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Ivy On Celluloid: Dead Man On Campus

Dead Man On Campus

[CN: Suicide]

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.

The impetus for the film’s plot is an old higher education urban legend: it claims that, if one’s roommate commits suicide, then the student is granted straight A’s for the semester to cope with the grief. I’m not sure exactly where this idea came from, but, per Snopes, “no college or university in the United States has a policy awarding a 4.0 average (or anything else) to a student whose roommate dies.” To add to that, if any policy did theoretically exist, it would almost certainly vary institution to institution.

While the urban legend may not be true, I was able to dig up a Purdue University study that corroborates the foundational assumption behind the policy: that grief impacts students’ academic performance.

College students who experience the death of a family member or friends also experience a corresponding drop in academic performance during the semester the loss takes place.

– Servaty-Seib, H. L. & Hamilton, L. A. (2006)

An example of a policy that does exist, however, is described as follows (from a Columbia University source):

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
Howard University
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.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

National Institute of Mental Health | Suicide Prevention

 

 

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Ivy On Celluloid: Necessary Roughness

Necessary Roughness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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