The films we watch, recorded images in motion, are brought to us by the camera’s privileged eye. The camera is privileged to “be there” when the actual moving bodies do their thing. We exploit this privilege when we retrieve from the camera the light coming off of those events. The camera, and the editing of its record, are also privileged to “make there”- arranging the reductive frames of the camera’s perspective in order to generate the impression of a space (film space) that was never “there” but is instead its own “here.” And the camera enjoys a third privilege, one that seems the most relevant to the way in which it is used in the industry of media. This is the privilege of the camera to “be entertained.” Because cameras are used to film “movies” for the film industry, the camera gets to look on as people engage in a dramatic pretending directed solely at that camera’s captivated attention.
Dramatic pretend as a necessity of moviemaking exerts a selecting pressure on what ends up going into the camera. Movies are never about “real life.” Instead, movies take the juicier elements of real life- sex, violence, beauty, humor, crisis, expression, etc.- and assemble them in an amplified, concentrated form that is largely unconcerned with the trivial physics of other, ordinary days. In this way, movies talk about human experience, but can only do so through the funhouse mirror of a language of sensationalism.
The Campus is an especially attractive subject for the movies because some aspects of its perceived reality, namely the three “oo’s”- booze, doobies, and poon- naturally complement moviemaking’s fun-loving tastes. Attractive young people! But it turns out that the reality of even these, the most titillating aspects of college life – awkwardly experienced as they are by unnervingly average kids thrown into an often unkind social climate – are not fit for the silver screen without first undergoing serious glamorization. And this need for glamorization extends to every other aspect of the institution of college, an institution with which almost every recently post-adolescent dipshit in this country anxiously reckons.
In setting a story on a college campus that is fit for the movies, the problem of moviemaking is: “How do we talk about the world in which our story will be set without betraying its mundanity?” One of the most ingenious responses developed by moviemaking is the “Campus Celebrity.”
Jacques Lacan, structuralist reinterpreter of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, lectured on the concept of the Phallus- the desired-but-absent ordering presence at the center of the language of our unconscious, a language to whose rules we must submit in order to construct an identity out of the endlessly shifting signifiers of our needs and drives. Like the Phallus, the Campus Celebrity is not real but instead an invention of the film language that desires it. And like the Phallus, the not-real Campus Celebrity serves as an ordering nexus through which the elements of college life are made to relate to one another in such a way that College comes to assume a juicy, movie-worthy identity capable of talking about itself without fear of embarassment. This raises the questions of how the Campus Celebrity acts as the Phallus, and what that Phallus enables College to say about itself.
The most perfect realization of the Campus Celebrity on film is the character of Van Wilder in the 2002 movie, “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.” Van Wilder is a seventh-year student at Coolidge College who becomes a professional party-thrower when his rich dad decides to stop paying Van’s tuition. When Van’s Dad asks a reveling student where he can “find Van Wilder,” the student answers “In the Guiness Book of World Records, man, under the raddest dude alive!” Here is the mark of the celebrity: to be known and loved by many without knowing or loving in return. All lines point inward to Van Wilder, placing him at the center of a network that is in fact the “world” of College making itself available to the ordering eye of moviemaking.
At the same time, navigating this oddly solipsistic college campus with all the command of a lucid dreamer, Van Wilder acts as an instrument that fulfills on film all of the unconscious wishes of College, wishes that are as unattainable as the phallus of Lacanian theory. The most significant wish fulfilled by Van Wilder is that he succeeds in achieving status while remaining his own locus of definition. Van throws parties for and otherwise interacts with groups of students representing a range of social types, yet remains his own man, unaffiliated.
In throwing a sick party for a snerdly fraternity (whose members he sets up with geek-loving babes) and later getting back at a preppy-meathead fraternity (who ruined another party of his that was cooler than theirs) by tricking them into eating donuts filled with dog semen, Van Wilder is also an imagined agent of what could be called social justice, whose heroic acts of status-subversion are inconceivable outside the world of movie magic. And of course, it is neither his rousing exoneration before the student government after failed expulsion proceedings, nor his eventual graduation from Coolidge College that sets everything right with Van Wilder in the end. It is that he gets the Babe.
If Van Wilder embodies the film expression of the college student’s unattainable desire to exist as the ordering, value-defining center of a social system- COLLIIIIIIIIGE!- that the student would then wholeheartedly endorse, Ferris Bueller in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a “Campus” Celebrity who embodies the impossible desire of the high-school student: to just get the fuck out of high-school, education, employment and the whole rest of that track, and all this without being a fuck-up at the same time; on the contrary, the ideal plan is to drop out and get famous. Like Van Wilder, Ferris Bueller is an imagined creature of moviemaking placed at the celebrity-center of high-school as a means for film to process high-school into its visual language. And as in Van Wilder, Lacan’s Phallus is all over this movie. Ferris’ very name sounds like “Phallus.”
When Ferris washes his penis in the shower, signified by the hand placed over his eyes, we realize that this blinding hand is the punch line of a metonymic joke: we have been staring at Ferris’ penis all along in the guise of a soapy mohawk. Ferris penetrates the restaurant that would otherwise bar him by assuming the identity of Abe Froman (Abraham being the biblical first circumcised man), Sausage King if Chicago (the city which, in an interesting castrative twist, is Carl Sandberg’s “Hog Butcher to the World.”). But when Abe Froman- an untenable identity constructed from the penis-joke play of language- does enter the restaurant, who does he confront and subsequently flee from? Of course: HIS FATHER. Need we mention the Sears Tower?
But the most powerful Lacanian signifier of high-school age phallus desire is the microphone held by Ferris Bueller when he sings “Twist and Shout,” the moment in the movie when Ferris’ (and our) dream of standing as the idol erect above the throng (becoming the ordering center of language-power but at the same time standing beyond its power to define us) is joyously realized on film. This is a brilliant illustration of how the Phallus is approached through a practice of “talking oneself.” This practice that is ultimately incapable of achieving its goal: Ferris Bueller is clearly lip synching, and this movie, our language and our sense of self-reconciliation, are all illusioneering.