Dead Poets Society: A Romantic View of Suicide?

Intro by Brandon

When Dead Poets Society came out in 1989, it was a bit of an odd film. It was set 30 years earlier and didn’t feel at all like popular films of the 80s—in fact, thematically, it felt a lot more like the films of the 50s. It talked at length about old classic literature and Romantic poets and didn’t make great efforts to feel contemporary. But the film has had such a lasting legacy that it’s impossible to ignore it.

Dead Poets Society is a film that was hugely important for a lot of us Gen X kids growing up. “Carpe Diem” worked its way into the common lexicon at my high school and college, and everyone knew what it meant. This film is actually what inspired me to be an English major, so I owe it a lot. That this optimistic film meant so much to cynical Gen X kids is a testament to how powerful and timeless these ideas are.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with everything in this film. The film is overly pious and drips with self-importance, although it never quite lives up to its own opinion of itself. In the years since I originally saw the film in high school, I’ve come to realize I don’t really agree with the Romantics. This film’s treatment of women definitely has some issues. Has the film’s sheen faded with age? Well, no, it’s still a good film and highly important for my generation, but you have to confront the flaws with that, so we spend some time talking about those.

We do talk a bit on the subject of suicide, including what causes it, who it affects, and how the portrayal in this film sticks to (or strays from) reality. If frank discussion of suicide could be upsetting for you, you might want to skip over the mental health section of this episode.

And what podcast about movies and mental health would tackle this movie without talking about Robin Williams and his impact on the mental health world? We spend some time talking about him and the events that led to his suicide.

Also, I’ll let you in on a little secret: in this episode, your hosts will be sharing with you an inspirational message and an original poem, so make sure to listen all the way through!

So whether you’re a romantic or a cynic, seize the next hour or so and settle down for a very diverse episode of Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health!

Show Summary

Intro

Neither host can remember the names of all the boys. Brandon got some flack from his parents for majoring in liberal arts, although Maria was mostly alright. Brandon’s first written work was Final Fantasy fan-fiction; Maria was really into vampire fiction. This film was hugely important to both hosts and many other Gen-Xers growing up, inspiring both hosts to write more and inspiring Brandon to be an English major. Brandon was in a poetry club in college; Maria won an award for a poem she wrote when she was 10 (which she recites at the end of the episode). A Midsummer Night’s Dream is like The Hangover for Victorian England.

What We Liked

M: Used to like it a lot more when she was younger; still love the nostalgia. Puts being an English teacher up on a pedestal. Acting is phenomenal—Ethan Hawke’s scene in the snow was done in one take. The film has a good message.

B: This is the intersection of a few different schools of thought: Gen X, the Silent Generation, and the Romantics. The Romantics seek beauty and simple pleasures while rejecting the mathematical precision that was popular in neoclassical literature. The Silent Generation seeks individuality and self expression while rejecting the heavy push for conformity of the generation before them. Gen X sought to eliminate the mountain of bullshit that Baby Boomers had filled society with. These all come together in this film.

What We Didn’t Like

M: Wanted to see more of Mr. Keating—there’s not much information on him. The ending scene in the classroom was forced—did Mr. Keating have to come in the middle of that class? Knox’s behavior toward Chris was super-creepy and inappropriate, and she ends up falling in love with him anyway.

B: Yes, Knox was super-creepy, and harassment of women resulting in romance was a big problem in the movies of the 70s and 80s. In Brandon’s English major studies, he discovered he didn’t actually like the Romantics; instead, he prefers the Existentialists. Also, it seemed the film was trying to make a point, but he couldn’t figure out what that point was.

Mental Health

M: The suicide seemed unlikely: no signs pointing at depression or suicide, much more theatrical than Maria’s own attempts, Neil had other options besides suicide. Are parents responsible when a child commits suicide?

B: The conflict between Neil and his father was actually fairly typical of the time. Wasn’t convinced the suicide was authentic. Around 70% of suicides are white male, although people of color can react to suicidal ideation by throwing their lives away and surrendering to forces and systems that are trying to destroy their lives.

Maria’s Poem

“Halloween” – by Maria, age 10

It’s Halloween, I look outside

And what I see is a big surprise

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve gotta say

There’s a big, furry cat coming my way

I look to the left, I look to the right

I say, “I hope he’s outta my sight”

But no, uh-uh, I’m sorry pal

I’m sorry to say, but I’ve gotta go now

I run to the door and go inside

Oh my God! It’s the big surprise

I run down the hall and go to my room

Now he’s flying on a broom!

Well, I picked him up and put him down

And I found out he was Murphy Brown’s

Quotes

M: “The older I get, the more I realize: everyone sucks. I don’t care when you were born, you’re always going to have incompetent people. I have worked with people in the past and work with people currently that are a lot older and don’t know what they’re doing. I know people who are my age who can’t figure things out or are incompetent. And I know people who are younger, so for me, it just seems like the majority of people suck.”

M: “[Keating] could have taught anywhere. I mean, was he teaching and making a difference in England? I feel like I wasn’t sure exactly who he was, like, was he just this mythical figure that just goes around to these places touching boys—I mean, not touching boys! You know what I mean, you know what I mean! Not physically touching them.”

M: “The only real female character gets groped by Knox, who is Mr. Gropey-Grope, while she is fucking sleeping, and is just fine with it, and ends up liking him anyway and going on a date. That was weird. And creepy.”

M: “I feel like the movie also poses the question: Are our parents really responsible for us in this way? … Yes, his dad is an asshole, but should we blame people when people commit suicide? Those kinds of questions, I don’t know the answer.”

B: “The simple pleasures that the Romantics seek after can’t qualm big problems. I’m just a person who naturally sees a lot of big problems—maybe even so big that I don’t expect there to be any solutions.”

B: “We joked about this being a very white movie, but white males account for around 70% of suicides. It is a very white-male problem.”

B: “I don’t think black people are without suicidal ideation, I think there are some people that are having those thoughts, but when there are forces that are actively working against you, trying to destroy your life, and you surrender to those forces, is that also an outlet for suicidal ideation?”

Next Episode

In our next episode, we’ll cover the Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette.

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