The Emperors Club

New Clothes for the Emperors Club

Nietzsche pointed out that Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” was misnamed, that it was a play about Brutus. The movie currently in theaters called “The Emperors Club” is not misnamed, but it is not about the teacher that critics claim it is about. Nor does the title refer to some sort of secret prep-school society, as “Dead Poets Society” did. The Emperors Club is the plutocracy into which George W. Bush was born, and its sins and privileges, and W. himself, are the topic of this movie.

Such an interpretation of this film would probably not occur to anyone who only watched the first three-quarters of it, as perhaps some critics did. You can’t entirely blame them. The thing starts out looking like an awkward rip-off of Dead Poets. It later becomes something truly surprising and powerful, creating not escapist smiles of satisfaction with the way things work in the world of movies, but indignation over the way things work in the world of the limousines and homeless men and biting cold outside the theater – and this transformation of the movie comes in the final minutes.

If you want to watch this movie and experience it as I did, stop reading this now. I’m going to give it away and potentially diminish the movie’s power for you.

If you have seen the movie, you will know that the key character is a young man with a four-letter last name beginning with a B, who is a consistent C-student, extremely chummy and popular but also obnoxious, often getting into trouble, but riding along on the coattails of his father, who is a national politician with lots of money and enough influence to fix contests for his boy and get him into Yale. This boy, like his father, has no scruples, no morals, no heart. He believes, and continues to believe into manhood, that goodness and decency are not needed for, and can even get in the way of, achieving riches and power. He belongs to the tyrannical oligopoly discussed in the prep-school classroom but rarely discussed in the capital of the United States’ empire today.

When the prep-school holds a competition on ancient Roman trivia, the boy cheats. The teacher picks up on the cheating but is told by the headmaster to let it pass. So, rather than pointing out that the boy is cheating, the teacher asks the boy an unexpected question. He loses. Years later, the boy is the successful CEO of some company, and he arranges for a rematch, bringing together all of his old classmates and his former teacher. Again, he cheats. Again, the teacher sees it. Again, rather than denouncing the cheater publicly, the teacher asks a question that the former student is bound to miss.

I expected the second instance of cheating, but suspect that many viewers did not. A happier and more expected ending might have been for the cheater to have reformed his ways and acknowledged the moral wisdom of the teacher to whom he never used to listen.

But, I did expect a scene of revenge and public humiliation. I have seen so many movies in which the glory in the end comes from making the bad guy lose. In this movie the bad guy wasn’t even unlikable. Neither is W. Still, as a frequent moviegoer, I expected some sort of cartoonish closure. Any expectation of revenge was denied, and any expectation of the bad guy losing was denied as well. The teacher offered us a noble example of restraint and kindness.

Two points were explicitly made in the final minute of the movie. First, people can be extremely unscrupulous and successful; not everyone shares whatever you may consider your “conscience,” and crime often does pay. Second, failing with one student doesn’t erase the good a teacher does with dozens of other students.

I’ve read reviews that focus on the second moral of the story. But this is ludicrous. We learn nothing of the good the other students do. We have no idea whether they turned out well or not, smart or stupid, morally strong or sleazy. Virtually all we know about them is that they are the easy and gullible dupes of the bad student. Nor did we ever really see what made this teacher influential or beloved. He seemed more like a slow-witted twit with a third-rate intellect, able to act superior while churning out predictable advice or while being out-argued by a student. He was a character in a poorly developed and derivative movie until the ending.

No, the point is the first one. The good guys don’t always win. The bad guys don’t always lose. That is the message of the movie, and it’s not just a message that Hollywood is usually perversely afraid of. It really is a dangerous point to make. Certainly I don’t bring it up here in order to encourage readers to become more greedy, dishonest, and uncaring. This point raises the ancient question of why we should be kind, honest, or generous.

The teacher in this movie offers an answer by pointing to an ancient ruler who achieved all sorts of power and glory and riches but is forgotten by history as a result of his failure to contribute anything of real value to our culture. This, of course, is as big a load of cow patties as the notion that the meek shall always smash cream pies in the bad guys’ faces before the closing credits. What in the hell did Alexander the Great ever contribute to us that was actually great? Or Julius Caesar? A millennium or two does not rank historical figures in our attention based on the good they did. It could, and it should, and maybe one day it will, but it obviously doesn’t now. And what if it did? That would just leave us with the question of why we should care more about what people will think in thousands of years than we do about piling up riches and fame right now.

Many viewers of this movie will offer a different answer based on their belief in a religious system of rewards and punishments after they die. But every single nationally elected politician in the United States professes a belief in that system, and yet they spend their days denouncing each other as corrupt crooks and degenerates. And most of them are right.

The movie offers another answer that has a bit of truth in it. Both the father of the main character and he himself end up feeling badly about their relationships to their children. Their smiles are phony and they are not as happy as they seem. But this smidgen of truth should not be interpreted as an indication that mean people who seem happy are “really” always sad inside, just as rich people are supposedly always lonely, and successful people are allegedly never satisfied. Clinging to these delusions takes away from the lesson of this movie.

What, then? Why be good? Why value other people or animals or things or later generations above the value you place on your own selfish pleasure? Well, this is a question that Socrates gave us, and it’s never been answered and was never intended to be. It ought never to have been asked. After all, what sort of answer is there to the reverse? Why value your own selfish pleasure above the value you place on other people or animals or things or later generations? There is no scientific response here. We learn these valuations by example, which is why this prep-school teacher was exactly right to tell stories of noble deeds and lives admirable lived, rather than producing syllogisms created in antiquity or perfected since. If we want people to live well, we must live well ourselves and point to examples of people living well, and hope that those examples are attractive and influential. Rather than trying to prove to you that it is stupid to be greedy, I would point you to the life of Paul Wellstone. He may never have owned as many things as George W. Bush, and he may not be remembered as long either. But I would certainly rather emulate him and make him the hero of a story for students.