Saturday, May 17, 2003

I watched the Kevin Kline movie "The Emperor's Club" the other night. If you haven't seen it, it's about a prep school professor and his struggle to teach his students to be virtuous, with notable lack of success in the case of a Senator's son who remains irrefragably dishonest. I didn't really like it that much, and I'm trying to figure out why I liked Dead Poets' Society so much more.

The odd thing is that I agree entirely with the message of Emperor's Club -- a "man's character is his fate," says Kline's character, and the most important thing is to be virtuous. And I disagree almost wholeheartedly with the message of Dead Poets' Society, in which (if you recall) Robin Williams urged his students to break rules for the sake of breaking rules. (I can imagine few "principles" that are more likely to work ill when urged upon teenage boys, whose every natural inclination is to break rules that need to be kept.)

Part of it is that Kline's character is not consistently protrayed. His every utterance seems to be devoted to virtue of some sort, but the one scene in which he displays the most emotion is when the school board announces that they have chosen someone else to be the new headmaster. In a huff, Kline's character offers his resignation. It makes little sense that the main occasion on which Kline's character shows emotion is when his personal ambition, otherwise unmentioned in the film, was slighted.

Another significant part is that the overall story is not that convincing. I just didn't find it believable that the grown-up Senator's son (Sedgewick Bell) would go to all the trouble to re-enact the Roman history competition with the purported aim of "reclaiming his honor," only to cheat again. Why bother?

Finally, the most significant difference is that Emperor's Club is rather bland for the most part, while Dead Poets' Society is much more intensely romantic (I mean "romantic" in the nineteenth-century sense). Almost too intense, in fact, in a way that is reminiscent of the overheated and suicidal romanticism one finds in Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. With that intensity comes dramatic effect, which seemed lacking in Emperor's Club.

So I guess that's about it. Too bad that a movie with a sound moral message couldn't have been better done and more inspiring.


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