Tuesday, September 25, 2007


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.


Anonymous said...

And that is why I always cheered for Charlie (Nuwanda) instead of Todd. I wonder what happened to him afterwards. There is a type of American who punches others in the face, flees to Europe, OD's on alcohol.

Anyway, when it comes to Peter Weir, I always recommend The Mosquito Coast and The Truman Show, which is far more scarier today than it was ten years ago. Plenty of savage irony there.

Helen DeWitt said...

Exactly - Charlie/Nuwanda was the only one who was not being nonconformist the way they were all being taught to be nonconformist. The others were all looking for an authority figure somewhere - they simply replaced the authority figures offered by the school with a charismatic teacher who got them ALL to stand on a desk or do silly walks (all except C/N).

I haven't seen The Mosquito Coast, but The Truman Show was, yes, savage.

Anonymous said...

In the version in my head, kids start quoting Paul Celan's "Brunnengräber im Wind" on their desks instead of Whitman. And instead of Ethan Hawke, it's Duckie from "Pretty in Pink," who - it turns out - never got to graduate from high school.

All kidding aside: one more vote here for the Truman Show.

Anonymous said...

Dead Poets Society is an interesting film in that it provokes such a wide spectrum of responses from people ranging from absolute boredom to absolute inspiration.

The film appeals to the part of me that would have liked to go to boarding school not so much for the educational opportunities, but for the idea of living in some building built in some old architectural style, hiding away in places no one knows about to escape and read what I want read. Let the outside world fall away. This idea and the film only really share the same setting, I'll admit.

The idea of nonconformity, and the ultimate act of "defiance" at the end of the film are I think highly confused. Many people think that in standing on their desks the boys finally learned nonconformity and defiance, but that would be too simple. The teacher tried opened their eyes to the idea that their lives and thoughts had been dictated by all the people in charge of their lives thus far, and could be different if they tried to think for themselves. The boy that truly took this to heart was Neil, who was really the only one who outwardly started defying the powers that be, resulting in his ultimate act of defiance, suicide, thereby preventing anyone from ever controlling him ever again. This caused the whole scapegoat/witch-hunt, which then tested the other boys' courage to stand up for what's right, defy those trying to control them; all of them failing of course except for Charlie. The act of defiance at the end of the film seems to me then more of an act of remorse for selling out their beloved teacher. They didn't defy and stand up for what was right when it really mattered, and that's where the real lesson is learned.

I think then there is a lesson to be learned about nonconformity and acts of defiance when it comes to doing them at times when it matters. An act of nonconformity or defiance need only a minute of courage be mustered up, but a minute of weakness in the same situation can leave a lifetime of regret and guilt behind. This being what happened in the movie and the ultimate lesson learned by the boys.

At the same time though, and in the boys' defense, learning to unlearn the type of conformity those boys had been brainwashed into would be a longer process than presented in the film. The thing to understand is that conformity and obedience are very hard things to just throw off. I'll give you an example.

Pretend you were born, the youngest actually, into a large Catholic family, grew up in a small mining town of less than 2,000 people where stereotypes still for the most part hold true; a town with 5 churches and only one bar. You also eventually attend college in the nearest town 45 miles away. The small college, though not officially religious, just happened to have a church right across the street, how convenient, and the student body probably 90% the same religion. These factors, this environment, these people are all you've ever known. This is all the you that you've ever known.

There's this other part of you, though, that emerges during your teen years; that comes into existence only in your mind; that you'll eventually spend years struggling with. A different self that is nothing like the self you thought you were. Trying to figure out which self is your true self amidst this type of environment is extremely hard; even harder still, actually letting yourself be your true self both internally and maybe even some day externally. So you start living two lives; one in private, and one you present to the world around you.

By the time you graduate high school you are exhausted by this life, but you go to college because it is the inevitable next step in this life you are living. Depression is also inevitable, and suicide becomes a serious possibility. Your only solace becomes books. Instead of going to class and church you spend more and more time holed up in your room because there you can read and think and be.

One night at some god-late hour you decide to watch t.v. because the best films are always played when the least amount of people will be watching, so it goes. You flip through a few channels and come to a film that looks peculiar. Something about a group of boys at a New England prep school, but with obvious thematic parallels to your own life.

Some acts of defiance only require a minute of courage. Mine required sixty; fifty to drive home, and ten to have the hardest conversation with my parents I have ever had.

Coming out is hard for anyone to do regardless of personal history and background. I've never regretted doing it. Honestly, it felt like my whole life had been leading up to that moment, and though it would have happened eventually regardless if I had seen Dead Poets Society that night or not, the film seemed to serve as the perfect catalyst to motivate me to do it at that time, so I'm grateful, regardless unintentional or intentional savage irony.

It would be ideal for the length of time the film presents to have all the conformity wiped clean from the boys' minds, but as my story clearly shows, it can really take years of slow internal turmoil to finally get to that moment of defiance. Still, it provided some value to my life, so I guess I'll always hold a good place in my heart for it.

And finally:

Helen, sorry for the long comment.

And yes, Truman Show is really good; love the Philip Glass piano piece.

Anonymous said...

Most of the TS soundtrack is lifted from both 'Anima Mundi' and 'Mishima' by Glass. If there's one thing brilliant about Peter Weir, it's his use of source music. See: Master & Commander (the only movie that moved me to tears by a simple shot of iguanas).

Anonymous said...

Why can't I be at least 0.0001729 as smart as you are in phrasing my point so it somehow gets across and then i don't get attacked because making a smart point shows you must have at least some conviction even if you don't want to speak with conviction.

i love love this idea and how it is phrased here.


Mithridates said...

I always wondered about the choice of Glass's great score to Mishima for The Truman Show. There's something about the exhilarating tolling of bells at the end that suits the ending of TS so well - but then of course I remember that this is point at which Mishima commits seppuku. Hmm. Both are movies about men who were completely immersed in visual media, too. And are both movies about a man's last day, literally in M's case, figuratively in TS's, no?

Helen DeWitt said...

Nathaniel -- I am very glad to hear that the film acted as a catalyst to help you talk to your family, but it seems the thing that made this possible was, in fact, a very long period of solitary reading. Though the film appears to advocate the importance of poetry for enabling people to act as individuals, it seems to be profoundly hostile to any kind of solitary activity at all: it offers a small range of actions through which individuality can be performed for other members of a group.

The script had an odd way of setting up situations in which characters supposedly had no alternative, when any member of the audience could instantly have spotted any number of options. At the end, for instance, the boys were all given a false statement to sign. We're told, though, that the school had an honour code. If the boys had really been brainwashed they should have found it impossible to sign a false statement. If they had not been successfully brainwashed they might perfectly well have seen an appeal to the honour code as a safety play. We are supposed to believe that the school is competitive, the boys intelligent; it seems odd to have no one point out that the school is unlikely to want to expel six fee-paying boys, and unlikely to want to risk a lawsuit from the parents of the unjustly expelled.

Well, there are all sorts of things that seemed odd -- suicide as the only alternative to medical school was a bit of an eye-opener. Which is not to say that all these things might not have happened. I have just turned 50; I can't count the number of times I have tried to work out what someone might do, and thought, Well, they obviously wouldn't do X because X would be unbelievably stupid and no one could possibly be that stupid -- only to have the person do X, or even explain that X is the social norm and it is unthinkable NOT to do X. So every single one of the not very clever things done by the characters is plausible, yes -- and yet it leaves one with the feeling of a rigged game.

Still, I am very happy that it had such a powerful effect on you, and helped you to break away from the false appearances you had felt compelled to preserve.

newt, mithridates -- I don't remember the soundtrack of TS well enough after all this time. Haven't seen Master & Commander. I'd like to be moved to tears by iguana, though.

smb -- I find it hard to believe that you are not at least 0.0001729 as smart as me, and I doubt that I am really much better at making points without annoying people. The number of people who are not on speaking terms with me (having started out innocently loving The Last Samurai) is very large.

But I would like to see some of these other films by Peter Weir.

Anonymous said...

Helen, I agree, it was the reading in the end that had transformed me into someone I wanted to be, or rather, had transformed me back into the person I had once been long ago when I was younger and read a lot. I am now of course a compulsive reader. I think one of the best ways to become someone worth becoming is through reading great books.

When I was younger I had read a lot and reading was my biggest passion; but then I had the weight of the world hoisted on my shoulders and I did absolutely no reading; it was a very mentally dark period for me. When I found reading again it was like this light in a forest leading me back to a place where I belonged (mentally); the forest being of course the darker parts of my mind and personality.

Interestingly enough, and to pay you a big compliment, this is when I discovered The Last Samurai. It was on the recent acquisitions shelf of the library. I remember seeing that picture of the boy on the cover so absorbed into the book he was reading, and with that look of conviction in his eyes. Everything about your book felt right from the first moment. Your book influenced me in ways no other book has. It was the first time a book explicitly encouraged the questioning of other's convictions. (This was before I had discovered Carl Sagan's wonderfully written Demon-Haunted World.) Your book spurned me into a reading frenzy, and it was more of a catalyst then the film was. The film was one of those right time, right place, right moods kind of things. So, yes, it was the reading that brought the real change.

As far as the logic of the film you're right about the options thing. That's what got to me when I saw it. Neil really thought that he had no alternative option but to kill himself. It wasn't that he did it to escape the option of medical school, but it was then that he realized his father would never stop trying to control him, and for him suicide was the escape. He was clearly distraught. In my mentally revised version of the film he doesn't kill himself, but instead leaves home to live his life the way he wants to live it; that wouldn't have made for as dramatic an ending I guess.

As far as the signed statements, I think those were really just done as a way to support firing the teacher so he wouldn't appeal or cause trouble. It pissed me off that the parents automatically believed the school rather than the boys, but then the school would have a lot of power and authority to throw around in the parents' faces because what the school tells the ivy leagues about the boys will determine the boys' acceptance into said schools, so I think the parents were put in a position of fear as far as that goes.

As far as X person doing X action because of X reasons I think you once said that it's no use knowing what someone should do, but rather what they will do, regardless of the irrationality of their reasons. The history of the world sometimes seems to be people making irrational decisions everywhere you turn.

Que sera, sera.

Lee said...

If you look at the teens and young adults who commit suicide - and, unfortunately, I've had quite a few in my close friendship and family circles - it never seems like a reasonable option to the survivors. To discuss options strikes me as to use a jargon which has little to do with the actual state of mind/feeling of someone who is suicidal.

But I agree the film felt rigged - and even when I saw it years ago, was annoyed at myself for being 'tugged' by that rigging. This happens to me quite often: reading a book/seeing a film/listening to music which pushes certain emotive buttons, while at the very same
time recognising and disliking the manipulation. And I spend a lot of
effort, apparently futile, on trying to decide what makes a piece of fiction maudlin (my own, for example!) and what, authentic.