Dead Poets Society
High school is perhaps one of the most defining times of our lives. Of course there is the straightforward necessity of an education but that is practically secondary to the most important aspect of this phase of your education; socialization. These are the grades in school where you form many of the affactations, inclinations and predilections that will define you as a person for the remainder of your adult life. Films concerning this period of time ate typically referred to as ‘coming of age stories’. Usually there is a romantic element incorporated into such movies but it is not a mandatory requirement of the genre. There is a tendency for films of this sort to fall into the overly melodramatic but when it is done properly the coming of age story can be exceptionally poignant with a touch of humanistic comedy. One of the best examples of this is the film under consideration this movie goes beyond the constraints of the above cited genre. It is a comedy that illicit laughter from a sense of familiarity and a drama that finds a way into the emotional core of the audience. This is a lot for one film to strive for but this one achieves it with great élan. It was the kind of pivotal film that cemented the careers of some bright rising stars and demonstrated the incredible range of a brilliant comedian as a serious actor. ‘Dead Poets Society’ took home the Academy Award win for its screenplay as well as nominations for best director, best actor and best picture. Produced an released through Touchstone Pictures, the independent film division of the Walt Disney Studios, this movie is notable for helping to initiate the still growing influence of Indy films on the mainstream movie industry. Made on a relatively small budget it earned a solid return proving American audiences could appreciate a film that requires an emotional commitment. This has always been a personal favorite of mine but seeing this new high definition edition was like seeing it for the first time. Nuances that lay hidden in the movie are now made clear with the Blu-ray exceptional technical specifications. It is not possible to maintain a competent collection of films without having this on your shelves.
The Welton Academy prep school is a formidable institution of education that has always stood for excellence. The story was set in 1959, between the paranoia of the McCarthy era and the turmoil of the civil rights movement. The school’s policies were protected by its current headmaster, Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd) who is a staunch proponent of ‘tradition, honor, discipline and excellence’. The time this story takes place was at the start of the generation gap that almost ripped the nation apart but also a period when young students began to challenge the hide bound wisdom handed down by the older generation. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), and Gerard Pitts (James Waterston) are in their senior year at Welton Academy and under a great deal of pressure to enter adult hood properly. Neil’s parents are pushing him into a profession as a physician brushing aside his dreams of acting while Todd is destined by his parents to become a lawyer instead of his own choice of being a writer. This quagmire catching the young men between their dreams and the pragmatic concerns of their parents is brought to a boil by an unlikely source, their English professor, John Keating (Robin Williams). In sharp contrast to the staid demeanor projected by the rest of the faculty Keating is flamboyant, animated and immensely interesting. He calls for his students to embrace the concept of Carpe Diem, seize the day. Keating inspires the students appearing as a bright splash of color against a drab background but the administration and parents are not enthusiastic about the changes beginning in his class. The student discovers an old yearbook from when Keating attended the school and decide to resurrect a literature club he belonged to then, ‘The Dead Poets Society’.
Fans of Robin Williams may have understandably mixed feeling about his participation in the type of film. If you expect non-stop zany manic comedy this is definitely not the film for you. There is a depth to the story that ranges from some outright broadly humorous moments to a student committing suicide. The thing is Williams nails it and embodies the personae for Keating that brings an understanding to the intricate interaction of emotions. Williams is one of the most talented and versatile actors of his generation. He can balance the insanity that is the trademark of his stand-up with dramatic performances that cut right into the heart of the audience. Some of us were blessed with a teacher like Keating. I had one in chemistry that altered the course of my life. Here Williams is believable as such an educator in a fashion that will put you through an incredible gamut of emotions.
Director Peter Weir is no stranger to creating movies that explore the unusual aspects of human behavior. Going on to ‘The Truman Show’ and ‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’ he has consistently demonstrated that he is a filmmaker of exceptional diversity. This film is by far one of his crowning moments in a career that has been at the top of the field throughout. Now that this film is available on Blu-ray it has to be in any serious collection.