Storytelling Pet Peeve #1: Being Told How to Feel about a Morally Complex Situation
I began this past weekend with a vitally important task: asking a question on Facebook. Specifically, I inquired into everyone’s pick for the worst movie ever, and by Hephaestus’s hammer did my friends submit some terrible titles! My own pick was the Peter Weir splendiferous slop-fest Dead Poets Society, a film I regrettably once enjoyed and praised, but came over the years to judge harshly and hatefully and with a vengeance. What’s my maggot-infested beef with the movie? It commits the grave cinematic sin of telling me exactly how I should feel about a morally complex and ambiguous situation–or what should have been a morally complex and ambiguous situation.
Those who’ve seen the film may remember its climax and ending: promising student and aspiring actor Neil Perry commits suicide after his oppressive father lays down the law; the school administrators need a scapegoat to avoid scandal and public embarrassment, so they fire the outlandish teacher, John Keating, whose instructions in non-conformity and encouragement of school rule-breaking hadn’t played well with the school’s cartoonishly-authoritarian administrators; and the “good” students, the one’s we’re supposed to like and support, show their solidarity with their mentor by standing on their desks as Keating exits the classroom and their contrived lives.
Keating wasn’t morally responsible for Neil’s death, but he nonetheless deserved to be fired when his teaching methods and lessons in non-conformist “seizing the day” came to light. He taught his students free-thinking (in between follow the leader on which book pages to tear out and trash) and non-conformity, which in themselves are lessons worth learning, but he recklessly neglected to teach them the responsibility that comes with subversion. The one moment when it looked as though he was going to set some boundaries between daring and stupid, he undermined his reprimand with a casual joke. As a teacher, Keating was charismatic, rousing, knowledgeable, passionate, caring, and ethically-idiotic. A mixed bag, an unwitting villain even, with the potential for a tragic fall.
Instead, the cinematic aromatherapists presented him as a heroic victim of caricatured authoritarianism and, with the music especially, told me exactly how I’m supposed to feel about his dismissal. This kind of ambiguity-blind manipulation ranks among my biggest pet peeves when it comes to storytelling. Let complexity be complex and ambiguity be ambiguous! Have triumphant music when the Death Star explodes. That’s cool. But when you’re dramatizing morally difficult human conflicts, have the courtesy to respect your characters and your audience.
So, anyway, what storytelling sins drive you nuts?