There be spoilers here but there is nothing particularly surprising in this movie, and besides I say some interesting things.
The basic flaw at the heart of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets’ Society is so stupid as to be almost laughable: it is a movie about non-conformity which uses the medium of poetry. Sounds fine? Consider the fact that the message necessarily limits the poetry which can be used to a narrow, narrow strip of all the trammellable lands of poetry and the poetic mind. This in a movie which has poetry in its name and which we therefore expect to be about poetry. As I said, this is almost laughable, and in fact only manifests during viewing in one or two scenes. Though this is a basic flaw, there is a bigger, almost awesome really, flaw in this movie; it is horrible at hiding its manipulative machinery.
Every movie has manipulative machinery. The trick is to not let it turn our attention from the movie, to so seamlessly tie in the, two separate, threads of machinery and narration that each seems to grow out of the other. For example, when I was watching Rashomon recently with Donald Richie’s commentary, he pointed out a most curious thing: during the course of the four narrations, Kurosawa builds up our sympathy for the characters – which, as you may know, are mostly stereotypes – by letting them intermittently come out of their stereotype shells and become real characters. I had noticed the fact that they were mostly stereotypes in my earlier viewings, but I had never noticed this, this popping out from shells. The narrative thread required that they be mostly stereotypes (Kurosawa wanted to build up from his characters, so he needed pre-established ones) but the manipulative required that they be real people (how else were we supposed to believe in the statement he’s making on human nature?), so he simply structured his narrative so that they had to pop out of their shells now and again. A very important point here is that this structuring necessarily has to come solely and completely out of the arbitrary choices a director can make rather than the falsifiable ones characters make. What Weir ends up doing in this movie is too often either performing this structuring using the wrong sort of choice or taking the two threads – of narration and manipulation, I mean – and pasting in pieces of them instead of intertwining them.
One of my friends loved this movie and told me it was a brilliant movie. When I pointed out that it was just a teacher-student movie, he told me it had started the genre, and I decided I would watch it. A couple of weekends later, it was coming on TV, so I watched it. I found that the beginning was very good and energetic but a suicide seemed so contrived that I’d lost all interest in the movie and left it a few minutes later, when everyone was grieving. That time, I just nailed it down as a piece of crappy writing, because of the suicide seeming so contrived. Then, I read Roger Ebert’s review, which I thought was a horrible review because it just detailed what he had disliked after he had taken badly to the movie; what I mean is that most of what he says could as well be a good movie interpreted in a bad light (and his irrefutable points, like the absurdity of their not knowing about Ginsberg – seriously absurd, this – or the Robin Williams character actually not being a very good teacher of poetry, were rather inconsequential because the movie wasn’t actually about poetry at all). Turns out that now I agree, and I’ll try to fill in, and try to make it clearer why we (it’s something unbelievably… cool that I’m trying to better Ebert here) think so.
The story is about twelfth class students in some stiff-collared American school, cast-led by Neil (Robert Sean Leonard, within whom we can see a sort of simmering life) and Todd (Ethan Hawke, the only time I’ve seen him even slightly seem to not have way too much self-esteem – only because of the hairdo, I found out later when he pulled his hair back to a more normal style). Into their lives comes a poetry teacher Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), who insists on being called ‘O captain, my captain’ after the Walt Whitman poem. He teaches them how to be non-conformists but – in one of the more effective set-pieces – prudent ones, and how the quality of poetry is non-quantifiable (minor incident, important lesson). He teaches the recessive Todd self-esteem – in another of the movie’s not rare affecting scenes –, and tells Neil that it’s okay to tell his father that he wants be an actor not a doctor. And there’s a – stupidly unresolved – side-plot about a love story.
The movie begins with some sentimental shots of the landscape around the school, which didn’t affect me but might well have. Then, there’s a brief stretch where we see the students coming back for a new term, along with fresher Todd. I have to say that the scenes consisting only of the students’ interactions exclusive of poetry are really good, because of an uncannily accurate picture of hostel dynamics (this is my seventh consecutive year in a hostel, so I certainly feel qualified to say so) and the energy of all the actors. We see that one of the students is going to one of his parents’ friends’ houses to eat.
When they left, there was a series of shots that really puzzled me (second viewing; my first viewing began a couple of scenes later). It was another montage of landscape. Why? He reached the house, and the door was opened by his future love-interest. This is what I meant by ‘pasting in pieces of [the threads] instead of intertwining them’. See, when he first sees his love-interest, he goes on a veritable high, as is common to most people who’ve just fallen in love. And that montage was Weir trying to get us to an appropriately sentimental mood to not only sympathise but empathise with him. But, stupidly enough, he shoves this bit of the manipulative thread right into the flow of the narrative.
Soon, he had my attention again, because… well, there is a good amount of energy in the movie. Soon, they found out about the ‘dead poets’ society’ which was a secret society of poetry lovers which met to read out lots of poetry headed and founded by Mr. Keating when he was at school. Lots of deus ex machinas here, but I didn’t really mind. Todd, going by his timid nature, refuses to read out but is admitted into the meetings anyway, because Neil is helming the society and they are roommates.
Another case in point is the lead-up to the first meeting, which – primarily because they are non-conformists – happens at the dead of night, in a cave in a forest near the school. There’s a long scene where they are going, which is treated as a horror sequence. These people, they are afraid of the eeriness of the forest, when all they should really be afraid of is being caught. Why was this scene, so damned inorganic to anything in the world there? Simply to elicit a laugh from us. That’s it. He sent the whole tone of exuberance riding, simply to put in edgewise one measly gag. Something we expect more from Michael Bay than the director of movies like Master and Commander: the Far Side of the Ocean and The Mosquito Coast which I lovingly remember from when I was thirteen.
The meeting gave me one of my biggest laughs: Neil was reading out from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, the last lines, which on their own fit into the general tone of inspiration that the poetry quoted here invariably carries (well, except the bits from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I, however, have read the whole poem: these lines are actually said as people hurling themselves at the maw of death. Portentous, actually, and one of the few times Weir gets this stuff right.
Later, Neil, who plays Puck – symbol of life and liveliness – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is told by his father that he is certainly not allowed to act. He walks up to his room, takes off his shirt. Bare-chested, he opens the window of his room, and then wears the Puck hat. He considers the snowy night, and soon takes off the hat and places it on the sill. Then, he walks down the stairs, walks to his father’s study. Then, we see his father get up, claiming that he just heard a sound. He looks around, and eventually walks into his study. There, he sees smoke from behind his desk. He walks around, and sees a hand , with a gun next to it…
Could have been really effective, really. But, two problems: the actor, and the action. As I said, Robert Sean Leonard has a simmering life within him. This means that he is energetic but moderate in his ways. It’s there but it’s only set at a fairly low level, ready to rise up to a high level. Neil, as played by this actor, seems to me unable to take a considered decision to do something drastic. Could to you, but I found this terribly contrived, and made me stop the first time I was watching this movie. I would have believed a sudden flare-up, a lunge to the death, but not a slow, completely voluntary, walk to it. And then there’s the action. What does it mean? What can it mean? He opens the window bare-chested, and wears his symbol of life. What is he thinking? Inscrutability is one thing, but there can be a sum total of one (1) escape you can be thinking of while you are standing bare-chested in front of a window outside when the world is snow-covered, and it sure as hell isn’t running away. So, he takes off his symbol of life and goes and does the needful. The only possible explanation: this man was so steeped in Shakespeare that he was indulging in symbolism. The difference: Shakespeare didn’t make his characters dabble in symbolism, the symbolism grew – or gave the illusion of growing – out of them.
And then there’s the end. It comprises of Keating being blamed for the suicide. One person tells the authorities what they want to hear, and the rest see no other choice because they will otherwise be expelled. The only guy who does tell them the truth is the same one previously indicted for a lack of prudence. Doesn’t anyone, anyone, in this batch of bright kids understand that the school cannot expel the whole class? They are sitting together, and they don’t have the brains to discuss it, to decide that if everyone says the truth, no one – except the tattletale – gets hurt? Seventeen-year-olds generally indulge in more involved politics with each other. Hell, I learnt this sort of reasoning at thirteen or something. Keating gives this his approval. Well, Mr. Tom Schulman, let me ask you, what exactly is the point of non-conformity if you don’t have the guts to turn it into the norm when a chance so clearly presents itself?
All the directorial cock-ups I can forgive. This stupid piece of writing I can’t. It’s easy to see why this movie is so beloved, though. Ignore a few scenes, a few set-ups here and there, have no real experience of politics, and it seems like a perfectly well-directed, perfectly logical piece of work. The only compliment I, on the other hand, can give Weir about this movie is to thank him for giving me a movie that is bad in an interesting way, in a way that taught me something more about cinema, or rather made me articulate for something that I always understood, that Ebert too instinctively understood in his review.