Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dead Poets Society

So a post on the Fourth Commandment is forthcoming...but it's not quite done yet. However, here are some thoughts that I wrote on my Xanga that I thought would fit well on this blog. So until we return to our regularly scheduled series, this will have to do.

The basic premise of the movie Dead Poets Society is that a teacher named John Keating (Robin Williams) comes into a preporatory school to teach English Poetry. His motto is "Carpe Diem", Latin for "Seize the Day." He uses unorthodox methods to teach his students not to conform, to rely on themselves, to really take something out of life with them. He inspires the students to resurrect something called the Dead Poets Society, where they sneak out to a cave at night and read poetry to each other, among other things. He inspires the students to do things they never would have done before, to step out and take chances. But everything backfires when one boy, who goes against his father's wishes to join a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, commits suicide when his father pulls him out of the school. In the resulting investigation, Keating is kicked out of the school.

The final scene of the movie shows Mr. Nolan, the president of the school, trying to teach the class while Keating collects his personal belongings. One of the students jumps up on his desk in defiance, using a symbol used by Keating earlier in the movie, declaring "O Captain, my Captain" as a sign of respect for Keating. One by one all the members of the Dead Poets Society join him on top of their desks, defying Mr. Nolan's repeated injectures to sit down. It is a powerful scene that leaves you with goosebumps.

As I sat through the movie, I was constantly tempted to be swept away by the amazingly profound, motivating things that Keating was saying. "Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out!" That sounds so great! I want to break out of confines, find a voice of my own, do my own thing my own way! Who needs anyone else telling me what to do? That only stifles me. It's a really motivational thought, isn't it? Or then he says this: "Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, 'That's baaaaad.'" My beliefs are my own. I shouldn't blend into something that someone else thought up. I need to make up my own way to think. It's so exhilirating to think that way, so freeing. I don't need anyone else, it's all about me now.

Robin Williams does a fine job delivering his lines in probably the best acting role I've ever seen him in. That's the main problem. He's so good that you don't grasp the fact that he's spoonfeeding you lies. They are the lies that we all want to believe, that most of the time we really do believe. Who needs God? He's just stifling my inner greatness. Why should the church tell me what to do? I have a right to do whatever I want. I'm a free person. These are the very lies that the snake told Eve in the Garden of Eden: Just think, if you move outside of what God has told you to do, you can be like God. You'll be your own person, live your own life, do your own thing.

Then there's the end of the movie: Neil wants to be an actor, but his father wants him to focus on his studies and avoid the extra-curriculars. Neil defies his father and joins a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as Puck. When his father finds out the day before the show opens, he orders Neil to drop it immediately. Neil defies his father, lying not only to him but also to Keating, who had urged him to talk with his father (about the only biblical thing he said the entire movie), and performs as Puck the following night. His father then finds out, takes him home, and tells him that he will be withdrawn from the school the following day and put into a military school. Neil wants to argue with him, but chickens out at the last second, and they go to bed. In an emotionally powerful sequence Neil stands by the open window with his Puck crown, then walks downstairs, finds a pistol in his father's drawer, and shoots himself with it.

When you watch Neil do this, your first reaction is, "Yes, he's taking his life into his own hands. He's not letting his father boss him around anymore, but he's saving his last vestige of dignity by dying." But then you think about it: shooting himself was actually an act of cowardice. He couldn't bring himself to stand up to his father, chickening out several times when he had the perfect opportunity. So he shot himself instead. The movie tries to portray him as a hero, and does a marvelously good job at it, but if you can sit back and evaluate the circumstances, Neil took the easy road. He didn't want to risk confrontation or his father getting really mad at him, so he killed himself. The hard thing would have been to sit down and talk with his dad about exactly what was going on, having a heart-to-heart. But that's not what the movie tries to make you think.

The miracle of movies is that they can tell you something like this, in the blatant terms I've quoted, and if we're not paying close attention we as Christians can be taken right in. When Keating's teachings lead Neil to shoot himself because he can't get his own way, the students' (and the movie-watchers') first reaction is that it wasn't his fault. Keating was teaching us to take our lives into our own hands, to not let anyone else define us, so when Neil's dad tried to define Neil, Neil had every right to shoot himself. So when the abrasive Mr. Nolan comes into the classroom, embracing the very structure that Keating had tried to throw out, and Todd stands on his desk in a salute to Keating, you're cheering for them, happy that someone is finally sticking it to that stuck-up Nolan. But then you stop to think about it: what am I cheering for? I am cheering for all the lies that Keating told that led to Neil's death. The lies that came straight from the pit of hell. It's really a scary thought.

The cinema is really a scary thing, how it can twist your mind into thinking something completely opposite to everything you know to be true with a few soaring violins and dramatic lines. That's why you really never can turn your brain off, but, as John says, "Test the spirits to see whether they are from God." Just because a movie is well-made doesn't mean it has good morals, and sometimes they can give something completely opposite to what Scripture says is true. Will you be taken in, deceived by the serpent once again, or will you stand for God's truth?

By the way, if anyone is planning on watching this movie, there are some other warnings to be given. There is some language and innuendo, and at one point a boy pulls out a Playboy centerfold. That's about the extent of what went into its rating (PG, but this was before they came out with the PG-13 rating, which it certainly would have deserved).

6 comments:

Peter Wilson said...

cool review. Thanks for bringing light to the lies of the existential worldviews that sneak into our cinema.

I hadn't actually intended to see the movie but now I kind of do. Would you recommend it?

Anonymous said...

cinema is not a scary thing, it's the human mind what is scary. dead poets society does not twist you mind, you are twisting it yourself.
Keating's teachings does not lead Neil to shoot himself! keating is not a symbol for the serpent!! come on...

"I am cheering for all the lies that Keating told that led to Neil's death. The lies that came straight from the pit of hell. It's really a scary thought. "

that statement comes from fanatism....Keating never told any lies!!

" Keating was teaching us to take our lives into our own hands, to not let anyone else define us, so when Neil's dad tried to define Neil, Neil had every right to shoot himself."

that is not even close! it is pure judgement without basis. You do not truly know what was the intention of the script writer nor the producer of the movie so making statements like this is quite ofensive, and not true. I respect that you can speak your mind about your personal views, but making false statements is simply not right. Just because you had those reactions while watching the movie does not mean everyone is going to interpret it the same way as you did. You are giving your own interpretation to it and interpretations are so relative and subjective that declare them as truths is really irresponsible.
If keating is a symbol of the serpent and is feeding the students lies, then why is he also teaching his students advices that my mom always tell me? is my mother a symbol of the serpent now too? things are not just that simple. why do I look up at Keating and consider that he is being like a parent for his students. He advices them, and teach them to live, not to just right a test or live you life with no meaning. He urges Neil to talk to his father, he corrects "nuwanda" when he did the phone call from God thing, and many more things that made me reinforce beliefs about being optimistic by always trying to look at things in a different way. He taught me to suck the marrow out of life but NOT CHOKING ON THE BONE. The fact that Neil killed himself has nothing to do with Mr. Keating's INTENTIONS. The way I say it is that he killed himself due to the way his parents raised him and his personal formation from his family. Perhaps the message was to show how some parents make mistakes while blinding believing they are doing the right thing; Neil did approached his father, several times, but not until you actually live it you are able to understand how close minded can some people be sometimes. Neil's suicide may be proof that it needed to go to that extent for his parents to realize about the mistakes they were making. I think it is not about the devil, or making viers forget about God, it is just life... sometimes its tragic, believe it or not.


And as for "peter wilson"....watch the movie, see for yourself, get your own conclusions and interpretations....that is not going agaisnt the bible.

Lewis said...

Hey "anonymous," nobody puts my man Peter Wilson in quotes. Peter rocks and you have no idea.

As for the movie, I'll watch it to be fair. But I'm getting the idea from Sam's post that Keating's teachings sound like the same kind of man-centered philosophies that any inspirational speaker will give you these days. It's all about what you can do. The potential you have. That's not the Biblical model.

And as for your choice rhetorical tidbit about your mother being the serpent, you need to realize that any kind of false doctrine will mix lies with truth. If everything Keating says in the movie is completely false and off base, nobody will believe it. He must have had wise, true things to say as well. "It is by mixing a little truth with the lie that they make the lie far stronger."

And if you don't believe the Biblical teachings about man's sinful hearts and dependence on God, you're not going to believe most of what Sam had to say.

Sam B. said...

Wow, I never saw this comment before. Not that I think that anyone will ever read this response, but if they did I wouldn't want them to think I chickened out. I just have a few comments.

First, I really don't appreciate anonymous comments. They are a form of online cowardice because you are unwilling to take responsiblity for your own comments. In the future, anonymous posters will be warned and then deleted.

Second, you are misconstruing what I said. I did not say that Keating represents Satan. I did say that the ideas he passes on are antithetical to a Christian worldview, which it appears you do not share with me. I am also not claiming to be able to read the minds of the scriptwriters. What I am claiming is the ability to perform a thematic analysis in the same way that I would analyze a piece of literature. Ultimately, it's the same action. Unless you're willing to claim that we cannot truly understand what an author was trying to say in a book, your claims that my interpretation of the movie are purely my opinion are nonsense.

And it didn't even require very much effort on my part to dissect the movie's intent. They are very straightforward about it: everybody needs to be their own person, and not let anybody else define them. It's the same theme as thousands of other movies, so it's not unusual that they would say that.

"it is pure judgement without basis."

Is it really? I was working out of one of the pivotal quotes in the entire film, where he said those words almost verbatim. You don't think that Neil's suicide was unrelated to Keating, did you? Movies of this caliber don't just throw in random plot lines for no reason; everything in the movie works together to support the theme. Thus, Neil's suicide and Keating's teachings are not disconnected. I was showing in that paragraph how what Keating taught could lead to Neil's death, but you seem to have ignored all my argumentation and jumped to your own conclusion.

"If keating is a symbol of the serpent and is feeding the students lies, then why is he also teaching his students advices that my mom always tell me?"

I did not ever say that everything Keating taught was wrong. He gave some good counsel (which I acknowledged in the post) and did some good things. There are some good lessons to be learned from the movie; I am not denying that. What I am saying is that the basic idea behind the film, the basic theme that it was putting forth, was anti-biblical.

"The fact that Neil killed himself has nothing to do with Mr. Keating's INTENTIONS."

I never said that, either. Keating was a good man who believed he was doing the right thing. Of course he never intended for Neil to shoot himself; I would never think of suggesting something like that. However, actions have consequences, and those consequences are often unintended. For example, take the married man who has an affair with another woman. His intention is to find pleasure for himself in the moment, but he probably does not intend to destroy his family in the process. Yet that is exactly what happens. People often don't intend for certain things to happen, but that doesn't mean they didn't cause them.

"The way I say it is that he killed himself due to the way his parents raised him and his personal formation from his family. Perhaps the message was to show how some parents make mistakes while blinding believing they are doing the right thing."

I am not isolating Neil's death from other family factors. However, the main point of the film, which it makes explicitly, is that Keating's teaching led Neil to shoot himself. Neil's parents were not in the right--in fact, they were completely wrong--but that doesn't mean that Neil was right to shoot himself. Keating says that you can't let others define you. Neil agrees, so when his dad tries to define him, he shoots himself. That's why that scene is included in the movie. The filmmakers were not suddenly like "Oh, let's make a point about overbearing parents." No, it tied into the movie, and it supports the main theme. You seem to be missing that point.

"Neil did approached his father, several times, but not until you actually live it you are able to understand how close minded can some people be sometimes."

Yes, he did approach his father several times, you're right, but every single time he did he chickened out and did not say what was in his heart. Think of their last interaction: Neil has the perfect opportunity to voice his thoughts to his father, his mother is supporting him, his father is paying attention...and he changes the subject. The tension in that scene is huge because you want him to talk, and he doesn't. So yes, he did approach his father several times, but he never had enough courage to talk about it, which makes that point superfluous. And his father's closemindedness was a problem, but at the end it didn't even have a chance to show itself because Neil never talked. It appeared that he may have even had a change of heart if Neil had talked.

My basic point is this: the film puts forth an anti-biblical theme and does it very well, in such a way that even a strong Christian can find themself sucked in if he's not on his guard. Your basic point seems to be this: you can't interpret the screenwriters' intent in making the movie, and Neil's death had nothing to do with Keating. I've shown why these claims are nonsense. Feel free to bring up any other points.

And next time you respond, please try to use half-way decent grammar. You come across as much less intelligent when you can't even get your verbs to agree with your subjects.

Sam B. said...

One more thought: when I said "Keating's lies", I did not mean that Keating was consciously lying. I think he truly believed what he was saying. What I meant was that ultimately his teachings are lies because they come straight from Hell. Anything that exalts man over God is a lie from Hell, and that's exactly what Keating did. So whether he intended to or not, he was lying to all of those students.

Anonymous said...

What this boils down to is that Keating was trying to teach the boys to be free thinkers...to not be afraid to think outside the box and to not be a tool of conformity. Be the self you want to be, not the self someone else wants you to be.

This, of course, in applying to any religion, goes against the grain. Sorry, but religious people, Christians in particular, for the most part, are not free-thinkers. They have conformed. They don't think outside the box and they don't question authority. They see no reason to. They are told what to believe and have no qualms with it.

Keating's teachings for that time period (the 50s) were unconventional. Nowadays, however, they are very normal and encouraged. Think for yourself. Find your own voice and don't be afraid to scream.