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.
WE HAVE ENOUGH IMPERFECTION BUILT IN ALREADY.
by Kamaria B. Porter
Watching Gattaca in 1997, I was awed by Andrew Niccol’s sleek, antiseptic world of the not-too-distant future. As a social critique, using science to justify discrimination is nothing new. Even mechanizing the inclusion and exclusion of certain peoples has been done before—but Niccol’s vision takes things a bit further. This future—a future in which Vincent (Ethan Hawke) must assume another identity to pursue his dreams—uses genes not to predict greatness, but to ordain it. Work, rebellion, and even violence can overthrow the barriers of class, race and gender, but nothing can change your DNA. While other visions of the future terrify with their depictions of disorder, it is the static nature of this world that is so sinister.
That’s probably why Vincent was such a powerful figure of defiance for me. With a 99% probability of a heart condition and life expectancy of only 30 years, he’s overlooked by his family; his father (Elias Koteas) decides to save his namesake for a healthy son, one who could outlive him. Vincent is constantly held back, bested, and dismissed because of his genetic makeup. His parents recoil at his dreams of traveling the galaxy, admonishing him: “The only way you’ll see the inside of a spaceship is if you’re cleaning it.”
From my seat in the theater, Vincent’s plight was my plight. As a black kid growing up on Chicago’s south side, my potential was limited to the lower end of the spectrum by race and class. With glasses and asthma to boot, I basically saw myself as an “invalid” like Vincent. Yet, like Vincent, I was determined to beat the system and work harder than everyone else.
When even merit fails, Vincent makes another way. Through an underground contact (Tony Shalhoub), Vincent takes on the identity of Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a man who was engineered to succeed at everything Vincent was barred from. Shalhoub’s character sounds as if he’s describing a fine wine or priceless painting when detailing Jerome’s physical attributes. Despite possessing invincible DNA makeup, Jerome is on the outside of society as well—an alcoholic, paralyzed from the waist down. Vincent does not flinch from doing everything necessary to “be” Jerome, even undergoing the painful process of stretching his legs in order to match Jerome’s height. Together, Vincent and Jerome (or “Eugene,” as he prefers to be called after selling his identity) infiltrate Gattaca: a prestigious space agency that only employs those with nearly perfect genetic profiles. Every day, Vincent undergoes a ritual in which he scours and burns away all traces of his “invalid” body and arms himself with Jerome Morrow’s blood, skin, and urine.
Just when Vincent’s dreams of space flight are finally within reach, his tenuous position becomes threatened by a murder investigation that brings increasing scrutiny to gene-obsessed Gattaca. A stray eyelash incriminates the real Vincent and authorities plaster his ID picture all over the facility. The danger only increases when the one person who actually recognizes the nameless “invalid,” Vincent’s younger brother Anton (Loren Dean), comes to investigate the murder.
Anton is both fascinated and appalled by Vincent’s accomplishments. As they frantically swim against each other—an echo of an old childhood racing ritual— Vincent proves his success. Borrowing Jerome’s genes was only a fraction of the work. As he tells Anton, “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.” It’s not enough to break a barrier; Vincent showed me that you have to keep going until the barriers don’t exist anymore.
Vincent makes it to space, but what of Eugene? At first I resented the real Jerome Morrow, the same way I once bristled at people who had advantages and squandered them. Even so, I could not dismiss Eugene because of Jude Law’s incredible performance. I admire Vincent, but I can see Hawke is (and has to be) a cipher for Niccol’s thesis. The tagline—“There is no gene for the human spirit”—is surely embodied by Vincent, but his upward trajectory lacks the darker side of this theme, which we can only see in Eugene. Law seethes as Eugene, cutting down those around him with simple glances, a magnetic anger. When I first watched Gattaca, I saw that energy as a disdainful pride that comes with being in the privileged class. Watching the film now, I realize Eugene is as much a role model for me as Vincent.
In 1997, the obstacles to success were so daunting that I needed the hope of Vincent’s story. In 2012, I have a prestigious college degree, scattered accolades, and good references. Universities like to promise success, citing nebulous networks of people willing to employ and promote their own. However, the success I imagined hasn’t exactly materialized. I’m not struggling; I have a job and do good, productive work each day. But I can’t shake the feeling my circumstances should be better. Reconsidering Gattaca, I no longer attribute Eugene’s attitude to laziness or “the burden of perfection.” Instead, I see the simple disappointment anyone would feel in a society that arbitrarily decides who wins and loses. When Eugene shows Vincent his silver Olympic medal, he says: “Jerome Morrow was never meant to be one step down. With all I had going for me, I was still second best.” Where I used to hear the whining of the privileged, I now hear the pain of broken promises.
Just as Vincent is determined to do more than society predicted, Eugene sets a path to be more than he was designed. Another by-product of Niccol’s society is a hyperactive sense of self-worth and determination. Your genes are the only factor in your future happiness and success. Imagine if Eugene had won the gold medal he thought he deserved. How would that success be weighed? Not by his hours of training, his love of the sport, or even his confidence in himself as a swimmer. His genes would be the real victor. In Gattaca, the spirit disappears, people are detached from their best and worst deeds, and there is no room for generosity or empathy. Having a taste of both privilege and discrimination, Eugene defies society’s definition of success by replacing it with his own.
Once Eugene sees how far Vincent is willing to go, Eugene finds something bigger for himself than money in their scheme. When Vincent considers giving up, Eugene balks, saying, “They won’t believe that one of their elite would have suckered them all this time! No, no, no, we change nothing. We do as we planned… You still don’t understand, do you? When they look at you, they don’t see you anymore, they only see me….” His commitment is rooted more in duping the system. Without Eugene’s anger and conviction, Vincent would never have made it to the end.
Giving Vincent access to the promise of Jerome Morrow’s genes transformed Eugene as much, perhaps more, than Vincent. As the film progresses, Eugene limits his drinking and diligently produces samples. In their last exchange, there is a distinct change in Eugene:
Vincent: I don’t know how to thank you.
Eugene: I got the better end of the deal. I only lent you my body. You leant me your dream.
Vincent did do the impossible, but unlike every other person on the ship, he knows that another person had a greater hand in it. Eugene takes his privilege, learns to accept its limits, and finds a way to use it to greater effect. As I get older, I’ve come to see that degrees do not merely ensure success, but instead act as the tools I have to help others and the wider community. Like Vincent, I can trace my accomplishments to the various Eugenes in my life, those who have contributed their wisdom and their time. These realizations make the film’s end feel more tragic to me. In 1997, I couldn’t have been more satisfied as I watched Vincent go into space with the security of enough genetic samples to last a lifetime and a beautiful woman waiting at home for him. Now, however, the film leaves me mourning Eugene, who incinerates himself wearing the silver medal he used to abhor.
There is no gene for human ingenuity, and there isn’t one for compassion either. By attributing all human achievements to genetic structure, Niccol’s world (unjustly) excludes the quieter but no less astonishing achievements of the human heart.
Reality Bites (1992)
I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE NO MATH ON THIS EXAM.
by Bailey Kennedy
I watched Reality Bites for the first time two weeks before graduating college, huddled with my roommates on the giant gray suede LoveSac in our living room. Up until that point, my life felt like a carefully plotted course consisting of various milestones, eventually depositing me at the best college I was accepted by. The closer I came to stepping into my cap and gown as the days wound down, the more lost I felt. It was the right movie for me at the right time—when Lelaina tearfully says that she thought she’d be someone by 23 and Troy responds, “honey, the only thing you have to be by 23 is yourself,” I felt instantly tranquilized.
We meet Lelaina, Vickie, Troy and Sammy swigging beers and celebrating on a rooftop post-commencement ceremony with “School’s Out For Summer” by Alice Cooper blaring in the background. Leilana, the budding videographer, records the festivities and captures testimonials. Sammy’s life goal? “My goal is to like, get a career or something.” Vickie’s collegiate experience has culminated in the ability to recite her social security number at warp speed. Troy is a few credits short of a degree in philosophy and broodingly rejects the importance of going back to finish it out.
Lelaina’s grainy footage of the group’s giddiness gives way to the rhythms of post-degree daily life. Troy loses his job at a corner store for stealing a Snickers bar and moves into ‘The Maxi Pad’ with Lelaina and Vickie, forcing the sexual tension between Lelaina and Troy to the forefront, ebbing and flowing between bickering and flirtation. The scales become tipped toward the contentious when Lelaina takes up with Michael, an earnest but cheesy executive at an MTV-esque station.
Lelaina is fired from her job in grand fashion after feeding inappropriate cue cards to her morning TV news host boss. She collapses into herself, becoming an extension of their living room couch and racks up $300 in charges dialing a psychic. As irrational as this seems, a tiny part of me recognized her search for external answers to internal problems, hoping for some kind of deus ex machina. In Lelaina’s case, Michael swoops in like a yuppy fairy godmother: he showed her documentary to people at his network and they want to buy the footage for a show.
The premiere party rolls around and to her horror Lelaina finds that her thoughtful documentary about the growing pains of Gen X has been stripped down into a Real World-esque reality show. She and her friends have been edited within an inch of their lives to fit into tidy compartments: apathetic bad boy, overachiever, party girl, and resident gay. Lelaina rushes home in tears to find Troy alone in the apartment. The chemistry they’ve been dancing around their entire friendship finally reaches the surface and they sleep together.
The morning after two friends consummate palpable tension there’s the sensation that a particularly challenging equation has been put to bed, a sense of relief and momentary peace. That is, until the Troy in your life makes a hasty exit off stage left. Troy panics and drives a wedge between them just when Lelaina thinks the pieces have finally fallen into place. After a blowout fight, Troy disappears for some time to visiting his dying father, unbeknownst to Lelaina. He reappears in her front yard after a week long absence, at the exact moment she is rushing out to track him down and find him.
My last year of college I’d been nursing the wound of a breakup that ended with him dropping out of school and moving fifteen states east without trading a single word before he departed. Not that at that point a conversation about his leaving would have made it less mentally and emotionally devastating than hearing it through the grapevine. As the days wound down to graduation I was feeling his absence in my life, and perhaps this is why Reality Bites hit me so hard at the time: Troy came back for her.
Years later, I’m a little disgusted by my buy-in to the Troy deus ex machina story line as the solution to Lelaina getting her bearings. I can appreciate the message that love is what anchors us in moments of uncertainty, carrying us through the chaos of building the framework of who we will be, but in my experience the Troy’s of the world don’t come through with a grand gesture. My 22 year old self, though, ate it up: it only confirmed the recurring fantasy wherein my best-friend-turned-boyfriend came back for me. But now I wish Lelaina hadn’t found her center in Troy. Troy was the type of guy who inevitably wouldn’t uphold his end of the bargain, it was only a matter of time.
Don’t wait for the sound of his car in your driveway.