Brain-Dead Movies Society:
"Dead Poets Society"

The 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society” stars Robin Williams as Professor Keating, an unconventional English teacher who challenges his students to question conventional ideas. When the teacher dares the kids to seize the day, they form a poets' group based on one that Keating founded ages ago. This sounds like an interesting concept. Too bad the film is not all it's cracked up to be. Roger Ebert, upon seeing the film, described it as “a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something,” and I am inclined to agree. “Dead Poets Society” tries so hard to tug at the heartstrings that it becomes manipulative and unrealistic in the process. Also, whoever wrote the script apparently never had a teenage son.

The movie is set in New England in a private school around the late 1950s, and obviously back then, schools were more strict and conservative. But the extent to which the movie overplays the newly formed group takes away from the credibility. Essentially, they gather together in a cave with only flashlights, and proceed to mainly read poetry. This is a group formed as a resurrection of part of Keating’s past -- in his school days, he formed the original Dead Poets Society. His students, thinking the Society a great idea, feel compelled to form their own. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on Keating having interaction with his students within the classroom, the story instead takes a nose-dive into quasi-male-bonding. The boys essentially dedicate the Society to three main goals: rebellion, smoking and reading poetry. And the poetry goal, as it turns out, is really just there as an effort to impress girls. This goes on to show some of the problems with having such a small-group, including the emergence of a dominant individual. There's one boy in the group whom nobody will stand up to until the very end.

"Dead Poets Society" as a whole has some problems developing both the plot and the characters. Keating comes across as flat, scripted and little more than an ineffective plot device. The film fails to make use of any modes of proof [logos, ethos, pathos], at least in the sense we'd expect. Many argue that, on an emotional level, the movie is a great, insightful, inspired piece of work. The truth of the matter, however, is that there is nothing to attract us or help us relate to the characters. Thirty students would never show an act of defiance or protest by standing on their desks in unison. Similarly, no one would ever shoot and kill himself upon being told [in this case, by his father] that he cannot pursue acting. The movie makes references to famous authors and quotes various little snippets of poetry, but none of it is used for any sort of meaning. The quotes and the references exist solely to act as catch-phrases and clichés, all for the sake of making the film sound intelligent -- which it certainly doesn't accomplish one way or the other.

Going back to some of the aspects of small-group communication, one of the movie's problems is the lack of development of any of the characters. Besides that, we never know if the language being spoken is meant to be understood in a connotative or denotative interpretation, leaving us all the more confused as to what the film's real message is. And if the students are so inspired by their professor's own actions and words, why do they proceed to make a melodramatic mockery of it in a dark cave? The movie makes no actual statement about its purpose for existence, other than the token "carpe diem." (Forget seizing the day; maybe someone should have seized some better writers, instead.)

The members of the Society are equally lost; the group fails not because of its purpose (or lack thereof), but because it doesn't know what to do with its self-given power. Obviously, the members claim to be there to go against the norm by founding norms of their own. "Down with the system," they say. They engage in groupthink as they attempt to actually rebel at the end, and they experience goal conflict when it's determined that various kids joined the group for varying reasons. Most of the boys' core reasons for being in the group, it's safe to say, is not to further an appreciation of literature. There's a lot of stereotyping going on: the heartless father (outside the group), the quiet, reserved boy who's too much of a pacifist to stand up for himself, the token girlfriend and her overbearing-jerk boyfriend, and of course, the unique-methodology teacher who is required by unwritten law to ultimately be fired from his job.

As a film, "Dead Poets Society" suffers the same flaw as the group: Neither knows how to handle the power when it is given to them. The film thinks it has something meaningful to say, presumably about individuality, but it's too caught up in its own pretentious intellectual facade. As for Keating's class, even in the end, when all the kids stand up against the headmaster for firing the professor, this action does not and will not invoke change. Knowledge without wisdom is like giving someone a loaded gun and not explaining what will happen if they pull the trigger.