Tuesday, September 26, 2006

WFAT - Dead Poet's Society

So, I'm starting a news series called WFAT - Worst Films of All Time. I'm going to tackle some of my least favorite films, and explain why they suck. Of course, it would be fair (and not at all compelling) to focus on camp films, teenybopper films, sequels etc... I'm looking for films that have made an impression, and that are truly the worst of the worst. Without any further adieu, here is my first entry, a review of Dead Poet's Society. Enjoy.

The opening sequence of Dead Poets Society features a wide shot of geese in a field. The toll of a church bell sends them into flight, as the camera sweeps across the landscape. It’s a pretty shot. We immediately see another set of geese. Another bell toll. The geese fly away. Huh. More geese, more bells. Is this a documentary about the hearing ability of birds? I believe there was some mention of Robin Williams. How does he factor into the story?

The scene is then repeated some 8 times, with each iteration creeping closer and closer to the line of parody. Dead Poet’s Society establishes a pretentious, maudlin tone before we ever hear a line of dialogue.

The film is about teenage boys who attend the Welton academy, an all-male boarding school in Vermont. It is the kind of school that only exists in the movies, where the headmaster talks about tradition being the more important than anything, as though any educator in the history of the world ever believed that tradition is a more important component to education than say, reading and mathematics.

So along comes Robin Williams to dash this straw man to pieces. Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher who acts a lot like Robin Williams, so you know he’s no ordinary English Teacher. He’s actually a mediocre English Teacher, insofar as the students learn little about reading, writing or literature. But he’s mediocre in incredibly zany ways! He rips the boring pages out of books, he has his students kick soccer balls, he imitates Marlon Brando’s Godfather (a curious decision in 1959). In other, words, he exhorts his students to live. He’s like Rodney Dangerfield with an advanced degree.

The students eat it up. Damn right it’s time to live. So they read Thoreau, or rather, skim Thoreau for the quotes that movie audiences will recognize. They decide to resurrect “The Dead Poet’s Society” a secret society founded by Keating when he himself was attended the Welton Academy. What does the society consist of? Apparently, playing saxophone and talking to girls.

Well, all this saxophone playing and female interaction raises the ire of the headmaster, who disapproves of hormones and reed instruments (and Thoreau, for some reason). Williams’ antics get him in hot water. This is among the first of the “Robin Williams’ whacky antics get him in hot water” genre, which has given us such cinematic gems as Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire.

The boiling points comes when Mr. Keating instructs his student (Ethan Hawke) to audition for a “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at another school, against the wishes of his parents, who do not think it appropriate for a student to dabble in such unseriousness as Shakespeare. His parents take action, Hawke kills himself, Keating gets blamed, and some redheaded kid gets punched in the face.

In real life, schools that pride themselves on tradition embrace kooky graduates who come back to teach. They encourage the eccentricity, and use it as a selling point to attract students, donors, national recognition. Mr. Keating (provided he could actually teach literature) would be given a corner office, and tenure until the age of 88.

However, plot dynamics require that the school fire him, so it does, which is fortunate for the film because it gives the students reason to stand on their desks again.

Dead Poet’s Society is a movie that must pretend as though it has something to say. My best teachers were the ones who demanded something of me. I respected them because they respected my gifts, but would not tolerate my laziness. They didn’t stand on chairs or whisper in my ear. They taught. Well.

The film quotes famous authors, but doesn’t care about them, likely because the screenwriters have never bothered to actually read them. Literature, then, becomes a plot device, instead of art. That this film inspires people is proof that one needn’t make a good film in order to inspire. In a world in which teachers are encouraged to embrace the latest insipid educational fad, movies such as this are not just shallow and manipulative, they are downright insulting.

The movie’s message seems to be that non-conformity is good. Walden and Thoreau were non-conformists, after all. But non-conformity for the sake of non-conformity is conceit. This is a conceited film, and it is one of the worst of all time.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Thom said...

The irony, of course is that non-conformity, for the mere sake of non-conformity least people to commit blatant acts of conformity. Look at goth kids.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Thom said...

Sorry..."LEADS people" not "least people".

I didn't really hate the film. But I notice it opened the floodgates for films about unconventional teachers who bring people "freedom" through popular dead writers/playwrites/etc.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous peter said...

I know you mentioned it, but Patch Adams has to end up on this list at some point.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Film Buff said...

I nominate Citizen Kane.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

Patch Adams will be among many Robin Williams appearances, I assure you.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for the record, The student who tried out for and made the play and then killed himself is actually Neil Perry played by one Robert Sean Leonard (not Hawke). If your going to do it do it right.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

I realized that after I posted it. This would be a good time to mention that none of the students written to have any differentiating qualities.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous b-nut said...

This kills me. It is funny and true. Nonetheless, DPS is still one of my favorite films of all time. It captures my unfulfilled idealistic boyhood dreams.

I somehow wish that I had a DPS when I was a kid. Life is often too much about rules and traditionally proper things.... Suck the marrow out of life! Carpe Diem! Geese! More Geese!

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Don't forget about the Christ symbolism when Neil killed himself. Stel-lar.

6:09 PM  

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