My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Mailbox: Is Dead Poets Society a Shitty Movie or What?

Does Dead Poets Society promote a false expectation about writing? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Please wait a couple of weeks before you ask me to take on another academic though.] 

Michael writes: 

There is an article out there by Stephen Marche called The Lies of Dead Poets Society that is about writing and how Dead Poets Society has formed a generation of writers who believe that writing should be easy. I was wondering what your opinion is.

My reply:

Ah, isn't it great when you combine a beloved classic's twenty-fifth anniversary with the need for internet hyperbole, contrarianism, and a demand for constantly updating content. You end up with writers willing to slap up some catchy link bait title about how a beloved classic sucks in the hopes that...um...their title will suck in a few people who might click....uh.....well.....

Anyway, let's move on, shall we?

This question started pretty simple, and my answer was pretty simple:

This writer is full of crap.

Actually, I've cruised the internet and found writings about myself from time to time and it's very distressing to have a difference of opinion translated by another writer into some kind of moral turpitude, so I should instead say with far more diplomacy that perhaps Marche was watching a different movie than I was. The amount of time devoted even peripherally to actual writing (or the inspiration of writing) is about seven minutes. Yeah I clocked it with my iPad timer. There's a scene of Todd (Ethan Hawke) working on his poem, that scene where Keating makes Todd talk about the "sweaty-toothed madman" and the "blanket of truth," and a couple of bits about writing from the soul, but the movie isn't really about writing.

If you want to talk about Finding Forrester, Misery, or Capote, and their failings to convey what it means to be a writer, that's fine, but don't forget how epically, titanically, monumentally fucking boring it would be to watch a movie where a character scowls at the page for twenty minutes and then changes two words. DPS might be about artistic inspiration, but it isn't really about writing. Heck, its principle conflict revolves around someone who burns to be an actor.

So DPS can't really be said to have affected the culture of writing anywhere near as much as Marche claims it can. When Marche writes, "Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Dead Poets Society, a film that came out 25 years ago today, and whose influence on how young writers come to be writers cannot be overstated," I simply must disagree.

Marche has overstated it.

Marche has overstated it a lot.

In fact, this overstatement has an eye-crossing example right within his own article. Were it simply a difference of opinion I would have to state my disagreement and go have a Coke. However Marche blames the rise in the post war creative writing programs on Dead Poets Society. Just think about that for a second. The rise in the number of CW programs since the end of World War II (1945) is because of a movie that came out in 1989.

Marche, I say this with all the love in the world: "Lolwut?"

It is also true that while DPS doesn't really reveal the particulars of writing process or learning craft (which, again, would make a unconscionably boring movie) it does get the fire of artistic spark correct. Inspiration comes from passion and fire and ideas that claw at  the inside of your head to get out. Far too many people who label themselves as writers know how to write but struggle with what to write.

Yes, many writers have studied linguistics, foreign languages, and the classics, but almost none of them attribute those things to their success. Instead they talk about their ability to stoke the fire that burns within them and give it form. They talk about discipline, and their first drafts sound a lot like Todd's ramblings. Their educations, those that have one to speak of, are brought to bear on revision and deepen the work.

But it is the inspiration and life and day seizing passion that Dead Poets extols that drives them to the page in the first place to contribute their verse.

And that would have been it. Article done. Drop the mic. Go watch FFM porn for the rest of the day*.

*And by "watch FFM porn" I mean clean the house and take care of a six month old.

However, in trying to find Marche's article, I ran across the article that Marche probably based his own rant on–or at least that influenced it–a piece in The Atlantic called Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities by Keven J.H. Dettmar PhD. And that article was actually a bit harder to disagree with. So I even sat down last night and rewatched the movie for the first time in probably two decades.

(And, guys, I swear this second part is a little dry no matter how many jokes I throw in so if those of you who aren't literary theory nerds want to reconnoiter at the Starbucks after the article is over, I totes understand, yo.)

Beyond its nearly inarguable title, I find Dr. Dettmar's analysis to be lacking in context. He makes a lot of good points about the failings of the movie and of Keating within, including a spot-on take down about Keating's use of Frost's "Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood." I'm not going to argue with his accurate criticisms, but I think he also seems to have forgotten or ignored some critical points in his race to his thesis. And I think those points are enough to sully his overall intention that DPS has even a metaphorical relationship to the struggle for humanities' legitimacy.

I'm not in the habit of taking on PhDs writing for The Atlantic as a general rule, so I'm going to try to walk through these points with a little more care than my usual threesome glorifying tack. I'm no academic.

1- Hollywood got the process of teaching wrong!  Okay, so this is more of an excuse than a counterpoint, but I think it's important for Literature PhDs to keep in mind if they're going to turn their formal academic analysis on the low hanging fruit of mainstream movies.

I saw a movie once where a dude outran a nuclear explosion on a motorcycle. I saw another where a guy got up after having been thrown into the SF bay by a thermite plasma detonation that happened a few feet away from him and his organs weren't liquified by the shockwave nor did the air in his lungs ignite instantly and pan fry the inside of his torso to his rib cage. Anyone who watches Court TV knows that legal dramas only resemblance to actual legal proceedings have to do chiefly with the geography of the room. Police procedure is actually boring as shit. Most movies about the middle ages should be about 30% of the characters dying of the plague. And the less said about Indiana Jones hiding in a fridge, the better.

The point is, it's actually stranger for Hollywood to get something right. They dramatize things; it's what they do. Most of us roll our eyes, eat our popcorn, and enjoy the movie. It's called "willing suspension of disbelief" and anytime a movie is about something we know and love, we have to suspend a little harder. If we wanted an accurate portrayal of a classroom, we watch Khan Academy lectures instead of a damned movie. And while a case could be made that the rash of Hollywood feel-good teaching movies in the 80s and 90s has contributed to a generation that blames teachers for not inspiring students instead of students for not doing their %#@$ing homework, using DPS as a metaphor for the shift to academic laxity in humanities is a tougher sell. No one suggests that the absurd physics of science fiction is fucking up STEM.

If you are going to take a formal academic hatchet to a movie that won a suitcase full of awards (and was nominated for three suitcases more), it better be because you think that specific movie has been explicitly responsible for the damage done to the perception of a discipline and has caused some real and lasting harm. Neil DeGrass Tyson grousing that the sky in Titanic wasn't the real Norther Atlantic sky is a far cry from claiming that a movie represents everything that's wrong with an entire discipline. This is of course what Dr. Dettmar has asserted and is trying to prove. And while he articulates a very real problem within the Humanities, he picked a popular movie on its 25th anniversary to make a point (probably because it was link bait), so instead of a salient example that the audience could relate to, it was more like using Red Dawn to talk about gun control.

2- Or did they? There's a concept in teaching called "scaffolding" where the teacher tries to drum up interest in the lesson by doing something interesting or showing how the lesson might apply in the student's actual life. It's actually one of the most important concepts a teacher can learn, and the younger the student, the more important it is. Every kid who ever whined "When are we ever going to use this?" right before they tuned out is an example of a place where scaffolding could have been better.

I had a teacher once who spent two class days having us play a variation of a game of diplomacy to get us prepped for learning about WWI. If you had only tuned in for those two hours, you would have thought Mr. Ballard wasn't really teaching. In point of fact, it was one of the lessons I still remember to this day–some 25 years later about how the chains of alliances pulled others into the war.

DPS takes place over the course of months. The students meet with Keating each day, presumably for an hour. The screen time of the movie devoted to teaching is about 23 minutes. (I timed it.) So what's going on during these dozens of other hours? Could it be that Keating is teaching them exactly how to do close reading and literary analysis but that's kind of boring so we only get the "inspirational" scaffolding parts? Does he assign them massive amounts of homework? Are they working their way through the entire canon in between those soccer games? Most teachers would look like they were mostly fucking around if all you ever looked at was their scaffolding, but those are the most interesting parts.

3- These kids are in high school. HIGH SCHOOL!! Dettmar says he was getting his PhD when DPS came out and Marche says he was teaching as well (Renaissance Drama according to his profile) by the 90s, so I'm going to go out on a limb and assume both had advanced degrees when DPS came out (or were well on their way).

I can't stress enough how much your understanding of something changes from high school through an advanced degree. Seriously, that's not hyperbole. I actually can't stress it ENOUGH. It's not just the amount of information but entire methodologies of examining that information. In literature that means not only having read much, much more but also assimilated more theories of analysis. The distance from a PhD to high school in conceptual education is almost the same as the distance from a high school student to a pre-schooler. Imagine someone reading the Great Gatsby for symbolism taking umbrage with the fact that the first graders are only being asked questions about major plot points in a five page story.

When are those lazy brats going to learn?

Four years of undergrad. Two or three for a masters. And anywhere from three to six years for a typical PhD program....if you slam out your dissertation. That's somewhere between nine and thirteen years of additional study at increasing levels of nuance and complexity.

And that's shit you want to study, not just some general education that you couldn't care less about.

It is absolutely true that the lessons in DPS would be smeared fecal matter if they were being taught at the post-grad level of a literature degree. That is unquestionably, irrefutably true. Even in my undergrad we had to focus on textual citations and read previous literary analysis of the work we were writing about, responding to it and incorporating it into our thesis. But these kids are seventeen years old! They aren't sitting in a major they chose or getting an advanced degree because they are fascinated by the subject matter. Getting them jazzed is about the best any teacher can hope for. Even for prep school overachievers, they aren't ready to do high level literary analysis.

Danielle: "Saussure again? When are we going to get to neopragmatism?"
Cindy: "Probably after the quiz on chapter 6 of Catcher in the Rye. Did you read it?"
I wouldn't teach my second language 78 students about the exceptions permitting comma splices in certain style guides or that "affect" is sometimes a noun. That comes later; I would just confuse them. Just like a high school math class wouldn't start teaching differential equations in an algebra class. When you're dealing with high school students, nurturing that spark of interest and exciting the passions for something is good teaching. And high school curriculums do regularly have students just pick a favorite poem or try their hand at writing some for the class or just read something for the joy of it.

All the damned time.

4- It's a Generational Movie This is a movie from 1989 about 1959. Now, that doesn't just mean you get to see Wilson from House looking like a teen-ager and a BABY Ethan Hawke. (Oh my god, he is so cute!! Justwannagrabhischeeks.) If we, ironically(?), give it a post-structural analysis, we will realize that its historical context is probably more responsible for its failings than some sort of anti-intellectualism. If there's one thing people liked to do in the 80s, it was make fun of how stuck up folks were in the 50s. The Baby Boomers got raised in this post-war nonsense, rebelled "like woah," and then spent the next couple of decades in every medium imaginable talking about how stupid their world-war parents were about...pretty much everything.

Seeing DPS as an indictment of the 50s rather than a how-to lesson on teaching humanities is probably a better lens through which to examine it. We might as well criticize La Bamba for not showing us how to truly learn the fine art of music.

5- This movie is about New Criticism and Reader Response First of all DPS can't have had the benefit of the last 25 years of literary theory. It' hadn't been made yet.  In 1989, Paul Fry was hot like lava on the sun, and New Historicism and Cultural Studies were exploding, so seeing echoes of their influence in Keating's teaching is unsurprising. The students in their late fifties prep school are still learning a traditional model of literary criticism–the kind that would have been in place for centuries before Ransom's 1941 magnum opus. The whole scene where they are plotting bar graphs of a poem's "worth" is exactly about old criticism. New Criticism hit in the middle of the 20th century and it was absolutely an upheaval against the Greatness=Importance+Artistry equation. Keating is supposed to be a bit of a hell raiser, a  progressive, a critical thinker, who encourages his students to explore their own ideas. He has been learning under New Criticism, which in 1959, would have been a little bold (at least in very conservative prep schools).

It is no coincidence that Keating is acting as a progenitor of sorts to a groundbreaking literary theory that will explode on the scene in the 60s (just a year or two later): reader response. Barths and Fish wouldn't have written their canonical works yet, but Rosenblatt's Literature as Exploration was 20 years old and the literary world was humming–absolutely vibrating–with the idea that perhaps there was more than a single way to read a work.

Reader response has been reigned in since the 60s, mostly replaced with various intentionalist lenses, as the demand for some post-structural analysis became evident (and after it was used to defend almost any interpretation), but at the time, it would make perfect sense for a young firebrand teacher to be on that particular cutting edge.

6- Dead Poets Society is a Coming of Age Movie This isn't really a movie about teaching humanities. It's not about the teacher like Mr. Holland's Opus or The Freedom Writer Diaries. Keating fulfills a mentor role in the boys' journey, but he's only on camera about a third of the time, and teaching for a little over 20 minutes.

This movie is about the students. They fuck around. They smoke. They fall in love. They hang out in caves telling ghost stories. They dance on the roof. They play instruments in the dorms. They drink. They play soccer. They stalk women. Keating is teaching them less about Humanities than about “sucking the marrow from life." There is even a moment where one of the students asks if something is going to be on the test, and Neil (I think) says "Don't you get it?" What Keating was "teaching" them–at least the part that the movie chose to show–was how to think critically, question authority, be themselves, and live life to the fullest.

That is why their act of authority-questioning contrariness in the last few seconds has any meaning at all.

ETA: This was not as poignant a GIF when I first wrote this article.

There are a lot of problems in Dead Poets Society. It's a movie about how "tough" it is to be an entitled white, rich, male, going to the best prep school in the country before civil rights or the ERA. It is such a sausage fest that it actually creates a Bechdel black hole and the movie itself would disappear in a flash of matter/antimatter light if it ever touched a copy of Beaches. Knox apparently believes "Carpe diem" applies to sexual touches without consent. He then pursues Chris relentlessly even though she says no...multiple times; worse, his tactics ultimately work, further reinforcing the narrative that men should ignore women who reject them because those crazy women don't know what's really good for them. The suicide is almost....romantically portrayed. Everyone who is traditional is also an intractably stodgy cliché. Faults abound. And Dr. Dettmar accurately points out many of them.

But to cite the failings of DPS to didactically portray an aspect of teaching that it wasn't actually trying to portray is a bit like getting upset that you watched Stand and Deliver four times and still don't know calculus.


  1. "But to cite the failings of DPS to didactically portray an aspect of teaching that wasn't actually trying to portray like getting upset that you watched Stand and Deliver four times and still don't know calculus."

    This part made me laugh. Bravo. Well done. You rock.

  2. Thank you Chris.

    Favorite line: "It is such a sausage fest that it actually creates a Bechdel black hole and the movie itself would disappear in a flash of matter/antimatter light if it ever touched a copy of Beaches."

    1. My pleasure! Thank you for such a stimulating question. I had fun with it.

  3. Minor nitpick: "almost none of them attribute those things to their success." Their English teachers and editors would advise them to either *attribute* their success to those things, or *credit* those things for their success. Things that could correctly be *attributed* to a writer's success would include large royalty checks, speaking invitations, and groupie threesomes. ;-)