When a Bad Take becomes accepted.
Recently, I haphazardly stumbled into a Twitter debate over Peter Weir’s 1989 Best Picture nominee, Dead Poets Society, and what it’s ultimately trying to say in its tragic final act and subsequently rousing conclusion. The consensus, at least in the thread in which I found myself, was that Robin Williams’ subversive English teacher, Mr. John Keating, was actually the bad guy in the end. Revisionist takes are nothing new to modern movie culture (Waterworld is good! Forrest Gump has… issues…), and often times these new “takes” are perfectly acceptable, if not the truth about the film or the performance in question.
Not this time, however.
I can’t get on board with an opinion that takes so many interpretive leaps and connections that aren’t in the text – or even the subtext – of Weir’s magnificent, bittersweet film. Calling Mr. Keating the bad guy of Dead Poets Society is an easy, albeit incorrect, opinion to have when the film fades from memory and you get older and think maybe the parents are right. The gist of the Keating is Bad camp is that Keating’s message – for his timid young students to “seize the day” and become free thinkers – led Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) to commit suicide after his father forbade him from participating in the theater.
Aside from this being textually untrue based on scenes in the film, to say Keating is somehow more at fault for Neil’s decision than Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), an overbearing, controlling villain in Neil’s life (and, it’s important to remember, his entire life beyond school or English class), is absurd. This is an opinion that requires several assumptions without the screenplay, or even the final scenes, indicating such an egregious moral error. At no point, in no way, does Keating pit Neil against his father; never, not once, does he say that life is not worth living if you don’t get what you want. Keating’s “seize the day” mantra is never intended to be a life or death creed, but a chance at an awakening. Many times in the film, we see the positive nature of Keating’s influence seeping into these kids – prisoners of their parents’ expectations – and so many of them have their eyes opened to a new way to see the world.
Including Neil Perry.
The central characters in the student ensemble* all change. Ethan Hawke’s Todd Anderson is so meek and frightened of the world he can barely speak in the early scenes; by the end, he is a young man, willing and capable. When Keating sees these awakenings through, and they are positive, the result is wonderful, electric. But don’t discount Keating’s ability as an adult and a guardian to his students. When Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) risks his future with a school prank, it is Keating’s compassionate and level-headed scorn that gets through to him. Keating is not endorsing recklessness at any point in Dead Poets Society, rather he is pulling these young impressionable boys out of the shadow of their father in the best way he knows how.
When Neil comes to Keating before the first Midsummer Night’s Dream performance, with concerns about his father’s disapproval, the message he gets from Keating is anything but fatalistic. And, more importantly, it does not pit father against son, but quite the opposite:
With this scene alone, we can see Keating’s motives clearly. And we can see how, under all the histrionics, that Keating is reasonable and wise. That was the power of Robin Williams in dramatic roles, his ability to reign in the wild man routine and dial up the emotion. Keating knows what has to happen with Neil and his father, and he pushes them towards each other, not away. Neil’s lie that his father approved of him being in the play is not Keating’s fault, and it’s bizarre to even assume that’s reality.
The opinion that to get older is to side with any of the parents or stodgy teachers and administrators in Dead Poets Society comes from conservative thinking which, in my opinion, is sometimes (often) the correct revisionist perspective to have. But as new conservatism tends to just be classic liberalism in many cultural avenues, this interpretation goes too far, and it takes us back to the times before Rebel Without a Cause gave young teenagers a voice in culture. It erases autonomy and it absolves the father of any and all responsibility, and it puts us at the table of assholes perched at the front of the cafeteria.
The kids understand Keating is not to blame. That’s why the final scene with the boys standing on top of their desks, saying farewell to a man who reached them in ways they didn’t think were possible, retains its power. There is an argument that Keating needed to go after Neil’s death simply because of his closeness to the situation, but even that is debatable. There is simply no evidence that Keating’s words or actions or message steered Neil towards his fate.
In fact, any scene or exchange you could uncover in the film would likely prove the opposite was true.