One of my favorite films growing up was the classic coming of age tale "Dead Poets Society". It was one of those films that as a young man you could relate to even if you yourself weren't attending an exclusive all-male boarding school. To this very day I enjoy watching it if only for the excellent cinematography and Robin Williams' sterling performance as the engaging literature teacher named John Keating. Yet in spite of all of these positive attributes and the overarching romantic vibe, there is also something in it which, in a quite remarkable way, embodies the mistake of romanticism.
Romanticism is a literary movement that began in the late 18th Century and ran until the end of the 19th century. It is characterized by an almost primitivistic attempt to restore man via emotion and imagination to his original innocence. The romantic poet wanted man to return to a tabula rasa-like state, whereby man, unconstrained by the framework of modern categories, could finally see reality again with a fresh pair of eyes. For many romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth it was also a movement which began as a direct response to the Industrial Revolution. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with embracing nature and opposing a vision of society which seeks to mechanize everything; the mistake that the romantic makes is that he seeks to do this using rather dubious methods.
As it relates to the film itself, John Keating represents the type of teacher of which most students dream. He seems to be a bit unpredictable and "out of the box", and better still, he incorporates humor into his lesson plans, all the while maintaining high academic standards. In one of the early scenes, Keating tells his students to tear out the pages of the introduction to their literature book. He tells them to do this because the textbooks suggest that you can actually grade and/or measure poetry, which is an abomination from his point of view: "We're not laying pipe! We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? 'I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can't dance to it!' " When the students realize he's not joking, most of them begin to tear the pages out enthusiastically. During this tearing frenzy, another teacher hears the noise and comes in the room demanding that they stop. At first he doesn't realize that Keating is already there, presuming that this is student led chaos. However, once he sees that Keating is in fact in the room, he quizzically backs out apologizing for his intrusion. Later, when both teachers are seated at lunch, he questions Keating's teaching methods, calling them interesting, though terribly misguided. He then goes on to point out that Keating is taking a big risk encouraging young men to be artists when few, if any, will succeed at this endeavor. Keating responds by explaining that he is not so much teaching them to be artists, as teaching them to be "freethinkers." The other teacher then laughs, and says rhetorically; "Free thinkers at seventeen John? Oh come on!"
In another scene Keating takes the men down the hall and shows them photographs of former students. The pictures are all in black and white and as the boys stare at these haunting photos, Keating stands behind them and whispers in a ghastly voice; "Carpe Diem. Seize the day." His point is- as he soon indicates to the students- that they too are "worm food," and that they had better take full advantage of the time given to them, lest they fail to leave a proper legacy.
On a superficial level, who could disagree with any of these premises? For example, does anyone really want to stand on the side of that cynical faculty member who thinks of the students as little more than a kind of receptacle for information- incapable of any real independent thought? And how could anyone dispute that boys of this age should be passionate about their lives and look to leave a lasting impression on the world? Hence, the message of this film is not only appealing on an aesthetic level, but also on a practical one as well. After all, who could object to the notion that young men should contemplate the meaning of their existence? Yet therein lies the perfect Hollywood deceit. It is like a beautiful car without an engine, or a bike without a bike chain. If something looks beautiful and has the whiff of something profound, then it must be. Dead Poets Society is so near the truth, that any teacher (including myself) could use a great deal of the movie as a perfect model for his students. It is the worst type of deception because it forcefully represents all of the beauty of romanticism, while feigning complete ignorance about the dangers.
The epitome of this self-deception occurs when Neil, one of Keating's students, inspired by his professor's romantic vision of life, looks to try out for the Shakespearean play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nevertheless, there is one major problem with him pursuing this role; his father sees this as a distraction and a utter waste of time. The father is a typical Hollywood straw man, a robotic, one-dimensional character who envisions his son being a doctor and will not countenance anything else. The mother is a virtual doormat who doesn't have the courage to question anything her dictatorial husband decrees. And of course all of this makes Neil's predicament even more sympathetic. For though he wants with all his heart to be in the play, he knows his father will oppose him. And indeed, he is right on this account. When he asks his father's permission to be in the play, the father rejects him outright. Consequently, Neil approaches Keating for advice on the matter, and Keating tells him to go to his father and tell him exactly how he feels, assuring him that that will convince him. Unable to muster enough courage to do that, Neil opts instead to disobey his father and act in the play anyway. In the end the father finds this out and shows up to watch the performance from the back of theatre. At first, the audience is led to believe that the father may be swayed by his son's exceptional performance, but as the play concludes, the father swoops in to extricate him from all of the accolades he is bound to receive. Indignant by his son's blatant disobedience, he shuttles Neil through the crowd past Keating and his friends, declaring that Neil will be attending a military school, which, from a Hollywood standpoint, is probably the academic equivalent of the ninth circle of hell. As the car pulls away, the camera focuses on Keating's face who looks at the departing vehicle with an expression of complete bewilderment and helplessness.
When Neil and his parents arrive back at home, the father digs in his heels lambasting him for his insolence and ingratitude. While all of this is going on the mother just stares vacantly into space. And as Neil attempts to make one final defense of his cause, the father abruptly shouts him down, provoking Neil to impotently recoil into silence once again. Later that night, the father awakes with a start only to find that his son has presumably shot himself to death.
And yet as charismatic as Keating is, he offers little rationale for encouraging his students to "seize the day". His reasons are purely sentimental. We should because... well... it's great and romantic and because we are all going to be "worm food" anyway. But is "passion" the only thing that is necessary in life? Terrorists are very passionate about their cause. Mobs tend to be full of "feelings". On the contrary, passion completely freed from its intellectual constraints is little more than an invitation to moral anarchy. "Memento mori" is a fine directive, but why should we remember our mortality? From the Christian perspective, we remember it because, yes, we need to leave our mark on life. But more importantly, we remember it because we will need to live with that "mark" for rest of eternity.
From the perspective of the director, Neil has been placed in an untenable situation by a father who is asphyxiating his creative energy. The audience can't help but to feel disdain for the father's utterly stifling ways. Even so, is the father really the only one to blame for the suicide? Indeed, the movie never once considers Neil's part in this, or even Keating's (he is subsequently fired, but the movie implies that there is an injustice in all this). OK, the father is a jerk, perhaps even worthy of our contempt, but could not Neil have waited his father out? Could he not have decided to put up with his father's nonsense a little while longer, and then "elope" into whatever life or profession he chose? No. What he chose to do instead is quite the opposite of honorable or romantic. He decides that his dad will never listen to him; and thus he has no other option but to take his life. But he doesn't just take his life, mind you, before he dies he puts on what appears to be a crown of thorns (it is in truth Puck's crown). He does this just so everyone can remember what a victim he really is. Great message! If at first you don't succeed, kill yourself. Jesus never put a gun to his head, claiming that he would commit suicide in order to save mankind- yet that is what this scene curiously implies. This is not the spirit of the true romanticism, but rather the spirit of Veruca Salt.
The night of the performance, as Neil's father shuttles him away, Robin Williams' face tells you everything you need to know about naiveté of romanticism. In all of the time he spent selling the young students on passion and poetry, never once does he teach them about the virtue and value of order and structure. Instead he tells them in essence that there are no boundaries, and then acts surprised when one of his students goes off the rails. Humans, especially teenagers, are naturally romantic; they don't need someone to tell them to be passionate. What they need is for someone to show them how to harness their passion. The ultimate mistake of the film is not that it criticizes the father's "realism", or even the traditions of the all male boarding school- the problem is it fails to see its own part in Neil's miserable demise. Indeed, both views are contributing factors in his death because both views have falsely pitted themselves against one another (like a head going to war with a heart). Thus, realism without romance is as cold and dispassionate as the father on the night of play, and romance without realism is a crown of thorns on the head of a boy who strategically lodges a bullet in his brain.