Back To School’s Joyful Fusion of High and Low Brow

Movies and TV took a long and complicated path to gain acceptance as high art.  In the case of film, you might point to the rise of auteur directors in the 60’s and 70’s who sought to make film as complex as a novel.  In the case of TV you might point to the rise of critically acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad.  But a generally unacknowledged high point in bridging the divide between the screen and high art was the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School, first released thirty years ago on June 13, 1986.  It is certainly a “light” entertainment in its implausible scenarios and tidy plot points.  But it was arguably one of the first mainstream films to take the liberal arts tradition seriously and merge it into a more popular entertainment. 

Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, an immigrant son and self-made clothing store tycoon who, upon the collapse of his marriage, decides to pay his son Jason a visit at college. When he finds Jason discouraged and ready to drop out, he decides to enroll with him side by side to give him encouragement. The screenwriters wanted to explore the idea of what it would be like to relive one’s college years having gained wealth and prestige. Such a concept could have produced an insufferable film. Instead it made for a moving one about the joy of learning and the different ways that learning takes place.

The supporting cast nicely balances Dangerfield’s exuberance and one-liners. At times Robert Downey Jr. comes close to stealing the show as Derek Lutz, Jason’s friend and the embodiment of the cynically hip liberal arts student. Lutz bashes social conformity and likes to go an tangents about “proletarian chicks in bondage” and such moonshine. Because Downey is such a great actor we see that such talk masks a certain restless nature and insecurity. When Jason’s crush Valerie Desmond approaches, Lutz shyly steps aside and moves Jason in between them.

Dangerfield soon finds his own crush in Dr. Diane Turner, his English professor. Again, the film requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief for us to believe its aging student protagonist could successfully romance his professor. But Sally Kellerman is great in the role, especially in Melon’s first class with her when she enraptures him with a reading from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses. If anything, the scene makes Joyce’s notoriously difficult language more engaging and effective by reworking it into such an accessible form. Melon’s literal visualization of Turner as Molly is uproarious and irreverent; perhaps such irreverence is what Ulysses needs to break free from its portentous reputation. While tutoring Melon later on Turner presses him on his lack of reading, to which he responds, “Who has time? I see the movie, I’m in and out in two hours.” Thornton’s frankness prompts Turner to offer this beautiful defense of reading in postmodern times: “The reason you want to read these works is so you can experience them for yourself, so you can share the thoughts and feelings of the writer without the interference of your actor and director and professor’s point of view, to truly share and understand the common feelings of all mankind, the feelings of being alive.”

In the film’s most memorable scene Turner has Melon recite Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night from memory in order to avoid getting expelled for plagiarism. It’s easy to forget today what a daring call this was on the part of the filmmakers. Nothing like it had ever been done in a mainstream comedy, and according to interviews Dangerfield himself was incredibly nervous about it. But he did beautifully with it, aided by the addition of Melon’s own interpretation of the poem: “It means I don’t take shit from no one.” Indeed, the film is probably most responsible for the phrase “against the dying of the light” entering the popular lexicon. Dangerfield’s recitation also has a fittingly stirring accompaniment by Danny Elfman. Elfman, in transition phase between rock star and film composer, pulled double duty here by contributing the score and performing with Oingo Boingo in a party scene.    

No doubt parts of Back To School now seem dated. Amidst our growing awareness of the sexual assault epidemic on campuses, it’s hard to laugh at Thornton Melon bursting into a sorority shower and telling the screaming girl, “you’re perfect!” And at one point Valerie painfully says to Jason, after he helps her with homework, “It’s not hard for you because you’re smart.” But, other than these blips, the film remains an empowering vision of what the college experience is all about. It’s the adventure of finding yourself through exposure to higher ideas and texts, combined with the exhilaration of being untethered and free to wander and party with fellow seekers. College is an odd combination of the disciplined requirements of studying and the aimless fun of partying and hanging out. Back To School captures that dichotomy very well. It succeeds as narrative art because it manages to be an escapist comedy with a big heart that isn’t afraid to ask its audience to reflect a little on big ideas and thoughts. The story is anchored by Melon’s happy discovery that it is never too late for the liberal arts experience. That vision remains endearing and fresh, even after thirty years.