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.
The Truman Show (1998)
GOOD AFTERNOON, GOOD EVENING, AND GOODNIGHT.
by Sara Gray
My good friend Jenny (not her real name) lives in Los Angeles. Like many, she moved there to find a job in the entertainment industry. She toiled through a string of grueling, unpaid internships on independent films and student projects until she finally landed her first fully paid gig as an art production assistant on the TNT reality show, The Great Escape. “It isn’t union, sadly, but it’ll pay the bills” she told me one night several weeks ago, her voice muffled by the digital flatness of my cellphone.
She seldom called; she was too busy. Her workdays stretched to 12, occasionally 14 hours. “I lived in Alcatraz for about a week,” she continued, and I could hear bright excitement there despite her exhaustion. “The place is open to tourists until 9PM, so the only time we could shoot there was in the middle of the night. You want to know what’s really ironic? Since the place was a landmark, we couldn’t get close to any of the walls. The paint was flaking off—seriously, whole sheets of paint would fall off if you so much as breathed on them—but since it was ‘historic’ paint, we weren’t allowed to touch it. We had several scenes taking place in prison cells, so we basically had to build entire cells within already existing cells, right down to putting up fake walls to hide the flaking old walls. The cells were complete, with real cots. I slept on one a few times, when things got slow.”
When I first saw The Truman Show in theatres 14 years ago, reality shows were already a constant on MTV and other cable networks. While popular, they had yet to reach total ubiquity; Big Brother and Survivor were still to come. At the time, The Truman Show felt like the end to an inevitable progression of desire. The denizens of The Real World—the slutty one, the nice one, the jock, the undiagnosed bipolar, the token minority—were stock characters by season five. Catchphrases like “I’m not on this show to make friends” were perfect cues to chug tequila during Road Rules drinking games. The spontaneity of these programs had proved hard to sustain, as its subjects were increasingly self-aware: they watched reality shows, too. If left unchecked, The Truman Show warned us, our demand for live, unscripted “realness” would eventually lead to total voyeurism. The only way for us to witness true, unaffected emotion was if the camera’s subject didn’t know anyone was watching.
I would love to live in a world where millions of people wanted to watch the equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Sleep every night, but alas, that world has not come to pass in 2012. It turns out that today’s reality show audiences are much more comfortable with self-consciousness than anticipated by The Truman Show. Or, as John Jeremiah Sullivan put it in his essay, “Leaving Reality”:
Now, when you watch a reality show—when you follow The Real World, for instance—you’re not watching a bunch of people who’ve been hurled into some contrived scenario and are getting filmed, you’re watching people who are being on a reality show. This is now the plot of all reality shows, no matter their cooked-up themes. And here’s the lovely, surprising thing about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, greater self-reflexivity, more uniform complicity in the falseness of it all—it made things more real. Because, of course, people being on a reality show is precisely what these people are!
That, and Jim Carrey as a believable dramatic actor is no longer a novel prospect. Another of the dated elements of The Truman Show is Carrey’s awkward vacillation between the soul-sad gravity he later mastered in Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the alien, rubber-boned antics of his earlier films. Every scene where Carrey yodels and bugs his eyes grates just as terribly as Robin Williams’ John Wayne impressions ever did in Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir’s earlier attempt at placing a well-known comedic actor out of context. For every moment that Carrey’s expressive eyes unveil new and surprisingly lonely depths, we are also forced to listen to the affected way he pronounces words like “Fiji.” It’s all too self-aware, though perhaps that’s to be expected in a film that concerns itself with the watchers and the watched, and the strange loop that results when the twain meet.
Jenny was part of a team whose task was to create the challenges that The Great Escape contestants would have to decode, conquer and, occasionally, destroy. To my surprise, there were actually two separate groups of contestants: the photogenic, relatable ones who were eventually on camera, and a sort of prototype other group whose job was to tackle the challenges first, to make sure that the obstacles and tasks would ultimately be filmable to begin with. For one particular challenge, Jenny’s team spent $15,000—and three days—constructing a gigantic, rusty jungle-gym of interlocking pipes, to which the proto-contestants were then handcuffed. Using teamwork and ingenuity, the protos managed to extract themselves from the structure, but then they took things another, unpredictable step further. Thinking that a prize lay within the pipes, the protos completely, irreparably dismantled the structure.
“The damage was so bad, the directors discarded the whole challenge,” she groaned. “We built it for nothing.”
The Truman Show guessed many things correctly, though. “Nothing you see on this show is fake. It’s merely controlled,” intones the actor who plays Marlon, Truman’s best friend (not Noah Emmerich, the actor who plays the actor who plays Marlon—watch your step, folks, the mirrors are disorienting). It’s a telling line. The fictional audience watching The Truman Show is like the (equally arbitrary, if functional) audience that reality show producers and network heads spend so much time parsing in focus groups. That imagined audience wants dramatic and spontaneous emotion, but it also wants comfort and predictability. Fans of Truman’s show are happy to watch Truman sleep and go to work, but they also want him to test the boundaries of his small, self-contained world.
Similarly, we don’t know who will win the next season of Britain’s Got Talent, but it’s a pretty sure bet that one of the contestants will likely follow the “ugly duckling with a golden throat shocks the lookist judges” trail so well-blazed by Susan Boyle. A television director (or any creator, really) must strike a balance between confronting the audience with the unexpected and soothing them with the familiar, and one key to this is the degree of control a creator exerts over their work.
On the Kubrick-Herzogian Control Freak Scale—with a “1” making your actors do a take a hundred times until they crack and a “10” depositing your actors into an Amazonian jungle and hoping for the best—Ed Harris’ Christof is definitely a 2, maybe a 3. While he can be lauded with devising on-the-fly solutions to continuity errors (Truman’s dead dad suddenly reappearing, for instance), this guy is obviously not a fan of improv. This is why he couches Truman’s reality, and the unpredictable choices he makes, within the safe confines of that most rote of TV genres, the sitcom. Everyone around Truman acts as if they’re expecting a laugh track or a sighing chorus of “Awwwwws.” It’s a wonder that Truman even notices his wife Meryl’s none-too-subtle product placements; if everyone he knew occasionally interrupted conversations to extoll a product lying conveniently to hand, every day, for his entire life, how would he know that was strange?
Poor Meryl. While I have no complaints about Laura Linney’s considerable talents, her character was painted into an unfair corner, one that screenwriters reserve for many married female characters. This long-suffering straw woman shows up in far too many films and TV shows: Leah Remini in The King of Queens, Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up (and, really, almost any woman cast in a Judd Apatow production, though he’s been getting a little better about that), Annette Bening in American Beauty. She is the ruthless enforcer of the status quo, the materialistic maven of new household appliances, the buzzkill to every dreaming, restless husband or boyfriend’s fun. She is the final hurdle of familial obligation that an adventurous man must jump before he bounds his way to freedom, and rare are the moments spent exploring her inner life. The most we get to see of Meryl’s true desire is that mutinous finger-crossing Truman spots in their wedding photo. Her mistake was thinking that she could ever have her own life outside of Truman’s. That her clinging to her extra-marital, extra-Truman Show self is one of the first breaks in continuity that wakes Truman up is small comfort.
Throwing away weeks’ worth of effort and thousands of dollars was nothing compared to the Sisyphean ordeal of when a challenge Jenny’s team devised actually worked. During another attempt, the protos were to find a way out of the meticulously recreated prison cells she and her team built. A key was hidden somewhere within each room, which was filled with carefully chosen, historically accurate paraphernalia, right down to tubes of shaving cream and a hilarious (and, apparently, deeply coveted) paint-by-numbers portrait of Jesus. (“Someone stole Jesus at the end of the shoot. I was so mad about that. I found Him on eBay, He was mine!”)
Jenny’s sigh was a staticky burst in my ear. “The protos trashed the cells. They even ripped open the mattresses. There was mattress batting everywhere, coating every surface.” The directors liked what happened, though, so she had to go back to each cell, pick up every strand of batting and every splinter of shattered furniture, and remake everything exactly as it was, all so that it could be destroyed again by louder, prettier people, while the cameras rolled.
The breakdown of Christof’s control over Truman’s reality is the most memorable aspect of The Truman Show. While the film touches upon artistic control, mass marketing, reality television, and other themes with varying levels of alacrity, it is the slow unraveling of Truman’s daily life that packs the most visceral punch. Weir plays it safe and intercuts the film’s opening sequences with shots of Christof and the other actors lauding Truman and their roles in his show; therefore, there is no doubt that Truman himself is a relatively sane, normal guy. Remove these explanatory shots, however, and the unreality of Truman’s life becomes a thing of creeping dread. The best scene is when Truman accidentally tunes in to the production’s radio frequency on his drive to work one morning. That heart-stopping moment when a screech of feedback freezes every extra in their tracks has all the choreographed beauty of a musical, and all the terror of a nightmare. It’s not for nothing that a specific paranoid delusion has been popularly nicknamed The Truman Show Delusion.
Now that cameras peer at us from our computers, smartphones, iPads and traffic corners, now that our lives are endlessly storyboarded on social networks, Christof’s decision to control the story of just one man’s life seems laughably unambitious. The Truman Show may have opened a door into the self-reflexive hall of mirrors, but it’s Charlie Kaufman’s show now (or, perhaps, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s). Gone are the days of Christof’s benevolently despotic gaze. The 21st century has brought us a different kind of auteur: the overweening Caden Cotard of Synecdoche, New York, whose neuroses spawn a sprawling amoeba of self-consciousness wherein the director comes to control not only his family and friends, but the actors who play them, and then the actors who play the actors who play the actors, and how those actors perceive him and the actor who plays him, and the entire city around them, in a nightmare of Infinite Jest-level proportions. Christof’s calm is Zen-like, even in the face of Truman’s escape, while Caden’s 21st century auteur has comparatively more power and yet constantly stands on the edge of nervous breakdown.
I used to think that people who watched reality shows were shallow and stupid. I’ve been one of those people who say things like, “I don’t watch TV,” like it’s some proof of my higher intelligence. Yet love humbles me, as it should. I love the certain, sweet, completely predictable ending to The Truman Show. Knowing that Truman will escape the bounds of his prison doesn’t make his discovery any less magical. It took me 14 years to realize this: that even when the sky turns out to be nothing but a wall, painted blue and white, one can still touch it. Truman touched the sky, and then he left. And the joy of it—that the whole world welcomed him home.
Sara Gray works at a natural history museum in Austin, Texas. She tumbls here.