This essay on Dead Poets Society is from my book called Hollywood Values.
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Dead Poets Society (1989)
Steven C. Scheer
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Robin Williams (John Keating)
Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry)
Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson)
Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet)
Gale Hansen (Charles Dalton)
Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron)
Norman Lloyd (Mr. Nolan)
Kurtwood Smith (Mr. Perry)
Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth!
Perhaps adolescent students are often impervious to the appeal of literature because for them words do not represent keen sensuous, emotional, and intellectual perceptions. This indicates that throughout the entire course of their education, the element of personal insight and experience has been neglected for verbal abstractions.
The ceremonies that open the new school year of 1959-60 at Welton Academy in Vermont are reminiscent of a church service. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such ceremonies, nor can we find fault with the "four pillars" of the school, "Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence." The immediate aftermath of the opening ceremonies continues the church-service feel. Mr. Nolan, the headmaster, stands in the doorway shaking hands with the parents of returning students who compliment him for the "thrilling" or "lovely ceremony" he has just performed. It is also here, during the opening ceremonies, that the new English teacher, John Keating, is introduced to the student body.
As we witness the hustle and bustle of students settling in, certain students emerge from the nameless crowd as young men who will play a prominent role in the story. Among these are Neil Perry and his new roommate, Todd Anderson. Though John Keating, their English teacher, is in some sense the hero of this film, the story really belongs, in a sense, to Neil and Todd. The other students who figure in an important way in the story include Knox Overstreet and Charles Dalton as well as Richard Cameron. Cameron quickly shows himself as possibly the most conformist among the circle of friends who occupy our center of attention, and Mr. Perry, Neil's father, also quickly emerges as the instigator of a conflict in the story that will ultimately have tragic consequences.
Mr. Perry comes up to Neil's room (to the surprise of all the students present) and tells him that he has talked to Mr. Nolan and has decided that Neil has taken on too many extracurricular activities and that he is to drop his assistant editorship of the school annual. It is clear from the beginning, therefore, that Mr. Perry is adamant about Neil's progress towards a future that only he, Mr. Perry, envisions for him. Thus Charlie Dalton's innocent-sounding question ("Why doesn't he let you do what you want?") is replete with ominous implications this early in the game.
In what follows we get three quick glimpses into the routine of Welton Academy. We see, for a moment, students in the chemistry lab followed by a Latin class followed by a math class. The next class is English. And it is here that we get our first real introduction to John Keating. He enters the class whistling a tune from Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, walks to the back of the room and goes out into the hallway. He sticks his head back into the classroom and invites the puzzled students to follow him. The first words out of his mouth are "O Captain, My Captain," the opening line of a Whitman poem about Lincoln's death (in light of what is to follow, this choice is more telling than its immediate significance - that is, as a possible nickname for John Keating himself).
Keating's first act of business is to ask one of the students to read the first four lines of Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," the most famous "carpe diem" or "seize the day" poem in English: "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may: / Old time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today, / Tomorrow will be dying." Keating follows this up with a reminder that we are "food for worms." This is a somewhat unorthodox invocation of the time-honored adage about life being too short. It is certainly appropriate for a teacher to use this perhaps unusual but highly effective method to drive home the point that young people are only young for a "short" time and that they should thus make the most of their time by seizing the day, thus making their "lives extraordinary." The fact that all this takes place in front of a class picture of a long-ago student body on the wall (the members of which are by this time probably all dead) just delivers the point Keating is making with that much more relevance and effectiveness.
The students seem delighted with Keating's ways. The only exception appears to be Cameron. When he asks "Think he will test us on that stuff?" Charlie Dalton aptly replies "Don't you get anything?" Later it will be Cameron again who will be most reluctant to tear out the pages from the textbook at Keating's request and who will later still have doubts about renewing the Dead Poets Society Keating was a part of when he was a student at Welton Academy at an earlier time. In the scene where Keating asks the students to tear the pages out of their textbook, we witness the second major scene involving Keating's ingenious and most effective teachings methods. Part of the secret of Keating's success with his students is, of course, the fact that he levels with them, that he tells them (and occasionally shows them, too) what he firmly believes is the truth.
The essay, "Understanding Poetry," by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., is indeed "excrement" (to use Keating's own characterization of it). The "greatness" of a poem is not to be grafted onto horizontal and vertical lines where the first represents the "perfection" (as to rhythm, meter, and rhyme) and the second the "importance" (as to theme) of a given poem. As Keating tells the students after they have torn the offending pages from the book, "[w]e don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
With Neil's discovery of Keating's senior annual, the old Dead Poets Society that Keating was involved with when he was a student at Welton (Hellton, by nickname) rears its head. The students, who are naturally curious, ask Keating about it. He tells them how a group of them used to get together at the "old Indian cave" and "in the enchantment of the moment . . . let poetry work its magic." When Knox has doubts about a bunch of guys just "sitting around reading poetry," Keating claims that they were not just a "Greek organization," that they "were romantics," that they "didn't just read poetry" but "let it drip from [their] tongues like honey. Spirits soared, women swooned and gods were created, gentlemen. Not a bad way to spend an evening, eh?"
That evening, under Neil's leadership, the boys "reconvene" the Dead Poets Society. As usual, the only student who worries about this "underground" activity is Cameron. Neil honors tradition by opening the new "chapter" of the society the way Keating and his classmates used to open it, by reading from Henry David Thoreau's Walden the passage about "going to the woods" in order to "live deliberately," to "live deep and suck out the marrow of life," so that when they came "to die" they would not "discover" that they "had not lived" at all. This first meeting of the renewed society is a tremendous success. The boys really get into reading poetry, reciting it with gusto, including the concluding lines from Tennyson's "Ulysses," which Neil reads and which, in the context of the movie as a whole, conjures up a special significance:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . Come, my friends.
It is as if the splendor of these words, spoken by an aged Ulysses in the poem itself, performed a double function by reflecting both on Keating's generation of the past and that of Neil and his classmates in the present. There is indeed "tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence" in this student-led initiative to revive the Dead Poets Society, in spite of the fact that (as Keating himself puts it) the school's "present administration" would not "look too favorably upon" it.
It is in the next classroom scene that Keating performs his famous stunt of standing upon the desk to remind the students that - as he puts it - we "must constantly look at things in a different way." "Just when you think you know something," he tells them a moment later, "you have to look at it in another way." He urges them to think when they read "not just what the author thinks. Consider what you think" as well. He urges them, too, to find their own voices. There is no time to waste. The more habitual their thinking becomes, the more difficult it will be to change it later on. It is interesting to reflect in this connection on the fact that both George McAllister, a fellow teacher, and Mr. Nolan object (the first mildly, the second vehemently) to Keating's attempt to make 17-year-olds think for themselves.
The "magic" of Keating's teaching soon begins to show results. It encourages Knox to "woo" Chris (who is engaged to a "jerk" of a football player) to "seize the day" and not give up prematurely (we should recall in this connection, too, that - as Keating tells the students at one point - language was invented not in order to let us communicate, but in order to "woo women"), and it enables Neil to let his own hidden ambition to become an actor come forth. Once Neil decides upon trying out for a role in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, he bubbles over with joy and enthusiasm:
So, I am gonna act. Yes, yes! I am gonna be an actor! Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to try this. I even tried to go to summer stock auditions last year, but, of course, my father wouldn't let me. For the first time in my whole life I know what I wanna do, and for the first time I am gonna do it whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem!
Neil knows that his father would be adamantly opposed to his ambition to become and actor, so when he gets the part of Puck, he forges a letter of permission in his father's name. In the meantime, Mr. Keating continues to encourage the students to be their own persons. In order to illustrate the dangers of conformity, for example, he lets them march until they begin to step in unison on the school's grounds in a location where Mr. Notan happens to be able to observe what goes on. Keating tells the students that while they each started out with "their own stride, their own pace," they soon began to conform. He tells them how difficult it is to maintain one's beliefs against opposition from others. He tells them, too, that while we have a "great need for acceptance," we should nevertheless try to strive to be ourselves even in the face of the disapproval of the "herd." He ends by quoting Robert Frost's famous lines: "Two roads diverged in a wood and I, / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference."
In the meantime Charlie Dalton brings two girls to one of the Dead Poets Society meetings, where he also owns up to having written a surreptitious article for the school paper "demanding that girls be admitted to Welton." Though the group as a whole objects to Charlie having taken upon himself to "speak for the club," it is Cameron, once more, who is really worried about what the administration is likely to do about this mischievous breach of conduct. When Mr. Nolan insists that whoever is responsible for the "profane and unauthorized article" reveal himself on pain of expulsion from the school, Charlie adds insult to injury by pretending to receive a phone call from God whose message to Mr. Nolan is that "we should have girls at Welton."
In the scene that follows Mr. Nolan administers a rather nasty paddling upon Charlie Dalton's backside while demanding to know what the Dead Poets Society is and also by demanding "names." As Charlie later tells Neil and others, it appears that if he turns everybody in and apologizes to the school as a whole, "all will be forgiven." It is after this scene that Mr. Nolan pulls Mr. Keating aside for a little talk. Nolan tells Keating about "rumors" concerning his "unorthodox teaching methods." And while Nolan doesn't blame Keating for the stunt that Charlie pulled, he does want to know what the boys were doing "marching, and clapping in unison" a bit earlier.
To Keating's explanation that the "exercise" was to "prove a point" about the "dangers of conformity," Nolan responds with, "Well, John, the curriculum here is set. It's proven it works. If you question [it], what's to prevent them from doing the same?" "I always thought," responds Keating, that "the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself." "At these boys' ages? Not on your life!" exclaims Nolan. "Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself."
Though not in agreement with the administration on many issues, Keating nevertheless reprimands Charlie Dalton for the stunt he has pulled. He reminds the student that "sucking the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone." With the jocular reminder that one of the consequences of being expelled from Welton would be that Charlie could no longer take Keating's courses, the student see the point. "Aye, aye, Captain," he says.
In the meantime it seems that Mr. Perry has gotten a wind of Neil's newly launched acting career. He is, of course, dead set against Neil's continued association with the play. He also suspects that "this new man," this, "ah, Mr. Keating" may have put him up to it. In any event, regardless of the fact that Neil has a leading role in the play, which is to open the day after, Mr. Perry orders his son to quit immediately. He doesn't care, as he says, "if the world comes to an end," Neil must be "through with [the] play."
Neil now turns to the one person he is sure will understand his dilemma, Mr. Keating. In a private conference Neil tells his teacher that his father wants him to quit the play, that he is "planning the rest of [his] life for [him]," that he has never "asked [him]" what he (Neil) wanted. Keating wants Neil to talk to his father, to tell him how he feels. But Neil says that he "can't talk to him this way" (that is, the way in which he can tall to Keating). Keating nevertheless urges Neil to talk again to his father in order to be able to stay in the play. The next time they see each other, Neil lies to Keating by saying that he has, in fact, talked to his father who, though reluctantly, has agreed to let him remain in the play.
Though Mr. Perry is not supposed to be at the play (he is supposed to be in Chicago), he does walk into the auditorium and stands in the back as the play comes to a close. Neil as Puck sees him and then seems to address the play's epilogue to his father as well as to the audience so that the final words of the play take on a special and unique significance in what thus becomes a private/public context:
If we shadows have offended,
But Puck/Neil's final words fall upon deaf ears as far as his father is concerned. When after the play Keating (as well as all the students) congratulate Neil on his magnificent performance, Mr. Perry rudely tells Keating to "stay away from [his] son." Having forcefully dragged him home, Mr. Perry, as if speaking on behalf of Mrs. Perry (who looks on in apparent despair) as well as in his own right, tells Neil in no uncertain terms that he is to go to military school immediately and then to Harvard where he is to study medicine. Mr. Perry completely disregards his son's wishes and browbeats the latter to the point where Neil simply gives up even to try to get his father to let him be what he wants to be.
During the quiet of the cold winter night, in front of an open window, Neil seems to enact a strange ritual with what appears to be a crown of thorns on his head (a stage prop left over from his role as Puck, but also reminiscent of the crucifixion), while he exposes his naked body to the elements. He then quietly walks down to a study where, pulling a handgun from what is apparently his father's desk, he shoots himself dead. The sound of the gunshot awakens Mr. Perry who immediately goes searching for his son by walking from room to room in the house, followed by Mrs. Perry. When he stumbles upon the body, he cries out repeatedly, "Oh, Neil! Oh, My God! . . . Oh, my son! . . . My son! My poor son!"
When Charlie informs Todd of Neil's death, they all run out into the wintry night where it is Todd who repeatedly says that it was Neil's father who killed him. The context of his words (Neil "wouldn't have left us. . . . His father killed him") seems to imply that Mr. Perry had, in fact, literally killed his own son. In a way, of course, it is clear to us all that he is, above all, the most responsible for Neil's death, for it is clear that Neil felt totally "trapped" (a word he actually uses when talking to Keating about his father wanting him to quit the play), that he felt that his father was simply forcing him, against his will and against all of his heart's desires, to go to military and then to medical school.
Yet now, in spite of what we (as audience) know, the film takes a turn for a perhaps predictable but ultimately unjustifiable assignment of blame. When Mr. Nolan announces that he "intend[s] to conduct a thorough inquiry into this matter," we may already guess that Mr. Keating will emerge as the villain in the eyes of official justice and established morality. Cameron is, of course, the first to "fink." And when one of the students wants to know what Cameron could possibly fink about, Charlie Dalton hits the nail right on the proverbial head:
The club . . . Think about it. The board of directors, the trustees, Mr. Nolan. Do you think for one moment they're gonna let this thing just blow over? Schools go down because of things like this. They need a scapegoat.
Cameron has the unmitigated audacity to speak of the school's "honor code" when he admits that he has, in fact, "finked." He tells the others that if they are smart, they will do as he did. "They are not after us. We are the victims. Us and Neil." When Charlie wants to know who they are after, Cameron says, in no uncertain terms, "Mr. Keating, of course. The 'Captain' himself. I mean, you guys didn't really think he could avoid responsibility, did you?" When Charlie is horrified by the suggestion that Mr. Keating is to be blamed for Neil's suicide, Cameron continues:
Well, who else do you think, dumb-ass? The administration? Mr. Perry? Mr. Keating put us up to all this crap, didn't he? If it wasn't for Mr. Keating, Neil would be cozied up in his room right now, studying his chemistry and dreaming of being called a doctor.
This misleading and illogical explanation, the falseness of which Todd, for example, vehemently objects to ("That is not true, Cameron. You know that. He didn't put us up to anything. Neil loved acting") will nonetheless become the official explanation as well. In the scene in which Todd, for example, is "interrogated" (in the presence of his parents) by Mr. Nolan, and then made to sign a "document" (the scene is reminiscent of phony confessions that prisoners, after having been tortured, were forced to sign in the former Soviet Union, for example), Mr. Nolan says:
I have here a detailed description of what occurred at your meetings. It describes how your teacher, Mr. Keating, encouraged you boys to organize this club and to use it as a source of inspiration for reckless and self-indulgent behavior. It describes how Mr. Keating, both in and out of the classroom, encouraged Neil Perry to follow his obsession with acting when he knew all along it was against the explicit order of Neil's parents. It was Mr. Keating's blatant abuse of his position as teacher that led directly to Neil Perry's death.
Needless to say, this highly distorted version becomes, as I have said before, the official view of what has led to Neil's suicide. The upshot of the whole affair is that in the end things are back to normal at Welton Academy. When Mr. Keating, who has obviously been dismissed, comes for his "personals," Mr. Nolan is in charge of his class. And the students are asked to start all over again by reading what Mr. Nolan calls the "excellent essay by Dr. Pritchard on 'Understanding Poetry.'" It is Cameron who explains that the pages of the essay have been torn out of the book, so he is forced to read the essay in question from Mr. Nolan's own copy.
As Mr. Keating is about to leave the classroom, Todd exclaims that "they made everybody sign" the document leading to Keating's dismissal. When Todd jumps up on his desk to the exclamation of "O Captain! My Captain!" and when other students follow suit, it becomes apparent that Mr. Nolan is not going to be able to maintain control of the class. In the end, only a handful of students remain seated (including, of course, Cameron), the rest are on their desks shouting "Oh Captain! My Captain!" The students thus undo the injustice imposed upon Mr. Keating by the administration, but not officially. That is beyond their power. The movie nevertheless ends on a note of moral triumph. The taste of bitterness and sadness which remain with us as we witness Mr. Keating, with tears of gratitude in his eyes, say "Thank you, boys. Thank you," reminds me not just of the "four pillars" of Welton Academy (Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence), but also of the parody of this we hear early on in the story, shortly after the opening ceremonies: "Travesty. Horror. Decadence. Excrement." Those words in the end are indeed better at describing what has happened not just to Mr. Keating in this case, but to all the students who have thus been deprived of a truly dedicated and brilliant teacher.
What this movie tells us - nay, what it shows us - is that excellence is not always rewarded in our world, that discipline is at times nothing more than the rigid application of misguided and illogical distortions, that honor can be horribly twisted to suit dishonorable ends, and that thus tradition may indeed become its own travesty. When will we ever learn? And why not in school, of all places?
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