One of my favourite pieces by Victor Perkins has to be his account of the book-tearing scene in Dead Poets Society. (As far as I know this has not been published but Victor has presented it to various audiences, for example at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies 2005 conference under the title, ‘Badness – An Issue in the Aesthetics of Film’) Without going into detail about Perkins’s objections to that scene (since I’m entertaining hopes that I might host a version of his paper on this site…), one of the crucial points he makes is that our judgments about a movie, or any artwork, are not enforceable like those made in a court of law. Our judgments are a contribution to a discussion or conversation about the mattering of movies to us. However, we cannot help but notice that there are judges who indeed do work in a court of law and whose judgments about film actually matters on a practical level (say if it involves enforcing the banning or censoring something on screen). High court judge Michael Burton’s recent ruling on Nobel laureate Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth means that it will now be sent out to British schools with a package of guidelines that teachers have to read out to pupils, presumably before the DVD screening.
There are a couple of bizarre things about this. First, one has to wonder why the British government is forcing teachers to screen what seems to me to be the cinematic equivalent of the old ‘The End is Nigh’ sandwich-boards. But even worse we have a situation where a judge is effectively controlling the context of the screening. Imagine a situation where one’s screening of Vertigo had to include warnings that the manipulation of a woman’s appearance to gratify one’s desires was not in line with the cultural consensus on femininity. The fact is that discovering and thinking through one’s own responses to a movie is part of the pleasure of watching it in the first place. The attraction of John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets, is that he wants to shake up the official, stuffy and tradition forms of teaching enforced in the elite school where he works. As Perkins points out, the film has a problem articulating this effectively; Keating tells the students to destroy a piece of writing he doesn’t agree with, and the film encourages the audience to enjoy this act of vandalism. But given a set of guidelines to read out from the British courts and a movie that seems to revel in the prospect of human destruction, Keating might have a point after all.