In a summer that promises us ghostbusters, batmobiles and a contest with the Nazis for the Holy Grail, "Dead Poets Society" arrives like a breath of cooler summer air.
It requires us to think. And from the size of the line around the theater when we saw it last week, a lot of people are ready to be thus challenged. I suppose the case could be made that a fair number of them think they are going to see Robin Williams' shtick, but if that was true in the audience that attended with us, they got caught up totally. They applauded when the film was over, a phenomenon almost as rare as an Orange County Democrat winning public office.
Our little group was rather sharply divided in what we took away from the film, and that's OK, too. Any piece of commercial entertainment that can produce such a result is--by my definition--highly successful.
If you've seen the film or read the reviews in Calendar, you know that the central figure is a highly charismatic teacher in a boy's prep school who turns his students on to poetry and beyond that to some rather highly individualistic expression with mixed--and in one instance tragic--results. Whether the teacher was responsible for the resultant behavior--rather than some excessively despotic parents and school authorities--is the central question raised by the movie.
But I found a corollary question more interesting--and less easy to answer: At what point can we turn young people loose with the heady brew of free-wheeling individual expression in the assurance that they have the concomitant mental and physical discipline and sense of history to use it either wisely or effectively? It's a question that recurs repeatedly to a teacher and one I struggled with through two decades of teaching students at UC Irvine, hopefully, to become better writers.
This question was raised pointedly in a brief exchange between the Robin Williams character and another, older teacher who is bemused by Williams' teaching technique. He warns Williams that "discipline and tradition" must come first; Williams answers with a bit of poetry eulogizing the freedom of creative thinking. Williams' argument is, of course, more exciting, more exhilarating--and more persuasive.
But it all reminded me of an incident that took place when my daughter was in the sixth grade. She brought home a charming little story she had written in English class. The teacher had given her an A+, and although the story was delightful, it was full of misspellings, confused syntax and grammatical errors.
I made an appointment with the teacher and said I didn't think my daughter should have been given so high a grade on a paper with so many errors. The teacher replied that the class was in creative writing, and my daughter's work was highly creative. I said that creativity can be muffled and even stifled without the proper tools of expression and the students shouldn't be allowed to think they weren't needed.
It was a standoff. I'm sure the teacher felt I was the one stifling my daughter's creativity--and I suspect a few of my students over the years felt the same way when I insisted they learn the tools first.
By an odd coincidence, some of the same questions are raised in a quite different context by another current Orange County entertainment: South Coast Repertory's "Sunday in the Park With George." The first act devotes itself to the single-minded expression of the creative process and how it affects people in the artist's life. The second act deals with those who would bastardize, commercialize, standardize, and trivialize creative work. But throughout both acts, the recurring theme expressed repeatedly by the artist is the importance to the creative process of seven qualities: "Order, design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony."
Even when the artist is told by the woman who loves him:
Stop worrying if your vision is new.
Let others make that decision--
They usually do.
You keep moving on ...
He returns to these seven precepts as the qualities that will enable him to "move on."
Most of the boys whose spirits were lifted by the teacher in "Dead Poets Society," it seemed to me, still lacked many of these qualities (although this isn't necessarily a matter of age) and therefore found total liberation dangerous.
Yet, as it did to my daughter's sixth-grade teacher, such an attitude comes off as stifling. I only wish that the parents and school administrators in "Dead Poets Society" could be less rigid, less myopic, more compassionate. There is something to be said on their behalf, but the characters thus drawn have no chance to compete with the persuasiveness of the charismatic teacher.
But thank God for an occasional work that reaches out to a mass audience and causes it to think. Just as "Field of Dreams" offered food for the soul, "Dead Poets Society" offers food for the mind.