Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Dead Poets Society

by JB
Don't get me started!

To be fair, many critics recognized Dead Poets Society as Grade A hypocritical cheese upon its original release. The hold this film exerts, and the love that certain people have for it, seems to me demented. I know teachers who hold this film up as a paragon of inspiration. The mind reels. The fact that this tripe won the Best Screenplay Oscar is Reason #982 that the Academy Awards are a useless joke.

Robin Williams has only two modes as a performer: super-sincere (his Oscar-winning performance as the depressed psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting) and batshit crazy (everything else.) His turn as English teacher John Keating was his first attempt at super-sincerity, so it may actually seem restrained, but that is only because he is not in it that much. His total screen time amounts to a supporting performance. He was still nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Why? Because Robin Williams is an adult, that is why. The Academy has a habit of reserving Best Actor for big people, and relegating Supporting Actor or Actress to the youngsters (see Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit).
Keating teaches amazing life lessons in five minutes, which leaves me wondering (as a real teacher) what the &%$! is he doing the other 45 minutes of class? Do they sit around and discuss how great that first five minutes was?

To show in what high esteem the film actually holds the very poetry it pretends to love, teacher Keating waxes rhapsodic about Walt Whitman. . . and misquotes him.

Like many simple-minded screenplays, this one only allows each character to be one thing – one solitary, inflexible thing that never changes. Isn't the definition of drama change? Don't we as an audience long to see characters changed by circumstance or luck or love or other people or adventure or space aliens? Dead Poets Society condemns its characters to finish as they began: the weasel stays the weasel, the dreamer stays the dreamer, the Dean always has a stick up his ass, Mr. Keating is always a paper Messiah, all good, no nuance, and Kurtwood Smith's evil father only lacks a moustache to twirl.

My biggest problem with this film, though, is its ending. Here, the filmmakers want to have things both ways. They need a martyr figure and they need false uplift. Roger Ebert, God love him, pointed this out in his original review of the film. He wrote that this was merely a "collection of pious platitudes [...] The movie pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon."

The kids are railroaded into implicating Keating in a terrific tragedy. One by one, they bend and break and rat him out to the Dean. Keating is fired. If Keating had taught his students anything about life or truth or art or having a spine, they would not have ratted him out. Therefore, Keating is a failure. When it came time for his students to show moral courage, they folded. They ratted him out. What a depressing ending for a supposedly inspirational Hollywood film.

But wait! Keating comes back to the classroom one last time to collect his things. “Ironically”, Dean Stick Up His Ass is now teaching Keating’s Poetry class. One by one, his students stand on their desks and address Keating as “Captain, my Captain!”, a Walt Whitman reference to Abraham Lincoln that has now been trivialized by this awful film. The boys’ collective gesture is useless. Keating is already fired. You boys got him fired. If it salves your consciences to make an idiotic and useless symbolic gesture, be my guest. The next time John Keating gets hungry, he can eat your “Captain, my Captains.”

Really.

Better Yet: The next time you feel like watching Dead Students-Who-Didn't-Learn-Anything Society, try this film instead. The problem here is that very few Hollywood films get "high school" right. I say this as a real high-school teacher -- 26 years under the bell and proud of it.

The largely forgotten Teachers (1984, Arthur Hiller) shows us a real American high school in all its glory. I am not talking about the endless preachifying of the Nick Nolte character and his "Don't be afraid to walk the halls naked" crap, but about most of the film’s many subplots. For instance, Royal Dano plays “Ditto,”a burned-out teacher who prepares copious worksheets to occupy his students. They are expected to work independently while he reads the newspaper. One day he dies in the middle of class at his desk, still clutching his newspaper. No one notices. Students continue to file into his class, pick up worksheets, complete them, and hand them in at the bell.

This has actually happened at my school. No names.

Best of all there is a wonderful sequence involving Richard Mulligan as an escaped mental patient who somehow becomes a substitute history teacher. The students love him. He is a complete success, the best teacher in the school. Eventually the authorities catch on to the subterfuge, and as the police haul him out of the building in handcuffs, he pauses long enough to exclaim, "Sir, unhand me! You will treat me with respect! For I... am a teacher!"

I am a teacher too (and an escaped mental patient) and I am tired of being represented on film by the likes of these imposters: these John Keatings and these Mr. Hollands and these Mercedes Taibots (in the recent stinkfest Larry Crowne).

Class dismissed.

20 comments:

  1. I've always hated Dead Poet's. The characters, especially the kids in this movie are so annoying. Although I do like the message that young people need somebody to look up to and get guidance from and it is good to follow your passion. But in this movie none of the kids follow their passion, as they throw Keating under the bus. Its an awful message really...good review!

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  2. DavidCat, you are my hero. I am glad that I am not the only one who sees this. Thanks for the kind words.

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  3. Hey I love the F-this-movie podcasts! Just listened to the Independence Day podcast this morning and I appreciate what you said about The Poseidon Adventure film..."Good cheese" perfect!

    Movies are my absolute passion and I love good movies like The Graduate, Psycho, Dr. Strangelove, but I also like bad movies too like Plan 9 From Outer Space, The original Poseidon Adventure. (Sometimes bad and/or cheese is good.)

    It's the ugly movies that I hate. Dead Poet's Society fits in that category. The first time that I saw that movie and I told people why I hated it and everybody got mad at me. You can't throw a unbelievable sappy ending on me, like they did in DPS, and expect me to dig it. I'm smarter than that!

    (I should send you my Top 100 movie list, I would be very interested to get your comments)
    DC

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  4. We love lists, David, so feel free to send away (fthismoviepodcast(at)gmail.com). And you're absolutely right about DPS -- it's one of those movies that people tend to be appalled when they find out you don't like it. But we're right.

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  5. You're darn tootin' we're right!

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  6. I really liked DPS, though it's been a few years. Robert Sean Leonard's one and only good performance. He went on to ruin Much Ado About Nothing.

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  7. I haven't seen Much Ado About Nothing. I was always under the impression that it was Keanu Reeves who messed that up.

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  8. Shakespeare, you say? You are both going to love next week's SOTC!

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  9. Talk about a film that spits in the face of everything it's trying to teach: so the message is "Seize the day but when you don't get something you want shoot yourself". Yeah real fucking nice. I'm sure everyone whose seen the film who has parents who don't understand or listen to them, you know 95% of the whole fucking world, really loved that scene and the ones with suicidal tendencies were "inspired" by it

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  10. as for the guy who committed suicide he did everything keating tell him to convince his father but seeing that he was far from convinced he realised that even keating , who he kept in the highest pedestal could not do anything about his situation , he was despondent and heart broken ...it was the the only way out for him.

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    1. Robert Sean Leonard's character, the guy who committed suicide, didn't do anything Keating told him. He clearly lied to Keating about telling his father the truth about being in the play, as he claimed his father suddenly supported his acting - which was not the case. In fact, he fails to speak up to his father right to the end. He does not take Keating's advice, and then instead kills himself. This is my problem with the movie as well. Aside from the student who defends Keating and gets expelled, none of the boys show courage, loyalty or altruism at the end when presented with real opportunities to stand up for themselves and/or Mr. Keating; and this contradicts the entire message Mr. Keating is teaching - to think for oneself and not be afraid to question the authorities.

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  11. what the fuck did you expect from the students??? to get themselves expelled ??
    Keating would have never wanted them to do that !
    and i think the ending scene shows that everybody did learn to have a spine especially todd anderson ( do you expect him to be the same scared and docile boy he was before after that time? )

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  12. always wanted to see this film and was bitterly disappointed at the horrible acting, script/dialogue, and everything just felt so contrived. I didn't get how these boys were willing to risk getting into trouble by sneaking out at night to read poetry to each other!?? Are you for real? Keatings lessons are contrived and lack substance. I hate when ethan hawke all of a sudden becomes and amazing poet after Williams covers his eyes and spins him around the room, oh that was easy. Everything about this film is just ugly. Maybe the cinematography is good but I watched it hoping for a good story.

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  13. You make a lot of sense. But I've always loved this film and suspect I'll keep on loving it forever. HOWEVER. I've always been driven crazy by the suicide. It never made any sense to me whatsoever. That character never showed any tendencies towards suicide or being unstable in anyway. And why wouldn't running away from home be his first option? Couldn't he just join a theatre troupe? For this reason I do agree it did not deserve the screenplay Oscar. But even before the lovefest started for Williams after his death, I've loved watching Robin Williams in basically anything and definetly in this film. I love watching Knox chase his dreamgirl. I love watching their Poetry meetings in the cave. Though still knowing how it ends, I love watching Neil suceed at his play. And even if Keeting may have failed to really get his messages across in the end, I love watching him teach the messages. And I think for the most part he does get them across. He gets them to try new things and look at life differently. He doesn't succeed 100% of the time. And neither does this film. But I love the movie's heart and can't help but enjoy it everytime.

    But.... I'm now dying to check out this 'Teachers' film.

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  14. Back then I saw this movie about 10 times in cinemas and it is for me a classic example of how some movie simply works at its time and personal sensitivities and things strike that otherwise no one sees.
    1989 was a difficult year for me. I had lots of arguments with my parents because of my coming out, my boyfriend was dying in hospital and I myself had to struggle with severe depression.
    Although I can understand and comprehend many of the above points well, the film has still a lot of scenes that appeal to me as before, as they were simply made for me.
    Although the film is cheesy, the motivations are not always comprehensible and the basic idea is total nonsense - I love "Dead Poet's Society", not because it is a perfect movie but because it speaks directly to me.

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    1. Thank you for this. I needed someone who can somewhat see my position to understand why I liked this movie so much. I'm battling depression right now and I just found DPS.

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  15. I'm a little late coming to this, but I'd recommend Class Of 1984, for its pure realism. (Don't hold me to that, however, as I'm not a teacher!)

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  16. Good read. I've always considered DPS a guilty pleasure. It's shamelessly, almost shockingly manipulative, but I can't help finding it entertaining. Great point about the ending though. These students learned nothing about courage or standing up to the establishment.

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  17. I've just finished writing an essay on this movie for my high school English class. I immediately ordered the movie online after I watched it for class. Even while I was seeing it for the first time, I had moments where I felt so embarrassed for watching it. I got contact embarrassment from some of the scenes and this is coming from a true 80s movie enthusiast.
    I also got so upset about Knox Overstreet's storyline. He almost sexually assaulted his "love interest". Granted, he was drunk, but that doesn't excuse what he did...

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  18. Nodding in agreement...but curious why I cannot find anybody who talks about the suicide which, to me, has never made any sense at all. I mean in the story-telling way. I do not mean to imply that suicide ever makes sense. In this story, it was just ... well, it still made no sense. Loads of people grew up with oppressive parents and made it through because of friends, other family, etc. Are we to believe this boy did this because his daddy wouldn't let him be an actor? I don't know - it's all so cheesy and a total let down. I remember seeing this when it came out with my high school buddies. I think I was the only one who walked out of the theater saying "what the fuck was that?" Why can't I find any reviews that talk about the suicide? Can anybody explain it to me?

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