Today's example is the critically-acclaimed, Oscar-winning 1989 film Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams as an anti-establishment teacher at a prestigious prep school, who forms a close bond with his students and encourages them to be forward-thinking and to follow their dreams. His unconventional teaching style comes into question and soon has repercussions quite at odds with the school's cookie-cutter approach to education.
This film was a big hit and built on Robin Williams' Good Morning Vietnam success as a serious (albeit slightly comedic) actor. It would be his second consecutive role to earn him a Best Actor nod.
So why do I consider DPS an Awesomely Shitty Movie you ask? Well let's take a closer look....
Dead Poets Society was the second mainstream film to showcase Robin Williams' considerable dramatic chops. Generally known for his manic, zany comedy antics, Williams mostly delivers a nuanced, understated performance as the benign, free-spirited Literature professor, and we believe it when the students become inspired by him. The scene where he coaxes a spontaneous, evocative poem out of the cripplingly shy Todd Anderson is genuinely touching, while his emotional breakdown after Neil's death is a briefly heartbreaking moment. Aside from a few moments where he veered way too far into typical Robin Williams territory, this was a fine performance that elevated Williams as an Oscar-caliber actor.
|Stop making me cry, Mork!|
Most of the students are given pretty fleshed-out characters and the performances are generally top-notch. Standouts include Robert Sean Leonard as the conflicted-but-idealistic Neil Perry, Ethan Hawke as the hopelessly bashful Todd Anderson, and Gale Hansen as the brash, rebellious Charlie Dalton (probably my favorite character). The students are all quite relatable in one way or another and they make a colorful ensemble of protagonists to guide us through this repressive 1950s setting.
|'Tis a good buncha lads....|
The film was shot almost entirely at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, DE, providing a visually striking backdrop for the story. Its gothic architecture created a suitably old-world metaphor for the stifling, conformist ideas pushed on the students. The landscapes are initially bathed in lovely fall colors before giving way to peaceful snowy panoramas. Lovely spot for an academic tragedy.
|Seems like a swell campus|
You all know it, it's the "O Captain, my Captain" scene, where Mr. Nolan has taken over Keating's class until they hire a replacement, Keating comes back to pick up his things, and most of the students salute him by standing on their desks and reciting that old Walt Whitman phrase (while a red-faced Nolan barks orders for them to sit down). Sure it's cheesy, it's sappy, it's kinda pedestrian, but it chokes me up every time, particularly considering Robin Williams' tragic suicide a couple years ago. As an emotional climax it packs a solid punch.
|I do love the composition of this shot|
Ok, put the tissues away. Now here's a whole buncha stuff about this movie that doesn't work....
Now look, I enjoy this movie on many levels as stated above. But there's also a lot wrong with it, most of which comes back to the script being unabashed in its low-rent audience manipulation. Just about everything I'm going to talk about in this section relates to this theme in some way. The film dials up certain characters to almost comical degree in order to make us feel one way or another about them, wedges in story developments that don't feel earned, or takes sharp turns that simply aren't believable, in order to get from Point A to B.
The first of two mustache-twisting "bad guys" in a movie that really shouldn't have any, Neil's father, Mr. Perry, played by the excellent Kurtwood Smith (To be clear, Smith's inclusion here isn't a reflection on his acting ability, but on what the script and direction asks of him) is such tyrannical bastard it's amazing his son hasn't either run away from home or murdered him in his sleep long before the events of this film. He goes from being a cold, undemonstrative paternal figure to a raging asshole. There's a scene where he angrily confronts Neil about joining the school play and his delivery is so over-the-top it's unintentionally hilarious. "Is that clear?........IS THAT CLEEARR!!??"
|Hey Clarence Boddicker. Lighten up a little, will ya?|
Same kinda thing here - Norman Lloyd is so reptilian as the school's Headmaster the role may as well have gone to Ian McDiarmid. Lloyd uses this faux English accent and a nasal, flinty delivery, there's nothing realistic or three-dimensional about the character. If he isn't laying down inappropriately high expectations of new student Todd Anderson ("We expect great things from you Mr. Anderson, your brother was one of our finest.") he's bashing Charlie Dalton's asscheeks in with a racquetball paddle. "Evaluate this poetry with all of your hatred, and your journey towards the Ivy League will be complete!"
|Christ, the guy's even DRESSED like a Sith Lord|
I said there were two bad guys in this movie but in the third act the script adds another. The Cameron character starts as a reluctantly willing participant and morphs into a slimy little informant in the blink of an eye, and this plays out more like a 90-degree turn than an arc. In about ten minutes of screen time he goes from "I'm not sure about all this insubordination but I kinda like it," to "Let Keating fry." The character becomes what the script needs him to, just to get to a cheap scene where the audience is happy to see him get punched in the face. This payoff would've felt much more organic if the filmmakers had the discipline to gradually turn Cameron into a self-preserving jerk.
|Nice face Cam. Be a shame if someone punched it.|
The most frequent (and titular) example of rebellious behavior on the part of our protagonists is a series of secret meetings held in a cave in the woods, wherein the students take turns reading poems, in between shootin' the shit, enjoying a snack, and trying to impress some girls. Presumably these gatherings are supposed to be the inspiration for the boys' newfound free-spiritedness, and their love for poetry is meant to spill over into their daily lives. But the DPS scenes are so awkwardly written and executed the point of it all gets lost, and outside the Society and the classroom the boys don't seem to give the slightest of shits about poetry itself. It all just comes off as an excuse to socialize after hours.
One student, Knox Overstreet, gets a tediously trite subplot where he falls desperately in love with a girl named Chris during a chance meeting at her boyfriend Chet's house (Chet is written as a mindless jock archetype, supplying yet another heel figure). Before long he's moping around like he wants to off himself, creepily patting Chris's head while she's passed out at a party (and subsequently getting his face pounded in by Chet), writing cringe-inducingly awful poems about her, and eventually barging into her classroom to read her one of said compositions. The upshot is that she finally agrees to talk to him and even accompanies him to Neil's play, where they end up holding hands. How quaint. And then.....well, that's it. This subplot is completely dropped once Neil rides the ol' bullet train.
|Just go in the janitor's closet and get it over with, ya little turds!|
This movie takes a bizarre (and pretty contrived) turn in the third act, when after defying Dad's orders to drop out of the school play, Neil is withdrawn from Welton and enrolled in military school. Unable to face this new future, and too chickenshit to stand up to or even have a heart-to-heart conversation with his dad, Neil goes into the study, takes out Mr. Perry's revolver (Way to leave it loaded in an unlocked drawer Dad, ya fuckin' deadbeat!), and fires a bullet into his brain. From then on the movie becomes a belabored tragedy, as Mr. Perry and the school launch a full-on investigation so Mr. Keating can take the fall for Neil's suicide. Keating predictably gets fired and the school goes on with the business of browbeating all free thought out of its students. The whole thing is way over the top and feels unearned and manufactured, as though the filmmakers couldn't figure out a resolution that would be both memorable and plausible. Once Neil's gone all the subplots are forgotten about and the movie hurtles toward the final victimization of Mr. Keating, so we can get a tearful climax. And with that we've come full-circle; this movie is shamelessly manipulative; a tearjerker just for the sake of being a tearjerker.
|They forgot to add the brains all over the floor|
-There's a scene where Keating is making all the students laugh by reading Shakespeare in different voices, such as John Wayne and Marlon Brando. But his Brando impression is clearly based on The Godfather, a film that wouldn't come out until 13 years after this film takes place. Also this scene strikes me as a blatant case of shoehorning Robin Williams' standup schtick into the film.
-I get that "carpe diem" is supposed to be the movie's catchphrase, but would high school students honestly adopt it as such? By the same token would Knox, upon completing a promising phone call with Chris, the girl he's hot for, yell out "YAWP!!" just because he learned about the Walt Whitman poem in class? This all seemed very forced to me, like the filmmakers were hoping high school students everywhere would start talking like this.
-The whole situation with Keating goes to hell within one semester of his tenure at Welton. Well, that escalated quickly. Seems like a teacher with a penchant for turning kids defiant that fast would never have been hired at such a stuffy, conformist school. He must be a helluva bullshit artist at those job interviews.
-How did Mr. Perry pull Neil out of Welton and enroll him in the other school so damn fast? The way he announces it, it sounds like he made a couple phone calls on the way home from the theater. The Admissions offices wouldn't be open, nor would a new school enroll the kid without receiving a deposit.
-Is it really believable that a school would outright blame a teacher for one of his students committing suicide at home? I get that they needed a scapegoat, but this seems like quite a stretch. Moreover the school conducts this little investigation into a student's death, apparently without ever contacting the authorities.
-As much as I like the final scene as a way to close a movie, it kinda doesn't hold up as a real-life scenario. After Keating leaves the room, then what? Do all the kids standing on their desks get expelled? Does the class just resume as it was? Does Nolan ease up a bit on the students (This seems implausible)? It's a scene designed to create a moving, dramatic moment but it can't really ever have a satisfying resolution.
-Roger Ebert mentioned this in his review at the time, but how is there no mention of the beatnik writers and poets, in this 1950s-set film about poetry?
-Presumably the whole point of this movie is "Be yourself, be nonconformist, challenge authority," yes? But look what happens to the three characters who most embody that philosophy - one gets fired, one gets expelled, one kills himself. What are we supposed to take away from this movie again??
As I said earlier, I do like many things about this film. When it's on cable or streaming I almost always have to sit down at watch at least part of it. It's been ingrained in my memory since my early teen years, and thanks largely to a fine Robin Williams performance it's become THE prep school movie for most people (although I consider 1992's School Ties superior). But unfortunately Dead Poets Society's story scarcely holds up to scrutiny. It's ironic that this movie won Best Original Screenplay, when the writing is really it's largest problem. It's a pandering script that seems to take on more than it can handle and isn't prepared to resolve almost any of it in a satisfying way. A shame really, there's a very good film in here somewhere....
Well that does it for today's lesson. Don't forget to read Chapters 4 and 5 of your Understanding Poetry textbook for next time.....