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.