Dead Poets Society [retro review]

“Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

The Scoop: 1989 PG, directed by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke

Tagline: He was their inspiration. He made their lives extraordinary.

Summary Capsule: Private school kids form an illegal underground society revolving around… Robin Williams’ poetry?

Justin’s Rating: Sneeze the day?

Justin’s Review: True story: as a freshman in college, a group of my friends and I formed a local chapter of the Dead Poets Society. We would break into our dorm’s attic, and despite the fact that the place was a fire deathtrap, we would light candles and rummage through poetry books and original sonnets. Ya’d think that our outlaw view of poetry would have the college administration making martyrs out of us, but the only thing that happened was that my friend got some sort of lung disease from the asbestos. And there was the mouse incident, but we never talked about that much. It didn’t last more than a half of a year, but I still carry fond memories of those months when we were very much entranced by poetic expression.

So much debate still rages on in the closed rooms of movie buffs around the topic of Dead Poets Society. Some argue that since it was successful, therefore it must be a mainstream sell-out. English and artsy-fartsy majors denounce it as pretentious and superficial. And since Robin Williams doesn’t play an alien, transvestite, wacky DJ, or anyone with a beard, AND is mostly going for a dramatic role here, he failed us miserably. The lesser emotional of us utterly hate the way DPS shamelessly pulls on heartstrings for the choked throats and tears.

None of these debates will ever lessen the fact that Dead Poets Society is an excellent film, and will forever hold a place in my top 20 list.

At a New England boarding school in the 50’s, a group of students have their rigid world shattered by the introduction of a “liberal free-thinker”: Mr. John Keating (Williams). Keating’s radical approach to English is to suggest that poetry be emotional, emphatic, and proclaimed before kicking the stuffing out of a soccer ball. His classes are fun and unusual, and soon he gains a following among the student body. The kids resurrect an old “Dead Poets” club, which lands them and the school into heaps of trouble.

Each of the students faces his own challenge. Todd (Ethan Hawke) is a meek, mousy kid who seems destined to be ignored by the world. Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) is the leader of the pack, yet he is defenseless against the power of his overbearing father. Knox (Josh Charles, who went on to the fantabulistic Sports Night) falls in love with a beauty who belongs to another, and he has no idea how to woo her. The larger story is a framework for the daily life of the boarding school (which closely relates to college as well), and little touches like the tiny dorm rooms and horrible food bring us well into their world. I consider Dead Poets Society in the league of only a few other campus films (like PCU) that truly manage to get the flavor of college life right. The kids have energy and creativity, but their immaturity and inexperience sometimes gets the best of them. But when faced with a “button up your shirt, shine those shoes” administration, who wouldn’t be a bit immature?

Laughter and sorrow are the Yin-Yang of DPS, and I like the attitude that a sense of whimsey and humor are sometimes the only way to deal with the harsh events of the world. For instance, when Todd gets a desk set for his birthday (which he got last year as well, signifying that his parents truly do not care), Neil transforms the present not into a writing utensil, but as a flying frisbee.

Before long, the conflict of tradition clashes with change, and it’s gratifying to see that DPS doesn’t portray ALL of the students as being the unique rebels. What they do — betray, stay loyal, break out, crumble, pursue — are their first genuine steps to becoming adults. Some of the kids have a hard time adjusting to a way of thinking that threatens their entire worldview. Others find it liberating, and I do as well. I think we’ve all had disciplinarians who made us hate school, and the rare teachers like Keating become as idols in the eyes of the bored.

By the end of the film, everyone’s life has been attacked, altered, shifted, bettered, and worsened. What makes the final scene so intensely powerful is not in and of the scene itself, but that it so aptly sums up the characters’ development and decisions without saying so in a huge speech. Even in a movie that trumpets the expression of poetry, it arrives at a point where an image supplants any attempt at putting the message into words, and it still leaves me with shivers.

And if you’ve not learned anything else from this review, remember this: English majors can be mean and scary and powerful and prone to turning normal weaklings into normal weaklings who wear tights and prance around in the name of “the-ater”. It’s a wonder we never took over the world.

Lissa’s Rating: Wow, Josh Charles looks YOUNG here.

Lissa’s Review: There’s a lot to be said for nostalgia. No, that’s not even right. Nostalgia is what makes us choke up at Debbie Gibson ballads and think that jelly bracelets were actually cool. There’s a lot to be said for good memories associated with something that was actually good. And I have a lot of good memories associated with Dead Poets Society.

It’s hard for me to review Dead Poets Society objectively. I saw Dead Poets when it came out in the theaters, back in 1989. It was my introduction to Robin Williams, and unrelatedly, the first time I really started drooling over guys in movies (I had a thing for Neil). Dead Poets was also the first real “thinking movie” I’d seen — the kind where poetry was quoted and it dealt with issues and symbolism and everything else ninth-grade English teachers turn cartwheels over. (Realistically, it was the first real drama I’d seen.) But what I really remember was it was the first movie I saw in the theaters alone with my dad.

I have two younger siblings, and of course, like any normal family, there was a ton of sibling rivalry. So getting to go to the movies with just my dad- and not even just Mom and Dad, just Dad- was a HUGE deal for me. I had him all to myself for hours, and after we saw the movie he took me out to Friendly’s and we sat and talked about it. Not the after-school special kind of talking, but he wanted to know what I thought about the movie and the messages and what I liked and didn’t like, and we talked about thinking and education and all that. I was only 14 at the time, so the conversation seemed incredibly deep to me. Looking back, it’s my first real memory of my father treating me like an adult- and I don’t mean that in a spoiled brat kind of way, but in an I-was-growing-up sort of way. So Dead Poets Society is forever bound up in memories of my father, and it’s somewhat hard to dissociate them.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this is still a really good movie.

It’s a bit dated, I admit. The idea of boys at a prep school under an idealistic, inspiring teacher isn’t really a new one — certainly not anymore. I mean, in some ways, a lot of these teacher-type movies are very formulaic. Teacher with uncompromising morals and full of fire shows up at either an underprivileged, poverty-stricken school or an uber-wealthy, Nazi-run prep school. Teacher leads by example and fights students and administration, and eventually wins students over. Parents are annoyed by teacher’s unorthodox teaching methods, but teacher continues, convinced he or she is right. Some catastrophe befalls one of the students — suicide, murder, or pregnancy are all favorites. Public is outraged. Students stand behind teacher, stating how much teacher changed their lives. Teacher has a 50/50 shot of being dismissed or kept on at the end… providing they live. I mean, there you go- that’s the plot for Dead Poets Society, Coach Carter, Lean on Me, Mona Lisa Smile, Dangerous Minds, The Emperor’s Club… you get the idea.

For some reason though, and I can easily articulate why, the formula doesn’t bother me. The why is simple: the world needs more heroes like this. Okay, okay, so I was raised by a teacher and am seriously considering teaching when I go back to work. But seriously, we can use all the good teachers we can get, and when you live with a teacher and see the life they work, you don’t really resent the profession being held up for a little admiration. Especially since it’s pretty inevitable that most of the other teachers in the movie are against the special lead teacher, except for the one friend that understands what the lead teacher is doing but doesn’t quite have the courage to do it themselves until the end.

Anyway. Dead Poets Society doesn’t really break any molds or set any records or anything. The acting isn’t overly stellar, although it’s far from utterly hideous, either. It is REALLY funny nowadays to see the younger versions of these guys. This was the first time I’d seen Ethan Hawke, for example, and look where he’s ended up. (I kept thinking Josh Hartnett watched this movie too many times.) Robert Sean Leonard has gone on to… well, not much beyond this, until his recent stint on House. (Although I highly, highly recommend Swing Kids.) Josh Charles, whom we’ve been watching in our Sports Night DVD collection, looks So. Freaking. YOUNG here. Dylan Kussan showed up in X2 as one of Stryker’s soldiers. Yeah, so I’m reaching there. And of course, there was Robin Williams, who did do an excellent job with the acting aspect and rated an Oscar nomination for it. (And, like I said, this was the role that really introduced me to Robin Williams.) The dialogue is pretty good overall, the story is pretty solid, and there is WAY too much bagpipe music. In many ways, Dead Poets is sort of your average movie.

But it still makes me cry at the end.

What I think Dead Poets does right is that the boys are actually boys. Justin touched on it when he said that campus life is accurately captured. The boys aren’t wise beyond their years or super-geeks that know everything there is to know about whatever their best subject is. They also don’t act like 16-year-old adults. They play keep-away and insult each other and drool over girls from afar and can’t handle their liquor. They live in cramped dorm rooms and actually do school work and complain about school food. And the fact that they actually act like teenage boys makes a lot of the moves specially designed to tug on heartstrings poignant as opposed to cheesy. And as a result, the movie, the emotions, and the ending work.

I wonder how Dead Poets Society will fare with this generation of kids that are in high school and junior high now. Some day I ought to show it to my youth group and see. Like I said, it’s not that unique of a movie that I expect it to live on as a classic, like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Escape or something. It’s just sort of a standard coming of age movie set in a boys’ prep school. But it’s the coming of age movie that I saw when I was a teenager, and therefore, it will always be a classic to me.

First the desks, and then on to medicine cabinets!

Intermission!

  • Director Peter Weir chose to shoot the film in chronological order to better capture the development of the relationships between the boys and their growing respect for Mr. Keating.
  • Filmed at St. Andrews, a private boarding school in D
  • elaware.
  • When Neil and Todd throw Todd’s plastic-wrapped desk set off the building, paper comes flying up, despite the plastic wrapping holding it in place. It’s possible a pen tore through the plastic.
  • The line that Keating refers to from Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” is misquoted. The line actually reads “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
  • The centerfold in the cave was Elaine Reynolds, Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for October 1959.
  • Originally, Professor Keating was supposed to die of leukemia. But the director decided to have the story focus on the boys instead.
  • DPS was an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman), and nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
  • John Keaton was inspired by Samuel F. Pickering Jr., an English professor of the University of Connecticut. DPS writer, Tom Schulman, was a former writing student of Pickering’s and he drew on many of Pickering’s unusual teaching techniques to create the Keating character.

Groovy Quotes

Keating: No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.

Meeks: I’ll try anything once.
Dalton: Yeah, except sex.

Keating: Now I’d like you to step forward over here. They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – Carpe – hear it? – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.

Keating: O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain.

Keating: Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.

Nolan: Tradition, Mr.Keating.
Keating: I thought the purpose of education was to learn to think for yourself.

Keating: We’re not laughing at you – we’re laughing near you.

Daulton: [answering phone] Welton Academy, hello. Yes he is, hold on. Mr. Nolan, it’s for you. It’s God. He says we should have girls at Welton.

Keating: Why do we need language?
Neil: To communicate…
Keating: NO! To woo women!

McAllister: Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I’ll show you a happy man.
Keating: But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus and always thus will be.
McAllister: Tennyson?
Keating: No, Keating.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Truman Show
  • Rudy
  • Lean On Me
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5 Comments

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