Dead Poets Society (1989)

Synopsis: English teacher John Keating inspires his students to look at poetry with a different perspective of authentic knowledge and feelings.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I had watched this film a number of years ago and I remember it having a profound impact on me. I also knew Brent hadn’t seen it and figured it was about time that changed.

Leah’s Review:

I don’t always enjoy poetry. But when I do, it’s because I’m watching “Dead Poets Society”.

“Dead Poets Society” is one of those films that continues to carry so much relevance despite being almost 30 years old. I remember it having an impact on me when I first watched it in high school. Though it may be difficult to relate to students attending an all-male private school in the late 1950’s- the themes and message of the movie are still as powerful for today’s audiences as they were when the film was released.

The movie is about words– how words have the ability to change us and the world. It also shows us the importance of going against the grain, self-discovery, and challenging the status quo.

“Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

When we think of poetry, many of us have the same initial response as the students in John Keating’s class- that it’s boring, difficult to understand, and irrelevant. But Keating says otherwise:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion…To quote from Whitman: “O me, o life of the questions of these recurring…What good amid these, o me, o life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse”

As the students in Mr. Keating’s class begin to read poetry for their own enjoyment we observe the words change them. We see this most prominently in Neil and Todd. Todd, who goes from a reserved, fearful student who would rather not complete an assignment then fail at it, finds strength and self-worth in poetry. Neil discovers who he truly wants to be- not what his father wants for him. He finds new passion in his life- passion that compels him to break rules and protest his family’s expectations. By the end of the film, the words have changed Neil so much that he will do whatever he believes necessary to be true to his new-found identity.

The character of Mr. Keating is by far my favorite dramatic role of Robin William’s career. For me, this performance surpasses even that of Williams’ in “Good Will Hunting”. As Keating, Williams s able to perfectly combine his laugh-out-loud humor with his quieter, sensitive side. The result is a character we find completely fascinating and one that I think we all would want to have as a teacher and mentor. After watching “Dead Poets Society” for a second time, I still find myself inspired by Keating’s words- much like his students who (literally) stand up for what he has taught them: “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse…What will your verse be?”

Brent’s Review:

There is a scene near the middle of “Dead Poets’ Society” in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) asks the pupils in his high school preparatory poetry class to recite original poems. The timid Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) lies, confessing that he didn’t prepare a poem. Undeterred, Keating calls him to the front of the room and writes a line from a Walt Whitman poem:

“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world”

The camera spins around Williams and Hawke as Keating coaches Anderson, who stutters as he recalls a poem he’d written before class.

“A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain,
hands reaching out to choke me
He’s mumbling truth, like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.
You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough
You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us.
From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying,
it’ll just cover your face as you wail and scream.”

A beautiful poem, even if not truly improvised on the spot by Todd. But the strength of “Dead Poets’ Society” is not in the moments the lines elevate into the poetic, but the delivery of Keating’s punctuating line:

“Don’t you forget this.”

I will admit to not being a huge Robin Williams fan. Sure, I like his stronger films (“Good Will Hunting”, “Insomnia”, and now “Dead Poets’ Society”), but I often find his whirlwind method of improvisation to be distracting. However, the three films I note here create space in which Williams’ overpowering persona can fit the rhythms of the film naturally as well as provide ample opportunities for him to explore quieter tones to communicate. In other words, his unique talents as a performer are put to service of a worthy script.

“Dead Poets’ Society” is a layered film, but the theme that resonated with me throughout is the exploration of mentoring between Keating and his pupils, all of whom are impacted by Keating’s inspiring words of individuality and self-discovery. I don’t read this film as a cautionary tale — I don’t think the filmmakers would suggest that, either — but rather these themes are explored in a believable role play of the characters written into the story. Sometimes mentoring has immediate positive outcomes — sometimes not. The film’s hopeful ending suggests that Keating isn’t discouraged by the impacts of his teaching, even if that would be justified.

The film’s script is excellent and is masterfully commanded by Peter Weir, whose style is quiet and steady. Weir’s techniques flow organically from the script and it never once feels like the scene’s blocking or pacing has been altered to fit his vision for a camera angle or movement. As much as I love auteurs like Spielberg and Scorsese, this style does not distract from the film’s themes, which I find is a more responsible handling of this script.

My final thought: find a lazy day, seize it, and give this film a watch.

Up next: Needing a little more comedy, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone in our lives- we’ll be spending part of our weekend watching 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love”.

Peace out, kids.


One thought on “Dead Poets Society (1989)

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