Tag: theme

DEAD POETS SOCIETY: The System Always Wins

Great film. One of my favorites. But…

DEAD POETS SOCIETY is famous for several things: Robin Williams’ Oscar nominated performance, the beautiful cinematography, and its uplifting message of nonconformity in the face of an overwhelming system designed to trample the individuality out of every single person within it.

The thing is, the system absolutely wins in the film. After all the speeches and the rebellions throughout the film, Neil is still dead, pushed to suicide under his father’s oppression, Mr. Keating is still fired, and the status quo is successfully protected. Through that lens the film doesn’t cry out “Carpe diem!”, but meekly whimpers “There is no true victory against the system.”

Yes, the students at the end of the film engage in one last act of protest, demonstrating the lasting effect Mr. Keating has had on them, but it’s largely performative. The students are still stuck at Wharton, having sold him out to keep their spots at their parent’s behest, and have actively made their situation worse in their brazenness. Now, instead of having Mr. Keating to engage their hearts, they are stuck with Mr. Nolan.

The system would allow for some rebellion, as it knows that’s how to keep people in line. Allow for small acts of individualism in controlled situations to give everyone a sense of freedom, without ever allowing true deviance from the norm. If the students had the maturity to realize that playing within the bounds of the status quo, slowly pushing against it until it expands without breaking, they would have gotten nearly everything they wanted.

Mr. Keating knows this, having 15 years of life experience over his students. That’s why, after Charlie Dalton gets in trouble for writing an editorial arguing that girls should be allowed at Wharton, only to follow it up with a disruptive “phone call from God,” Mr. Keating tells him, “Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” In short, in order to live as freely as possible within the system you have to work with it, not against it. Otherwise bad things happen.

In that sense, if we accept that as the film’s true message, it hews much more closely to how we each experience life. In school we’re given standardized tests that don’t care what our individual experiences or inner lives are like. As an adult we work within organizations that need everyone to move toward a common goal as efficiently as possible, which necessarily limits the quirkiness with which we can approach our jobs. It is limiting by design, because conforming to a larger purpose than we can achieve on our own is the only way a company can pump out 10,000,000 plastic widgets per year.

The fabled system, the one that keeps society as it is, for better or worse, is more powerful than any of us. DEAD POETS SOCIETY, despite all of its inspirational lectures, sneaking around at night, and proclamations of love in the middle of classrooms, understands that. What’s amazing is that despite this clear understanding, the film still feels inspirational. We’re still left with the feeling that individualism matters.

But it’s a trick.

Just like the system designed.

Lessons From HELL OR HIGH WATER

2016’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is damn near a perfect film. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written, the movie exemplifies many of the aspects of storytelling that I think elevates the artform.

Begin in Media Res

If you seek out enough writing advice you’ll start to notice the same things being said over and over, but interpreted differently every time. The most egregious of these, in my opinion, is to start with action. Lots of writers interpret this advice as meaning to start with a fight scene, or someone being chased, and sometimes that works. But what the advice is really saying, and what HELL OR HIGH WATER does, is starts in media res. Meaning, we start with the story already in motion.

In this case, that means we’re starting with a bank robbery. Not the planning for the robbery. Not Toby picking Tanner up from his latest stint in jail and asking him for help. We learn the why and how of the robbery over the course of the film, but to begin we’re thrust into the most important moment of these characters’ lives, and the exact moment that puts the story in motion.

Begin in media res.

Building Empathy Through Relationships and Balancing Tone

Between the desperation of the characters, the actions they take out of that desperation, and the overall message of the film, it could have been bleak. We could have watched as one desperate father and his borderline sociopathic, irreparably damaged brother hurt people while robbing banks and being chased by a sad, nearly retired Texas Ranger with no hope for his future.

Instead, we get something else. Something that balances that heaviness with moments of levity that connects the audience to the characters by relating the characters to one another. One of the things that surprised me most on my re-watch (I initially saw it when it was first released four years ago) is how funny the film can be. Ben Foster’s character, Tanner, is especially charismatic. The way he ribs his younger brother and leans into the worst aspects of his personality to defect from the awfulness of his actions becomes endearing. This scene, for example:

The scene gets intense and violent, all because Tanner only knows how to escalate a situation. If you look closely at the scene, Tanner is prepared to shoot the kid before Toby intervenes. When Toby opens the door, you can see the gun at Tanner’s side. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he immediately diffuses his brother’s anger by making fun of him for forgetting to keep someone’s gun away from them earlier in the movie (“You remembered the gun! You’re getting old hat at this.”) and then busts his balls for buying Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper.

By seeing that aspect of their relationship, by understanding how Toby could so easily be swayed by Tanner’s humor, we’re won over, too.

Simplicity of Story in Service of Theme

The film’s story isn’t complex. There are essentially three main characters, and on major supporting character. There are no twists or turns. Everything happens as it does, in the order it does, and the consequences play out as they will. Motivations and rationalizations are clearly explained. The story is what it is, no unnecessary bells or whistles.

This simplicity streamlines the story, keeping the focus tight on the characters and the themes, and allowing the audience to be swept up into the journey. The themes of family, land, racism, and economic disparity are all complex, needing engagement from the audience to think on these things after the film. Keeping the story simple, straightforward, challenging the audience in a different way than a Chris Nolan film might (for example), allows for the focus to be on what’s most important. If the film had double-crosses, or was told in non-chronological order, that would be lost.

Social Commentary Done Right

HELL OR HIGH WATER has a very clear point of view. Banks and the already-wealthy are the real thieves in our society. Multiple characters point this out when discussing the morality of the robberies, but it’s really summed up with a short monologue by Toby near the end of the film:

Monologue starts around the 2:15 mark.

After spending the entire movie in poor, dying towns with boarded up buildings and billboards for debt relief dotting the land, Toby simply and eloquently sums it up: being poor is a disease. One he didn’t want to pass on to his children.

As I said, the film has a clear point of view. But it allows the audience to come around to that point of view on their own, only hammering the point home with this final scene. By spending time in those dying towns, watching the characters act out of desperation, we’ve already come to understand their plight. Toby’s vocalizing it doesn’t change that, he only reinforces it.

I think that’s how it should be done. Social commentary can easily be a turn-off for audiences if they’re beat over the head with it. Doing it subtly, with characters we understand and like, might make it stick.

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