Year: 1989 | Rating:
I had been putting off watching Dead Poets Society for years at this point because every impression that I’ve gotten of this film made me believe that it would be a stuffy, cliché product of its time that would really, really not appeal to me. But it was recently selected as the latest entry in an online film club that I follow, and I had watched Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard in Tape (2001) just the day before, so I thought what the hell? I’ll give it a shot. After all, every once in a while a film comes along that completely defies my expectations, and I am a coming-of-age film junkie and an overall Robin Williams fan, so how bad could it really be? Well, now I have my answer.
As you’ve probably surmised from my rating already, I absolutely loathed this film, and not just for the reasons that I had avoided watching it for so long. It is stuffy, yes, and it is cliché, but it’s also contradictory to the themes of anti-conformity and free-thinking that it claims to exalt. I found my distaste stemming much from the same roots as my intense dislike of The Breakfast Club (1985), in that the film focuses on wealthy white kids with wealthy white kid problems, but holy shit, it’s so much worse here than in the former, so much so that I almost hate The Breakfast Club a little less now. At least in that film, we get a variety of issues that Gen X teens faced, even if they seem inconsequential and privileged by today’s standards.
In Dead Poets Society, we have nothing but the most privileged members of our society — the very boys who will grow up to be the men who work so tirelessly every day to maintain the status quo from which they benefit more than anyone else: future lawyers, politicians, bankers, CEOs — who will never truly want for anything in their lives going through their youthful dabbling in anti-conformity when we know, if we’re being honest with ourselves, that they will ultimately align perfectly with the path they have been assigned in life because it’s the path of least resistance, to a life in which even if they aren’t exactly “happy,” they will at least be well-fed, with a luxurious roof over their head, without the financial, political, or sociological worries that burden the classes beneath them in our society. Even the famous “O Captain, My Captain” scene has absolutely no power here, because what do we expect is going to happen after the credits finish rolling? Mr. Keating is going to leave, the boys are going to sit, and the lesson — and their lives — are going to continue as planned. Anti-conformity and free-thought only matter if you do something with them.
And where do these young, white, straight men learn these valuable lessons on the power of art to change the world and to think for themselves? From a wealthy white man who came from the same path they’re on, and from dead white, (mostly) straight men who wrote flowery words 100+ years ago. Sure, we get some beatnik imagery with the occasional bongo or saxophone, but there’s no mention of the pure, unadulterated rebellion of Burroughs and Ginsberg, or Davis and Coltrane, for that matter. This is made all the more egregious by the fact that the film takes place in 1959, when the beatniks and bebop jazz were at the height of their influences. There’s absolutely no indication at all of a world outside of the bubble of the wealthy, white establishment, in fact; I counted one person of color on-screen in the entire film, and he was a drum-playing extra in a high school marching band.
There are other problems that I had with this film, as well, namely that it is too long and the climatic event is contrived, emotionally manipulative and unearned, but really, this is simply the least rebellious film about rebellion that I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s undoubtedly a product of the Reagan-Bush era in which it was made, and today it plays as a completely tone-deaf bore that borders on offensive.
But, I finally got it out of the way and now I know, so I can stop speculating. Sometimes films end up being exactly what you expect them to be.
Runtime: 2 hr. 8 min.
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Gale Hansen, Josh Charles