I saw a peculiar film last week.
The story: A group of boys attend a New England prep school. Their English teacher uses poetry to teach the dangers of conformity; in one lesson, he stands on his desk, then insists that members of the class also stand on his desk.
The boys find an old yearbook with a description of the teacher, an alumnus of the school. The teacher had once been a member of a club, the Dead Poets Society. The boys find a book of verse, take it out in the woods to a cave, and attempt to revive the Dead Poets Society.
One boy wants to be an actor. He auditions for the part of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and gets it. He accepts the part, knowing his father would disapprove. The night before the play is to open his father finds out and forbids him to take part. The boy tells the English teacher about his passion for acting. The teacher tells him he must tell his father. The boy claims to have told his father; acts in the play; the father appears, outraged at this defiance; takes him home; tells him he will be sent to a military academy and will then go to college and be a doctor. The boy says that is 10 years. The father wants no more arguments. The boy shoots himself.
The boys' parents hold the school to blame, and, in particular, the English teacher. One of the boys tells the authorities that the English teacher had encouraged the dead boy to rebel and had also encouraged the boys to revive The Dead Poets Society. He tells the other boys they should do the same; the school needs a scapegoat, if it gets the teacher the boys will be left alone. One boy punches him and is expelled. The others are taken to see the head. The last to go finds a typed statement setting out a fabricated account of the teacher's corruption of the boys. At the end are signatures of 5 other boys and a space for his own name. He signs.
The boys are in English class, which has been taken over by the head of the school. The disgraced teacher comes in to get his things. He goes to his office, returns through the class. The last boy to sign stands up. He says he did not want to sign but they made him. He stands on his desk. Several other boys stand on their desks. The teacher smiles.
In some sense the film was terrifyingly true to life. There is a type of American, well-educated, pleasant, comfortable, who would be perfectly capable of letting a teacher lose his job as a result of actions undertaken without the teacher's knowledge -- and then showing the jobless teacher that he had learnt the lesson of nonconformity by, um, standing on a desk. There is a type of American who would be capable of destroying a man's career, standing on a desk and expecting a pat on the head for his defiance of authority. What's odd is to see such an ending offered, as it seems to be, as an example of moral growth. One can imagine it used, and used well, with savage irony, but that seems not to have been the intention.