In today’s edition of Ivy on Celluloid, I want to dig into the portrayal of higher education in Rob Cohen’s conspiracy thriller, The Skulls.
The plot of The Skulls is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Luke McNamara, a college senior from a working class background joins a secret elitist college fraternity organization called “The Skulls”, in hope of gaining acceptance into Harvard Law School. At first seduced by the club’s trapping of power and wealth, a series of disturbing incidents, such as his best friends suicide, leads Luke to investigate the true nature of the organization and the truth behind his friends supposed suicide. He starts realizing that his future and possibly his life is in danger.
The screenplay of The Skulls was written by John Pogue, who has credits on films like U.S. Marshals, Rollerball, Ghost Ship, and The Quiet Ones.
The Skulls was directed by Rob Cohen, whose other directorial credits include DragonHeart, Stealth, xXx, and Alex Cross.
The cast of The Skulls includes Joshua Jackson (The Mighty Ducks, D2: The Mighty Ducks, Urban Legend, Fringe, Dawson’s Creek), Paul Walker (The Fast and The Furous, She’s All That, Into The Blue, Pleasantville), Hill Harper (Homeland, Concussion, CSI: NY), Leslie Bibb (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Midnight Meat Train), Christopher McDonald (Quiz Show, Broken Flowers, The Faculty, The Iron Giant, Happy Gilmore), William Petersen (Manhunter, To Live And Die In LA, CSI), and Craig T. Nelson (Coach, Poultergeist).
The cinematographer for the film was Shane Hurlbut, who also shot Terminator Salvation, Into the Blue, Need for Speed, Semi-Pro, We Are Marshall, and Drumline.
The editor for The Skulls was Peter Amundson, who has cut some other notable films – Pacific Rim, Gamer, Hellboy, The Buttefly Effect, Godzilla, Blade II, and Shoot ‘Em Up, to name a few.
The music used in The Skulls was composed by Randy Edelman, who also provided music for the television series MacGuyver and Alvin & The Chipmunks, as well as for movies like The Mask, Balls of Fury, xXx, Corky Romano, Anaconda, Ghostbusters 2, My Cousin Vinny, Executive Action, and Twins.
Film critic Roger Ebert famously despised The Skulls, and gave it a biting review. In it, he states that the movie is “so ludicrous in so many different ways it achieves a kind of forlorn grandeur.” Most other critics were of a same mind – The Skulls currently holds a dismal Rotten Tomatoes critic rating of 8%. Audiences were hardly fond of it either, giving it a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes and an IMDb user score of 5.6/10. Financially, despite the bad reviews, The Skulls easily took in a profit on its production budget of $15 million – all in all, it had lifetime theatrical gross of $50.8 million.
The Skulls, as the critics have described it, is “boneheaded,” “ludicrous,” “ridiculous,” and “stupid.” However, it definitely had a solid acorn of a concept for a thriller – lots of people believe that secret Ivy League societies have sinister intentions, and far too much power and influence on society. As far as the portrayal of higher education goes, The Skulls is a bit of a doozy – while there are definitely real inspirations, there is also a lot of conjecture, assumptions, and illogical leaps made for dramatic effect. Let’s start with some basics.
To begin with, let’s figure out the host school for the plot. The real Skull and Bones society, which The Skulls are based on, is located at Yale University, so it a isn’t a huge leap to assume that Yale is the story’s setting. Adding to this, a number of other Ivy League institutions are mentioned by name throughout the film, including Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Cornell University, and Princeton University. However, the clear inspiration – Yale University – is never explicitly mentioned. However, there are a ton of allusions to the institution in the film’s details. First, the inclusion of their Ivy League fellows in the crew competition is a pretty big hint, particularly as Yale is conspicuously absent from the commentary. Going even further than that, the school that serves as the backdrop for the events of the story is shown to have Yale’s colors, Yale’s mascot (bulldogs), and there are even large “Y”s located all over the campus. The production clearly did the bare minimum to conceal that Yale was their target of criticism – they wanted people to know, but didn’t want to be so explicit as to open themselves to potential legal ramifications.
In the opening scene of the film, a class is shown discussing the nature of modern American society. Specifically, they are discussing whether it fits the definition of a meritocracy or an aristocracy. This is a huge part of the conflict of the film, as it follows a commoner trying to rise in social status through meritocratic means. However, this is also a point of great debate when it comes to discussions of college in general. Higher education institutions, particularly the most prestigious of colleges, have an elitist reputation, which comes from years of preferential admissions policies and prohibitive costs. Are colleges really meritocratic, as they claim to be, or are they a function of an aristocratic, classist society? Critics of the Ivy League, and traditional higher ed in general, often argue the latter.
As mentioned previously, the inspiration for the film is the long-running secret society at Yale University called Skull and Bones. Ironically, it is hardly much of a secret society anymore – there is not only a wikipedia list of suspected or confirmed notable members, but there was a detailed expose of the society written in 1977 by Ron Rosenbaum, and published in Esquire. Also, if you really had the desire, you could find a litany of conspiracy theory YouTube videos speculating as to the society’s misdeeds. At a certain point, you aren’t really a secret society anymore.
That said, Skull and Bones is far from the only secret society housed at a university. Wouldn’t you know it, but there is a thorough wikipedia page for that too! Some, of course, are more secret than others. At my undergraduate institution, The University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa, the secret society known as The Machine was all but an established public entity. Honestly, I don’t think anybody didn’t know about them. From what I understood, though, they mostly just functioned as a corrupt, back-channel bureaucracy.
Early in the film, Luke and Will discuss what they expect their total higher education debt to be by the time they graduate. Luke, assuming he gains admittance to Harvard University’s law school, anticipates to owe between $100,000 to $110,000 for his undergraduate studies at [redacted], and an additional $100,000 to $115,000 for his law school costs at Harvard. According to the Harvard Law website, the total cost for the 2018-2019 academic year is estimated to be $95,930. Assuming that number stays level (tuition raises are hardly uncommon), a full three years of law school at Harvard University would now cost almost $290,000, over twice that of Luke’s 1999-2000 estimate. That isn’t just inflation, either: $115,000 in 2000 is roughly equivalent to $166,700 in 2018. Yale’s undergraduate tuition, meanwhile, is currently estimated at just north of $69,000 per academic year, which is equivalent to $277,720 for a full four years – well above the $100,000 to $110,000 range that Luke notes.
The first assignment given to the new prospective Skulls in the film is to steal a statue from a rival secret society. This isn’t a terribly uncommon prank on college campuses, but the most similar instance in history I can think of is the ritualistic stealing of the The Harvard Lampoon‘s Ibis statue by staff members of the rival student publication, The Harvard Crimson. It has apparently happened many, many times over the years – at one point, the statue was even gifted to a Soviet consul as a symbol of peace, in an attempt to move the statue out of the country.
One of the most ludicrous aspects of The Skulls is the character played by Christopher McDonald. As is stated in the film, he is the Provost of the university (remember, this is essentially Yale University). However, it appears through his actions that he has the skill set and abilities of a special operations agent or a hitman, and is shown attempting/committing murder numerous times.
For context, a Provost is one of the highest positions at a university, and is typically the #2 administrator behind the President. It is the equivalent position to a Vice President, and is sometimes even called a Vice President of Academic Affairs. The idea that such a person would have this skill set is a reach – they would likely be a senior career academic. However, the notion that they would actually use such skills – or even have the time to – is utterly bonkers. Universities are big, complicated mechanisms, and being the #2 ranking person running such an operation doesn’t afford a lot of free time to gallivant about and murder folks. Honestly, at best, they might delegate the task. However, the idea that the Yale University Provost is a gun-slingling, car-chasing, neck-snapping henchman is nothing short of laughable. Try to picture the current Yale University Provost, Dr. Ben Polak, doing anything that McDonald does in this film:
Dr. Polak was an Economics professor for roughly 20 years, and was a passionate member of the University Budget Committee during that time. Unless he has some unexpected hobbies, he doesn’t seem like the kind of dude a secret society would use as muscle.
One of the most notable symbols of The Skulls is a brand, which is located on the wrist of members, and concealed by a watch. While there is no evidence of branding bring done by the real Skull and Bones, the watch detail is apparently accurate: members of the society do receive a wristwatch. In fact, star Joshua Jackson was able to acquire one of these watches, and gave it to director Rob Cohen as a gift.
The climax of the film takes the form of a traditional pistol duel between Luke and Caleb. This got me pretty curious – have there been any formal pistol duels on a college campus? Nowadays, the idea of a firefight between students on campus is horrifying, but duels were a very real (though not necessarily accepted) part of American society for quite some time. As it so happens, I found an example of just such a case. In 1833, two students at South Carolina College engaged in a pistol duel “after an argument over a plate of fish at the college dining hall.” Both young men apparently died of their wounds.
While I am definitely not a fan of The Skulls as a film – it is actually shockingly boring – I definitely think that there was potential from the real-life source material to make an interesting story, particularly when you consult some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding the Skull and Bones. While it does touch on some contemporary issues in higher education, the foundation in reality is pretty shaky, to the point that it is basically a fantasy film. If the screenplay hadn’t delved into the deeper, wilder conspiracy stuff, there was potential here for a fish-out-of-water, class conflict drama with the exact same premise, that might have even been more interesting (and definitely more accurate and relatable). For what exists, though, this isn’t a movie I can recommend – it is a huge squandering of an intriguing idea and wonderful cast of character actors.
Today, I’m going back to my series on the depictions of higher education on film with the 2002 comedy, Orange County.
The plot of Orange County is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A guidance counselor mistakenly sends out the wrong transcripts to Stanford University under the name of an over-achieving high schooler.
Orange County was written by Mike White, whose other screenplay credits include The Emoji Movie, Pitch Perfect 3, Brad’s Status, Nacho Libre, School of Rock, and previous “Ivy on Celluloid” feature, Dead Man On Campus.
The director for the film was Jake Kasdan, son of noted director, screenwriter, and producer Lawrence Kasdan. His other directorial works include Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher, Sex Tape, and the recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. numerous episodes of the television shows New Girl and Freaks and Geeks.
The cast of Orange County includes Colin Hanks (Fargo, Roswell), Jack Black (High Fidelity, School of Rock, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, King Kong), Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day, The Baby-Sitters Club), John Lithgow (Harry and the Hendersons, Raising Cain, Cliffhanger, Interstellar, Dexter), Lily Tomlin (The West Wing, Nashville, Short Cuts, I Heart Huckabees, Grace & Frankie, The Magic School Bus), Catherine O’Hara (Best In Show, Home Alone, Wyatt Earp, A Mighty Wind), Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II), Kevin Kline (Wild Wild West, A Fish Called Wanda, The Big Chill), and Chevy Chase (Fletch, Community, Caddyshack, Vacation, Nothing But Trouble).
The cinematographer for Orange County was Greg Gardiner, who also shot such comedic films as Elf, Son of the Mask, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Men In Black II, and Marmaduke.
Likewise, the film’s editor has an extensive resume in comedy: Tara Timpone cut Slackers, Sex Tape, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher, and multiple episodes of the television shows Freaks & Geeks, The Grinder, and Fresh Off the Boat.
The musical score for Orange County was provided by Michael Andrews, who also did music for the movies Donnie Darko, The Big Sick, Dirty Grandpa, Sex Tape, The Heat, and Cyrus, as well as for the television shows Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared, and Friends From College.
Jack Black’s part as the stoned, ne’er-do-well older brother of the protagonist was written specifically for him – Black was friends and neighbors with the film’s screenwriter Mike White. The two have gone on to collaborate numerous times over the years.
One of the key points of criticism that was consistently thrown at Orange County at the time of its release was its questionable casting of so many children of Hollywood notables in key roles. For instance, one scathing review from Rita Kempley in The Washington Post read as follows:
If director Jake Kasdan hadn’t been the son of Lawrence, leading man Colin Hanks hadn’t been the son of Tom, and love interest Schuyler Fisk hadn’t been the daughter of Sissy Spacek, would there be an “Orange County”? Probably not.
“Orange County” is strictly a vanity vehicle with a mess of star babies on board. That would be just fine if it didn’t take us down the same old cul-de-sac. But it does, and with a vengeance.
In its lifetime theatrical run, Orange County took in just over $43.3 million on a production budget estimated to be at $18 million, making it a profitable venture if not a blockbuster. Critically, however, the reception was mixed: it currently holds a 6.2/10 user rating on IMDb, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% critics and 61% from audiences.
[Kasdan] and White aim very low here and fail to take advantage of the abundant opportunities for social satire that its upper class and academic settings provide…White hasn’t attempted any cultural critique at all.
McCarthy has a really good point in his criticism here – Orange County, at the end of the day, doesn’t have anything to say, which is a big problem. Ultimately, it is a story of the plight of a person with immense privilege trying to get into college. The movie could have at least used self-criticism for comedy – pointing out how many breaks the protagonist has and gets to achieve his ends, none of which are earned. It could have even given us a foil – someone who got into Stanford, despite being poor, a woman, of a marginalized racial identity, etc. The humility and grounding of such an encounter could have served as a moment of maturation for the protagonist. Instead, we get a protagonist who displays immense entitlement, sexism, and elitism who is entirely incapable of self-reflection or empathy for those around him, who ultimately still gets everything he really wants.
To be frank, I absolutely loathe this movie. The protagonist is despicable and unlikable, to the point that I think this movie is an unintentional homage to American Psycho. The comedy, where it exists, isn’t terribly funny, despite a talented cast. Despite all of that, it is a movie about the college admissions process, and thus portrays quite a few aspects of higher education. So, lets get on to an analysis of higher ed in Orange County.
One of the first characters introduced in the film is an unqualified high school English teacher, who is shown to be unfamiliar with the works of Shakespeare. While this is definitely an exaggeration, it alludes to the popular perception that many high school teachers aren’t qualified or prepared to fill their positions.
Also in one of the high school sequences, there is a scenario shown in which a student is given exemption from specific coursework due to trauma/grief. I covered this pretty extensively in my write-up on Dead Man On Campus – basically, schools will make reasonable concessions for grief and trauma experienced by students, but not in the form of a pass or full exemption. Tests and assignments might have extended deadlines, or students can dis-enroll temporarily without penalty, but A’s for grieving don’t seem to actually happen.
At one point in the film, it is revealed that the protagonist scored a 1520 on his SAT, which led him to believe he was a shoo-in at Stanford. At the time of filming, the SAT was graded on a 1600 scale, which subsequently shifted in 2005 to 2400 scale, and then ultimately back to a 1600 scale in 2016. In any case, it is definitely a very good score given the time period. However, even a high SAT score is not a guarantee of admission to an institution like Stanford. Even if everything in the application had gone in accurately and according to plan, there was no guarantee of Stanford admission. The sense of entitlement the character expresses is utterly unjustified. Here are some contemporaneous Stanford University admissions statistics that I was able to dig up online:
12.4 percent of the applicants for fall 2002 were offered admission, compared with 12.7 percent for fall 2001 and 13.2 percent for fall 2000.
In one scene John Lithgow complains that “all writers are poor,” as he puts down his son’s decision to want to become a writer. This sort of tension between parents and students over liberal arts majors is a very real thing – there is a popular impression that liberal arts degrees aren’t cost-effective, and don’t lead to careers. Basically, some parents see such pursuits in college as a waste of money. This gets at a very old debate as to the purpose of college – is the institution there simply to provide career training, or does it have a broader, more generalist purpose for students to become more rounded? It is a debate that isn’t likely to have an end any time soon, and it echoes through personal relationships and political policy divides alike.
..some [Stanford University] applicants may have less cause for concern due to unique privileges gained from special connections with [Stanford]. According to former University admissions officers and college admissions experts, the difference made for those applicants—including legacies, children of faculty and development cases—may, in some cases, bridge the gap between acceptance and rejection.
Yet another admissions scheme hatched by Shaun and company is to directly compel Stanford’s Dean of Admissions to personally review his application. From what I can tell, Admissions Deans do have a lot of power in the process of acceptance, but they are not a solo operation: Admissions offices require a good number of people to go through applications and make decisions. Even if Shaun made an excellent impression by invading the Dean’s personal abode in the middle of the night and drugging him, that’s not a guarantee of admission – if anything, that kind of back-channeling could be seen as an abuse of the Dean’s position. Then again, ethical concerns are already tossed out the window with this movie, so maybe that is totally in-bounds after all.
Early in the film, there is disturbing moment played for laughs. When Shaun discovers that his high school college counselor made an error in sending his test scores and transcripts to Stanford University, he violently attacks her. This got me curious – are there any documented cases of violence from rejected students towards high school counselors or college admissions officers?
I wasn’t able to find any cases like that, though there are a litany of articles out there that are aimed at helping rejected applicants deal with their feelings. Interestingly, I found one article from 2009 that covered the “cruelest and kindest rejection letters from colleges and universities,” which had the following to say about Stanford University in particular, which includes a quote from the Dean of Admissions:
Stanford University sends a steely “don’t call us” message embedded in its otherwise gentle rejection letter. In addition to asserting that “we are humbled by your talents and achievements” and assuring the applicant that he or she is “a fine student,” the letter says, “we are not able to consider appeals.”… It also discourages attempts to transfer later, an even more competitive process. One recipient, whose heart had long been set on Stanford, cried for hours, her mother says, after interpreting the letter as, “we never want to hear from you again so don’t bother.”
Stanford admissions dean Richard Shaw says the ban on appeals is necessary because other California universities allow appeals and families assume Stanford does too. Even after sending that firm message, Stanford, which has an admission rate of 7.6%, still gets about 200 attempted appeals. “We care deeply about the repercussions” of the letter, Mr. Shaw says, but “there’s no easy way to tell someone they didn’t make it.”
[The counselor] notified all the schools, but the admissions processes are already in motion, and I am afraid they will not consider me for scholarship money or even admission because of how screwed up my file is. I called all the schools, and while some them have replaced my incorrect transcripts with correct ones my guidance counselor sent, others are saying they will “figure out the error as they go.” I am really, really upset. This mistake has already made me receive a deferral from one of my top choices because of the credits that were missing.
In general, it sounds like most schools understand that clerical errors can and do happen, though some are less forgiving than others in such matters. Some institutions do have an appeals process to handle just such situations. However, as covered earlier, Stanford University is not one. No luck for Shaun there.
Towards the end of the film, Shaun and company make the drive from Orange County to Stanford in what is said to be 3 hours. According to Google Maps, that is a roughly 400 mile, 7 hour drive. So, in order for the drive to take that long, the car would need to be travelling over twice the speed limit for the entire route with no traffic, which is far from realistic, particularly for I-5. Also, the vehicle they are in seems hardly able to handle 3 hours of 140+ mph driving.
At one point, Shaun is shown considering suicide due to his rejection from Stanford. As it, happens, I wrote at length about issues of suicide in higher education in my post on Dead Man On Campus. However, I didn’t look specifically at admissions rejections as a factor. As it so happens, I found a thread on this topic on College Confidential, but there were no verifiable instances of a suicide that directly attributed college rejection as the impetus. That is not to say that this has never happened, but I couldn’t find anything to verify this belief that seems to exist in the zeitgeist.
As I stated earlier, I really dislike this movie. However, there are some interesting higher ed issues that are brought up by the film, though they aren’t particularly criticized or illuminated by the story or the characters. Still, this isn’t a movie I recommend seeking out – if you are one of the people who remembers it fondly, I highly recommend not revisiting it.
Personally, I’m shocked Orange County wasn’t torn apart by critics more at the time – Shaun is maybe the most unintentionally unlikable character I have ever seen in a movie. Not only is he shown to be dismissively sexist and elitist through his PoV, but his entitlement to Stanford admission, constant condescension to his family and friends, and harassment/exploitation/abuse of anyone in his path makes him pretty much unforgivable. On top of that, he genuinely seems incapable of love or mourning throughout the events of the movie. At best, he has to be prompted into emulating these natural emotional processes. People, apparently, are merely means to his ends. Basically, Shaun is a monster, and represents just about everything people loathe about the institution of higher education.
Howdy, loyal followers! Today’s entry in Ivy On Celluloid is going to be a little different. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2018 Con of Thrones, the largest fan-run Game of Thrones convention. My topic was highly related to the work I’ve been doing here: analyzing fictional portrayals of higher education. Below is a loose adaptation of the presentation I gave there, which took a look at the Order of the Maesters from Game of Thrones and A Song Of Ice and Fire.
Maesters and Mortarboards: Connections between Education in Westeros and Real World History
Let’s start with some introductions. I’m Gordon Maples- I have a BA in History, an in-progress MEd in Higher Education, and a pretty low-traffic film blog which you are currently reading. In fact, if you are reading this, there’s probably a 50% chance that you are a spam bot. If so, I appreciate your long-time support.
One of the things I have been writing about a lot recently is the intersection of my interests – film, history, and higher education. My Ivy On Celluloid series is dedicated to analyzing the depictions of higher education on film, and trying to dig up historical bases for those portrayals.
This brings me to Game of Thrones: while I was doing research for Ivy On Celluloid, my SO was watching through Game of Thrones for the first time. As I was watching along with her, I couldn’t help but think about the mysterious Order of the Maesters. While it isn’t a perfect 1-1 comparison, the Maesters are the equivalent to a medieval education institution in Westeros. But, how far does it diverge from its real world counterparts, both past and present?
Before I go any further, it is worth throwing a content notice on this: things are doing to get a bit dark towards the end of this post, as I get into the history of unethical experimentation and violence in research. Also, there is a non-zero chance that this is going to get super boring. Right about the time I get to the organization charts, you’ll be wishing you had your time back.
First off, let’s get some Maesters 101 out of the way – here’s a Game of Thrones Season 1 DVD extra that can get you up to speed:
Now that you have the basics, let’s look at the origins of this order, according to the Wiki of Ice and Fire:
Most accounts credit [the] foundation [of The Citadel] to Prince Peremore the Twisted…Peremore invited numerous scholars, including wise men, teachers, priests, healers, singers, wizards, alchemists, and sorcerors, to Oldtown. After Peremore’s death, his brother, King Urrigon, granted land alongside the Honeywine to “Peremore’s pets”, who developed the tract into the maesters’ Citadel.
So, basically, a long time ago, a Prince of the Hightowers got a bunch of dorks together to hang out and think about stuff in Oldtown. Then, after he died, the King granted the order some land, on which they built the Citadel. I will point out the variety of the dorks, though: the fact that wizards, alchemists, sorcerers, and priests were involved is really fascinating, as I’ll get into later.
Before I get back to the the origins of the order, let’s take a second to talk about the nomenclature of the institutional hierarchy. Doesn’t that sound neat? Here we go!
When a student comes to the Citadel, they immediately become a Novice, until such time as they prove their proficiency in a field to the satisfaction of the preeminent expert in that field (the Archmaester). At that time, they receive a chain link of a metal corresponding to their field of study (I’ll get more into curriculum later).
Once they have a chain link, the student becomes an Acolyte. Until they collect enough chain links to make a full chain (a distinction that isn’t exactly made clear), they remain an Acolyte indefinitely. Apparently, a good number of students at the Citadel never move beyond this level, either for lack of ability or lack of interest. Oberyn Martell, for example, is technically an Acolyte, because he earned a link for mastering poisons. However, he never intended to complete his chain to become a Maester.
Should an Acolyte earn (x) number of links, they are made to go through a ritual, in which they are tasked with lighting a glass candle over the course of a night in an empty room. This task, however, is not meant to be completed (more on this later). Then, they take a vow of celibacy and service to the realm, and formally become a Maester. They are assigned to a paying House, and serve the lord of the keep to which they are assigned. At the time of the events of Game of Thrones, there are 300 Maesters.
If a Maester proves to be the preeminent expert in a field of study, they can be appointed to the title of Archmaester. Archmaesters are located at the Citadel, and teach classes in their specialty to Acolytes and Novices, and also serve in the Conclave – the governing body of the Citadel and the Order of the Maesters, which selects the Grand Maester and determines the changes of the seasons. At the time of the events of Game of Thrones, there are 21 Archmaesters.
Archmaesters, are, for the record, my favorite group of people in Game of Thrones. They basically try to do as little bureaucratic work as possible, even with their very limited responsibilities as a Conclave. The perfect example of this is the selection of the Seneschal – the executive officer of the Conclave. In an annual ceremony, the Archmaesters randomly draw stones in a sort of lottery election. The winner/loser in this lottery has to be the Seneschal, and actually do bureaucratic work for a year. They so dislike responsibility and power, that they basically draw straws for it. The loser becomes the most powerful Maester for a year. This is counter to every other system of power and thought in Westeros.
The last Maester-related title is the Grand Maester. When I first read ASOIAF, I assumed the Grand Maester was pretty powerful guy. Like, he must be the top Maester, right? He works directly for the King! As it so happens, the Grand Maester has no power over the other Maesters. He is essentially a permanent emissary assigned by the Conclave to have the King’s ear. Even better, the Conclave has a rich history of picking the oldest and least effectual dude available to assign to King’s Landing. Prior to the appointment of Pycelle to Grand Maester, they had appointed three consecutive octogenarians, all of whom died in the service of the same King. King Aegon V had to specifically request that they stop shipping him old/dying guys to sit on his council, after which they sent him the forty-something Pycelle, who has since become yet another octogenarian.
Now that we’ve dug into the bureaucracy and titles of the Maesters, let’s look at real life for a second. If you thought Westeros was complicated, they ain’t got nothing on us.
To the best I can gather, a Novice is a pretty close parallel to an undergraduate student, who is yet to earn a degree. An Acolyte covers everything from a graduate student (who has earned an undergrad degree) to potentially an Assistant Professor. This is because the tenure process, which stands between the titles of Assistant and Associate, is a pretty close parallel to the oath taken by the Maester’s, and their permanent assignment to a keep. It isn’t a perfect 1-1, but it is pretty close. An Archmaester is probably close to a Full Professor, Academic Dean, or Department Chair, as these titles are all reserved for experts in their fields, and typically have a degree of bureaucratic responsibility. The Seneschal, for lack of a better equivalent, is pretty close to a Vice President/Provost or a President of a University.
To visualize all of this, let’s compare organization charts! Woo!
Here is the organization chart of Southern Methodist University, a roughly 12,000 student institution in Dallas, TX. It is on the small side of a large University – Ohio State University, for example, is five times the size of SMU.
Gee, that’s probably pretty hard to read, huh? That’s because THERE’S A WHOLE BUNCH OF NAMES ON THERE. Modern Universities are massive institutions, with tons of people making up the cogs and gears. Here’s something even better: the chart above only covers the Academic Affairs branch of SMU’s chart: which is only a fraction of the total organization. Even better, this chart only goes as far down as the Dean level – Department Chairs are totally omitted.
For the sake of comparison, here is my improvised organization chart for the Maesters:
First off, you can see the 300 total Maesters at the bottom. Above that are the 21 Archmaesters making up the Conclave. One of the Archmaesters, denoted by a frowny face, is the unlucky one having to do actual work as the Seneschal. Off to the side is the Grand Maester, denoted by a red box emblazoned with the word “OLD.” Unlike the SMU chart, this is the entire organization. There are, essentially, only two tiers of power (unless you count the Seneschal on his own). It is a pretty simple organization structure, that is very easy to explain. It even fits in a single image, without leaving anyone out! It turns out that the Maesters’ disdain of bureaucracy has created a pretty lean system.
On to the next topic, let’s talk about Church! Remember when I mentioned the collection of dorks who made up the original Maesters? One of those dork categories was “priests.” While the Order of the Maesters is not explicitly a religious order, this is a bit of a nod to one of their closest real life counterparts – the monastic schools of the medieval age.
Here is a quick excerpt I dug up, which talks about the role of the monastic schools in education in the medieval age:
Through the mid-eleventh century, monastic schools [were] the most stable force in education…much of the schools’ curriculum focused on teaching them to read and write Latin, and preparing them to join the ranks of the church…These monasteries [became] great repositories of knowledge, in that many of the books of the day were copied by hand in monastic scriptoria and stored in their libraries.
-“Medieval Education and the Role of the Church.” Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, edited by Edward I. Bleiberg, et al., vol. 3: Medieval Europe 814-1450, Gale, 2005, pp. 342-345. Gale Virtual Reference Library,
If some of that reminds you of anything, it should. The Citadel library is definitely inspired by the libraries of monastic schools, and the curriculum of the Maesters training is almost all focused on training more Maesters.
You don’t have to look far to see more quasi-religious elements of the Maesters. I mean, why else would they require celibacy? I see this as a pretty clear nod to their real life origins. Even their Conclave is based on Catholic bureaucracy. Likewise, their aesthetics are pretty clearly monk-ish in nature.
In the world of ice and fire, GRRM essentially decided to split the real life institution of the Church into two independent parts: the Faith of the Seven, and the Order of the Maesters. And, honestly, it kind of makes sense. It was around this age in reality that the experts and scholars from the monastic schools split off into their own institutions – early Universities, like the University of Paris. As you might recall, the Maesters were granted land and recognition by the crown – in reality, the orders had to organize themselves into guilds, and then form universities on their own.
All right, let’s get on to some symbolism! When you think symbols of academia, you probably picture a few different things. Maybe a diploma? One of those funny hats (a mortarboard)? A tassel? If you are Finnish, you might picture a sword and top hat! There are definitely a few different ones out there.
Regardless of what you associate with academia in the real world, the Maesters absolutely have reality beat. On top of their iconic chains – the physical embodiment of their mastered arts – Archmaesters also get a ring, rod, and facemask forged of the metal of their specialty. Below, you can see a depiction of Archmaester Ebrose in full regalia. Because his subject is medicine, he is adorned with silver. Awesome.
Speaking of chains and metals, let’s get into the curriculum of the Maesters. As I mentioned, the chain is the physical embodiment of a Maester’s completed curriculum – the metals of the links indicate what they have learned. In the real world, the closest thing to a chain is a transcript, which isn’t nearly as dramatic or visually compelling. It makes it much harder for everyone to know how many degrees / much debt you have.
The curriculum of the Maesters is intriguing, particularly in how it contrasts to the history of education in reality. The subjects that we know are taught in the Citadel include medicine, astronomy (nautical navigation), warcraft, poisons, higher mysteries, math and economics, ravenry, history, herblore, and castle-building, each of which have their own metals assigned to them. However, this is not exhaustive. Again, we know there are 21 Archmaesters, each with a specialty. However, there may be more than 1 Archmaester per subject – that detail has never been clarified.
This contrasts pretty starkly with reality. For a very long time, education curriculum was limited to the trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – and the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. For the most part, these subjects were meant to provide a general, rounded education. However, in time, many became frustrated that colleges weren’t preparing people practical, career-based knowledge. In the United States, populist pressure for technical and agricultural education eventually led to the formation of A&M colleges in the late 1800s, which focused on practical education that readied students for specific careers. The purpose of education continues to be debated today, with people deriding and/or defending the merits and demerits of liberal arts and/or technical college ad nauseum. However, the Maesters managed to just skip over the conflict entirely. It didn’t take a cultural revolution to get them to teach practical knowledge alongside a traditional curriculum – they just sort of did it organically.
Now, I want to touch on one of my favorite Maester-related topics – scholasticism and the supernatural. To set this up, I want to show a clip of a conversation between Maester Luwin and Bran Stark. Note the way Luwin talks about the supernatural and magic.
This is representative of how the Maesters regard magic as a whole – they not only don’t give it credence, but they actively discourage research into it, and treat it explicitly like fantasy. While there is an Archmaester of the higher mysteries, very few students study it, and those who do are siphoned of their enthusiasm for it. Luwin is a good example of this – as a young man, he dreamed of magic, but his studies dispelled him of his fantastic notions.
But, you might be curious – why do the Maesters dismiss magic? This is because they have a basis in the logic of scholasticism – the method of thought that gave rise to the scientific method, and modern scientific thought and reasoning.
Scholasticism was…practiced in medieval schools. [It uses] techniques of Aristotelian logical inquiry to link Christian revelation, church doctrine, and the mysteries of the natural universe in a deeper and more reasonable understanding …The scholastics drew upon…logical analysis…establishing a common method of inquiry…and attempting to reason their way to a logical conclusion.
“Medieval Education and the Role of the Church.” Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, edited by Edward I. Bleiberg, et al., vol. 3: Medieval Europe 814-1450, Gale, 2005, pp. 342-345. Gale Virtual Reference Library,
We are led to believe that magic and the supernatural, as it exists in ASOIAF, does not have a basis in logic, and is therefore beyond the scope of scholasticism. This is true for reality as well – the academy is very focused on the observable, material, and real. If you want to put that to the test, ask a field biologist at random about Sasquatch, or any given Astrophysicist about alien abduction stories. The difference between reality and ASOIAF is that, in Martin’s world, magic was only dormant, not non-existent. Beyond this analysis, this just good world-building – the non-magical Westeros we are introduced to is more believable and tangible, and characters start exactly as skeptical as we are of the old stories and legends that seem beyond belief.
However, this disdain for the supernatural leads us to one of my favorite tinfoil-hat theories from ASOIAF. I’m going to let AltShiftX describe Marwyn the Mage and the basis for what is known as The Grand Maester Conspiracy.
Remember how I said that I love the Archmaesters? Well, Marwyn is my favorite of the lot. My take on the Grand Maester Conspiracy that he proposes is that there is nothing to substantiate it. Personally, I think he was just messing with Sam, the newest Novice at the Citadel, as he was on the way out of town. Keep in mind, the conversation happens as soon as the two are introduced. Basically…
Sam: Hi! I’m Sam!
Marwyn: We killed the dragons, Sam. The Maesters intend to destroy magic, Sam. Sam, they are after me, and I am under suspicion. Sam, I must go now. Goodbye, Sam!
I just can’t wrap my wind around how else to take this interaction. This is a strange old man trying to rattle the rookie, and I absolutely love him for it.
In any case, suspicion of the Maesters is not unique to Marwyn’s crackpottery. The common folk, for good reason, aren’t particularly fond of the Maesters. They have a bit of a reputation, as the servants of high houses, of not much caring for commoners, particularly when it comes to medical care. Even many highborn folks are suspicious of them, due to their perceived concealment of their true identities.
I dare not even trust my maester…[they] are supposed to put aside old loyalties when they don their chains, but I cannot forget that [Maester} Theomore was born a Lannister of Lannisport!”
Wyman Manderly, Davos IV, ADWD
Likewise, the Maesters having total control of communications has led many to suspect that they manipulate information to their own ends, as best serves their agenda.
The Maesters read and write our letters, even for such lords as cannot read themselves, and who can say for a certainty that they are not twisting the words for their own ends?
Barbrey Dustin, The Prince of Winterfell, ADWD
This is not unlike a lot of populist and right-wing criticisms of higher education today. It isn’t uncommon to hear allegations that higher ed institutions brainwash students, or have a liberal agenda, or that they don’t teach real or accurate information. So, the Maesters deal with a pretty similar issue of public suspicion here.
However, the Maesters aren’t quite as elitist as they may initially sound. While they are definitely sexist and have a preference for high-born students, they don’t turn away common folks who wish to pursue knowledge.
Boys and young men from all over Westeros come to study, learn, and forge their chains at the Citadel. There is no age requirement, and despite the prejudice of the archmaesters to status of birth, males of every social status are allowed to forge their chain. As such, baseborns, bastards,younger children of lords, and even royalty can study together at the Citadel.
A Wiki of Ice and Fire, Maesters.
For a society that is so dramatically feudal and divided by class, the Maesters allowing commoners access to education is pretty unexpected. It also makes for an interesting comparison with reality:
In antiquity, education…was implicated in the structures of power, and specifically in training the rulers to rule and the ruled to be ruled. It was a largely exclusive process, and birth and class, rather than ability…were the operative criteria for determining who would be given training and knowledge. It created the empowered as empowered, the subjects as subjects.
Too, Y. L. (2001). Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Leiden: Brill.
Even today, education institutions are immensely elitist. Increasing access to quality education for women, racial minorities, and those of lower economic means is a major research focus and popular issue in education today. A huge part of that, however, is due to the cost of education, which easily stretches into the tens of thousands for a huge number of students seeking higher education. In Westeros, in contrast, the best education in the world, taught by the top masters in any given field, is completely free. The Maesters charge a fee for their services to all of the great and aspiring houses that house a Maester (which is all of them), and collect taxes from citizens of Oldtown. All of that money is put into the running of The Citadel, and the education of Novices and Acolytes. Basically, the richest of society subsidize the education of any (males) who wish to seek it. It is socialism with swords, y’all.
Now, let’s get on to the dark stuff. Qyburn is the current Hand of the Queen, and thus currently one of the most powerful people in Westeros. He is also a former Maester, stripped of his chain due to a series of unethical medical experiments centered on how to subvert death, executed on unwilling participants and prisoners.
So, there’s a long, long history of unethical experimentation in reality. There’s a whole wikipedia page just focused on unethical human experimentation in the United States. To be frank, this is important information for people to know – some terrible things have been done in the name of science and research, both inside and outside of the academy. Look up The Tuskeegee Experiments, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and Project MK Ultra, just as a start. It is a depressing wikipedia hole to go down, but an important one.
I want to mention two specific examples, because of their similarities to Qyburn. The first of these is a man named Dr. Leo Stanley.
Dr. Leo Stanley served as San Quentin’s chief surgeon for nearly four decades….Throughout, Stanley fixated on curing various crises of manhood. Under Stanley’s scalpel, prisoners became subjects in a series of eugenic treatments ranging from sterilization to implanting “testicular substances” from executed prisoners—and also goats—into San Quentin inmates. Stanley was convinced that his research would rejuvenate aged men, control crime, and limit the reproduction of the unfit.
The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913–1951 Author(s): Ethan Blue Source: Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 2 (May 2009), pp. 210-241 Published by: University of California Press Stable
Dr. Leo Stanley was a eugenicist – he believed that actions should be taken to purify and improve humanity through genetic means. For the most part, that means he was a super-racist, hated people with disabilities, and was an all-around asshat. To these ends, he used his position as a prison surgeon to do a variety of experiments on non-consenting prisoners, including what was described above: implanting goat testes into people, and forcing sterilization. He was, not unlike Qyburn, a man who was absolutely sure that what he was doing was right, and for the best for humanity. He also abused his position to conduct wildly inappropriate experiments. Unlike Qyburn, he was never stripped of his degree – in fact, he was lauded by many, and worked for decades conducting his experiments on prisoners.
Another example I want to look at is Dr. Julius Hallervorden, a Nazi.
On October 28, 1940, Julius Hallervorden, a professor of brain anatomy,went to the extermination center in the Brandenburg jail. He was present when fiffty children were murdered by carbon monoxide. He dissected their brains immediately after…After the war he became subdirector of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt. There he published many papers on the brains…Certainly it was not Hallervorden’s idea to kill the children. He did not open the carbon monoxide valve. But to profit from the murder in such a way? Hallervorden’s science seems to be excellent. This makes the situation even worse in my eyes.
LaFleur, W. R., Böhme, G., & Shimazono, S. (2007). Dark Medicine : Rationalizing Unethical Medical Research. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Just to recap, Dr. Hallervorden was a Nazi, was present for the murder of fifty children, and then immediately dissected their brains. For years after the war, he continued to publish on his childmurder brains, and even held a prestigious post a brain research institute in Germany. His contributions to brain research are still defended by many today, despite his complicity in and benefiting from the murder of children. I bring this up, in part, because people justify his actions in much the way Qyburn justifies his own. Also, it is worth noting the contrast between the treatment of Qyburn with the treatments of Stanley and Hallervorden. Qyburn lost his chain for his actions. Stanley and Hallervorden are still defended today, and got to retire with their degrees.
I will say that there are thorough institutional review boards at Universities now, that aim to prevent unethical experimentation in the academy. Still, that doesn’t undo past actions, and defenders of atrocious experimentation practices are still out there. However, it is hard not to note how much more swiftly the fictional, medieval Maesters dealt with ethical violations than the real institutions.
This concludes my run-down on the Order of the Maesters, and how they relate to the real-world history of the academy and research. This may have been interesting for you, or it might not have been. I hope it was the former, but if it was the latter, that’s tough. Thanks for reading!
In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I examine movies about higher education, I’m going to take a look at the tone-deaf 1998 suicide-centered comedy, Dead Man On Campus.
The plot of Dead Man On Campus is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Two college roommates go out and party, resulting in bad grades. They learn of the clause that says, “If your roommate dies, you get an A,” and decide to find someone who is on the verge, so to speak, to move in with them.
The screenplay for Dead Man On Campus is credited to Mike White (The Emoji Movie, School of Rock, Nacho Libre, Orange County) and Michael Traeger (The Amateurs).
Dead Man On Campus was directed by Alan Cohn, whose other credits include directing a handful of episodes of The Man Show, and composing the theme music for The Wayans Bros.
The cast of the movie includes Tom Everett Scott (Boiler Room, That Thing You Do), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By The Bell, NYPD Blue), Poppy Montgomery (Without A Trace, Unforgettable), Lochlyn Munro (Riverdale, White Chicks, Unforgiven), Alyson Hannigan (American Pie, How I Met Your Mother), and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man).
The cinematographer for the film was John Thomas, who has shot movies like Sex & The City and Sex & The City 2, as well as television series like Gossip Girl, The Big C, Conviction, Law & Order, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, and Sex & The City.
The editor for Dead Man On Campus was Debra Chiate, who also cut Movie 43, The House Bunny, Never Been Kissed, Clueless, Look Who’s Talking, and Look Who’s Talking Too, among others.
The musical score for the film was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, whose other credits include The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Fanboys, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sorority Boys.
Interestingly, Dead Man On Campus follows a similar plot and premise to another movie from the same year: The Curve, starring Matthew Lillard. However, that movie is a thriller: a more fitting genre for the premise than comedy.
Dead Man On Campus was made on a production budget of $14 million, and was the third theatrical release by MTV films (Orange County, Napoleon Dynamite, Jackass: The Movie). However, it brought in just over $15 million in its lifetime theatrical run, barely covering the production budget, and almost certainly failing to turn a profit. The critical reception wasn’t any better: it currently holds a 6.1/10 user rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% critics and 55% audiences. The Los Angeles Times referred to the film as “disgusting in its ultimate endorsement of conning your way into academic survival,” and The AV Club noted that “it comes off as more ghoulish than anything else.”
Personally, I can’t help but side with the critics here: Dead Man On Campus is as mean-spirited as it is alarmingly unfunny. The characters are outlandishly cruel in their disregard for human life, and the jokes are stoner-grade, lazy attempts at humor when they aren’t punching down at the mentally ill. All of that said, there are some elements of the film that interestingly relate to higher education.
First off, the school that serves as the setting for the film, Daleman College, is entirely fictitious. A couple of universities were used as filming locations to create the institution, however: University of the Pacific and the University of Southern California.
While a person’s grades will not automatically be changed, most colleges and universities provide some type of emotional and academic support to roommates, including extensions on due dates, make-up exams, and time off without penalty.
On the same note, I also managed to dig up a blog post from The New York Times blog The Choice, which collected a series of comments from former students who dealt with the death of a parent while in college. While this is a different scenario than the one in this movie, these accounts are far more reflective of how your typical university deals with student grief. Here is abridged version of one of the comments:
I will never forget the kindness and consideration that Mount Holyoke College showed me. From getting me on the plane to keeping in touch with me while I was home sitting shivah, they could not have been more compassionate…Each of my faculty members hand-wrote a note of condolence to my mother and me, expressing sympathy and telling me to take as long as I needed in coming back and picking up the responsibilities of my studies…I was able to return promptly and finish the semester with high grades and renewed respect for my college. Forty years later, I still remember.
All of this taken into account, this is an urban legend that is strangely persistent. The Chronicle of Higher Education has referred to it as “one of the most persistent and morbid rumors on college campuses.” I’ve read accounts of it showing up as a matter-of-fact in television shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: NY. It is honestly alarming how pervasive this potentially harmful misconception is, to the point that it is just assumed to be true by many.
Getting off of the grim topic of suicide for a moment, I want to address one of the other major focal points of the film: the character Cooper’s most prized possession, a six foot tall bong. Now, I am not what you would describe as a marijuana enthusiast, so I wasn’t sure if this was simply a gag prop, or a practical smoking utensil. As it turns out, if you have about $60, the website smokea.com can hook you up with a six foot bong: the Headway Big Boy. Per the description, “Headway Acrylics has been a leading manufacturer of high quality acrylic water pipes for nearly 20 years” which places its founding roughly around the time of filming for Dead Man On Campus. I suppose that means that the bong prop in the film is plausibly one of their creations?
During an early sequence in Dead Man On Campus, a professor is shown gleefully assigning one of his classes a textbook that he wrote himself. This is, in truth, a very common practice throughout many disciplines. Slate.com featured an article that said the following of professors who assign their own texts:
If your professor requires you to buy his or her own books as course textbooks at full sticker price, get out now…Heed this simple warning, and you are almost certain to avoid your institution’s most pompous, self-serving twits…assigning one’s own work is an eye-roll-inducing ego stroke.
In response to this popular perception of unethical behavior, in 2004, the American Association of University Professors released a statement which generally defended the practice. However, in that same statement, the AAUP cited a handful of standing school policies intended to curb the practice, which is an interesting read:
At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, materials written by faculty members and intended for purchase by students may not be assigned unless their use is first approved by the appropriate departmental, collegiate, and university-level committees. Faculty members at the University of Minnesota cannot “personally profit from the assignment of materials” to students without authorization of the department chair. At Southern Utah University, a department chair and dean must approve the assignment of faculty-authored materials. Approval by a faculty committee is required at Cleveland State University. Faculty at North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas can assign their own works but are cautioned against retaining profits earned from sales to their students unless, as the North Dakota policy states, “the text has become independently accepted in the field.”
There is a thoughtful post on the ethics of professors selling their own textbooks on PsychologyToday.com which I found to be more than worth the read as well, which comes to a similar conclusion as the AAUP:
I’ve encountered lots of people—students, friends, colleagues, and publishing professionals—who think it’s automatically a conflict of interest for professors to assign their own books. But is it an unethical conflict of interest?…No. Not under most circumstances. Assigning one’s own textbook…is, on the face of it, ethical.
In Dead Man On Campus, the character Josh is shown taking a unique degree program: a six-year combined undergraduate degree and Doctorate of Medicine. I was able to dig up a list from November of 2017 of combined BA/BS/MD programs, of which the following schools reportedly offer a six-year program that high school seniors can apply directly to:
University of Texas Southwestern
Northeast Ohio Medical University
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Sidney Kimmel Medical College
California Northstate University
Getting back to the light and cheery topic of higher education and suicide, Dead Man On Campus‘s lead character of Josh is shown as being held to impossibly high standards by his parents. To paraphrase his mother: “you always exceed my expectations. And I expect straight A’s!” In 2015, The New York Times ran an article titled “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection”, the introduction of which reads almost exactly like Josh’s first act in Dead Man On Campus:
Kathryn DeWitt conquered high school like a gold-medal decathlete. She ran track, represented her school at a statewide girls’ leadership program and took eight Advanced Placement tests, including one for which she independently prepared, forgoing the class.
Expectations were high. Every day at 5 p.m. test scores and updated grades were posted online. Her mother would be the first to comment should her grade go down…In her first two weeks on the University of Pennsylvania campus, she hustled…surrounded by people with seemingly greater drive and ability, she had her first taste of self-doubt…Classmates seemed to have it all together.
The article lays some of the blame for perfectionism on college students’ parents, quoting that “children deserve to be strengthened, not strangled, by the fierceness of a parent’s love.” In the context of Dead Man On Campus, it is an interesting note: by the end of the film, Josh is apparently on the verge of suicide due to his failing to meet the academic expectations of his parents, peers, and professors.
At one point early in the film, it is stated that suicides are a common occurrence on the local college campus, to the point that it is just assumed that at least a few students will kill themselves by the time the semester’s final exams roll around. Unfortunately, suicides are, in fact, tragically common at college campuses. The aforementioned New York Times article notes a preceding academic year that saw 4 suicides at Tulane University, 3 at Appalachian State University, and 6 at the University of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health has reported that 25.5% of college students had “purposely injured themselves,” and that 9.3% of college students had made a suicide attempt in the 2015-2016 school year.
In the story of Dead Man On Campus, Daleman College has launched a campus suicide hotline to help deal with the outbreak of suicides on the campus. While I didn’t find any examples of an identical program in use on a college campus, many colleges are making innovative strides in dealing with the tragedy of student suicides. Ohio State University offers training courses to faculty and students on how to spot warning signs, and how to intervene or approach at-risk students. Vanderbilt University offers a joint program through its Psychological Counseling Center and Center For Student Wellbeing aimed at suicide prevention and mental health awareness on campus. Cornell University launched a video project, where school leaders spoke of their own struggles with mental health, which were shared with students during orientation.
Once again, there are plenty more higher education topics worth discussing in Dead Man On Campus: homophobia, Greek organization party culture, and the popularity of recreational use of prescription drugs by college students, to name a few. However, there are plenty of other higher education movies out there for me to cover those topics in: just stay tuned.
Overall, I consider it a tasteless travesty that Dead Man On Campus ever made it to the screen, and I believe it belongs (at best) in the realm of obscurity where it currently resides. It certainly isn’t worth seeking out: black comedy fans and college stoner comedy fans can both equally easily find better than this without having to dig so far down.
For this entry, given the topics covered, I wanted to conclude with some resources for anyone who feels that they need them.
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.
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.
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 sexualassault 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.
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.).
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.