This year marks the 30th anniversary of The Dead Poets Society which was one of the most iconic films to come out of the 1980's and certainly one of Robin Williams most memorable performances.
It had been awhile since I watched the film, but I did so recently because some of the themes explored in the movie are now front and center in my life as my middle son is set to graduate from high school this year from a school that is, like the fictional Welton Academy portrayed in the film, an all-boys college prep school.
Director Peter Weir masterfully juxtaposes the stifling and stodgy atmosphere at Welton Academy with an 80's version of a safe space in Mr. Keating's English class. Instead of the monotonous recitations of Mr. McAllister's Latin class, Mr. Keating actually takes the boys out of the classroom and has them read Robert Herrick's 17th century poem “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time.” It is there that he first stirs the imaginations of his students about the need to “gather ye rosebuds while you may” which he sums up in one of those classic cultural catchphrase, carpe diem, “seize the day!”
From that moment onward, Mr. Keating challenges the boys to think for themselves, to find their own voice, to be wary of conformity, to be stirred up by things, and most importantly telling them “that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
While movies like the Breakfast Club were brooding commentaries on the overindulged lives of yuppie-era teens and ones like Ferris Bueller's Day Off were just plain fun, The Dead Poet's Society pushed all the right emotional and inspirational buttons, particularly for the young men in the audience, in a way that seemed more elevated and noble than all the other coming of age films of the 80's. At least that's the way it seemed, 30 years ago.
Dead Poet's Society Does Not Age Well
The world however, has dramatically changed in those three decades and according to generational experts Neil Howe and William Strauss in their 1993 book 13th Gen, as demographic, the under-attended latch-key and prematurely affluent kids of Gen-X have settle into a more sober and somewhat sardonic mid-life mood. The generation best epitomized by an empty-headed character played by Keanu Reeves who thought that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife has matured into the temperament of yet another Reeves character and is just trying to “sort things out” through “Focus, commitment, and sheer will.” It is from this perspective, as well as from someone who loved the film for many years and actually took many of Mr. Keating's lessons to heart, that I am finally willing to admit that The Dead Poets Society was not all that it was cracked up to be.
Right from the get-go, the one aspect of the film that I think got lost in the translation in its initial viewing was how despite Mr. Keating having his students stand on his desk in order to “constantly look at things in a different way,” for the most part they spend the rest of the movie acting like the “lemmings” he warns them against being. They hide away in a literal “man-cave” and indulge in the same kind of decadent, salacious, and pointless activities that all teenagers engage in when left to their own devices in the 1950's, the 80's, or today. While this is obviously normal behavior in real life and a standard teen film trope in any era, from the point of view of the film's own lofty narrative of young men struggling to “find their own voice”, it fails to deliver.
Secondly, is how the portrayal of such likable young men that we could all relate to, is brilliantly contrasted with the antagonists played by two actors who epitomize the prototypical angry white male, Kurtwood Smith (Mr. Perry) and Norman Lloyd (Headmaster Nolan). This tension certainly played well to an audience raised on G.I. Joe, and After School Specials, as well as fitting nicely into the tail end of the 60's nostalgia craze of the 80's. Granted the film takes place in 1959, but the 60's counter-cultural mood permeates the storyline, as best seen as when it mocks Welton's four pillars, “Tradition, honor, discipline, excellence” as “travesty, horror, decadence, excrement.”
Nowadays though, in an era of dud dads like Peter Griffith or loveable buffoons like Raymond Barone, this sort of generational conflict comes across as annoyingly dated and even shocking. To say nothing of what the woke cancel culture would make of it.
Lacking a Point Behind It All
However, where I really think the light of The Dead Poets Society has, in my estimation, diminished the most, lies in the values that the film exalts. In the beginning of the film, Mr. Keating huddles the boys up and tells them, “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute, we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, business, law, and engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, and love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Really? Just those? In addition to completely ignoring Welton's four pillars, Mr. Keating's list is rather self-centered at its core and is bereft of any enduring values such as pursuing truth, knowledge, virtue, and dare I say, holiness. After all Welton Academy is shown to be at least nominally Christian. But nary a word is mentioned about those.
Now I fully understand that The Dead Poets Society was not made to veer off into the faith department, nevertheless even from a non-religious point of view, there is still one big gaping hole in Mr. Keating's reasons of why we stay alive. There is no notion of a telos—i.e. an end or point for which we are made.
In other words, what exactly is the point of pursuing all that “poetry, beauty, romance, and love”? To what end are all their hormone-fueled passions aimed at? Mr. Keating is a little vague on those details, and is in many ways he is as spiritually callow as the boys he is teaching, as is seen in one of the more interesting deleted scenes when he visits the cave after they leave the play. He just sits backs and regresses into his old ways as the boys and even Chris who accompanied Knox, carry on as before.
This then is why, even through the most nostalgic of lenses, I just can't watch The Dead Poets Society now with any sort of pleasure. Yes, Mr. Keating's words are inspiring and yes, his soccer-kicking quote-reading activity was moving, but without any reference to some objective moral order or goal, the film's lofty ideals come off as cheap self-help platitudes. Furthermore, in the real world, in the absence of any sort of deference to transcendent values like truth, goodness, and then beauty, it is too easy for all those human passions that Mr. Keating spoke so dreamily about, to become disordered.
Freedom and passion as an end in itself ultimately become self-serving and creates a life filled with, as Beatnik-wannabe Charlie Dalton blathered on with his saxophone, “Chaos screaming, chaos dreaming” which certainly has to do and be more to make a better life. Despite Mr. Keating's chiding Dalton over his prank that “sucking the marrow out of life, doesn't mean choking on the bone,” moral choking is precisely what the film unapologetically shows the boys doing. Knox Overstreet gets drunk and is punched at a party, Dalton strikes a fellow student and gets expelled, and of course Neil Perry who turns in on himself in the most tragic way and kills himself.
Which is of course followed by all the members of the club bearing false witness against Mr. Keating in order to save themselves. And while standing on their desk and saying “Oh captain my captain” may make for a great ending, in real life it would take more than a stirring bagpipe reel playing in the background to assuage the grim feelings they will carry with them for much of their lives over what they had done and experienced. That requires grace—which, once again, Mr. Keating didn't get around to.
All in all, I usually not a fan of remakes, especially when they are done in order to create a story more likeable to current sensibilities. I would say the same with The Dead Poets Society. Just leave it be. However, just like I once thought that the 70's show All in the Family should be remade based on the premise of a large homeschooling traditional Catholic family that has to take in their aging ex-hippie parents, I think there is a golden opportunity present to make a movie the fills in all the gaps present in The Dead Poets Society.
A movie that takes place in a school like the one my son attends, that also has four pillars- all-boys, college prep, military, and best of all a Catholic identity. A movie that extols a classical education, training in virtue, and sacrifice and service to others. Most importantly though, one that calls the boys not to some secret meetings in a pagan cave, but to open worship, study, and prayer in a church. A church that forms the basis for a life of faith that takes up the cross, with all the joy and hardships such a life entails, so as to take the light, life, and love of our Blessed Lord to the dark places of our culture and the world. That I would see.