Dead Poets Society Turns 30
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. Robert Frost, “Birches”
Dead Poets Society turns thirty this month. That’s thirty years since Robin Williams first sauntered into a prep school classroom as John Keating to issue that iconic challenge: “Carpe diem! Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!” That moment is often spoofed. So are many other moments depicting Keating’s unconventional teaching methods. And there are valid criticisms to level at the film. As an examination of power structures and masculinity, the narrative falls short in significant ways. But thirty years later, there’s one thing that the film is not: forgotten. It’s easy to see why. Passion fills every frame. Robin Williams, of course, is beautiful. When the film touches on desperation and suicide, it’s hard not to think of his tragic real-life fate. And the catharsis, while bittersweet, is meaningful, complex, and life-affirming. “O Captain! My Captain!” Let’s revisit Dead Poets Society.
The world of Welton Academy is a factory, both a cog in and microcosm of, the larger power structure. The school is an assembly line producing the bankers and doctors of tomorrow. Much like the banks and medical schools of 1959, the students and teachers of Welton are exclusively straight, white, and male. (I’m not criticizing that, by the way). The homogeneity of the characters embodies the very power structure under examination. We see it from the inside, and that means a lot of straight white guys, and not much else. Which, in this context, is fine. With this context in mind, however, certain flaws in the film become clear.
Early on, Keating brings his class into the hallway, where photos from years past adorn the walls. The former students look much like the current ones. “Same haircuts,” observes Keating. He doesn’t add “rich and white, just like you,” but as an audience member, the exclusivity of the privilege is apparent. Is that Keating’s point? Is he teaching the boys that their life experience has offered only one point-of-view? That if they are to be free thinkers, they’ll have to consider a more diverse range of experiences and thoughts? Nope, that’s not his point. So what is? “These boys are now fertilizing daffodils,” Keating says. “Carpe diem!” Cool. Throughout the semester, the boys often read from Whitman, Tennyson, Thoreau, Shakespeare. What do all those guys have in common? If you asked Keating, he’d probably say “Similar haircuts.” What a shame there wasn’t time to squeeze in some Langston Hughes or Jessie Fauset into the curriculum.
Keating is disrupting the assembly line by introducing free thought and non-conformity. But the system he’s disrupting is straight, white, and male, and at no point does he attempt to reach beyond that world. It’s like if Star Wars was set entirely on the Death Star, and the plot concerned Vader encouraging Stormtroopers to put on a talent show. Sure, that sounds like a fantastic movie, but it doesn’t exactly consider the role of the Empire in the wider galaxy. It makes sense for most of the characters in that version of Star Wars to be Stormtroopers. But it makes less sense to ignore the galactic weapon of mass destruction in which they live. Welton Academy is no Death Star, but it is the top tier of a social hierarchy. Ignoring the rest of that hierarchy is a fundamental disservice to the film’s thematic intentions.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing - Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”
Another of Keating’s failures? Not only does he fail to challenge the “boy’s club” atmosphere of the school, he encourages it. (Why was language created? Keating’s answer: “To woo women.” Funny, but Archaic Greek poetess Sappho might disagree). And sure, this film is set in 1959, so you could argue some casual misogyny is period-accurate. But what of Knox Underwood, who seizes the day by stalking and sexually assaulting a cheerleader? Or Charlie, who manipulates, objectifies, and lies to women? You’d think a free-thinker like Keating would have discouraged that sort of thing. It’s all well and good to teach young boys that they don’t have to be like their fathers. But what of teaching them how to behave towards other people’s daughters? (Of course, I wasn’t the best feminist in 1989, when this film came out, either, though I had a good excuse: I was a one year old!).
Weep not that the world changes--did it keep a stable changeless state, ‘twere cause indeed to weep. - William Cullen Bryant, “Mutation”
If parts of Dead Poets Society haven’t aged well, there’s one thing that feels timeless: the poetry. A far cry from your high school classroom’s stilted reading of “J. Alfred Prufrock,” this is poetry as it should be. Passion drips from every iamb, in agony and ardor, in laughter and awe. Poetry is a declaration of truth and beauty. Poetry is testimony. By communing with poetry, the boys are declaring themselves, as well. Their meetings in the cave are a bold proclamation: we are here! We are alive! We are us! Poetry is life, and here, it is alive as well. An energy field created by all living things, that surrounds us, and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy togeth -- Wait, there I go with the Star Wars references again! What’s up with that? -- The point is, in Dead Poets Society, you can almost feel a gravitational wave of passion. Poetry is a force of nature and the boys are only tapping in.
Passion, however, can be double-sided. If Keating is Prometheus, the Fire-Bringer, it isn’t long before we’re reminded that fire doesn’t only illuminate; it can also burn. There’s a small moment in the film that I find very powerful. Mr. Perry, carefully aligning his slippers on the floor before getting into bed. In just the right spot for the morning, as he’s done every night for years. Director Peter Weir lingers on the slippers, as Mr. Perry tells his wife, “It’s alright. It’s going to be alright.” Meanwhile, in the next room, his son Neil is preparing to kill himself with an air of ritualistic certainty. He opens his window and stands shirtless in the winter air. He dons his Pagan headdress from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and moves barefoot through the house to find his father’s gun.
Mr. Perry is a difficult character to sympathize with but it’s not impossible. As he crushes his son’s dreams, he reveals his own truth: “You don’t understand, Neil,” he says. “You have opportunities that I never even dreamt of.” Adhering to the system has allowed Mr. Perry to give his son a better life. He can’t understand that “a better life” means something different for Neil, but Neil also can’t see that his father is acting out of love, the only way that he knows how. If you put the slippers in the same place every night, everything will be okay.
The conflict between romance and realism is at the heart of this film. To its credit, the film does not definitively choose a side. Consider the final scene. When you picture the “O Captain! My Captain” moment, is it the entire class on top of their desks that you see? That would be a solid Hollywood catharsis, but in fact, it’s only about half the class, which creates a more complex and powerful moment. You can’t do everything. But you can touch a few lives. And anything you do has two sides. As Keating himself puts it, “There’s a time for daring, and a time for caution.” Neil’s suicide has two sides, too. One side is romantic, and one is real. His death may appear to have been forged during his crucible of truth, but that’s not what suicide is. The impulse to tie suicide to broad existential themes is natural, but dangerous. Romanticizing mental health issues is a bad idea. Mental illness is treatable, but only if treatment is available and sought.
Nobody heard him, the dead man, but still he lay moaning: I was much further out than you thought and not waving but drowning. - Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning”
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve suffered profoundly from depression and mental health issues, but for whatever reason, I’ve never been suicidal. I’ve been close, but my brain has never thrown that lever. I don’t know why; but I’m very grateful for this fact. If it was not so, I might not still be here. While writing this piece, I suffered one of the more severe depressive episodes in my recent memory. If you’ve experienced depression, you don’t need me to describe how terrible it can be, so I won’t try. What I will share is some information.
The causes of depression are not well understood. That might be because there are so many coincidental factors involved. But research indicates that neurotransmitters and neural circuits play a significant role. Our perception of the world centers between memory and prediction. We use our memories of the past to form logical predictions about what might happen in the future. When you’re depressed, a logical path towards hope or happiness seems impossible or unattainable. That’s not because no such path exists; it’s because your brain literally won’t allow you to see it. It’s a trick, an illusion, a lie. Depression is lying to you.
Unfortunately, that knowledge only goes so far when depression is in control of your brain. That’s why it’s important to remember that help and treatment exist. During my recent episode, I mentioned to a friend something that I found frustrating about depression: its invisibility. If I were bleeding from a bear attack for example, it would make sense to those around me that I wasn’t exactly myself. “Wow, that looks like a pretty bad bear bite,” they’d say. “Let me help you stop the bleeding.” With depression, nobody can see the wound. “Exactly,” said my friend, “but YOU have to think of it the same way.” If I got attacked by a bear, would I go to the ER, or just try to tough it out? It wouldn’t even be a choice.
( If you’re suffering from depression you are not alone. Depression is lying to you. And help is available. If you need it, contact Dutchess County’s 24/7 Crisis Service. You can call or text, any time, day or night. )
As Dead Poets Society shows us, reality can be cruel to dreamers. That’s what makes them even more important to us all. So stick around, won’t you? We need you. Your life is already extraordinary.
Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land, And on the strangest sea; Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb of me.
- Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers”
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite often found in semi-aimless wander, Edward is pleased and honored to contribute this piece to the most excellent Story Screen.