Saturday, January 25, 2014

Dead Poets Society

Film: Dead Poets Society
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m a teacher and more specifically an English teacher, which means that I’m supposed to love Dead Poets Society. I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it. There are plenty of things to like about it, of course, and there are a few important discoveries in this film, like the fact that Robin Williams can offer up a solid, restrained performance when under the direction of someone who keeps his manic persona under lock and key. But there are problems here, which we’ll no doubt get to as we proceed.

We’re set in the late 1950s at an all-boys boarding school somewhere in the wilds of New England. We are quickly introduced to our young protagonists, a motley assortment of the progeny of the upper crust of Eisenhower’s America. Of primary importance are Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), who is bright and outgoing and suffers from a demanding and tyrannical father (Kurtwood Smith) and Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), who is ignored by his parents and living in the shadow of his graduated brother, which makes him shy and unsure of himself. Of secondary importance are the lovelorn Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) and the wannabee radical Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen). Rounding out the group are the suck-up Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the nerdy Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), and the dorkish Gerard Pitts (James Waterston).

Into this mix we throw the newly minted English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), whose name is absolutely supposed to make you think of John Keats. Keating is unorthodox to say the least. He famously stands on his desk, has his students rip pages out of their textbook, and has them walk around the school courtyard or play soccer out in the field while reciting poetry. Naturally his methods are in conflict with the staid traditions of the school and just as naturally his students love him.

Keating, while tossing around some poetry, commands the young men in his tutelage carpe diem. They do this by various methods. Knox runs after a girl he has fallen for, risking life and limb to be near her. Charlie proffers some ill-advised writing in the school paper. But it is Neil who takes the advice to heart. Suffering under the demands of an overbearing father who demands he become a doctor, Neil instead forges a letter of permission and gets a part in a play being produced locally.

The centerpiece to all of this is the titular Dead Poets Society, an organization Keating was in during his time as a student at the school. The boys sneak away from the campus in the middle of the night and wander off to a cave where they sit and read poetry to each other. The movie makes this seem much more daring and a bit cooler than it sounds written here. Anyway, eventually a number of the boys get in trouble (some quite serious) for their various forms of rebellion, a few terrible events happen, and everything comes to a head.

Now, since virtually everyone loves this film, I’ll mention the good stuff. First, the performances are regularly solid all the way through, and Robin Williams is a stand-out from top to bottom. This may be his first truly great performance. Good Morning, Vietnam was an earlier film, but for much of that, Williams seemed to be playing himself. Bits of his stand-up routines come out in this film, but it’s a much more restrained performance overall, so most of it comes through as positive. The students, all relatively young and inexperienced actors at the time of filming, are generally good. Ethan Hawke is a bit too tentative for many moments and Robert Sean Leonard is far too self-possessed for a kid that browbeaten by his parents, but it’s really neither here nor there. It’s a good script, too.

But there are some places where I find it to be lacking. First, at least from my perspective, is the reliance on too much of the poetry that everyone knows. There’s not much here that many viewers will not have heard at least once. Beyond that, there’s way too damn much Walt Whitman. I’m not a fan of Whitman. Most of his poetry seems to be self-serving; he’s like the original bad rap artist who does nothing but rap about how awesome he is as a rapper. And while this is, admittedly, the Dead Poets Society, they couldn’t bring in anything modern? Charlie, with his radical sensibilities and saxophone would be a natural for the Beats, and should have given us at least the first couple of lines of Howl. No. Instead it’s Whitman, with a line or two by Byron or Tennyson tossed in for good measure.

A larger point is Keating himself. He’s supposed to be teaching these boys literature, and poetry in the specific. There’s no reason for him to decide to become their life coach. The school wanted an English teacher and instead hired a motivational speaker. No one has a teacher this inspiring. No one. I’ve had some excellent teachers in my time, some of whom I still speak with at times. These are people who encouraged and inspired me and who taught me a great deal during my time with them. None of them felt it necessary to stand on a desk or make me kick a soccer ball. For this I am actually quite grateful.

The worst moment of this is when Keating introduces the boys to Shakespeare. The boys groan and Keating acts like Robin Williams for a moment. Cut to the next scene, and they're all crowded around him while he reads, laughing on cue after every line. Sorry, I don't buy it.

The biggest sin, though, is that Dead Poets Society goes for the emotionally easy way out. It sets up a situation and then gives us not a difficult resolution or one that requires us to make any real decisions, but one that is driven entirely by the emotions of the moment. There can be only one way for this film to end, and we land there on the nose.

As I said at the top, I don’t dislike this film. It’s damn well made. I’m just supposed to love it, and I really don’t.

Why to watch Dead Poets Society: Proof that Robin Williams can act when reined in.
Why not to watch: It overplays its emotional hand.


  1. I really fucking hate this movie for the reason you cordially dislike it; talk about goddamned emotional manipulation. No thank you. First (and only) time I saw it, I literally threw my hands up in the air at the ending and stormed out of the room, it was so ridiculous. I felt myself being played in every single fucking scene.

  2. Though she disagrees with you deeply about Walt Whitman, this English major hated this movie too.

  3. I had nothing more to do with English classes or poetry in school than any other student, but I don't love this movie. The choices of poets were irrelevant to me; other than that I don't think my reaction was much different from yours. I knew the critics were going crazy over it and when I watched it I had a "that's it?" reaction. My expectations were too high for it.

    For me, the best part was seeing that Williams could actually play a normal person, not just play himself. I have never felt compelled to watch this film a second time.

  4. I didn't mention this in the review, but this was a date movie for my wife and me way back when. There's probably some carry over from that. On a positive note, at least it isn't The Emperor's Club.

    @Marie--Whitman? Really? Can you find a great deal of Whitman that isn't about how awesome Walt Whitman is? The only poet I'd rather read less is Emily Dickinson. In fact, the only way I survived Dickinson is by realizing that 95% of her poetry can be sung to the Gilligan's Island theme. Give me Blake any day of the week.

    1. @Chip--I was replying at the same time you were, evidently. I suppose I was only compelled to watch this again because I watch everything again before I review it. The last time I saw this, it was in theaters, so I guess it can't be that important to me.

      I agree, though--the real revelation here is that Robin Williams is capable of playing something other than a version of Robin Williams on screen.

    2. I hadn't heard the Gilligan's Island thing, but I had heard that they all could be read to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas.

      Because I could not stop for Death
      He kindly stopped for me
      The yellow rose of Texas
      Is the only rose for me

    3. Yes, The Yellow Rose of Texas works, too. So does House of the Rising Sun.

    4. My 11th grade English teacher actually sung us "Because I could not stop for death" to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas in class. What makes this even funnier was the fact that my 11th grade Ebglish teacher was about as strict, strait-laced, and no-nonsense as the came. And one day he actually sang to us in class.