Last weekend, I drove out to our local multiplex to see “Spider-Man” with a group of seniors. We were having a great time watching Peter Parker kick ass while wearing a completely baffled look on his face. The film quickly established its narrative, zooming the anxious Parker to his high school graduation, where his friend’s father, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), offers him a piece of wisdom: “Commencement is the end, but it is also a beginning.”
That was all it took. My senior friends started sighing a bit and leaning into each other, remembering their own impending graduation. But at least Osborn’s words were soothing ones, and may even have held special meaning for my fellow moviegoers.
Like “Spider-Man,” most films that deal with graduation focus only on high school ceremonies. Ever since “Rebel Without A Cause,” high school movies have captivated audiences and Hollywood producers alike for their simplicity and their reliability at the box office. Even the worst of high school movies finds a niche in the hearts of moviegoers, exalting the days when everyone’s biggest problem was finding a date for the prom.
Movies about college graduations are a bit more difficult. The easy stereotypes don’t necessarily apply, as audiences expect the high school jocks and cheerleaders to mature into fuller characters with real emotions. The biggest problem isn’t prom; rather, it’s deciding what to do next. The absurdly frivolous graduation ceremonies in films such as “She’s All That,” where Freddie Prinze, Jr. accepts his diploma wearing only a strategically placed volleyball, would be misplaced in most films that deal with the final days of college.
While more is expected of college films, they aren’t always solemn affairs — witness the latest addition to the college movie canon, “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.” But even the most lowbrow of the bunch has something to say to college students, particularly soon-to-be grads. Like “Spider-Man,” the five films below can provide advice — some sage, some silly — to the Class of ’02 as they graduate.
1. “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978). Poorly received by critics for its unique brand of humor — think men pretending to be zits and shooting food across a cafeteria — “Animal House” has become a cult favorite. What dorm would be complete without a poster of John Belushi wearing his trademark “College” sweatshirt? Now here is where the advice comes in: throw this poster away upon leaving Yale, along with the crazy lifestyle of the Delta House boys (this goes out to all two students at Yale who live the true fraternity high life). Hopefully, the last four years were wild ones that the Class of ’02 can now safely leave behind — but there’s nothing wrong with keeping your old toga tucked away for special occasions. (10-year reunion, anyone?)
2. “A Chump At Oxford” (1940). This little-known Laurel and Hardy film should be required viewing for all graduating seniors, if only for a good laugh. After being handed an Oxford education by sheer chance, Laurel and Hardy attend classes, quickly becoming the butt of their elite classmates’ jokes. But after receiving a solid bump on the head, Laurel begins to think he’s famed scholar Lord Paddington. Suddenly Laurel transforms into a ridiculously esoteric character, keeping Hardy along as a personal butler called Fatty. The moral of the story: four years at Yale may make you smart or at least wealthy in the near future, but don’t forget your friends, especially if they need jobs and are willing to answer to the name “Jeeves.”
3. “Rudy” (1993). Possibly one of the greatest sports movies ever made, “Rudy” tells the inspirational tale of Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin), who rose from humble beginnings to play football at Notre Dame University. After gaining admission to the university, Rudy battles his own poor athletic skills, his small size, antagonistic teammates, and a discouraging father. With the help of a mysterious groundskeeper, Rudy learns an important if ridiculously cheesy lesson: that the entire college journey is more important than the glory of his final days as a senior.
4. “The Group” (1966). This early Sidney Lumet film launched the career of a number of actresses, including Candace Bergen, who played one of eight Depression-era Vassar graduates. The eight girls strive to keep in touch against the pressures of romance and war. But what may be most interesting to the Class of ’02 is the way the girls let their friends’ deepest secrets trickle out. The graduating seniors should keep in mind what incriminating evidence their friends have against them. Keeping in touch with old friends may be a reward in itself, but it’s even more important if you need to keep them quiet.
5. “When Harry Met Sally” (1989). Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy classic begins with a graduation from the University of Chicago, when circumstances throw Harry Burns and Sally Albright together on a road trip to New York City. While the couple had never met before, they keep running into each other for years, wavering between friendship and romance. For seniors who may be concerned about their romantic lives, this film delivers the uplifting message that life exists after college — and that life may be with another Yalie you never even knew.
If all of the above film-inspired advice still doesn’t suffice, “The Graduate” offers something a bit more concrete: plastics. Congratulations, Class of ’02.