Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society. Touchstone Pictures 1989.

Before watching the movie:

Robin Williams has done a lot of feel-good movies, but none seem to have the reputation for soaring inspiration that this one does. Sure, it’s all about a teacher trying to inspire his students, but I can think of other movies about Williams’s character inspiring others. Maybe it’s that this is the most quotable, but the main quote I know is a cliche.

One thing that’s becoming apparent to me is how little of his work I was actually familiar with when I was in the height of my appreciation for Robin Williams as an actor.

After watching the movie:

Welton Academy is the best boys’ preparatory school in the country, and they demand the best from their students. Above all, tradition and stability are prized at Welton. This year Welton has replaced their retired English teacher with John Keating, a nonconformist who tries to teach his students to get the most out of life and be the most individual they can be through encouraging them to get at the soul of the poems they study, as well as object lessons like standing on a desk to gain new perspective. Some of his students are particularly inspired by his Bohemianism and, on learning that when Keating was a Welton student, he had organized the outlaw “Dead Poets Society”, re-form it as their own secret extracurricular club for experimentation with living outside the rules. Todd is too shy for public speaking. Knox meets the girl of his dreams who is practically engaged to a boy from a family Knox’s family is great friends with. Neil is shackled by his father’s meticulate plan for his future. They all tear pages out of their assigned reading and take pages from Keating’s guide to life.

There are a lot of philosophies espoused here which don’t necessarily have to go together. Keating advocates finding the richness in life and in poetry, which only leads to nonconformity because the conformists insist on strict and narrow boundaries. Even Keating will admit that not all rules should be broken, let alone flouted, but not much guidance is given on how to navigate the rules placed upon you while still living your best life and being your best self. It is a castle built in the air with no instructions for how put the foundation below. But I think just as much as the boys are learning for themselves how to live their own lives, the movie leaves it to the audience to decide how to apply the lessons learned.

While the values espoused might be trite and vague, what makes the movie is how earnestly the story is portrayed. Williams gets his hammy moments, but he’s mostly just a caring, exuberant, unorthodox teacher. The boys are all convincing boys dealing with boyhood issues. And the dialogue is often beautiful even when not quoting great literature. At times, the camerawork gets risky to enhance the mood of the scene. Everything is well-made, except the underlying moral doesn’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. But this isn’t considered great for the life lessons, it’s great for the inspiration. And the good thing about inspiration is that it doesn’t tell you where to go, it just gives you the motivation to get there.

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