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When Roger Ebert Laid the Smack Down on Dead Poets Society

April 24, 2009

Reading one of Roger Ebert’s reviews today is a sad experience now that he’s become like a college educated version of Grandpa Simpson. But even long before that Ebert, like many modern reviewers, suffered from the whole Pauline Kael approach, the over personalized snarky reviews that really didn’t tell you much about what the movie did right or wrong, but told you a whole lot about the man or woman reviewing it.

That’s why I was surprised when I came across this Dead Poets Society review from Ebert. Surprised? Yes, because Ebert lays down the smack on Dead Poets Society in a limited amount of space while getting down to why that overpraised box of treacle is so full of fail.


“Dead Poets Society” is a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something: doing your own thing.

Peter Weir’s film makes much noise about poetry, and there are brief quotations from Tennyson, Herrick, Whitman and even Vachel Lindsay, as well as a brave excursion into prose that takes us as far as Thoreau’s Walden. None of these writers are studied, however, in a spirit that would lend respect to their language; they’re simply plundered for slogans to exort the students toward more personal freedom. At the end of a great teacher’s course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they really love is the teacher.

As a caveat Robin Williams’ character is trying to teach the students to love poetry. But nowhere do we see him teaching anything structural about poetry, but appreciation. And you don’t need a teacher for that. But that’s the whole theme of Dead Poets Society and just about every life affirming movie featuring stodgy administrators up against that bright and daring teacher.

No one goes to school to learn to enjoy life, take chances or carpe diem. You can do that on your own time, unless you’re hopelessly retarded, because a teacher isn’t your life coach. The great movie teachers all too often are nothing more than walking talking self-help books. And that’s not what learning is about.

Which fits well with how ignorant about actual learning the movie is. As 17 year olds in a top ranked prep school in 1959, and it’s impossible that they’re as ignorant as they act. A 17 year old prep school student in 1959 who had no idea where O Captain My Captain was from, is hard to believe. But that’s just the beginning.

The society’s meetings have been badly written and are dramatically shapeless, featuring a dance line to Lindsay’s “The Congo” and various attempts to impress girls with random lines of poetry. The movie is set in 1959, but none of these would-be bohemians have heard of Kerouac, Ginsberg or indeed of the beatnik movement.

Or of anything. In one of the endless musical montages, they break out by listening to white boy rock and roll and fencing outside. Yes, fencing.

Real life prep school students were more entitled than their peers. The movie version are oppressed and suppressed. Like every movie about the 1950’s, not made in the 1950’s, Dead Poets Society envisions life for the wealthy WASPs as a hard choice between being corporate drones or prefiguring the 60’s by doing your own thing. The ending panders to just that idea, we’re meant to assume that the students who got up will go on to drop out, drop acid, march for civil rights, and found their own tree farm, while the ones who keep on sitting will support the Vietnam War and vote for Nixon. It’s the kind of simple minded paradigm Hollywood keeps recycling mainly because Hollywood is in love with its own self-made image as daring and transgressive. And movies like Dead Poets Society, filled with phony sentimentality and self-indulgence, starring Robin Williams as another sensitive emotive man-child, and putting self-expression above everything else, reminds us just how hollow Hollywood really is.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob permalink
    July 15, 2009 9:49 pm

    Brilliant post. I’ve always hated that movie and it’s always nauseated me to hear anybody praising it. Nobody can really appreciate poetry without learning poetic form and meter (not to mention history), and Whitman sucks balls.

  2. August 17, 2009 12:45 pm

    Oh realy, Bob? Should we just call you Pritchard? Tee hee hee….

    Oh, and as a matter of fact Dead Poets Society is my all-time favorite movie. Even if it kinda contradicts itself towards the end, it’s still a good movie and, well, Carpe Diem! *actually goes by that in real life*

    Tee hee hee….and that movie’s older than I am.



  3. Are U Fcuking Kidding Me? permalink
    October 11, 2009 1:40 am

    Are U Fcuking Kidding Me?

    Roger Ebert’s credibility has gone downhill.

    His time has come and gone.

    The high point of his career was with the late Gene Siskel.
    I’ve seen every episode of Siskel & Ebert.

    At the Movies and with Richar Roeper.

    Nobody cares about his “thumbs up” He has someplace else that he can put it.

    There’s a reason why his show got cancelled…it went downhill.

    I can pretty much tell whether or not I’m going to like a movie by what Roger Ebert says about it –a thumbs-up from that senile old windbag and I know I can save myself a trip to the Cineplex, and Bob sucks monkey balls.

    P.S. Those aren’t RAISINETS.

  4. fudi permalink
    October 11, 2009 1:56 am

    How Roger Ebert got to be the so-called dean of movie reviewers is beyond me.I’ve come to use him as a reliable barometer in one way-if he likes a movie,I’ll hate it,and vice-versa.He lost me forever when he gave thumbs down to “Full Metal Jacket”and then thumbs up to “Benji the Hunted”,on the same show!Don’t forget-he wrote the screenplay for “Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens” and still has the nerve to criticize other people’s work!

    • drnormalblog permalink*
      October 16, 2009 2:58 am

      Yeah Ebert is a joke and he’s only gotten worse since then, but sometimes he did get it right. Even a broken clock… etc

  5. October 22, 2009 4:29 am

    “The great movie teachers all too often are nothing more than walking talking self-help books. And that’s not what learning is about.”

    True. But a movie about a teacher teaching effectively would be not be entertainment, it would be instruction. Most of us are looking for entertainment from our video, unless we’re buying DVDs from The Teaching Company.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    February 25, 2012 9:03 am

    I’m sorry but a “simple minded paradigm” is the only kind of paradigm that can be successfully expressed in the primarily visual format of a movie in a 2 hour duration. If you want complex and meaningful then your only hope is a book. A movie is a trivial superficial medium and all movies are to a greater or lesser extent trivial and superficial – as dictated by the medium.
    I personally dislike Mr Ebert’s review of this movies, one of his all time worst. This movie is no better or worse than any other. And had the script writer put in full blown poetry lessons showing detailed explanations of poetry structure, as Mr Ebert seems to suggest, the audience would have either walked out or fallen asleep. I do however agree with him that the Robin Williams John Wayne impersonations should have been left out – they derailed the character. Other than that, this movie was i think an above average rendition of this hackneyed material.
    And while it seems normal for movie reviewers to comment on the lack of originality in movies, lets face it there are only a handful of plots suitable for the shallow movie medium, and there is nothing completely new remaining to be done. I think reviewers need to get back to reality to some extent – these are movies, nothing more, nothing less. A couple of hours of fun (if you are lucky), but that’s all they are.

  7. Christopher Saunders permalink
    April 25, 2012 10:55 am

    I wholeheartedly endorse this commentary. Dead Poets Society is an obnoxious feature-length cliche that milks every bad “great teacher” trope for all its worth. The cast is the only reason it isn’t completely worthless.

    As a side note, I’ll endorse The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a good antidote to this slop.

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