable representative of the school’s athletics,” and is renowned for its unusual ability to “make expressions” and “show emotion.” Personally, I would prefer to keep mascots emotionless.

An interesting detail of Bayfield University in Happy Death Day is the absence of “blue light” emergency phones. These have been a visible campus safety fixture on college and university campuses for decades. They are meant to provide a direct line to campus police or security in the case of any emergency situation, such as the confrontation in the dark tunnel towards the beginning of the film.  Interestingly, there has been growing debate about their continued operation due to the costs they incur, coupled with the ubiquity of cell phones. Many campuses have begun using emergency mobile applications to phase out the blue light phones, whereas others, like the University of Colorado – Boulder and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, have already eliminated the blue light phones.

Early in the film, a brownout occurs throughout the Bayfield University campus, the effects of which are seen in a sorority house by the characters Tree and Danielle. Afterwards, Danielle exclaims, “Our tuition money at work!” This got me curious about the ownership of fraternity and sorority houses – Danielle’s statement seems to imply that the university owns the house, but I was under the impression that houses were usually owned by outside parties, like alumni or the national fraternity/sorority organizations. According to information I was able to dig up from Appalachian State University, the earliest fraternity chapter houses were owned by chapter alumni, and not by the host university. However, this isn’t always the case today. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, 24 of 32 fraternity and sorority houses are directly owned by the university. Likewise, fraternities and sororities at North Carolina State University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Maryland – College Park live in a mixture of university-owned and privately owned houses. In contrast, at the University of Washington all fraternity and sorority housing is privately owned.

During a number of the timelines in the film, a murder occurs within a sorority house. The first thing that is clearly evoked by these instances, particularly given the fact that there is an escaped killer nearby, is Ted Bundy’s spree at Florida State University’s Chi Omega house, which occurred after he escaped from custody. While the fictitious serial killer in Happy Death Day does not bear a resemblance to Ted Bundy, the implication that he targets college women and is prone to escape attempts draws a parallel between them.

Despite the presence of a serial killer, it is ultimately revealed that Tree is the repeated victim of a murder plot by her roommate. After doing some digging, I was able to find a handful of examples of college roommates committing murder. In 2007, a University of Arizona student stabbed her roommate 23 times because she had been exposed for stealing $500.  In 1995, a student at Harvard University murdered her roommate before subsequently killing herself, which became the subject of a book that criticized Harvard’s mental health services for students. A recent case of apparent college roommate murder occurred in 2019, when a Clark Atlanta University student was allegedly killed by her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend. Both of them have plead not guilty, and a trial is forthcoming.

A number of times throughout the movie, an unnamed student is shown passing out during what appears to be a  hazing ritual. The student appears to be a fraternity pledge who has been forced to stay up all night while standing and singing with other pledges. There are countless articles that have outlined dangerous hazing practices that have occurred on college campuses. Universities have long acknowledged the safety issues inherent to hazing, and have widely adopted strict anti-hazing institutional policies, which are intended to curb potentially dangerous hazing rituals. Further, there are anti-hazing laws in a number of states. However, in 2018, Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors published a document analysis of anti-hazing policies and legislation, which critiques some of their notable shortcomings and provides a fantastic overview how hazing persists in higher education.  Because of the public scrutiny and admonishment of hazing practices, it seems unlikely to me that hazing, even of this debatably innocuous sort, would be carried out on campus in broad daylight. It seems more likely to me that hazing would at least happen behind closed doors, in order to avoid formal repercussions for the organization.

A number of times throughout the film, a particular focus is placed on the dietary restrictions placed on members of the sorority Kappa Pi Lambda by their apparent leader, Danielle, in order for the members to maintain a consistent image. This kind of food policing by sorority leadership comes up occasionally in higher education films, usually coupled with gags about eating disorders among sorority members. There are a handful of research studies on implementing programs to prevent eating disorders among sorority members that focus on either individuals or the sorority social systems as a whole,  but there isn’t much that indicates concretely that sorority members are more likely to have eating disorders than college women on the whole. A phenomenological study on perceptions among sorority women found that “sorority women may have a greater fear of becoming fat, are more dissatisfied with their bodies. and are more weight preoccupied and concerned with dieting than are college women from previous studies,” which could put them at greater risk of developing eating disorders. While there is a research study that indicates that sorority members develop a greater “drive for thinness” as a result of their sorority membership over three years when compared to non-sorority peers, there was no indication that they have higher rates of bulimia or general body dissatisfaction compared to their unaffiliated peers.

All of that said, the Kappa standards in Happy Death Day do seem consistent with a leaked 2013 email from a University of Southern California sorority to members which Jezebel described as “unhinged”:

Start eating healthy today and you’ll feel so much better by the time polish week and recruitment starts. Stay away from fried and super sugary foods. Your face will seriously brighten up. Also, exercise. Start now and you’ll have way more energy and endurance for the long hours of recruitment.

One of my favorite things about Happy Death Day is how it portrays a casual day on a college campus. Most college movies gloss over the hustle and bustle of the college campus in the daylight in favor of the classroom setting or the debauchery of nighttime. Happy Death Day spends some quality time on a quad at the beginning of each repeated cycle, showing students collecting petition signatures, folks hanging out on the grass, a flurry of assorted noises, and the seemingly perpetual human motion of a buzzing university at full capacity. It is a strange element to be left out of so many college films, but Happy Death Day captures the spirit of a daytime college campus in these sequences better than any other film that I can think of.

There are quite a few other topics I could cover from Happy Death Day – university policies about sexual relations between faculty and students, suicide on campus, violence at fraternities, etc. – but I have either already covered them in other Ivy On Celluloid features, or plan to cover them with another film.

On the whole, Happy Death Day is an entertaining horror-comedy movie that is reminiscent of a number of classics: there are explicit nods to Groundhog Day, and thematic similarities to the Scream franchise and other subsequent self-aware slashers. I’m hesitant to say that this is a great movie, but I found it to be a pretty good late night horror film, and a surprisingly interesting depiction of higher education. Though it does lean on some lazy stereotypes, spends a bit too much time and effort making the lead unsympathetic, and takes too long to get the momentum rolling, there are definitely things to like about Happy Death Day.  I can recommend this confidently to horror fans out there, particularly if they are into the Scream and Cabin In The Woods brand of self-aware horror.

A big thanks to my old Columbus film critic buddies Hope Madden and George Wolf, who inspired me to take a look at Happy Death Day. I recently hopped on their amazing horror podcast Fright Club to discuss college horror movies, which included a little discussion of Happy Death Day. Check it out!

Ivy On Celluloid: Best College Horror (Fright Club)

Hey all! I recently joined a couple of my old film critic buddies, Hope Madden and George Wolf, for an episode of their horror movie podcast, Fright Club. We discussed a handful of the best college-set horror movies from over the years, and I talked about some of my work on the Ivy On Celluloid series about depictions of higher education on film. The episode is up today, and I highly recommend checking it out!

Fright Club Podcast | Listen via Stitcher for Podcasts

Tammy and the T-Rex (Gore Cut)

Tammy and the T-Rex (Gore Cut)

About five years ago, I covered the 1994 theatrical cut of Tammy and the T-Rex here on the blog. In that iteration, the film is an absurd, goofy film about the mind of a teenage boy becoming trapped inside of a robotic dinosaur. At the time, I reported that the film had an alternate cut, that featured gratuitous gore and a much less family-friendly tone:

Apparently, there is alternate cut of Tammy and the T-Rex that was released in Italy, which features enough violence and gore that it would have received an R-rating from the MPAA. In total, this cut is less than 10 minutes longer, but has never been released in English.

Last year, the folks at Vinegar Syndrome got a hold of this Italian-released gore cut, and restored this strange movie into its much stranger, gorier form. After touring with the restoration for a time, it was recently released on blu-ray, which gave me the chance to check it out.

Despite the fact that little run-time is added to the movie, the restored sequences are cartoonishly over the top with their violence, and the overall experience is that much more fun for it. The satisfaction of watching people get flattened and eviscerated by a robot dinosaur is unparalleled. This iteration really puts John Carl Buechler’s delightful vintage b-movie effects work on display, which is never a bad thing. Tammy and the T-Rex was a solid recommendation before this gore restoration, now it is mandatory viewing for bad movie fans. Seriously, make this a priority.

Cats (2019)

Cats

You knew this was coming.

We need to talk about Cats.

Shortly after I published my aggregated measure of the Worst Movies of 2019, the review embargo on Cats lifted, and one of the biggest cinematic disasters of recent memory hit theaters. Tens of millions of dollars seemingly evaporated, there was a high-profile attempt by the studio to “patch” the effects within a week of the film’s release, film critics collectively lost their minds trying to one-up each other with surrealist, rambling reviews, and theater chains like Alamo Drafthouse hosted packed “rowdy” screenings of the film in the wake of a countless wave of memes about folks going to screenings while intoxicated with a variety of substances. It was a bad movie touchstone event. A quasi-phenomenon of trash cinema.

I saw Cats a couple of times over the course of this frenzy. The first time, I tried to focus on positive elements of the film, hoping to add something novel to the discourse, a la FilmJoy’s delightful Deep Dive series.  It was…somewhat difficult. I can’t justify why I went the second time, but I don’t regret it.

I could go through the same points that every reviewer has already thoroughly blunted – the off-putting human hands, the curious choice to have cats wear fur coats, the inconsistent size scales, the inexplicable eroticism, etc. However, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for writing about that.

In the past, I hosted a podcast here at Misan[trope]y called The Plotopsy Podcast, where I tried to dissect the issues that contributed to a film’s critical or financial failure. While I haven’t gone back to it in a while, this is a question that always interests me. In the case of Cats, I have some suspicions as to what went wrong.

Ashley Lee of the Los Angeles Times put some of the blame of the Cats failure on the inherent difficulties of adapting concept musicals to the big screen, which I think does carry some water. However, as she points out, concept musicals like Chicago and Cabaret have worked on the screen in the past. More on target is her observation that much of the spectacle and awe of the stage version of Cats is lost in the film adaptation amidst ill-conceived digital fur, exposed human hands, and litany of what Justin Chang referred to as “grotesque design choices.”

Let’s start with one of the few positives of the film – I genuinely think the choreography is quite good. This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but my lay opinion is that there was some great effort on the part of the performers and choreographers to put a good performance on. For instance, I think the Skimbleshanks sequence may be the only roundly “okay” part of the movie, thanks entirely to those two parties. However, throughout the movie, that effort is lost in the trappings of digital fur. On my second watch through the movie, I tried to pay more attention to the dancing, particularly in the background. The digital gilding of fur on the actors has an odd muting effect on their motions – they come off as intangible in their glossy fluidity. One of the charms of dance performances is the raw humanity of it – the contortions of muscles and tactile physicality is an integral part of the spectacle. With the stage version of Cats, this isn’t lost beneath practical effects. Under a digital shroud, the effect is all but completely evaporated.

Let’s discuss the effects a bit more – I think this, more so than anything else, has been the greatest point of criticism leveled at the film. The “uncanny valley” effect that comes from sub-par simulacrums of human expressions and movement is on full display, to haunting and disconcerting effect. However, it is hard to anticipate the quality of effects used to this extent. There’s simply no way anyone on set could have predicted exactly what the movie would ultimately look like – the process of adding digital effects after filming is almost like making a second movie on its own.

The best, if only, ways to estimate the quality of effects is their cost, the time allotted to create them, and the reputation of the houses hired to provide them. We know the money was spent for a quality product, but who actually provided them? The two groups that provided most of the work on Cats were Moving Picture Company and The Mill. MPC just won an Academy Award for visual effects on 1917,  and has contributed work to films like Life of Pi, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, The Jungle Book, and Blade Runner 2049, all of which garnered positive receptions for their effects. The Mill has plenty of credits as well, if a bit less lauded, including television shows like Doctor Who, Vikings, and True Detective, as well as an assortment of films. Basically, these are teams that know how to do effects work.

But were they given the time to get the job done? Visual effects is work that is difficult to rush – throwing money at it doesn’t necessarily mean it will go any faster or smoother. Reportedly, the Cats effects were rushed from the start for the ambitious release date, and ‘completed’ only within days of the premiere. What’s more, tinkering was demanded after the disastrous response to the film’s trailer online, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The effects were supposed to be ground-breaking, and a marketing gimmick to rival the awe-inspiring practical effects on stage. I suspect the producers were anticipating that, at least. Even if they weren’t Avatar quality, the producers almost certainly expected them to be good enough to use as a tactic to bring people into the theater, just like the stage play. Unfortunately, I don’t think they grasped the scope, or had realistic expectations. Maybe with more money and more time, this could have been the spectacle they were hoping for, but that is highly speculative. If I were to guess, there were plenty of tense conversation between the producers and the effects houses about the projected release date, and what could realistically be expected. And we got what we got.

With that, I want to shift to marketing. I believe that the disaster of Cats can’t be understood without a look at the way the marketing was planned, and integrated into the film’s production. Aside from using the effects as a marketing gimmick, I suspect that much of the casting was done with an explicit eye to marketing – roles were almost certainly cast with a handful of qualities in mind. They needed performers with followings and platforms, who could usher their flocks into the theater. A baked-in audience of loyal fans is essentially guaranteed ticket sales, right? I suspect folks like Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jason DeRulo, and Idris Elba were brought in with this explicit thinking in mind. Swift was even a double-dip, as she also contributed an original song to the movie, which I’m sure the producers expected to be an easy award nod. On the other end of the spectrum, in order to cast the broadest net into the general population, Cats brought stage credibility in the forms of lauded individuals like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Francesca Hayward. The theater and performance aficionados would surely be pleased. To add to it, Tom Hooper has had success adapting a stage hit to the big screen – folks were inexplicably fond of his take on Les Miserables, which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Surely this will bring public confidence to the project.

It is important to note, particularly for folks who don’t remember, that Cats was a phenomenon on the stage, and primarily a marketing phenomenon at that. So, these pandering tactics for the film iteration shouldn’t be a surprise. Overall, critics were not fond of the material from the start, long before they salivated over new and inventive ways to eviscerate the film adaptation. However, it was a marketer’s dream and a persistent crowd-pleaser. It was inoffensive, nonviolent, gimmicky, devoid of intellectual depth or an ethical challenge to an audience, family-friendly to the bone, and bolstered by an iconic logo that infected the globe. The whole affair was allegedly cute by means of its loose association with real-life cats, a perennial delight for the masses. Cats is, on paper, a rare property with near-universal potential for attracting the widest possible audience. For producers who might be a bit out-of-touch with the zeitgeist, they probably saw a film adaptation of this material to be an inherent winner in concept. After all, cats are as big as ever on the internet. Kids love cats, old people love cats…every major demographic seems to love cats. And Cats was a huge hit on the stage! This is a sure win, they must have thought.

I suspect that the producers anticipated that their casting machinations would coalesce with residual loyalty to the stage play to attract both young folks and aging audiences alike. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they saw the success of Hamilton as indicating a re-invigorated enthusiasm for stage musicals, without even a basic understanding of why folks enjoyed Hamilton. Much like Cats, there was a lack of depth or insight behind their grand aspirations.

A lot has been said of the decision to release Cats opposite to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Of course, I think the release date should have been buried in January or later, but more for the benefit of the effects than to avoid Star Wars competition. To be honest, I don’t think they ever thought that Cats would be competing with Star Wars – the producers were almost certainly focused on the potential of the Christmas-time date and historical musical successes in the slot, as reported by SlashFilm back in 2018:

The holiday season is…big on musical movies – Les Miserables, another musical adaptation from Tom Hooper, opened on December 25, 2012. The adaptation of Chicago hit theaters December 27, 2002. And last year, The Greatest Showman danced onto the screen on December 20.

Even though there was a wide net cast for Cats to general audiences, I’m sure Universal saw it as counter-programming to Star Wars, likely to catch audiences who weren’t on board with the hyperspace franchise train – the sluggish response to Solo might have given Universal some confidence going up against the Disney titan as well, but I’m not sure how much that played into the decision. The way that Universal held tight to the release date despite the effects issues says to me that they were focused on the specific potential of holiday date revenues.

So, what went wrong with Cats? Blaming the effects alone doesn’t get to the source of the rot, and I believe it places too much blame on effects workers who were forced into a tough position. This is a film that was flawed from conception. It was, in my opinion, meticulously concocted as a marketing scheme rather than an artistic enterprise. That in-authenticity seeps from its pores, and the stench carries. There was also certainly a false foundation to its construction – it turns out that there isn’t the residual fondness for the Cats brand that was relied upon, nor were the marketing powers of celebrities enough to sucker in audiences.

Cats is what it is. In truth, it is a bereft and shallow product of a bereft and shallow enterprise. Cats is capitalism put through a prism of digital fur. If anything, its appropriation into the bad movie canon is the only way it could have found a form of salvation. We have taken a wretched thing, placed it in a hot air balloon, and let it fly into oblivion, where it always should have remained.

Come To Daddy

Come To Daddy

Yesterday, I had the chance to catch Come To Daddy, the feature directorial  debut of Ant Timpson, who is best known for producing modern cult favorites like Turbo Kid, Deathgasm, The Greasy Strangler, and The ABCs of Death. With a screenplay by The Greasy Strangler co-writer Toby Harvard, it is a fascinatingly tense and gore-laden affair.

The film opens with Elijah Wood’s meek character, Norval, arriving at a secluded beach house that he describes as “like a UFO from the 1950s,” which is the home of his estranged and enigmatic father. From the moment he arrives, he has a series of baffling, tense, and inexplicably combative conversations (and non-verbal interactions) with his host – an intermittently aggressive and eccentric drunkard played enthrallingly by Stephen McHattie.

These early scenes between McHattie and Wood reminded me of a notable early sequence in Kevin Smith’s 2014 body-horror film Tusk, which featured the late Michael Parks and Justin Long in a peculiar verbal sparring match juxtaposed with the warm surroundings of a cozy, fire-lit living room.  Instead of having the dancing shadows of a fire-lit room surround them, McHattie and Wood have their verbal duels with a scenic coastal vista in ever-present view from their modern, saucer-like abode. For fans of cerebral indie-horror, the first half of Come to Daddy is likely to please – there is palpable drama, a deep sense of unease, and some salient themes of family, mental illness, and alcoholism underscoring their interactions. However, viewers are assured that “you have no fucking idea what is happening here” – twists and turns are abound, paving the way for a stylistic and tonal shift into a violent, shocking, and depraved realm.

Unlike Tusk, which is burdened by both pacing and performance issues, both the screenplay and the acting performances in Come to Daddy are impeccable. Beyond Wood and McHattie, who are both fantastic, all of accessory cast members feel tangible and real – there is a conveyed sense that they all have entire lives and stories of their own off-screen. Even a character with a single, brief scene is unforgettable for his ruminating on the sinister nature of “raisin eyes.” When performances and the screenplay click together in just the right way, this is the result.

While I understand folks who feel much more affection for the first half of Come To Daddy, I still thoroughly enjoyed its abrupt yet fluid shift into a higher gear. The tension that was built in the first half never dissipates, but adapts to the more violent, faster pace of the developing action.

On the whole, I found this to be enjoyable horror/thriller flick with some expertly tense sequences. While I don’t think of it as among the highest tier of contemporary horror with the likes of features from Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, or Robert Eggers, I think it fits into a nice niche as an oddball movie with wry humor and tense dialogue.  While this isn’t a movie that is going to light up an awards show, it is going to scratch a unique itch for a lot of horror film aficionados who appreciate a different, artistic twist on their gore-fest without losing the charming ethos of a b-movie.

Worst Movies of 2019

Howdy loyal followers and wandering spambots! After a hiatus induced by PhD work, I’m back with my annual analysis of the worst films of the year.

As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2019” lists (from sources like The AV Club and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2019 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here

2019 saw a wider distribution of films receiving tallies than previous years – a total of 127 from 16 published lists. In 2018, for comparison, only 103 films received tallies, which was more than either 2017 or 2016.

As with previous years, there was no universal consensus for the worst film of the year. The leader of the pack was only included in 14 of 16 year-end lists, meaning 2 lists omitted it entirely. However, the is the strongest win for any movie I have covered since I started doing this annual post. There were plenty of ties within the rankings, though one film did stand above (below?) the others, unlike last year’s first-place tie. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Serenity
  2. (Tie) The Kitchen / Dark Phoenix
  3. (Tie) The Fanatic / MIB: International / Gemini Man
  4. (Tie) Rambo: Last Blood / Hellboy
  5. (Tie) A Madea Family Funeral / The Goldfinch / Replicas / Shaft / UglyDolls

Are there any movies that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Were any of these movies better than the public judged them to be? Let me know!

Ivy On Celluloid: Van Wilder

Van Wilder

In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’ll be taking a look at National Lampoon’s second most famous college-set comedy: 2002’s Van WIlder.

The plot of Van Wilder is summarized on IMDb as follows:

The most popular kid on campus meets a beautiful journalist who makes him realize that maybe he’s afraid to graduate.

Van Wilder was the directorial feature debut for Walt Becker, who has gone on to direct other comedies like Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. The screenplay was written by the duo of David Wagner and Brent Goldberg, who also penned the screenplays for The Girl Next Door and Underclassman.

The cast of the film is headlined by the charismatic Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Green Lantern, Detective Pikachu), along with Tara Reid (Sharknado, The Big Lebowski, Alone in the Dark), Kal Penn (House), Tim Matheson (The West Wing, Animal House), Emily Rutherfurd (Pain & Gain), Paul Gleason (Die Hard, The Breakfast Club), and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad).

The inspiration for Van Wilder is rooted in the experiences of the comedian Bert Kreischer during his time at Florida State University, during which time he was named the “top partyer at the Number One Party School in the country” in a 1997 Rolling Stone feature. The article features a number of less-than-flattering testimonials and descriptions of Bert’s lurid behavior, and  concludes that his reputation on campus over six years has made him “a figure of vaguely totemic proportions.”

“I haven’t met Bert yet, but he’s well-known at the Tri Delt sorority. ‘If you ever meet a guy named Bert, run like hell.’ That’s what they said. ‘Run. Like. Hell.’”

Van Wilder was made on a production budget of $5 million, on which it took in a lifetime gross of just over $38 million, making it quite profitable. Ultimately, its success spawned two sequels: Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, and Van Wilder: Freshman Year.

However, as with many comedies, the reception to Van Wilder was split between critics and audiences. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 6.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 19% from critics and 73% from audiences

To begin the higher education analysis of Van Wilder, I’d like to start with the host institution for the story: Coolidge College. This institution, as is often the case with higher ed films, is entirely fictitious. However, two real institutions served as filming locations – the University of California – Los Angeles and California State University – Northridge. UCLA was the filming location for most of the campus sequences, whereas Cal State Northridge provided the gym for the basketball scene.

The mascot/nickname for Coolidge College is the Chickadees – a group of small bird species in North America that are known for their unique vocalizations. While chickadees are not particularly imposing, many colleges have confounding mascots and nicknames – there’s the University of California – Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, the Evergreen State College Geoducks, the Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers, and the St. Louis University Billikens, among many others.

One of the first scenes in Van Wilder shows a suicide attempt, as a student jumps from an academic building on their university campus. I covered the topic of college student suicide extensively in my coverage of Dead Man On Campus, but this sequence got me curious as to if students are known to jump off of campus buildings. In 2014, a University of Pennsylvania student died after leaping from a campus parking garage. In 2017, a student at the University of Tennessee died after jumping off of a six-story parking garage on campus. Again in 2017, an exchange student at Columbia University died after jumping from a dormitory building. In 2018, a University of Louisville student died after jumping off of a parking garage across from the campus. Unfortunately, it seems that jumping from campus buildings as a means of committing suicide is not unheard of.

A handful of times throughout the film, Van refers to his major as “Leisure Studies.” This is an actual major offered at many institutions, including California State University – Long Beach, University of Mount Olive, and Southern Connecticut State University. From what I can tell, these programs typically prepare students for careers in sports management, the management of recreation centers, recreation therapy, general event management, and tourism. This notably fits Van’s displayed skill set of planning and executing large-scale events, such as athletic-based fundraisers and intricate parties.

Tara Reid’s character in the film writes for Coolidge College’s student newspaper, and takes the position very seriously – it is stated that a reporter previously in her position went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, which she aspires to herself. She and her editor hope that an expose on Van Wilder will attract critical attention to the newspaper.

I decided to look into the world of college journalism, and there are a number of annual awards for exceptional individual stories, reporters, and papers. In particular, he Associated Collegiate Press has annual awards for exceptional cartoonists, reporters, individual stories, designers, and photographers who contributed their works to college newspapers, as well as Pacemaker Awards for overall outstanding work for college publications – magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, and online news outlets. Looking through the most recent ACP award winners for individual stories, most of them are on serious social topics – food insecurity, sexual assault on campus, student mental health, the opioid epidemic, institutional corruption, and misconduct among administrators and faculty. I’m not so sure that an expose on a local party animal would yield much critical attention, going by the stories that are most lauded.

A recurring gag throughout the film revolves around a specific reserved campus parking spot for a faculty member. In my time spent on a number of different college campuses, I’ve never once seen a parking spot reserved for a specific faculty member – typically, they have a similar permit to students and staff. For instance, here is information on faculty parking from a handful of universities, which all require paid permits for zoned parking – University of Tennessee – Knoxville, University of Houston, and University of Arkansas. From what I can tell, these paid permits are pretty much the ubiquitous policy for faculty members at universities.

During the sequence where Van Wilder’s father financially cuts him off, he claims that taking seven years to complete undergraduate coursework is unacceptable:

“Seven years and no degree, you should have graduated twice by now…if you don’t have your doctorate you haven’t done enough”

Clearly, Van’s father had high expectations – he anticipated Van graduating early, not hanging around on campus for the majority of a decade. However, his thinking is indicative of a pretty significant misconception about how long it takes many students to complete coursework at four-year institutions. Institutions like the National Center for Education Statistics and National Student Clearinghouse Research Center track four-year college graduation rates primarily at the six-year mark – and those numbers aren’t perfect, regardless of institution type. Assuming Coolidge College is a four-year, private non-profit college, it is likely that (according to 2016 data) 1 in 4 enrolled students at the college won’t complete their degree in six years – Van isn’t in as much of a minority as one might assume.

One of the key supporting characters in the film is Taj – an international student at Coolidge College who appears to have not adapted well to the American college experience, particularly in regards to his initial expectations of sexual activity, issues with his personal anxiety, and general loneliness. I decided to dig around for some information on international student experiences, to see if Taj’s depiction is consistent.

There are a number of qualitative studies that have been done with the goal of understanding adjustment issues for international college students at American universities, including one from the Ohio State University that concluded that interviewed international students experienced significant problems in their coping with US education, cultural differences, and language challenges. Other studies have focused on specific groups of international students, such as African or Chinese/Taiwanese international students, and found that social challenges were common. However, I wasn’t able to find anything written about international college students and sexuality – the most I was able to dig up was an informational packet on supporting LGBT international students, which includes the following:

For LGBT international students coming to the United States from cultures where exploration of one’s sexuality or gender identity is discouraged or unsafe, this opportunity to develop and explore in a supportive environment can be revolutionary.

From what we know of Taj, this is the basis of his decision to come to college in the United States. Though he is not shown to be LGBT, his primary motivator is certainly the “exploration of…sexuality.” What is particularly interesting about this, however, is that American colleges have a uniquely sexual reputation in his mind, to the point that it influenced his enrollment decision. As far as I know, there isn’t any data on sexual activity that can be compared between universities globally to prove his assumptions correct or incorrect, but there is some data about sexual activity and colleges in the United States.  While this doesn’t confirm or debunk Taj’s sexual assumptions about American colleges, it is interesting data that could be construed as support for the view of these institutions as sexual exploration centers. That said, I would wager that Taj’s view of the college experience is the result of media portrayals more than anything else – the proliferation of raunchy sexual comedies like Animal House or Van Wilder, for instance.

During the pep talk at the Coolidge College basketball game, one of the players asks Van if the victory party will feature students (“freaky honeys”) from  Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke College is a real, notable women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

At one point in the film, Taj catalyzes a dormitory fire through a mishap with romance-inducing candles. It is pretty much common knowledge that candles are not allowed in dormitories for this very reason, which has inspired numerous on alternatives. Despite this, candles are still a frequent cause of fires in dorms – in just the past year, fires at Boston University, Bowdoin College, and Colby College have been attributed to errant candles use. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 87% of reported dormitory fires have explicitly involved cooking equipment, but candles are also cited as a leading cause of accidental fires in dorms.

Campus Safety Banner

On top of planning parties and fundraisers, Van Wilder is also shown to be a general problem solver for his fellow students. At one point, a student comes to Van complaining of having acquired an STI – something that is not treated as out of the norm by Van. Young people between 15-24, which includes traditional college students, are known to have high-rates of sexually-transmitted diseases, which poses a challenge for colleges. In 2016, the University of Oregon launched an STI Screening Clinic as part of the University Health Center, in order to provide convenient and affordable testing for students. Free distribution of condoms is a common practice at many universities as well, including condom delivery services at schools like Boston University, Brown University. and Elizabethtown College. The proliferation of STIs on  college campuses has also inspired the condom company Trojan to compile a campus sexual health ranking system.  The 2016 report card featured the University of Georgia and Oregon State University at the top of the list, and schools like Brigham Young University and the University of Notre Dame at the bottom.

One of the most curious sequence of events in the film involves Van Wilder’s student records. In one scene, Tara Reid’s character is handed all of Van’s disciplinary records by a university official without so much as showing identification. However, when she later goes looking for Van’s official transcript, another administrator stonewalls her, saying that divulging that information would be illegal. Ultimately, Reid’s character steals Van’s record after setting off a fire alarm. These sequences touch on the details of FERPA – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – which is a federal law that was passed in 1974, and applies to any education institution that receives federal funds. FERPA specifically relates to student records and privacy, and makes it clear that student disciplinary records are protected information that require the student’s consent to release, except in very specific cases:

A postsecondary institution may disclose to an alleged victim of any crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense the final results of a disciplinary proceeding conducted by the institution against the alleged perpetrator of that crime, regardless of whether the institution concluded a violation was committed. An institution may disclose to anyone—not just the victim—the final results of a disciplinary proceeding, if it determines that the student is an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense, and with respect to the allegation made against him or her, the student has committed a violation of the institution’s rules or policies.

Based on these limited exceptions, it is fair to say that Tara Reid’s character should not have been given Van’s disciplinary records, and that the administrator committed a FERPA violation by doing so. However, FERPA violations are not as uncommon as you might assume: universities are in a constant struggle with administrators and professors in an attempt to keep everyone within FERPA guidelines with their communications. FERPA trainings are commonplace on college campuses, and other resources include tutorials, walkthroughs, and FAQs for staff and faculty members at universities. This is because, particularly thanks to modern technology, the scope of what is a FERPA violation is broader than you might first assume – even emailing a graded paper directly to a student is a FERPA violation, as email is not considered a secure medium for transmitting protected information. Even the fact that Reid’s character was able to steal Van’s physical records means that they were not sufficiently secured, which is another violation – typically education records are encrypted and stored electronically for this very reason (though digital vulnerabilities also exist).

Late in the film, Van Wilder is expelled from Coolidge College after a number of minors get drunk at a party he hosted. Ultimately, he decides to appeal the administration’s decision, which leads to a hearing with a disciplinary committee, shown to be made up of a combination of faculty, administrators, and students. From what I can gather, committees like this are pretty commonplace, and feature a similar makeup of faculty, staff, and students. Princeton University’s Committee on Discipline, the University of Chicago’s University-wide Student Disciplinary Committee, Bates College’s Student Conduct Board, and Morehead State University’s Student Disciplinary Committee all have similar guidelines, with some degree of variation.

As part of the ruling of the disciplinary committee, Van is required to complete his degree and graduate, “auditing” the final classes he needs to graduate. This phrasing is particularly peculiar – a class audit is specifically taking a course without receiving a grade or credit, which means it would not contribute towards the achievement of a degree. This mechanism – in which a student blows through a bunch of classes in a montage at the last minute, as a sort of gauntlet challenge – seems to pop up in other education-based movies pretty often, but as far as I can gather, it isn’t based on anything factual.

When Van Wilder first faces financial hardship following being cut off by his father, he initially earns his tuition money by pioneering a service called “topless tutors,” in which he convinced employees of a local strip joint to act as tutors with a risque incentive system. Ultimately, this service is put to an abrupt end, but it tangentially hits at a very real issue: college students turning to sex work to cover costs. While Van’s situation is not the way student sex work is usually envisioned, what Van did could fall technically under the terminology of sex work, as he is shown to be managing the logistics of the program.

In general, I think that Van Wilder is a shockingly heinous movie – it constantly trivializes serious issues like suicide and rape, expresses contemptuous misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, and seems to relish in it all as a collective badge of honor. As a portrayal of higher education, it does touch on a handful of interesting topics, but almost always by complete accident as it shambles through stereotype-laden dialogue and caricatures with crass disregard. For the most part, the movie is a dated, nearly-unwatchable atrocity of a film with little overall value. It does speak to Reynolds’s charisma that he has gone on to the career that he has now, and was able to squeeze an ounce of charm from this desolate, hateful stone of a movie. It goes without saying that this is yet another college movie that I don’t recommend revisiting – it might be the most odious of the bunch I’ve covered so far.

Ivy On Celluloid: So Undercover

So Undercover

Today, in my continuing series about portrayals of higher education on film, I’m taking a look at the Miley Cyrus vehicle So Undercover.

The plot of So Undercover is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A tough, street-smart private eye is hired by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority.

So Undercover was directed by Tom Vaughan, who has primarily worked on television shows like Big Love, The Royals, Victoria, and Press. The screenplay was provided by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty, The Switch, Here Comes The Boom) and producer Steven Pearl (New Amsterdam).

The cast of the film is headlined by pop star Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana, Black Mirror) and Jeremy Piven (Entourage, Smokin’ Aces, PCU, Car 54 Where Are You?), with supporting roles filled in by Mike O’Malley (Glee, Justified, My Name is Earl), Eloise Mumford (Fifty Shades of Grey), and Megan Park (Diary of the Dead).

So Undercover went through some hiccups in regards to distribution – after a number of delays and rights exchanges, it never ultimately made it to theaters in the United States, though it did in a handful of international markets. For domestic audiences, the film was only available direct-to-video.

The reception to So Undercover was generally negative: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10 alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 6% from critics and 49% from audiences, though the direct-to-video release meant that not very many people ever even saw the film.

To begin the higher education analysis of So Undercover, it is worth digging into the host institution for the story. While the school is never named, it is clear from dialogue and external shots that the setting is New Orleans, LA, and the majority of on-campus shooting is done against the backdrop of Tulane University’s scenic campus in uptown New Orleans. The institution itself is never given much detail, but the specific setting and appearance make it clear enough that it is a vaguely fictionalized stand-in for Tulane.

A number of times throughout the movie, Miley Cyrus’s character is shown to have guns in her sorority house room, which shocks a number of her sisters. Laws regarding the possession of firearms on college campuses vary by state – in some, guns are outright banned, while others only permit their presence when secured in a locked car in a parking lot. Other states, like Utah, allow for open and concealed carry at public higher education institutions. In Louisiana, the law on the topic applies to both public and private higher education institutions, and reads as follows:

Carrying a firearm, or dangerous weapon as defined in R.S. 14:2, by a student or nonstudent on school property, at a school sponsored function, or in a firearm-free zone is unlawful and shall be defined as possession of any firearm or dangerous weapon, on one’s person, at any time while on a school campus, on school transportation, or at any school sponsored function in a specific designated area including but not limited to athletic competitions, dances, parties, or any extracurricular activities, or within one thousand feet of any school campus.

However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule. Notably, one of these states that “a student who possesses a firearm in his dormitory room” is exempt – while I am not a lawyer, I suspect this wording would include a personal sorority house room. Thus, according to Louisiana law, Hannah Montana is a-ok to be armed in her sorority house. That said, there have been a number of real news stories of Greek organizations having firearms issues in their houses. In 2006, the investigation of a shooting led to a search of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house at Oregon State University, which yielded over two dozen firearms throughout the house.

After a Corvallis man, Dennis Sanderson, was shot Oct. 14, in the alley behind the house, police searched Alpha Gamma Rho and found more than two dozen weapons including .22-caliber rifles and 12- and 20-gauge shotguns.

In February of 2018, a fraternity member at Washington University-St. Louis was suspended and removed from campus after an AR-15 was discovered in his possession at his fraternity house, in violation of school policy. Other firearm incidences have occurred involving fraternities at Yale University and Kettering University. Fraternity hazing incidences involving firearms have led to disciplinary actions at the University of Central Florida and Oklahoma State University. However, as you may notice, these are all specifically involving fraternities – I wasn’t able to dig up any particular instances of sororities or sorority members being disciplined for possession or use of firearms. This is perhaps not surprising – Pew Research Center data indicates that women are more likely to become gun owners later in life, and are less likely to keep their guns easily accessible and loaded in their homes.

The central plot of the So Undercover revolves around the FBI needing to embed on a college campus for a case. In truth, it is not unheard of for the FBI to be active on college campuses. Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities by Daniel Golden is a book that spotlights the actions of intelligence agencies on American college campuses, including research espionage by foreign powers, attempts to turn foreign students into American assets, and faculty acting as informants on all sides. The FBI was also instrumental in the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, which uncovered widespread college admissions fraud at universities like the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown.

What I have not been able to dig up, however, are any examples of the FBI infiltrating a sorority. The closest thing I found was the story of Tracy Walder, who went from being a sorority member at the University of Southern California immediately into a career in CIA counterterrorism after graduation, and eventually a position at the FBI. Her story has been turned into a forthcoming book, The Sorority Girl Who Saved Your Life, which is set to become a television show at ABC.

At one point in the film, there is a passing reference to sorority members having eating disorders. A 2013 article cited that eating disorders affect 12-25% of college women, and that there is a positive correlation between sorority membership and eating disorders. In the study, the authors sought to confirm a causal link between the two. However, they concluded the following:

we confirm that sororities exert a negative effect on the weight-related behaviors of their members. However, females who are more resilient to these outcomes self-select into sororities, implying that females in sororities are less adversely affected by them than a female who was randomly selected to join a sorority would be.

Another study, however, found that their “results…suggest both that sororities attract at-risk women and that living in a sorority house is associated with increased likelihood of disordered eating.” The topic is very much in the public consciousness as a real issue facing college women and sorority members, and will almost certainly spur further research.

The sorority at the center of the story is named Kappa Kappa Zeta, a wholly fictitious organization. However, there is a Kappa Kappa Zeta website, which features stills and a gallery of characters from So Undercover in a facsimile of a real sorority website.  The real-life inspiration for the sorority, judging from the name, is likely Kappa Kappa Gamma, a prominent sorority located at roughly 170 campuses in the United States.

One of the characters in the film, who doesn’t quite fit the traditional mold of the sorority, claims that the organization leadership “had to let me in,” due to her being a “legacy.” As she explains, her mother was a member of the same fraternity, meaning that she was guaranteed membership. In reality, this isn’t always necessarily the case – different organizations treat legacy benefits differently. Alpha Gamma Delta only guarantees legacies “a courtesy invitation to the first invitational round,” and no assurances of acceptance. Delta Delta Delta leaves legacy treatment policies entirely to the local chapters,  giving them “full discretion over how they treat legacies, so long as a specific policy is clearly outlined in the collegiate chapter policies.” As an article on TotallyTailgates claims, legacies are no longer generally given the latitude they once received for membership, primarily due to a lack of available slots for membership and an increasing popularity of Greek organizations.

Miley Cyrus’s character in the film operates under the cover story of being a transfer student from another chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Hawaii. As far as we see, she is accepted into the sorority without any issue. However, as with the legacy point, this doesn’t seem to be how the process typically works now. I haven’t been able to dig up much information on the topic, but based on the responses to a reddit question in r/GreekLife, typically a vote is taken as to whether a transfer student is accepted into the chapter at their new school. However, as with most policies, this can vary by organization and chapter.

One member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority is shown at one point to be pregnant. I did a little bit of searching for studies on the perception of pregnancy among sororities, and wasn’t able to find anything. However, I did come across an interesting 2010 thesis on communication in sororities about condom use and sexual activity, that mentions the declining sexual health and rising pregnancy rates of teenage women.

The head of the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter in the film, Sasha, is said to have taken three years away from school before starting college. This means that the character is on the cusp of being classified as a “nontraditional student.” This term, which is problematic in many ways, is also not well-conceptualized. Typically it is loosely defined as an umbrella term for college students outside of the 18-22 age range, but it is often expanded to include students along a number of other classifications, including those who are enrolled on a part-time basis, those who work full time or are financially independent, and students who defer college admission immediately after finishing high school. In the most wide usage of the term, Sasha qualifies as a non-traditional student. This got me to wondering: do nontraditional sorority sisters experience sorority culture differently? Are they particularly more or less likely to be involved?

To my surprise, I couldn’t dig up much information about this topic. However, there is one study that indicated that surveyed non-traditional students in Southern California who transferred into four-year colleges from community colleges were comparatively more satisfied with fraternities and sororities than traditional students. However, that is based on just one question from a much larger study, and fraternity/sorority satisfaction rates weren’t high among either group.

At the beginning of the film, quite a good deal of time is spent assembling the sorority wardrobe for Miley Cyrus’s character, to her dismay. However, the attention to detail in this segment is important: research has indicated that dress customs are an important means by which sororities communicate membership and establish collective identity. Likewise, sorority dress customs have been cited as a means of instilling idealized, traditional gender roles among new members. Essentially, if Cyrus didn’t perfectly look the part, matching the chapter’s conception of femininity, her cover as an existing member from another school was likely to be blown.

Similarly, a significant amount of time is spend acquainting Cyrus’s character with the slang and language norms of the sorority, which she is shown to struggle with throughout the film. While I found far less than I expected about language norms in sororities, I did find a dissertation written about the importance of language as a resource for the formation and expression of ethnic identity among the members of an Asian American college sorority – which I think is still notable and relevant. A book, Slang & Sociability: In-group Language Among College Students discusses the specific use of slang to delineate sub-groups within colleges, including sororities and fraternities. This ties in to the emphasis on slang terms in Cyrus’s sorority preparation, with terms like “amaze-balls” to flesh out her cover with the sorority chapter.

Overall, So Undercover isn’t a good movie, but it was far more charming than what I anticipated. Miley Cyrus is clearly a gifted performer, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see more serious acting from her in the future (her upcoming role in Black Mirror seems to be indicative of this). Jeremy Piven channels his typical douche-bag energy effectively into this role as well. The humor, however, is often mean-spirited, and places targets on the various sorority members. A number of moments feel misogynistic or just generally punching-down at young women, but the wild tone shifts are dramatic and weird enough to leave those concerns quickly in the rear view.

As portrayal of higher education, I can’t speak to the veracity of the sorority portrayal beyond the research I could dig up. However, the concept of the story is interesting, and touches on a handful of real issues in the sphere of higher education, such as the entanglement of intelligence organizations with various collegiate institutions. As far as a recommendation goes, I think this movie has been rightly forgotten, and isn’t particularly worth seeking out.

Ivy On Celluloid: Blue Chips

Blue Chips

In honor of tonight’s conclusion of the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid is going to take a look at director William Friedkin’s 1994 college basketball tale, Blue Chips.

William Friedkin is often cited as one of the key luminaries of the New Hollywood era of film, with classic works like The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Sorcerer to his name. However, since the late 1970s, his works have garnered far less critical and popular attention, outside of sporadic praise for films like To Live and Die In LA, Killer Joe, and Bug. Among his less analyzed films is Blue Chips, which connects his film work to his passion for the sport of basketball, through a fictional portrayal of desperately rebuilding college basketball program.

The screenplay for Blue Chips was written by Ron Shelton, who has carved a career niche for writing up sports-based tales like The Great White Hype, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and White Men Can’t Jump.

Perhaps due to connections through Friedkin and Shelton, both noted sports fanatics, Blue Chips is littered with notable basketball figures, in both character and cameo capacities. The most notable of these are Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, who were then early-career basketball stars, in roles as the eponymous “blue chip” talent prospects.

While Hardaway and O’Neal adequately perform their roles, the heart of the film and focus of the story is Nick Nolte’s portrayal of an aging college basketball coach, facing fading glory and mounting pressures to re-capture success.

Despite best efforts, Blue Chips was ultimately a financial flop, as it only took in $23 million on a estimated budget of $35 million. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post referred to it as “a dreary lecture about ethics and moral corner-cutting.” However, one of its few critical advocates was Roger Ebert, who remarked that it was “a morality play, told in the realistic, sometimes cynical terms of modern high-pressure college sports” in his three star review.

In 2019, Memphis Commercial Appeal interviewed Penny Hardaway, who is now the University of Memphis basketball coach, about his experience with the making of Blue Chips.  Apparently, the reason for hiring basketball players into key roles was because of Friedkin’s staunch desire to feature actual basketball action in the movie, rather than using creative editing, stunts, and camera trickery. Thus, no actors could be found who could pull off the basketball demands of the roles.

“It was a good movie,” Hardaway said. “Not just because I was in it – it was a great basketball movie. I really liked that they just allowed us to play basketball. It wasn’t much acting. It was playing ball.”

Notably, the chemistry between Hardaway and Shaq that was built over the making of Blue Chips ultimately led to Shaq requesting that his team, the Orlando Magic, draft Hardaway in the 1993 NBA Draft.

Friedkin’s dedication to filming real basketball for the film extended to the climactic final game between Indiana University and Western University, which was filmed as a real basketball game with a live audience of extras. Outside of the conclusion, the game was completely unscripted, and just allowed the basketball players to play out the game while cameras filmed the action. Indiana University’s coach, Bobby Knight, known for his competitiveness, caused some issues for the filming behind the scenes, as he apparently wasn’t happy with allowing the fictional Western University team to win as scripted. Towards the end of the game, Indiana had a three point lead, and one of the filming crew caught audio of Knight saying the following:

“Let me tell you something, boys,” he said. “We’ve got 24 seconds to play and fate’s got us up by three. We sure as hell aren’t going to lose to a bunch of (derogatory term) from Hollywood now.”

To begin the higher education analysis of the film, I want to try to establish the higher education setting of the story. As is typically the case, the central institution is fictional – Western University. While there is an institution that goes by this name today in London, Ontario, it is technically the University of Western Ontario, and only took on the new moniker as of 2012. There was once a Western University located in Kansas, but it closed in 1943 due to the economic strains of the Great Depression.

While Western University as featured in Blue Chips is fictional, I believe that it is functionally a stand-in for UCLA. While the campus sequences in the film were shot at the nearby rival school University of Southern California, there are some clues that point to Western being a surrogate for UCLA. First, the location of the school is firmly established as Los Angeles, which narrows down the institution candidate pool significantly. Additionally, the Western University color scheme (blue and yellow) is clearly reminiscent of the UCLA Bruins. Perhaps most compellingly, the established history and legacy of repeated basketball success (vis-a-vis championships) at Western University lines up pretty well with the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s under John Wooden.

A number of other higher education institutions are also represented in the film, both fictional and real. One in particular blurs the line between the two – Texas Western. In the film, this team is referred to as the Texas Western Cowboys, and are coached by controversial college basketball figure Rick Pitino. In reality, today’s University of Texas – El Paso Miners were once referred to as the Texas Western College Miners until a formal name change in 1967. Interestingly, this was implemented just one year after the Texas Western Miners won the NCAA basketball championship, and cemented the name in college basketball history.

Another higher education institution that is shown in competition with Western University is never referred to by name – however, the uniforms identify the school by the abbreviated nickname, “Coast.” This is most likely a loose stand-in for Coastal Carolina University, which often uses the abbreviation “Coastal” on the front of their basketball jerseys. The team is notably shown coached by Nolan Richardson, who is known for his coaching success at multiple levels of the sport.

The one definitively real university athletic team featured in Blue Chips is the Indiana University Hoosiers, who are shown coached by Bobby Knight, whose tenure at the school stretched nearly 30 years.

As with the majority of higher education institutions in the film, the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself has a fictionalized stand-in: the NCSA. While the initialism is never defined, its prominence on championship banners and referee uniforms makes it clear that this is the fictionalized NCAA.

Western University’s athletics teams are known as the Dolphins, and are accompanied by a dolphin mascot. While this is certainly a curious choice, it is by far not the most bizarre. That said, I was curious if any other universities have embraced the “Dolphins” moniker – as it turns out, there are a handful. According to The Los Angeles Times, California State University – Channel Islands teams go by the name “Dolphins,” though there doesn’t appear to be much athletic activity at the school. Likewise, the College of Mount Saint Vincent has also embraced the Dolphins name, along with Jacksonville University, which also has a humanoid dolphin mascot named “Dunk’n.”

During the recruiting sequences in the film, a player’s parent asks whether student-athletes wind up taking easier classes than other students. While the coach insists this isn’t the case, a number of college athletics scandals have involved just that situation. Most famously, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill was caught offering effectively fake courses for athletes that  essentially guaranteed that they would remain academically eligible for play.

Early in the film, one of the student-athletes on the Western University basketball team confesses to struggling in “TV class” – one of his courses. While this might sound like a joke at first glance, a number of real college courses have centered on various television shows, the impact of television, or television criticism. Georgetown University has offered courses in philosophy centered around shows like The Wire and Star Trek, Whitman College has offered a course titled “Mad Men: Media, Gender, Historiography,” and I took an American studies course on The Twilight Zone when I was in college at the University of Alabama. Mental Floss put together a list of 25 other fascinating television-based courses at a variety of higher education institutions, which includes studies of South Park, The Colbert Report, and Twin Peaks.

In a blurring between fiction and reality, Blue Chips star Shaq confessed in 2016 to receiving monetary bribes to attend Louisiana State University and play for the school’s basketball team, not unlike the eponymous blue chip prospects featured in the film.

Nick Nolte’s character is shown to have a hot temper and contentious relationship with both officials and media, which at one point culminates in the punting of a basketball and a subsequent game ejection. At times, he is shown bordering on verbal abuse of his players during games and practices. Unfortunately, these sorts of behaviors from college basketball coaches are based in reality. Mike Rice, a former coach as Rutgers University, was fired after recording surfaced of his verbally and physically abusing his playersA number of NCAA basketball coaches, including Indiana University’s Bobby Knight, have developed reputations over the years for their quick tempers. Like Rice, Knight was ultimately fired after video of his physical abuse of players surfaced. cementing his reputation as “college basketball’s greatest villain.”

Much of Blue Chips is dedicated to portraying the recruiting process to bring new players into a college basketball program. In particular, there is a specific emphasis on recruiting practices that violate regulations. As mentioned previously, the real NCAA has a fictional stand-in in the form of NCSA – however, the regulations of the two organizations appear to be the same. The violation most prominently featured is the explicit ban on “extra benefits” offered to athletes beyond their scholarship, which are defined as:

“any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution’s athletic interests (including fans) to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete’s relative or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by the NCAA legislation.”

The extra benefits rule is applied to items as minute as flowers and apparel discounts and as grand as automobiles and housing. A University of Minnesota wrestler lost his eligibility due to selling an original song because the NCAA ruled that he financially benefited from his reputation as an athlete. Numerous college athletes have been the subject of NCAA scrutiny for benefiting from the sale of autographs or memorabilia, such as the University of Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. A simple Google search will yield numerous lists of bizarre and seemingly nonsensical NCAA violations from institutions around the country.

In the film, a number of extra benefits are shown, including duffel bags of cash delivered by “friends of the program” (typically referred to as boosters, defined by the NCAA as  “representatives of the institution’s athletic interests”), mysteriously delivered tractors and Lexus automobiles to students and their families, family employment opportunities, and fully-financed housing, all of which have some basis in the reality of NCAA recruiting violations. The University of Mississippi’s recent recruiting scandal alone featured cash payments via duffel bag, car payments, and free lodging to athletes’ families.

What is most interesting about the portrayal of recruiting violations in Blue Chips is that each of the families has an expectation of payment from the outset, with full knowledge that this is in violation of rules. One prospect’s mother justifies her financial requests by stating that “a foul is not a foul unless a referee blows a whistle,” and another athlete’s father succinctly claims that “they ain’t my rules” after requesting a new tractor. The high-profile nature of NCAA recruiting violations have, in a way, apparently created a normative expectation of special privileges for star athletes and their families, which is arguably reinforced through popular culture portrayals like Blue Chips. Every time a school like Baylor University or the University of Louisville is caught in an athletic scandal that gets covered extensively in the media, the message is sent to aspiring prospects that opportunities for payment and compensation exist if they look for them.

At one point in the film, Western University’s coach mentions Proposition 48 when approaching a basketball prospect who scored poorly on their SAT. This is a real NCAA regulation that governs the minimum academic qualifications for college student-athletes, which takes into account both high school grades and standardized test scores. In this case, the student’s SAT was too low to qualify, which prompts his retaking of the test after receiving tutoring.

The electric conclusion of Blue Chips sees Western University’s basketball coach publicly confess at a press conference about a litany of recruiting violations, after which he resigns. The closest parallel to this event in real life was actually in response to the film, when Coastal Carolina University’s Russ Bergman was inspired by Blue Chips to confess to his coaching misdeeds to a local reporter. However, both he and his program were already the subject of an NCAA investigation at that time, and the walls were likely already closing in.

Prior to the events of Blue Chips, the Western University basketball program was at one point embroiled in a point shaving scandal. Point shaving is the the willful act of manipulating the score through intentional play for the purposes of promoting a specific outcome that has gambling implications. In the 1978-1979 season, a number of Boston College basketball players were bribed for the purposes of point shaving, in order to benefit a mob-orchestrated gambling scheme. A documentary about the scandal, Playing for the Mob, was released in 2014, and a comprehensive book about the incident, Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball, was published in 2001. In 2015, former criminal and FBI informant Henry Hill, Jr., who was intimately involved in the scandal, co-authored a book that went into more detail about the planning and execution of the plot.

On the whole, Blue Chips is in an intriguing portrayal of a college basketball program. If anything, it is a bit oversimplified and glossy in its characterizations and portrayals of the dynamics between players, coaches, administrators, and boosters, but is done so for the purposes of the story. As a portrayal of college athletics, it certainly touches on a number of real issues, though some of them are framed oddly. For instance, the idea that student-athletes should be paid is scoffed at off-hand, and the portrayals of the players focuses on wanting money exclusively for luxuries rather than necessities, which simplifies the very real issue of student-athletes struggling to live on their scholarships alone. In order to portray boosters as villainous, the position that work merits compensation is explicitly frowned upon with melodramatic flair.

That said, I think the film merits critical reconsideration – while not a masterpiece, Friedkin’s attention to detail and focus on the fidelity of the basketball portrayal comes through in the game sequences. In the same way that Friedkin has conveyed the frenetic energy of car chases in his career, he catches lightning in a bottle in putting basketball to celluloid in Blue Chips. While the higher education portrayal is perhaps a bit spotty, the film as a whole is not bad, and is an interesting counter-narrative to many college sports films in its morally-conflicted central character portrayals and de-emphasis on competitive glory as the ultimate ends.

Changes to the Blog

Apparently, today is the 8th anniversary of the start of this blog.

This seems as good a time as any to address something: Misantropey has been an increasingly difficult endeavor for me as of late. Though, I’m not sure if that is a bad thing.

When I started putting diligent effort into this beast back in 2014, it admittedly wasn’t entirely fueled by passion. It was propelled as much by loneliness and isolation as any positive resonance I felt from the regular accomplishment of writing and posting.

During my time covering the IMDb Bottom 100, I had a job that was time-consuming, emotionally-taxing, and required a significant amount of travel. I can’t recall how many of those entries were written in dingy hotel rooms in remote towns in Georgia or Arkansas or North Carolina, so often adorned with shoddily duct-taped windows that did little to shield me from wafts of diesel vapors and the faint aromas of the distant tacos of strangers.

This blog was a surrogate for human interaction and companionship, and a pretty bad one. It consumed time, but provided no caloric content in return. It made days and nights pass quicker in the same way magicians make planes and buildings disappear – it didn’t. I just really wanted to believe it did.

I came up with a formula for posts that, once you know what it is, should be pretty transparent. I have always used the same skeletal outline, with very little variation:

Title

Brief Introduction

Trailer

Director

Writer

Cast

Cinematographer

Editor

Music

Other Crew

Trivia

Box Office

Reception

Criticism

Overall

Recommendation

I was able to crank out “reviews” like clockwork by hanging flesh loosely on those bones. I put “reviews” in quotations, because they have never really been that. For the most part, these posts were opportunities for me to research productions, and coalesce the information into a brief, digestible form. The “review,” insomuch as I provided them, was usually only a fraction of a given post (“Criticism” in the outline above). A few salient thoughts, at most.

This has not been a creative endeavor at its core. This has been, for most of its existence, a mechanism. Quasi-therapeutic avoidance and distraction from a life that was, for a significant time, very empty. I set my own deadlines and timetables to round out an illusion of meaningful productivity. There was a time where I was doing an original post, 750-1000 words, every day. I would block out my weekends around what movies I needed to cover for the week.

Things are different now, though. As my life has gotten better, the blog has gotten harder. Since starting graduate school and getting married, there have been so many other, wonderful things to take up my time, and I haven’t felt the need for this mechanism of depression prestidigitation by way of amateur film criticism. I’ve also taken up academic writing, and have a handful of journal publications coming in the next few months. I’ll even be starting PhD work in the fall, which is deeply exciting.

I’m been working on adapting this blog into something more fulfilling, and a little different. Ivy On Celluloid has given me some new life for this work – I’ve only done it when it felt right, and have tried to capture a sense of fun with it that has never really been part of the formula here. So, that is something I am certainly going to continue. However, it is also far more time consuming than the formulaic work I’ve relied on in the past.

I think that is where the future of this blog lies – an embracing of infrequency, and a reclaiming of this platform into something positive and internally fulfilling. To that end, I think I’m done with “bad movies.” I like doing my year-end analyses on the publicly perceived worst films of the year, but unless I see something that actually catches my attention, fascination, or curiosity, I’m not going to write about it. I’m not sure what that means for content just yet – but I think I’m shattering the old skeleton structure for good.

So, this blog is going to be different going forward. It will certainly be quieter, but it will also be better – I’m only going to write when there is something motivating behind it. I’m not going to let this be a burden or a coping mechanism – it is going to be an outlet for my thoughts about movies. That’s what it always should have been.