Today I get to have some fun. I love a good movie and I cannot wait to get back to the movie theatre when it is safe to return. The popcorn, the cushy seats, the 150oz. diet coke, I just love the way the movies make me feel. I even dig the previews. It should not be surprising that I really like a good movie that has a college theme. As you can imagine, college is a good source for filmmakers to mine for content. Afterall, its and experience many of us have, and even if you never went to college you can imagine what college is like since it is a vital part of American culture.
The first movie about college was in 1897 with the now lost film Harvard Crew. This movie was part of the thousands of early film titles lost to destruction and rot in the Hollywood archives in the 40s and 50s. But there are a few still left. Since thing over 3,000 movies have has college as a significant or solitary theme and there have been many iterations of the college movies as well. Most of the time they reflect the themes of the day and the attitudes of the moment. Many do not age well. Go back and just watch the trailer to the 1986 C. Thomas Howell movie Soul Man. This movie is so cringeworthy today that when I show the trailer in my Organization and Administration of Higher Education course my students often watch with horror. Speaking of horror, slasher flicks are a staple of the college theme. My personal horror of a film is Sorority House Massacre 2. This movie is so bad and full of traditional stereotypes it is almost funny. Of course there are the staples; Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, Drumline, and Old School come to mind but if there is a theme, there is a movie for it.
However, for my money there are three that I really like for very different reasons. The movies Higher Learning, PCU, and With Honors are great representations of college life, even if these representations are exaggerated and cartoonish a bit. They are, admittedly, well connected to my Gen X college experience so I know for other generations there are timely favorites.
This 1994 film takes place at Harvard (like most movies about college) and features Joe Pecsi, Brenden Frasier, and a young Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey. The core theme of the film is Frasier is a young government grad student, who has, of all people Gore Vidal as a professor. Brenden Frasier is on the precipice of finalizing his major paper when disaster strikes. His computer fizzles out and he has only one printed copy (an old college trope), as he is walking to get copies on a snowy evening, he breaks an ankle and drops his paper down a storm drain where a homeless Joe Pecsi is living. Long story short, the homeless man and the government student work together to get the paper back but as he learns from the homeless man, he rewrites his paper to reflect his new perspective on the world and politics. The classic story of the conservative professor making the student conservative until the liberal homeless person can change his worldview storyline, it is a tale as old as time. Here is why I love this movie. The way college is represented is kind of what I wanted it to be when I went. It idealized the concept of the starving, but not for long, students. The diversity in your friends, his roommates are a college DJ trust fund kid, the art student love interest, and the med student. It features the overbearing faculty member and the struggle between privilege and opportunity. It also has a killer soundtrack that features one of my favorite Madonna tracks, I’ll Remember.
This movie is my favorite comedy and also, I feel reflects the kind of east coast college experience a lot of Gen Xers had in the 1990s. The core story is a pre-frosh arrives for a preview weekend at make believe West Chester University in Connecticut. He is set to stay with a fictional fraternity “The Pit” whose rival fraternity is called “Balls and Shaft”, because of course. The movie features a list of B list stars like David Spade, Jeremy Piven, and John Favreau. Of course, hilarity, calamity and love ensues with the crescendo scene taking place in a house party where George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic are the house band. The movie is great because it really digs into the hollowness of most student activism with the Cause Heads, the frailty of the Greek system with houses driven underground, and the absurdity of many administrative decisions. It also assumes that we can unite campus regardless of perspective with a good keg party. And it features ultimate frisbee, which is described as “the hippie Olympics, no one wins because everyone is a loser.” This film is fantastic.
Lastly, is perhaps my favorite college film mainly because of how accurate it is in many ways. Higher Learning stars many great Gen X era actors; Ice Cube, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rappaport, Laurence Fishburne, Omar Epps, Jennifer Connelly, Regina King, Tyra Banks and even Busta Rhymes. It is directed by John Singleton and it is just amazing. Set in fictional Christopher Columbus University this movie deals with campus party culture, sexual assault, college athletics, race relations, police brutality, racism including race-based violence, homophobia, classroom politics, and even financial aid. It’s a scathing takedown of the mega university as a construct and builds a case that our university system was unsustainable even before it was cool to say so. There are themes of how freshmen acclimate to campus, especially if they are first gen and just all the roadblocks each student has beyond navigating the classroom. This is also the film that looks at the public university higher ed experience. I cannot recommend this movie enough. I recently re-watched it and it feels more appropriate today than when it came out in 1995.
As you can tell I have a passion for college movies, not just because I work in higher ed but because of how complex, fun, and informative they can be. Do they also perpetuate old stereotypes and urban legends? Sure. They are also very much influenced by an overwhelmingly Caucasian and male college experience. For many movies, until the 1990s, diversity was rarely a thing in these movies but in the past 20 years this has changed a lot. Not sure what you are doing this weekend but give one of these movies a try.