TBT: Dead Poets Society (1989)
As if this wasn’t going to happen you guys. . .
This is the perfect combination of fitting in with this month’s sort-of-theme (going back to school, woo!) and the ongoing tribute to one of my favorite performers of all time. We now have an opportunity to crack into what many of us probably hold dear to our hearts as one of the most touching Robin Williams performances. Though I doubt many grade-school classes have collectively taken a stand up on their desks in protest of their “oppressive teachers” and “unreasonable course loads,” few and far between are the folks who haven’t at least wanted to. Try coming across someone who hasn’t at some point quoted a line from
Today’s food for thought: Dead Poet’s Society.
Carpe-ing the diem since: June 2, 1989
Somewhere out there is a teacher I am indebted to for introducing me to this film. I am a little embarrassed I can’t remember in what class I watched this, but I’m so fortunate that was the environment in which it was brought to my attention because I’m not typically drawn to school dramas, even with a name like Robin Williams in it. I’m fairly sure this would have been a title I might have avoided had it not been for the chance encounter in an English class.
Perhaps not. Inevitability might have had the final say on that, for Peter Weir’s ode to the fleeting nature of boyish idealism and romantic notions of challenging the status quo is a difficult one to avoid, and turned out to be so unlike the eponymous club of the initiated. Its influence has been ever-widening, like ripples in a pond gradually encompassing everything within its borders. One thinks of inspirational films, and good chance this title is one of the first five or ten that come to mind.
There were no rites of passage in getting to know William’s John Keating. Taking him into our hearts was a most natural transformation. His passionate, colorful and off-beat approach to educating his students — nay, enlightening them — was what made this film crackle to life, what made this place worth tolerating if you could take his words and make them apply to your own place in the universe.
“Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence.” The four pillars of education echoed monotonously off physical ones, drowning in the catacombs of this most unholy of institutions. Attending a school like the stiff Walton Academy for Boys for even a single semester was more than enough time to become jaded, enough time for one’s skin to toughen to the point of becoming brittle in response to a cruel and demanding world built by dedicated workers, not daydreamers. After all, boys won’t be boys for long, and outside the walls of the prep academy lay a laundry list of matters of pressing urgency that demanded focus and seriousness of purpose. In the short term this necessarily implied preening one’s self for the pristine Ivy Leaguers. After that, perhaps careers of distinguished but quiet fame.
Dead Poets Society is written beautifully, weighing the values of traditional, old-school practicality against the inexplicable urgency of youth and individuality. The passion that threatened to tear the two conventions apart rightfully secured the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1990. Beyond bullish headmaster Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd) and the parade of tenured graybeards roaming the Academy’s hallways — threatening, as always, with a paddle to beat the next free-thinking so-and-so into submission — notions of conformity and obedience extended to peripheral characters such as Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), in effect blanketing this 1950s scene in a snowdrift of almost inescapable bleakness. To a lesser extent, meek and mild Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) came from a well-to-do household that ultimately becomes divided over the John Keating situation. His situation was far less severe than Neal Perry’s, but it helped paint a bigger picture, a society still clinging on to old values in whatever way it could.
The harsh environs no doubt enhanced this newcomer’s rejuvenating presence. Not just because of Williams, but because the character was such a departure from everything these young and wide-eyeds had known; a much-needed warmth to melt away the layers of permanent frost this isolated community was erstwhile entrenched. I feel we’ve been indebted to the great Robin Williams in the same way I want to tell that teacher I owe him or her one. This experience is certainly one for the books.
Recommendation: A film with little urgency for me to recommend. You’ve either caught this in class (or slept through it, who knows), or on television at some point, surely. An immensely popular film for all the right reasons, Dead Poets Society managed to capture the fleeting essence of boyhood developing into manhood in an era where tolerance for deviating from the norm was more frowned upon than encouraged. Packed to the brim with memorable and inspiring quotes, the film I recommend without restraint as your next Robin Williams adventure if you haven’t seen it already.
Running Time: 128 mins.
Quoted: “[imitates phone ringing] Welton Academy, hello. Yes he is, just a moment. Mr. Nolan, it’s for you. It’s God. He says we should have girls at Welton.”
“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
TBTrivia: The irony in Robert Sean Leonard’s character’s struggles here are not lost upon dedicated viewers of the hit TV drama House, wherein Leonard plays one of the heartbeats in Dr. James Wilson, perhaps the only legitimate friend of the ornery Dr. Gregory House. Here, Neal Perry battles with his no-nonsense father about a career in acting, though his father demands he attend medical school. A request that comes at a price of tragic proportions.
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