Maybe you resort to cannibalism. Maybe you try your hand at killing a man. Heck, maybe you decide that not even a car crash will stop you from performing the perfect drum solo. It’s all in a day’s work of being a university student, right?
Despite the wholesome days of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in high school, a film character’s university days seem to be a whole different story. While most uni students in the real world spend their time in class, the pub, or the smoking area of a nightclub, the cinematic perception of these formative years is far more sinister. Teenagers swap their sanity for prodigy in the risky card game of trying to be the best. Posh kids, once content with cruising in their dad’s Beemer, become killers driven by the hive mind of the collegiate system.
It’s quite a regressive perspective, an argument every generation has for those after them; today’s students can’t take the heat. They go mad when they can’t be the best, and they can’t be when they’re all going to university, competing to stand on a pedestal that fits just one.
It’s an infantilising take, but one that serves as allegory for a multitude of sins. It concerns how we define ourselves as we grow out of our childhood clothes, struggle with the anxieties of an artistic mind, and deal with remaining singular in a hive mind.
Whiplash (2014) chronicles Andrew (Miles Teller), a nineteen-year-old in first year at a music conservatory, who is driven to perfectionist exhaustion by his music teacher (an Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons). He’s amputated from the rest of the world, his life taken over quicker than a rush of blood to the head by the desire to be the next Charlie Parker.
Andrew’s car is totaled by a truck, yet his first instinct is to climb from the wreckage to play, injured, at a music competition. Like the prodigal son, Andrew must delve into the excesses of madness before he can return home and deserve his welcome. He is driven mad by the obsession his education instils in him. Whiplash therefore sets up higher education as a place to explore how characters define themselves relative to their success, and question whether their sanity is worth this knowledge.
This is echoed in the luxe parable of Last Night in Soho (2021). Protagonist Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) goes mad in her first year studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, chasing the surreal sixties dream of the girl who lived in her flat before her. While the gauzy, dreamlike delusions inform her work, the line between present and past blur into machinations of murder.
Perhaps films like Whiplash and Last Night in Soho suggest a link between madness and the arts. After all, stories that focus on the experiences of STEM students like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) – who studied computer science at Harvard – show the determination needed to succeed in a competitive field without the emotional ramifications. The portrayal of the literary Beat Generation in Kill Your Darlings (2013), however, suggests that artistic fixation leads to drug abuse and murder.
There is an element of self-reflection here; the writers and directors behind these works come from the arts rather than something more concrete. As a figure, the psychotic art student may have grown in popularity due to rising university attendance. A few decades ago, further education was unusual. Now it’s the next step. Because the arts aren’t lucrative, these students’ anxieties seem the most realistic – especially for a younger audience. Zuckerberg, at the helm of a profitable industry, is not someone to worry about. A drummer who doesn’t know if he’s rushing or dragging, or a fashion designer who can barely stay awake to finish her dress, though? They are the time’s tragic heroes. They go mad because they must push themselves to the brink of sanity to succeed. There is too much risk in failure to balance themselves for such a petty reward as happiness.
The other route available to these tortured characters is that of the rich psycho killer. Straight out of a Talking Heads song, they find themselves in the glory and gore of the collegiate system. Films like Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or its modern counterpart The Riot Club (2014) exemplify this idea of groupthink.
The Riot Club deals with one boy’s indoctrination into a Bullingdon Club-esque group at Oxford University. Oxford’s Bullingdon Club was a group of public-school boys, which included Britain’s Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Hazing events allegedly included burning fifty-pound notes in front of homeless people, destroying restaurants, and paying sex workers to service society dinners.
Miles (Max Irons), is involved in the group’s assault of a pub owner, an attack of elitist rage against the working class of what they see as ‘their’ country. While Miles initially seems ordinary, he devolves within a group who see the world as theirs to do with what they like. He would rather sit pretty in a pack of toffish thugs than be alone.
What the dominant upper echelon represent here remains out of reach. The violence and wealth showcase a life most people don’t even want to dream of; the world at their lap, born with a full set of silver cutlery in their mouths, knives and all. Within this context, university instead seems like a sinister place, one where its audience doesn’t belong. Why would one want to, when the top of the heap got there by climbing corpses?
Ultimately, the crazed university student is a scapegoat for our anxieties about getting older. As life gets more difficult, university grows to represent more than just growing up. It means grappling with the pursuit of fulfilment, whether that manifests as creation or destruction. University is obsession, unfamiliarity, chaos, and the threat of not belonging. No wonder the students are crazy; you’d have to be to survive it.