“No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)
by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor
The main characters of Dead Poets Society (1989) provide a perfect opportunity to observe not only the remarkable skill of no less than three young actors (Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles) on their way to Hollywood greatness, but also a profound illustration the various array of practice shifts involved in the worldview of Existentialism (See, Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society).
Paradigm Shifts versus Practice Shifts
A worldview is a lot like an iceberg in at least two important ways: First, only their uppermost levels are visible to the naked eye. Second, that visible tip is not the even close to the most dangerous part of an iceberg or a worldview. It is that proverbial 90% lurking beneath the waterline that can sink your ship… and maybe even cost you your life.
You cannot “see” the strategies, values, or stories guiding a person or society. Unless they are reflected in actions, words, or “cultural artifacts”—art, architecture, literature, technology, institutions, etc.—ideas remain hidden under the surface. Like mounting pressure on tectonic plates, no one knows how much power is really stored up until the ground begins to shake.
Many anthropologists, therefore, make a distinction between “paradigm shifts” and “practice shifts.” A paradigm shift is change in the unseen world of ideas of an individual or society, while a practice shift is a change in actual behavior. For instance, in Casablanca, we had no idea what a profound paradigm shift Rick was experiencing until the moment we saw his practice shift in putting Ilsa on the plane with Victor. Or in Fiddler on the Roof, it was impossible to know if Tevye had actually shifted his paradigm for marriage from a business contract to a romantic covenant, until he applied his daughters’ paradigm in his own practices by asking Golda, “Do you love me?”
The relationship between invisible paradigm shifts and visible practice shifts is a critical element of all good filmmaking. Whether it is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting computer, because he has finally put his faith in “The Force,” or George Bailey asking God to make him live again, because he has finally reinterpreted his life as “wonderful,” the clearer the connection between a main character’s paradigm shift and their practice shift, the better.
Dead Poet Society (DPS) Character Transformations
Dead Poets Society offers the unusual pleasure of following the transformation arc of multiple characters, four of who get their own complete storylines. And while their paradigm shifts are similar, their practice shifts are radically different.
While Mr. Keating implores his students that “words and ideas can change the world,” it is Knox Overstreet who gives voice to the counter-balancing truth, “I’ve got to do something!” And do something is exactly what the young DPS members set out to do.
Knox Overstreet: For the Love of Chris
For Knox Overstreet applying Mr. Keating’s worldview to his own life story begins with the inciting event of Chris Noel (Alexandra Powers) coming into his life. What begins as obligatory dinner at the home family friends—the Danbury’s—turns into the beginning of an epic adventure. The Danbury’s football star son, Chet, is dating cheerleader Chris whom Knox decides is “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Instead of accepting the script written for him by his family and school, he invokes “Carpe Diem!” in his headlong pursuit of the girl of his dreams. The new plausibility structures of his new worldview open up the possibility of engaging in behaviors that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier. He sneaks off campus to see Chris. He writes poetry about her.
Finally the internal pressure of his newfound love and newly expanded worldview reach a boiling point. Standing by the phone with the entire DPS watching, he rewrites his life story from the Welton/family worldview to his newly chosen existentialism in a single moment:
Knox: She’s going to hate me. The Danbury’s will hate me. My parents will kill me. (Looking at the group.) All right, God damn it. (Inserts coins.) Carpe diem!
Once committed—the “midpoint” of his story arc—there is no turning back for Knox. He kisses Chris at a party, reads her poetry at her school, and just when all hope seems lost, he wins a date and the heart of his true love.
Mr. Keating’s teaching has shifted his paradigm in such a way that his practice shifts with it. Knox rejects his Welton/family story that social structures must be followed and embraces a new story where he is free to think for himself and find his own meaning for his day-to-day existence. The ideas found in Mr. Keating’s Existentialism have serious consequences for Knox. His life is clearly changed and enriched from the experience.
Charlie Daulton: The Name is Nuwanda
Charlie Daulton’s (Gale Hansen) life story, on the other hand, isn’t so much transformed by Mr. Keating’s worldview as it is confirmed. As the film’s steadfast character, Charlie really doesn’t change much at all. He is a charming rebellious hedonist at the beginning of the film, and a charming and even more rebellious hedonist at the end. From bringing pornography, and later girls to DPS meetings, interrupting a school assembly with a phone call from God (also about girls), to painting a virility symbol on his chest and adopting the name “Nuwanda,” Mr. Keating’s Existentialism functions primarily to free Charlie to act on impulses he had previously restrained.
Mr. Keating attempts to reign in Charlie’s character with the warning: “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone. There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” Yet he never really succeeds in actually transforming Charlie’s girl obsessed life story.
On a more positive note, his new worldview also helps Charlie to stand against external pressure. He is perhaps the first Dead Poet to “get” Mr. Keating’s courtyard marching lesson on conformity when he tells his teacher, “I’m exercising the right not to walk.” In the end, Charlie alone is the only Dead Poet willing to endure both paddling and expulsion without ratting out his friends or betraying his teacher.
While Mr. Keating’s worldview doesn’t really change the direction of Charlie’s life, it does help strengthen his character. While not exactly a heroic character, his exposure to existentialism certainly hasn’t hurt his life.
Todd Anderson: O Captain, my Captain!
Perhaps the most moving transformation in the film is that of Todd Anderson. At the start of the film, Todd’s identity is buried so deeply in that of the Welton/Family worldview, he functions merely as a sub-plot of his older brother’s story. Something inside him is so stirred by Mr. Keating’s message that he writes “Seize the Day” in bold writing in his notebook. Then we watch as the Welton/Family story wins out and he crumbles the paper and tosses it in the waste basket.
But Mr. Keating is not finished with Todd yet. When Todd refuses to even admit that he has written a poem to be read aloud in class, Mr. Keating steps in:
Keating: “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd. Isn’t that your worst fear? Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.”
In perhaps the film’s most moving scene, Mr. Keating writes Walt Whitman’s adage on the blackboard—“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world”—and demands that Todd YAWP! Suddenly the paradigm shift that has been lurking beneath the surface of Todd’s life breaks into the open in his “sweaty-tooth madman” speech.
Todd: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold… Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.
Keating: [long pause then class applauds] Don’t you forget this.
He never does. In the climactic final scene it is Todd who finds his voice in leading the Dead Poets in their final act of heroism. As the bagpipe music closes on a freeze frame of the boys standing on their desks, you FEEL the incredible power of existentialism to free these young men from the bondage of the gravity of Physicalism and send them soaring into the invisible world of Ideals.
O, if that was all there was to the story. But there is another major character, and it is his story that points us to the second similarity between worldviews and icebergs—what you don’t see is what is most likely to kill you. I’ll explore that thought next week, but today let me ask you…
Was there something lurking just beneath the waterline of the iceberg of existentialism that ultimately led to Neil’s tragic Titanic ending?
If so… was Mr. Keating at least somewhat responsible for Neil’s death?
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