I suspect that I’ve outgrown Dead Poets Society.

I watched it Monday night. The occasion was, sadly, Robin Williams’ death at the too-young age of sixty-three. My selection of Williams’ films at hand is small (The Fisher King may be the only other one I own on DVD), and I’m fonder of Dead Poets, so Dead Poets it was.

I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy it or that I wasn’t moved by it.

But I was left unsatisfied and unfulfilled by it.

I’ll start with my reason for watching the film Monday night — Robin Williams.

A number of commentators, Roger Ebert notably, took Williams to task for his performance, largely because of his character’s lapses into Williams’ comedy schtick of impressions and voices.

That, frankly, has never bothered me. Honestly, there’s nothing about Williams’ performance in Dead Poets Society that bothers me.

No, what does bother me is how he’s billed as the character in the film, when he’s anything but.

Williams’ John Keating is barely a character!

He has no arc. We learn next to nothing about John Keating. (We know he attended Hellton back in the day, we know that he taught in London and has a significant other there.) What’s his motivation? Why does he love teaching? What’s his story? What is he hoping to achieve from his unorthodox teaching methods? What does he learn?

Oh, and this observation —

Keating is the catalyst for the growth in the students, yet he remains a cypher.

That’s frustrating.

It’s frustrating because answering these questions would have been simple, and answering these questions would serve to explain the film’s great unanswered mystery — why was the school administration determined to destroy Keating?

The scene in the attic between Cameron and the other boys has never made any sense to me. “They’re not after us, they’re after Mr. Keating,” is what I think Cameron says.

I guess we’re supposed to make the inferrence that Welton’s administration wanted a scapegoat for Neil’s suicide and Keating was a convenient target. If so, that’s a brave decision on the part of the filmmakers; they’re sending the message that no good deed (like teaching) goes without getting totally fucked over by the system.

Now that I think about it, what good did anything in this film achieve? Keating is fired, Neil is dead, Charlie Dalton is expelled, the rest of the Dead Poets are probably expelled. And for what? In that light, this film is about as uplifting as Alien 3.

(And I love Alien 3, by the way.)

The problems with characterization aren’t limited to John Keating. The film’s antagonists are just as cypherific. Why is Mr. Perry such an unfeeling asshole? Why is the school administrator even there? They come across as implacable, unfeeling antagonists, utterly bereft of feeling or reason. You could more reason with a hurricane than these two, which is why I usually feel this way by the end of the film:

Characterize your antagonists. Make the audience understand them if not sympathize with them. Make it clear that, even if they’re wrong, they have reasons for doing what they do, and make sure the audience understands those reasons. It’s not enough for them to say, like Eric Cantor, “No!”

Let me be clear. I like Josh Charles as an actor. Of the boys in the film, he’s probably in the top three in terms of consistency of performance. When I thought about a sequel to Dead Poets Society a few years ago, it would have centered on his character.


His storyline is terrible. It has little, if anything, to do with anything related to Keating’s class or the film’s themes of rebellion. It’s an unrelated story of “boy falls in love with girl that’s already taken” that just so happens to take place at Welton. It’s Dead Poets Society‘s equivalent of a Star Trek: The Next Generation B-plot. You could excise the entire plot and not lose anything. It’s filler, plain and simple.

What would I have replaced it with?

The film gives us multiple options. What is Charlie Dalton’s story? Why does he want to rebel so hard? What’s the story of Cameron, the film’s secondary antagonist? Why is he such an opportunist, and shouldn’t the seeds of his opportunism be planted earlier? Even Todd, whom we spend a great deal of time with, needs more development; we need to see more of how he comes into his own.

Perhaps that’s what’s so unsatisfying about the film — it poses questions about the characters and their world that it is unprepared or unable to answer. When it works, it’s effective. When it doesn’t work, it’s disappointing.

There’s a saying that you never want to know sausage is made, because if you did know you would never eat it again. (Not an issue with me; I don’t like sausage a whole lot, so I’m not going to eat it.) Neil Gaiman has said that he finds it difficult to read for pleasure because he understands too well how stories are put together. Because I write — and I write about writing — I found myself enjoying Dead Poets Monday night for its acting and its direction and its cinematography while at the same time tearing it apart narratively.

That’s why I feel like I’ve outgrown Dead Poets Society. It’s entertaining, it’s enjoyable, it’s quotable — “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.!” — but it’s ultimately unsatisfying. I expected more.

Oh captain, my captain.

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