Revisiting Dead Poets Society
So, at times I've loved this movie, and other times despised it, sometimes for different reasons, sometimes for the same. Long story short, I have struggled with the story it tells, and from whose perspective I should appreciate it--or not. In fact, this week's post was prompted by a gif I'd seen on twitter of the boys standing on their desks at the end of the film hailing Mr. Keating as he departs from the school. My first thought was, "Oh, that film." This thought was predicated on my previous viewing of the film, which was about a year or two into my own teaching career as an English and Theatre teacher at a high school. In fact, I found out as I was preparing to write this, that the screenplay writer, Tom Schulman, had built Mr. Keating out of two teachers he'd had--one a theatre teacher, the other an English Literature teacher. The other thing I discovered is that while the movie feels like a novel adaptation, it is not. There is a novelization based on the film though.
Dead Poets Society always seems to be on TV at some point or another. I never stop to watch it though. I don't tend to watch movies when they're interrupted by commercials, or if I pick them up halfway through. There have been three different occasions when I've watched the movie from start to finish. The first was when I was a high school student. At that time, I actively liked the movie, and was particularly interested in Robin Williams. He'd been a favorite of mine since Mork & Mindy, and to see that side of him as an actor was amazing. As for the kids in the school, I didn't relate to any of them as a student, which is probably because I was not interested in my schooling at that point in my life.
The second time I watched it was when I was still wet behind the ears as a teacher. At that viewing, I saw Keating baiting the kids into rebellion, fostering it, putting kids in vulnerable situations in front of their peers, and in general setting them up for an inevitable fall. And, after that viewing, you could have just forgotten about getting me started on best practices. Oddly, even in that very puritanical viewing of the movie though, I didn't blame Keating for Neil's death.
The third time, was a few days ago. I had come into the idea of writing this post, because I was curious what a viewing of the movie, twelve years after the start of my education career would do to my opinions. Interestingly enough, I let up on my pedagogical concerns, and took a look at the students in the film. First of all, this was set in 1950's New England at a prestigious private Preparatory School. Living in our current environment with its conversations around race, privilege, and masculinity, I actively opened my mind to what I was seeing given my current context.
On the one hand, I was seeing young men learning to take chances and follow their hearts and dreams despite the obstacles. On the other hand, I was also seeing young men learning to get what they want no matter the cost. Same lesson perhaps, but different shading. The halls of the fictional Welton are the very halls of white privilege. The students would go on to ivy league colleges, and with their careers, they would then be in positions of power and wealth. Does their poetry instruction bestow them with the capacity to open their hearts and minds charitably, or does it rather teach them that poetry is a means to an end in a capitalist society--for example: "wooing women?"
Overall, I was left with more questions than ever. For me that's a good thing. And by considering the context of the movie, I was able to consider some things I hadn't before. The idea of masculinity for example. It's writ large in this film. And, I'm glad I revisited Dead Poets Society even though I came to the idea of this post from a completely different angle. More than anything, it was good to see Robin Williams onscreen again. He brings a sort of bold vulnerability to that role, which is transformative to the spirit of the movie.