On Rewatching Halt and Catch Fire 1-6
Christopher Cantwell, co-creator of Halt and Catch Fire (and long-time Bright Wall/Dark Room contributor), discusses the discussion around his show—its lead, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the difficult decisions that go on in the writer’s room around anti-heroes and “petting the dog”—and makes the case for why people should give the show a chance to tell its full story before rushing to judgement.
(His wife Elizabeth lays out a similar case, elegantly, here).
So let’s discuss Halt and Catch Fire! The seventh episode airs tonight on AMC - are you watching? Have you been watching? If not, WHY AREN’T YOU WATCHING? Let’s keep this thing going!
Since the show’s premiere, I’ve been fairly good about avoiding all discussion about the show. Fairly good. It takes an insane amount of willpower and I fail constantly, and Elizabeth just goes and looks at stuff anyway and then I find out what people are saying for better or worse. There are days where I’ve felt positive, and days where I’ve been so depressed I’ve felt physically ill. It is what it is; it’s my first time on this roller coaster and I’ve found myself ready for neither praising high-fives nor the blindsiding gut-punches that come frequently and often simultaneously.
But I’m very glad Elizabeth saw this post, because Melissa is so right! It was tremendous to read a thoughtful criticism like this (and I’m amazed Melissa actually re-watched the previous five episodes, too).
One particular I was immediately struck by in her writing: “save the cat.” That is the HEART of the issue with Joe MacMillan, and has been from the very beginning. The only difference is, in our writer’s room, we call it “petting the dog.” We really do! And we—along with our fellow writers, our showrunner, our producers, the network, Lee—have been discussing at length for going on three-and-a-half years now precisely when to let Joe MacMillan “pet the dog.”
Joe MacMillan! Man. He is a tough one. Rogers and I created him in a small windowless office in January 2011, admittedly without the forethought or audacity to believe he would ever traverse past a sample pilot episode on paper. But lo and behold, we’ve had the good fortune to be able to tell his longer story.
An admission: there were multiple (multiple) drafts of the pilot developed with the network and Gran Via where we attempted to humanize Joe more from the get-go. Juan Campanella, the director of the pilot, is an ambassador of warmth and beautiful human nature and one reason we brought him in was precisely to help figure out Joe (aside from being a brilliant director, Juan is also a brilliant writer).
But it was exceptionally challenging. Joe’s human underpinnings are so difficult to reveal in the right way. Too much in one direction, the character loses spark and magnetism, all bark, no bite. Too much the other, he risks being cold and opaque and sociopathic. Writing him is a constant tightrope walk.
Another admission: Joe’s stories were ALWAYS the hardest to break in the writers room. Every single time. For the exact reason I stated above. ”Okay, what about Joe?” Dead silence. But because of that struggle, we often found discoveries about him to be all the more rewarding.
Ultimately, we made a choice: we barely refrained from showing that Joe was even remotely capable of petting any dog for the first five episodes. 42 minutes x 5 = WHOA. Half the season! Was it the right move? I don’t know! I know it asks a lot, maybe too much, but I also feel like that’s what makes the reveal he’s human so much more gratifying. If we had immediately cracked through his mask right out of the gate, I just don’t know if it would have had the same impact. The mask would have been flimsy, had no real purpose except to be dropped. Maybe we just couldn’t figure out the right way to do it. But for me, the mask needed to be stronger, needed a sledgehammer to even crack it, which is why the last scene of episode 105 is my favorite of the season, because to me it is The Beginning of Human Joe. It’s an arrival.
I will say that Lee Pace has definitely informed how this character is written. He is such a thoughtful and powerful human being that I feel there is no way his portrayal of Joe could ever be 100% emotionally dead, even when the character is at his worst. I think there are other actors who would’ve done things Joe did this season and people would’ve gone “FUCK YOU NO!” (I guess people have already done that, but…). With Lee, we knew we could challenge ourselves and see how far we could push the character, because the actor’s humanity would anchor us. Now, I’m not saying we wanted to see what we could get away with, but… I hope we haven’t pushed him too far. Joe is still going to do terrible things. That is part of his makeup. But there is also much more person to be revealed in there. Ideally, I’d love to spend an entire series completely stripping the character down to his essentials. We often talked about how Season 1 in many ways is really about the “reverse engineering” of Joe MacMillan himself. The same is true for all the other lead characters as well.
In fact, THAT is the part of Joe’s character that excites me the most. I don’t think any of us are interested in maintaining an anti-hero for very long, really. For one, we’ve seen that executed very well already, and two, the character (and audience) deserves more.
We want to get to human Joe, we just want to EARN it, and make it HARD for him to get there. It’s tricky, right?
One important distinction, at least in my head, is that Joe isn’t interested necessarily in classic financial gain or absolute power. The thing that I cling to when writing Joe is that he BELIEVES in what he’s doing. Genuinely. He believes he’s right. He wants to do this with all his heart, and he’ll do anything to make his dream a reality. Literally, anything. And it’s made him this train-wreck of a person. And to me, there’s a kind of wonderful innocence in that.
I love the way Lee approaches Joe, because no matter what scenario we throw at him, Lee is able to justify Joe’s actions in his mind as the right and necessary thing to do. He justifies the mask, the suit, the identity, the behavior as a means to an end for his vision. But he could be wrong, and he very well may be proven so.
This coming Sunday’s episode is a good one I believe, but my stomach is already in knots over it. Because I’m already asking myself “did we reveal too much of Joe this time? Is it not enough? Did we pull back? Did we push him over the edge?” The truth is, there’s no real answer. That’s what makes the character fascinating to me. He’s elusive and can’t be pinned down. Too much sunlight and he wilts, too much shadow and he risks being an empty phantom and a caricature.
Anyway. Thank you, Melissa! Today you made me like the internet.
I do love this show and think it’s fascinating, but I also think it has issues and one of them just might be that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good. This becomes especially apparent when you go back and watch all the episodes back-to-back and get a better feel for character arcs than watching one episode a week.
So this is partly about Stuff I Noticed This Time Around and a response to this sweet, impassioned plea from the wife of one of the show’s creators. This is going to be another long one, I suspect. More under the cut.
Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
C’MON, GILBERT, LET’S GO TO COLLEGE
by Christopher Cantwell
On the vinyl soundtrack for Revenge of the Nerds (which I got from Amoeba for $1), they laid in fart sounds during the refrain of the title track: “Revenge of the Nerds! (fart), Revenge of the Nerds! (fart).” The fart sounds are not in the movie version of the song.
I think this explains Revenge of the Nerds perfectly, so if you’re busy, it’s okay to stop reading now.
Revenge of the Nerds was probably pitched through a mouthful of Waldorf salad in Beverly Hills. “Nerds get the drop on the jocks—” SOLD! The word screamed as a fork is jammed into a studio VP’s eye.
Doesn’t it seem like this premise was grown on a fruit tree in a development executive’s Beverly Glen Canyon backyard? From the title alone, it’s clear the idea for this movie was outlined like some kind of parking space that the writers, directors, cast, and crew all proceeded to back into, with a moving van full of a bunch of random crap.
Revenge of the Nerds is one of those titles that tells you EXACTLY what the movie is. Hotel for Dogs also comes to mind. THIS IS WHAT THIS IS. IT’S A HOTEL FOR DOGS. THESE NERDS GET REVENGE. It’s a great title. As a matter of fact, the whole movie is pretty great. It actually holds up some 29 years later, whereas most other movies in this genre (and decade) now seem a little stale and/or dated. But Revenge of the Nerds is still funny, still tight—and still pretty good overall.
However, there are several caveats to this statement:
1) This was probably a complete accident.
2) Most good studio films are accidents.
3) This movie could have easily been terrible.
4) This movie probably should’ve been terrible.
This is how I imagine the writing session went for Revenge of the Nerds (note: the writers had to be a good 15 to 20 to 25 years older than the characters the movie portrays. I might be wrong about this, but watch the movie. How old do you think the writers were?):
“Okay, who are the nerds in the movie?”
“Well, we have to have a group of nerds.”
“We should have every kind of nerd.”
“Yeah! Because ‘Nerds’ is plural in the title.”
“Okay, so a lot of them have to wear glasses.”
“Yeah, the nerds I knew at William and Mary in the 60’s wore glasses.”
“So we should have guys who like computers.”
“They ALL like computers.”
“Yeah, and robots and shit.”
“Okay, so there are guys that like computers. And then like a boy genius kid. You know, that kid you hated in school because he was really smart and skipped a couple of grades?”
“I skipped a couple of grades.”
“Just kidding, guys!”
“Okay, and then a foreigner. Because I hate foreigners.”
“Like an exchange student.”
“Yeah, like a Japanese guy.”
“Japanese guys like computers. Perfect.”
“We should have a pervert. Like a gross disgusting guy who is a pervert.”
“JESUS, I love it!”
“What about a guy with glasses?”
“We already have guys with glasses.”
“Sure, but like really THICK glasses. Like he’s blind. Like he’s almost handicapped. And he’s scared of everything, especially women. When he sees a woman, he has an orgasm in his pants.”
“What about female nerds?”
“What kind of nerds are female?”
Said simultaneously: “Fat girls.” “Ugly girls.”
“Okay, I’m gonna write down ‘fat ugly girls.’”
“Yeah, which is why the pervert guy loves them. Because they put out.”
“To make up for it.”
“What about a gay guy? They’re weird.”
“What about a black guy?”
“I’ve got it. A gay black guy.”
At this point, director Jeff Kanew likely came into the room and hit a high operatic note while brandishing a deadly erection.
Conversely, the writing session for the cool kids probably went something like this:
“Okay, who are the cool kids?”
Said simultaneously: “Football players.” “Cheerleaders.”
“Great, let’s go get some more pizza / cocaine.”
I think the writers of this movie had zero experience with any kind of group of human beings, including football players and cheerleaders. Every group in the movie is shown as “an other.” The only person you even come close to identifying with is Gilbert Lowe (Anthony Edwards), because his only flaw is that he’s meek. We’ve all been meek at some point in our lives.
Speaking of “the other,” let’s talk about this movie’s REALLY uncomfortable racial allegory. The nerds are so uncool that they’re forced to join the black fraternity. That’s a real plot point.
“So the nerds need to become cool somehow so they can compete with the jocks.”
“Well, the only way to be cool in college is to join a fraternity.”
“No frat is gonna take a bunch of nerds. SAE’s William and Mary chapter certainly wouldn’t have taken them in the 60’s.”
“Is there a fraternity made up of marginalized people?”
“A black fraternity.”
“HIGH FIVE! Let’s get more pizza / cocaine.”
I can’t decide if the allegory is offensive or smart. I think it’s… both? Remember, the jocks put a burning wooden sign outside the nerds house that says “NERDS.” It’s not a cross, but… they also throw a rock through the window. It says, “Nerds Go Home.” It plays like a deleted scene from In the Heat of the Night.
Smart: Their black fraternity brothers come to defend the nerds at the end of the movie.
Offensive: As the fraternity brothers walk out, funk guitar music plays.
Smart: U.N. Jefferson, head of Lambda Lambda Lambda, is shown to be clear-thinking and accepting of the nerds.
Offensive: Lewis plays “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” so that U.N. will have more fun at a party.
Offensive: Even if the black frat members are shown more realistically, Takashi, the Japanese exchange student, is… I don’t know, just watch this.
By the way, Ted McGinley looks 35 in this movie.
So what makes Revenge of the Nerds so good? What makes it stand the test of time?
1.) John Goodman.
2.) Robert Carradine.
3.) This scene.
That scene is the best thing Jeff Kanew has ever directed. I don’t mean it as a slight; that scene will be remembered forever. I hope the second unit guy didn’t do it, because Jeff Kanew may as well have become a Star Wars blue ghost after filming this.
I could add a number 4 and explain why the editing makes this film good, but that would get really boring really fast. It boils down to: Cut on joke. Cut on screaming. Cut on fall. Cut on boob. Do not cut on John Goodman.
They tried to remake Revenge of the Nerds in 2006 but they shut it down after something like two weeks of production. The dailies were that bad. But I feel like its development process was likely no different than that of the original. It just happened to go the other way, and turned out not good instead of good.
You could make the argument that we’re too PC in our culture today and that’s why the reboot failed, but the original Revenge of the Nerds is empirically and audaciously offensive, even for 1984. The movie successfully offends the following:
- Nerds (see “the people who made the Internet,” “the people reading this”)
- African Americans
- Alumni boosters
- James Cromwell’s career
These offenses are unmitigated. Some of this lends to the movie’s fun. I watch it and I can’t believe what they get away with. I can’t believe Timothy Busfield is Poindexter.
This movie has become deeply ingrained in my subconscious. It was the first time I saw full-frontal nudity. By the way, the full-frontal nudity in this movie is some of the creepiest full-frontal nudity I’ve ever seen.
Jeff Kanew, drinking a glass of blood: “THERE’S NOT ENOUGH BREASTS.”
Unit Production Manager: “There are 24 breasts in a minute and a half.”
Jeff Kanew, in the midst of French kissing a Fox studio exec high on meth: “MAKE HER TAKE HER PANTIES OFF.”
Revenge of the Nerds continues to sit there, at the forefront of my subconscious, daily. When I first showed up to USC on move-in day back in 2000, the campus looked just like Adams College (turns out Adams College is actually University of Arizona). So college for me, at least in color and texture, looked basically like Revenge of the Nerds. The only thing that was missing was creepy full-frontal nudity on a closed-circuit television.
And, as a student in film school, I’ll admit that the movie and its sequel heavily influenced any early aesthetic I might have had. Here is proof—a scene from a short I did in college: http://vimeo.com/28844050. The plot of that short? A nerdy student builds a time machine to go back to 1965 and sleep with his then-young college professor BEFORE she meets her husband, who in the present day is MIA in Vietnam.
It’s a classic piece of filmmaking.
Underdogs trigger something chemically in our brain. Bullies do as well. We will root for underdogs—no matter how ridiculous they are—in the face of a bad enough bully. Because watching an idiotic buffoon triumph over a bully is even better than watching a normal person triumph over a bully. The loss of dignity the bully endures is enormous, which makes revenge that much sweeter.
BILL MURRAY WEEK: Scrooged (1988)
IN PRAISE OF FRANK CROSS.
by Christopher Cantwell
I have a bone to pick with Scrooged. The movie pretty much came and went in 1988, but because of its seasonal connection reappears every year on cable. This is not a bad thing. The film is exceptionally fun. That is, until Bill Murray becomes a nice guy.
Scrooged troubles me. The film is scary, and dark. But that’s not what troubles me. It troubles me that I’m so in love with Frank Cross. Let me be clear, however; I am not in love with the happy, dopey Frank Cross who appears at the end of the movie. I am in love with the awe-inspiring asshole Francis Xavier Cross from the beginning of the film, the Frank Cross that bashes his way through the entire movie until he’s converted in a last minute come-to-Jesus that takes place during a live cremation scene, a scene which still scares the crap out of me.
Now, one can argue that a true telling of this Dickens tale needs to be scary and dark in order to work—Ebenezer must truly face the horrors of what may come should he continue in his ways. Scrooged has no lack of horrors. Up until I saw this movie, the only Christmas Carol I’d seen was Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which is very different. Goofy, in the Jacob Marley role, does not hold Uncle Scrooge out of a skyscraper window by the neck. Uncle Scrooge does not pull the rotting flesh off of Goofy’s arm in a desperate attempt to live just as the bone gives way like wet wood and sends the poor duck plummeting to his death. But we get this gruesome sequence in Scrooged when Frank Cross confronts the corpse of his old boss Lew Hayward. Oh, and did I mention there’s a mouse in Lew’s skull?
The movie is chock full of frightening imagery. An eyeball in a cocktail. A flaming waiter. A frozen body. Foreboding creatures trapped in a ghost’s ribcage. Futuristic psych wards with crooked floors. Carol Kane. These trappings have enough ingredients to scare Frank Cross into being a nicer, better person. But in the end, Scrooged is different from other Christmas Carol retellings, because even the scary parts are funny. And the movie is never funnier than when Frank Cross is at his meanest.
The movie has a caustic wit. The script was penned by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, the latter of whom worked as the first head writer of SNL. It’s rumored O’Donoghue based Frank Cross on his old boss Fred Silverman, former network president of NBC. Maybe this is why Frank Cross is so enjoyable to watch. Shouting. Sending towels as holiday gifts. Burping. Tearing apart children’s Christmas drawings.
But he becomes less fun to watch the more his heart thaws. This is where Scrooged fails as a Scrooge story, even if it succeeds on nearly every other level. I like watching Frank Cross more at the beginning than I do at the end. I want him to go back to being a jerk again. It’s more fun.
It’s my best guess that the way Scrooged flatlines into a cast sing-a-long can only be the fault of bad rewrites. The gold of the movie likely comes from remnants of O’Donoghue and Glazer’s script, as well as Bill Murray’s manically mean comic performance (the movie is neutrally directed by Richard Donner as if he is neatly packing an expensive suitcase). Murray’s Frank Cross comes off as more intelligent and complex than everyone around him: Robert Mitchum’s eccentric yet moronic network mogul, Bobcat Goldthwait’s pathetic studio exec, John Glover’s LA scumbag, Alfre Woodard’s down-on-her-luck secretary, Karen Allen’s blithe do-gooder ex-girlfriend. Granted, these character performances are almost as much fun to quote as Frank Cross. Well, mostly just Glover as Brice Cummings—“I’m gonna dine out on this for months.”
Of course Frank is a bastard. He’s a bastard because everybody else seems fairly dumb: from the TV crew, to the network censor, to the homeless people who think he’s Richard Burton. No wonder Frank has a sign in his office that reads “Cross (n.) – a thing you nail people to.” No wonder he’s elated when his TV ad gives an old woman a heart attack.
Yes, Frank’s way is the wrong way to live one’s life. This is why we laugh when Frank goes haywire, suffers a few spectacular falls, and gets his ass kicked by a fairy. But I still don’t want Frank to change. His brother, the one who loves Christmas, is a total dope (ironically, he’s portrayed by Bill Murray’s actual brother, John Murray).
For me, the saddest part of the movie is when Frank interrupts the live TV broadcast at the end. It’s ten, maybe fifteen minutes of Bill Murray riffing desperately as the movie sinks into an egg nog coma. I understand Frank Cross destroying the TV special that he’s sold his very soul to produce. What I don’t understand is how the movie makes this look like a great career move. Frank’s stunt somehow gets his boss to dance with his wife in the living room of their mansion. No.
By the last scene, Frank has joined the land of the dopes. He’s happier, maybe, but to me, he’s missing something. The final shot we see in the film is Frank’s dopey brother James, watching him on television. “My brother, the king of Christmas!” James says.
Eh. It’s at this point that I rewind the film, just to watch Frank shout “THAT ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH!”
BILL MURRAY WEEK: Quick Change (1990)
HE WAS ON A BLUFTONI: Brief Thoughts on Bill Murray’s Only Directing Credit
by Christopher Cantwell
The bicycle jousting scene: a seeming non sequitur. The bank robbers we’re following are lost. They decide to ask for directions.
They happen upon an entirely different movie taking place. Two shirtless Latino men joust on bicycles, using common gardening tools as lances. It’s not played for laughs—it’s played straight. The score changes to Spanish guitar. Mournful “canto”-style singing. The men duel. One man catches a garden hoe to the throat… was he killed? We never know. He’s down off his bike in an instant. Then we cut to the cynical face of a woman, impassively watching and smoking in a lawn chair. A barefoot child in ragged clothes rings a church bell. The local Catholic padre inadvertently catches the handlebars of the slain jouster’s runaway bike, then violently tosses them away.
“IT’S BAD LUCK JUST SEEIN’ A THING LIKE THAT,” Randy Quaid’s character Loomis shouts next, desperate, sweating, doing a three-point turn getaway out of the bad neighborhood street.
Believe it or not, Quick Change is a comedy starring (and co-directed by) Bill Murray, and clocks in at around 90 minutes.
The premise is interesting, thought-provoking, a light soufflé: New York City (as a stand-in for Western civilized society) is fucking awful—so terrible, in fact, that it may be impossible to escape. Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid rob a bank in order to have a better life outside of New York City. They perfectly escape the bank, but barely make it out of the city alive. What have these years of human self-degradation and close proximity wrought? How did we get here? How do we get out, or will we be forced to watch our own slow-motion self-destruction, completely powerless? A laugh-a-minute.
(I won’t ruin the bank robbery. It’s brilliant.)
I don’t meant to make Quick Change sound heady. It’s really funny, really quotable, some of the most memorable dialogue I’ve ever heard. The main thrust of the story is great; the “will they or won’t they escape” plays fast and hard until the very last moment. But it does ask these questions. It looks at life. Many times it says, “This is stupid.” Most people didn’t see it when it was released in 1990. Most people will become generally uncomfortable when confronted like this. We find ourselves saying “Wait a minute, I like (my) life. (My) life is great.”
Quick Change grabs you by the hair and forces you to look at a collective reflection in an oil puddle in the street. It shows you the freaks that surround you. It shows you that you are a freak. It is theater of the absurd, in the grand style of Ionesco and Albee (<—— what asshole would ever write a sentence like this? Likely some freak). I watch Quick Change and I laugh at its horror. I’m laughing and I’m thinking, “Jesus, yeah, this is so unflinchingly accurate and the world is often so broken and weird and a lie.”
The best illustrations come in the side scenes, the vignettes.
Phil Hartman shows up and pulls a gun on the bank robbers when he finds them in his new apartment, which used to be Geena Davis’ apartment (her keys still work… because of course landlords are lazy and cheap and don’t change locks quickly). Hartman is already on edge—these people are fucking up his already fucked-up yuppie midlife crisis. He and his wife have been “ripped off in the Village” three times already. He rented this new place in a mad dash for hope. He bought a gun. Bill Murray discovers Hartman used to be a hippie. A hippie who says, “for your information, I was at Woodstock.” And now the hippie has a gun and he’s ready to pull it on anyone who interrupts his desperate search for some peace of mind amidst the lie he discovered in the seventies and bought into in the eighties. Hartman is a man on a ledge ready to kill strangers and he’s only in one scene in the movie.
Bill Murray’s character Grimm is our lens. He experiences these things, is in the midst of trying to reject them. He worries he’s part of them. After all, he just robbed a bank dressed as a clown. What’s more freakish than that? He’s an existential terrorist just like every other citizen in NYC. But he wants out. That’s why he stole all that money. It’s not greed; he’s frantically looking for the door. This is a character who pauses from fleeing a bank robbery to mourn the tearing down of old buildings. In his former job, he worked in city planning. He’s realized a city can’t be planned. Only robbed. And daringly escaped. That is the best it can provide.
Jason Robards, the embittered cop after Bill Murray, pauses from pursuing a bank robber toalso mourn the tearing down of old buildings. Any noble man with a decent compass seems completely lost in this film.
“THIS ISN’T MY NORMAL ROUTE, MY HUSBAND’S IN INTENSIVE CARE,” a woman shouts to Randy Quaid and Geena Davis on a bus in the middle of the night. That’s her only line, and its delivered with bawdy volume, with hints of shame. She’s saying to these strangers, “Don’t judge me for being part of this system. It’s not my choice.” This system that has ruined her mind. A few seats over on the bus, a woman shaves a man’s head.
And then there is Tony Shalhoub. He is the heart of this story. He is the thesis statement. He is a friendly cab driver, an innocent, probably the best-intentioned character to appear throughout the film. But he’s also cursed, because he is ultimately a manifestation of this absurd and fractured world. All he needs to do is drive the bank robbers to the airport. They’ve made it. But he doesn’t speak English. He keeps asking some foreign version of “Where to?” No matter how hard they try, the robbers cannot communicate to him that they must get to the airport—now—if they have any chance of escaping. Shaloub acts like he understands, but he doesn’t understand at all, which is infinitely worse than just saying “I don’t understand.” But that’s what we do, right? As people? Randy Quaid finally responds to all this by angrily leaping from the moving cab. He’s nearly killed.
I can’t tell you how much I identify with this scene.
Shalhoub is overcome with guilt for the rest of the movie. He tearfully turns himself into the police. They can’t understand him. They brutally interrogate him. All he can say is the word, “bluftoni.” Through terrified and emotionally-shattered charades, Shalhoub finally conveys to Robards that “bluftoni” means “bus.” The robbers got on a bus.
There is no time to mourn these mistakes. Mourning in this film is shown as a pointless exercise—shouting on an empty street corner, “FLORES PARA LOS MUERTOS!”
Flowers for the dead. What use have the dead for flowers?
This movie is a fever dream about normal. Every character is ghoulish and discomfiting. Strangers who offer help with directions and then pull a gun on you. Bus drivers who won’t drive unless you stay behind the yellow line. Hostages who try to bribe you with Rolex watches. Angry airline passengers who yell things like, “NOBODY DOES THIS TO RUSS CRANE. NOBODY DOES THIS TO MRS. RUSS CRANE, YOU GLORIFIED STEWARDESS!”
Bank robbers who dress like clowns and say they’re going to send “your thumb out the night depository.”
There is hope in this film. But it’s mostly dark, and insane.
But we’re all secretly insane. Every person you see on the street, every reflection you see in the mirror. Every seemingly normal Stanley Skipowski.
I mean Chipowski.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
IN DEFENSE OF DEAD POETS SOCIETY
by Christopher Cantwell
First off, I don’t want to spoil this movie for you, so if you haven’t seen it, but want to, don’t read further.
Last night at 11:30, I turned on the TV and Dead Poets Society was just starting. I ended up watching it all the way through, until 2 a.m.
I hadn’t seen this movie since my freshman year of high school—watched it in English class, of course—and I barely remembered it. I vaguely remembered that one of the kids killed themselves at the end, but I couldn’t remember if it was Robert Sean Leonard or Ethan Hawke.
I also thought there was a scene at the end where the parents of one of the kids who didn’t kill themselves had a tearful moment of realization with their son and said something like “I never want anything like that to happen to you” which then lead to an elevated level of mutual understanding between child and father. Apparently, I completely invented this scene, and in retrospect I’m glad it wasn’t in the movie. More on that later.
As I started watching, I had a subconscious feeling that this film was suspect in many intellectual circles, and that many of its memorable parts were seen as cliché or trite.
Let’s go deeper. I’m going to mention that I’ve always had a subconscious dread or haunted feeling about the actor Robert Sean Leonard. Even though I didn’t remember specifically who had killed himself in this movie, I had a gut feeling that it was RSL, though it was something I never addressed in my head, and in retrospect I now believe that whenever Dead Poets Society popped up in my thoughts, I would immediately go to RSL killing himself. Then I would try to correct myself and think “No, it wasn’t him, actually, it was one of the other guys.”
Still, every time Robert Sean Leonard appears in anything, I think of him killing himself in this movie. I’m a big fan of House, and RSL is charming and funny in that show. But every time an episode starts and he walks onscreen, I think “Robert Sean Leonard killed himself in Dead Poets Society.” Apparently, the idea of Robert Sean Leonard killing himself terrifies me. So much so that I built a construct in my head denying it had happened.
I went to an all-boys private high school. Not a boarding school, but a uniformed prep school steeped in tradition. My first reaction is to say “that has nothing to do with my intrigue over this film,” but it HAS TO, right? I mean it’s impossible for it not to. Also, my wife is a poet. I’m sure that has something to do with my interest.
But ultimately it was about the suicide. “Who kills himself?” is what I kept morbidly asking. There was relief to be found in thinking it was going to be Ethan Hawke. Why? Because I wanted to disprove my subconscious knowledge that it was Robert Sean Leonard. I honestly don’t know why. I’ll take a stab, but I feel like it will make more sense to you than it does to me. To me, it still feels like I’m grasping at straws.
There was an upperclassman at my high school and he was heavily involved in the theater (like the character of Neil Perry). This boy killed himself when I was a freshman, probably right around the time I first saw this movie. I knew him fairly well, because I was also heavily involved in theater. Now, it’s clear to me 14 years later that this boy who died was gay. Not out, but certainly gay. And it’s clear to me that Robert Sean Leonard’s character Neil is certainly gay. Since the movie was made in 1989, Neil merely wants to act. He’s cast as Puck and his father is disdainful. It’s left at that. But it seems carefully chosen—Neil’s father stands in the back of the theater during the play and watches his son dance around and afterward takes him home and tells him he’s going to military school. If this were just a story about Neil wanting to be an actor, he would’ve been cast as Hamlet and his father would’ve seen him and there would’ve been one of those scenes where afterward he’s blown away by his son’s skill (“I was wrong”) and then a happier ending. But it must be on purpose that the performance Mr. Perry sees his son give is one where the only thing to take away from it is “Wow, my son is GAY.”
I also want to point out that I feel Neil is comprised of a lot of the vulnerable things about me—optimistic and idealistic, high-strung, and with a father looming large in his life (though my dad is very different from Mr. Perry). When this character takes his own life, it chills me to the core.
In a larger sense, I am personally invested in all these young men for reasons like the above. Sure, a lot of the film comes off as didactic, but what isn’t at that age? I want Knox Overstreet to get that girl he wants (because I’ve been there). I want Todd Anderson to find a voice (because I’ve been there). Yeah, maybe Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) isn’t that realistic, but he seems to be made up of all the things that wake us up around that age. Although, I will say Keating has some very human moments. When he finds his volume of verse in Neil’s desk and then just breaks down—losing a student that he inspired—a person would carry that for the rest of their life. Keating also graduated Weldon in ’42, which makes me think he served in the war. It would be a believable motivation that someone would come back from that atrocity and have a weird obsession with how one day we will all die, then devote his life to motivating young people to enjoy it while they can.
All of which leads me to say this movie is good, or rather, I liked this movie. It wears itself on its sleeve. I appreciate that part of it because it’s done well, and it deals with a period in life when we usually wear ourselves on our sleeves. And I arrived at the conclusion that the parts we see as cliché and quote ironically now…well, we do so because those parts are good enough to stick around and linger. In our subconscious.
I can see people’s self-defense mechanisms easily being triggered by this movie. However, I leave a lot of the criticism it generally receives to the emotionally arid.
And here’s why I’m glad Dead Poets Society doesn’t have that scene of reconciliation between Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) and his father after Neil’s death. Because instead, we get that beautiful wide shot of Todd running and falling, screaming and crying, out into the endless frozen winter tundra beyond his school.
And God, if that doesn’t feel like growing up.
Christopher Cantwell is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. He tumbls here.