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Dead Poets Society 7/6/10 5:59 PM

Directed by Peter Weir. Dead Poets Society


Screenplay by Tom Schulman. (1989)
Cinematography by John Seale.

Starring: Robin Williams, Robert


Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, By Jim Emerson
Josh Charles, Gale Hansen,
Dylan Kussman, Allelon
Ruggiero, Kurtwood Smith, Lara Hopelessly riddled with paradoxes and contradictions, Peter Weir's Dead
Flynn Boyle. Poets Society is a numbingly conventional commercial formula picture that,
incongruously, pretends to celebrate non-conformity. It's a film by the
Rated: PG -- language, subject extraordinary Australian director Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last
matter, selective questioning of Wave, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, among
authority. others) that neatly trims its edges to safely and snugly into the Touchstone
Pictures factory mold. The only thing surprising about this movie is that Weir has
The Big Lie made something so bland and unadventurous.

Nevertheless, Dead Poets Society features Robin Williams' most convincing and
Back to screening room restrained screen work -- effectively muting his compulsion to skip from one
shtick to another, rather than limit himself to playing a single character -- even
though those were the very anarchic impulses that made him a unique star in
the first place. And, although Williams' name appears above the title, he's not
really in it very much. So, another paradox: It's Williams' best movie work
because he's the least like himself and he isn't onscreen long. Consequently, he
doesn't have the opportunity to rip holes in the fabric of the movie with his
familiarly distracting, manic attention-grabbing tricks.

Unfortunately, in the case of Dead Poets Society -- a sort of Stand and


Deliver about wealthy, male, teenage Anglo-Saxons -- these paradoxes (except
for the ones involving Williams) don't serve or enrich the movie, they just cause it
to collapse upon itself.

Americans have traditionally maintained a romantic, love-hate relationship with


the notion of nonconformity. Deep down, we each cherish an iconoclastic image
of ourselves. American movies and literature are full of rebel heroes and heroines
who reinforce that image, from Melville's Bartleby the scrivener and Hawthorne's
Hester Prynne to Joseph Heller's Yossarian and John Irving's T.S. Garp. At the
same time (as these characters attest), we sure do resent it when other people
don't behave the way we think they ought to -- that is, "like everybody else."

"Carpe Diem, lads! Seize the day! Make your lives extraordinary!"
new teacher John Keating (Williams) preaches to his pink-cheeked English lit
students at Vermont's exclusive Welton Academy in the fall of 1959. Every
school has (or ought to have) a John Keating. He's the outgoing, insurrectionary
teacher who opposes the numbing, by-rote brainwashing methods of so much
institutional book-learning and encourages his kids to follow their passions, to
think for themselves -- his way, of course. When a stuffy introductory essay to a
poetry anthology proposes a ridiculous method that reduces literature to a
mathematical formula, whereby a poem's "greatness" quotient can supposedly be
plotted on a graph, Keating denounces it as rubbish and commands his students
to rip the introduction from the book.

He's fun. He cares. He half-jokingly (but only half-) tells the boys that literature
was invented to woo girls. He does quicksilver impressions of John Wayne and

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Dead Poets Society 7/6/10 5:59 PM

Marlon Brando. He stands up on his desk -- to get a different point of view on


things -- and tries to get his students to follow his example. When the kids dig up
Keating's old school yearbook and find that their charismatic professor used to
belong to a mysterious cult called the Dead Poets Society, he lets them in on
the secret: It was a group of students who met in the ancient Indian caves
nearby and read poetry -- their own as well as Walt Whitman's -- thereby
causing girls to swoon. Keating makes poetry attractive to these boys by
presenting it as an age-old seduction technique. (Well, the impulses behind
Shakespeare's sonnets weren't all chaste.) Naturally, the younger generation
chooses to emulate their idol.

An older, more experienced teacher questions whether 15- to 17-year-


old kids are really ready yet to handle Keating's brand of freedom. "Gee, I never
pegged you for a cynic," says Keating. "I'm not," says the other teacher. "I'm a
realist." This smells like the set-up for a promising battle of philosophies, but
Keating's sympathetic intellectual sparring partner promptly drops out of the
movie, reappearing only occasionally and then as a mere background figure. (To
a lesser extent, this is also what happens to Keating, who recedes after a couple
of classroom scenes.)

So, the only forces opposing Keating's philosophy are rigid and towering ones,
personified by Welton's stern, rigid, downright fossilized old headmaster, Mr.
Nolan (Norman Lloyd), and the cruel, stubborn parent, Mr. Perry (Kurtwood
Smith, who appears to be warming up here for his portrayal of Nazi war criminal
Joseph Goebbles in an upcoming TV movie). "After you've finished medical
school and you're on your own you can do as you damn well please!" the
ruthless Mr. Perry lectures his son, one of Keating's prized students. "But until
then, you do as I tell you to!" So, who are you going to root for -- cuddly bear
Robin Williams or a couple of fascistic cold fish? The deck is as stacked as it
can be.

And yet, in the end, the movie indicates (despite itself) that maybe the
cynic/realist from early in the picture was indeed right, after all. Although there's
a carefully placed scene in which Keating tries to make the distinction between
unfettered self-expression and self-destructive behavior, the principles behind the
re-formation of the Dead Poets Society eventually lead to catastrophe. It
becomes clear that at least some of the boys really aren't emotionally equipped
to incorporate into their own lives the kind of freedom and nonconformism that
Keating is selling. Now here's an idea for a movie with provocative conflicts and
ambiguities -- a well-meaning, influential teacher who unintentionally becomes
the catalyst for tragedy by encouraging his ill-prepared students to fly, Icarus-
like, too close to the sun. But you won't find that movie here.

The picture is really about the boys, who get most of the screen time.
And each of them is given a character trait, more or less. Noel Perry (Robert
Sean Leonard), the bright kid with the Darth Vader dad, decides he wants to be
an actor, despite the rigid plans his father has for him. (A couple decades ago,
"actor" in this context would have been Hollywood code for "homosexual.") Noel's
roommate Todd (Ethan Hawke) is gonna be a writer, but right now he's too shy
to express himself. Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) is a fledgling beatnik who has a
great passion for a local girl. And so on. The other guys aren't nearly as
differentiated.

Luckily, director Weir does seem to have learned that the best way to use Robin
Williams in a movie is ... sparingly. Either let him exhaust himself, and the
audience, in an erratic flight of improvisation so that he bounces all over the

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Dead Poets Society 7/6/10 5:59 PM

place like a rapidly deflating balloon and then exits when he runs out of air; or
keep him focused and down-to-earth so that he at least resembles a member of
our species rather than some demented extraterrestrial mimic with a berserk
radio receiver where his voice box ought to be.

For the first time since 1982's The World According to Garp, Williams plays a
recognizably human character who operates within the confines of the movie
rather than threatening to tear it apart from the inside to make room for his
stand-up act. (The problem with Dead Poets Society is that the movie's generic
strictures are too confining altogether.) Nor does he wallow embarrassingly in
maudlin, Chaplinesque self-pity, begging the audience to have sympathy for
poor, poor him, as he did so shamelessly in the syrupy Moscow on the Hudson
and Good Morning, Vietnam.

The best thing about Williams/Keating's classroom technique is the way he


analyzes his students until he can determine their needs and see through their
defenses. Keating sizes up the boys' attitudes and problems and then openly
teases the kids about them. In the process, he disarms them, helps defuse their
hang-ups. And in these moments, we see what makes him a valuable teacher.
But Keating's noble ideas about passion and beauty are stifled as much by the
movie that contains him as by the school that employs him. The simpleminded,
formulaic rigidity of Dead Poets Society is, in its own conservative, commercial
way, almost as suffocating as the atmosphere at Welton Academy itself.

The Big Lie

Back to screening room

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