"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect." - Mark Twain
The "teaching genre". Typically these films deify heroic teachers whose classrooms are havens at odds with the conformity or mediocrity that plagues the rest of the institution. In this regard, these films merely take familiar stories about admirable loners and nonconformists and place them in an educational setting in which the school milieu is fairly incidental.
Films like "Stand and Deliver", "Dead Poets Society", "Mr Holland's Opus", "To Sir, with Love", "Dangerous Minds", "Coach Carter", "Mona Lisa Smile", "Music of the Heart", "Blackboard Jungle", "School of Rock", "Little Man Tate", "Dangerous Minds", "Freedom Writers", "Pay It Forward" etc etc all follow the same narrative progression, the inspirational white/black teacher moving to a school where he/she is forced to deal with various problems (racial tensions, student apathy, learning difficulties and institutional barriers), all of which he/she solves by delivering inspirational messages in offbeat ways.
Very few "teaching films" deviate from this formula. Some of the best that do are perhaps Frederick Wiseman's "High School", "High School 2" and "State Legislature", Laurent Cantet's "The Class", Nick Ray's "Bigger Than Life", Olivier's "Term of Trial", 2002's "To Be and To Have", and "The Prime of Mrs Jean Brodie", with Maggie Smith. For the most part, though, cinema has failed to produce many interesting "teaching movies".
And so "Dead Poets" is another mushy "teacher flick" which advocates "independence" and "non conformity" by sticking to a very generic and clichéd movie formula. Here, the maverick teacher is played by Robin Williams, a wacky guy who inspires his band of students to "seize the day" and "chase their dreams".
The film was directed by Peter Weir, and so it has a certain classiness which, at first glance, seems to differentiate it from the pack; it's low-key at times, well acted and beautifully shot. It's only during "Poet's" last half hour that we realise how much we've been conned. And so as Weir's plot draws toward a typical "I am Spartacus!" ending (you'll know it when you see it), we begin to grasp how goofy the picture really is, the film populated by one dimensional adults, villainous kids, ridiculously stuck-up parents and a plot which reduces the art of poetry to a couple selectively chosen one liners, all designed to illicit "rebelliousness" and "non conformity".
So serious is the film in its message, that it even has one kid commit suicide because he is unable to break free of his father's wishes. In other words, conformity literally kills, physically as well as spiritually. This is a worthwhile message, but the film is so conventionally manipulative in its final half, that all power quickly fizzles out.
For a film which pretends to profess a love for poetry, you might even call this flick anti-poetry. Early in the film, Robin Williams draws a graph on a blackboard which he says is used to "measure the worth of a poem". On one axis of the graph is a poem's "importance" or "depth", on the other axis of the graph its "perfection" or "technique", the implication being that a work of art which succeeds on both axes, or very highly on one, is discernibly "better" than others. Williams then erases this graph and orders his pupils to tear it out of their textbooks. You cannot measure the objective worth of art, he says, only what that art means to you personally.
Later, one kid who spends hours and hours toiling over his poems, discarding them all because he doesn't think them any good, is put in front of the classroom and told to "let go" and "just say what comes into your head". Suddenly he becomes like all the other students in the film, able to magically and whimsically create great poetry. What the film is advocating is not some kind of objectively great poetry, which artists strive for and toil to create, but misusing poetry as a metaphor for a kind of whimsical freedom of expression; nothing matters other than your own subjective feelings and opinions. Nothing matters, other than you conforming to your desires, embracing your right to free speech and impulsively doing and saying what you want at any particular moment. This isn't poetry, this isn't artistic expression, it's just a kind of self-obsessed, narcissistic, rash impulsiveness.
Now look at all the things the students in the film use poetry to achieve. It's all sex, girls, dancing or throwing things away. Very simple, egotistical, hedonistic or impulsive things. Children and people with bipolar disorder have been shown to act with more impulsivity than other people. Artists, of course, are themselves often described as being childish (or possessing a child's imagination) and are more prone to being bipolar. What the film is unconsciously doing is tapping into the whole "artist as free" and "art as childish impulsiveness" cliché, without marrying it to anything truly substantial.
The limits of this approach are best observed in the film's final scenes. The young artists are given the chance to save their teacher, but instead choose to save themselves. They've never been taught, through poetry or art, to really stand up for anything of value external to themselves. Only later, when their teacher is kicked out of school, do they impulsively stand on their desks and show him support. But of course now it's a wasted gesture.
Significantly, the one kid who "stands up" in defence of his teacher is the one kid who was serious about poetry and seemed sceptical of William's character. His act of "standing up" is the only true act of rebellion in the film, the artist putting himself on the line, standing up for something worthwhile. Weir completely misses the implications of this.
7.9/10 Generic. Worth one viewing. See "If" and "The Magdalene Sisters".
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