It’s a bit of a ritual for me to watch Dead Poets Society before the start of the new semester, as inspiration, as warning, and as sentimental indulgence. This is my second live-blog of Dead Poets, but I enjoyed the hell out of the first one, so I am doing it again. Time-stamps are meant to help you watch along, should you desire. I didn’t do much editing, so forgive the typos and bewildering punctuation.
Alright here we go:
There’s something so compelling about the pomp and circumstance of boarding school. For many public school kids, or at least this public school kid, the solemnity and ritual of candles and banners and uniforms and pledges and hymns around school seems as foreign as the Greek Orthodox church.
Quick, in what year is this movie set? Hard isn’t it? Could be 1927, could be forty years later. It is 1959, Welton’s centennial. 1959 is an interesting choice; a few years earlier, and the 1960s, which Keating is some sort of harbinger of, would seem too far away. A few years later, and the boys’ initial conformity would seem unbelievably square. So really, this is a story that seems sort of out of time, but really it’s hard to imagine it happening in any other year.
First shot of Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) in the same frame as his father (Kurtwood Smith). Neil’s blankness here isn’t encouraging. Nor is his father’s boredom. I wonder how much this role got Kurtwood Smith his part on That 70s Show, as Red does seem to be a less-ambitious version of Mr. Perry.
Overlayed credit here for the writer, Tom Schulman. A glance at his IMDb bio gives a snapshot of late-1980s Hollywood: this, What About Bob? and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. There does seem to be a weird affinity in these three movies: all of them have an essential sentimentality largely absent from today’s Hollywood (save in Pixar films, which have a knack for tugging heartstrings without seeming maudlin).
As the headmaster addresses the students, I keep expecting the Sorting Hat to make an appearance. In fact, the color palette of DPS, warm oranges and reds, screams Gryffindor.
We learn that Todd Anderson’s [Ethan Hawke] older brother was a wildly successful student at Welton, but Todd is just now enrolling, some 5 or 6 years after he should have enrolled. What the hell happened? It isn’t enough that Todd is shy and bookish, he also has to be living in the shadow of his older brother. Over-determination is one of the movie’s weaknesses. That and mangling poems to make them easier to quote. More on both later.
So hard to imagine leaving home for boarding school at 12 or 13 years old. No wonder this generation of kids freaked the hell out when they got to college in the mid-1960s. Reminds me that youth culture really only became widespread after WWII and that boarding schools like Welton are artifacts of a time when adolescence sort of didn’t exist.
If you were to draft these actors for future performance based on how they did in this movie, here’s the order:
Robert Sean Leonard
Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton)
Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet)
Here’s how it turned out (I think, at least):
Robert Sean Leonard
Four consecutive shots of birds being startled by chapel bells. This is either symbolic or shameless pastoral indulgence. Hint: it is not symbolic.
It’s time for our first uncomfortable question: isn’t it weird to have full grown men serve as live-in teachers for teenage boys? For all the anxiety about priests and altar-boys, how have I never heard a story about one of these dorm-masters? Does it still work like this? Are there New England prep schools where 40-something chemistry teachers live in the same complexes as the students?
Keating time. I once heard Robin Williams say that he based his performance on what his dream teacher would be, but whom he never had. Considering how much coke Williams did and his decision to make Bicentennial Man, I am not sure this is a good thing.
Meeks is my favorite character in DPS–a male proto-Hermione: earnest, smart, hard-working, a great friend, and game for adventure. He is the first to raise his hand and does so without shame.
Keating just pulled a memento mori on the boys and Neil looks genuinely stricken in the cut-away shot. Just you wait, Neil.
The Headmaster drives Knox to the Danburys’ house in what appears to be a hearse. Odd.
I thought a silverback gorilla was reaching over Keating’s shoulder to open his textbook, but then I realized it was actually HIS REAL ARM. Seriously, I had to freeze-frame this just to make sure it wasn’t some Ric Baker prosthetic. Williams must have to shave 798686 times a day. Also makes me think his beard in The Fisher King wasn’t artificial.
The textbook the boys will eventually rip up here is a fictional work called “Understanding Poetry” by J. Evans Pritchard, PhD. It’s clearly as dry as an actuarial table, but it does point out in its way that, as far as we can tell, Keating doesn’t really teach any literature at all. This creates a binary between arid academic study and bone-marrow sucking, rooftop yawping exuberance. Also, “J. Evans Pritchard” presumably is the most stick-up-the-ass name the writer could imagine, and I think he stuck the landing. The initial. The last name that smacks of privilege. The use of the middle name. All of it is right on the money for a pedantic know-it-all.
Pritchard’s Conjecture: Greatness = Importance x Perfection
Keating’s Hypothesis: Greatness = Ability to Woo Women / Danger of Inducing Teenage Suicide
Cameron ripping out the introduction to Understanding Poetry with a ruler might be the best character detail of the whole movie. Also, can we ascribe his worminess to the difficulty of maintaining a perfectly shaped crew-cut with red hair? No wonder he is clinched tighter than a Tea Partier’s purse-strings.
“Beauty, Poetry, Romance, Love: these are what we stay alive for”
“That the powerful play goes on and that you may contribute a verse”
Apparently, the first version of the script had Keating dying of leukemia at the end, rather than Neil’s suicide. Makes the “O Captain, my Captain” appellation a little more poignant.
“You mean it was a bunch of guys sitting around reading poetry?”
I like how a club devoted to free-thinking was formed largely by peer-pressure.
If Todd Anderson were a suburban public school student, what are the chances he would be wearing a trench coat and playing D&D after school everyday? 80%? Higher?
Confession: I have actually looked into buying a copy of Five Centuries of Verse, the book the Dead Poets read from in the cave. It does in fact exist, though some of the poems they read don’t actually appear in it.
Horrible synthesizer score for running to the cave. Joins The Right Stuff at the top of the list of 1980s movies needing an apocryphal orchestral score.
If you’ve ever been to Walden Pond, you know it is just a stone’s throw from Concord. Wuss.
“Ulyssess” by Tennyson is one of my favorite poems. I get a little ticked here because they truncate it needlessly. Also, weird content synchronicity: this poem is Ulysses speaking to his men after the long journey back from Troy, exhorting them to turn back to continue their adventures just on the brink of arriving at Ithaca. However, according to Homer, all of his men died on his return journey, casualties of his curiosity and naiveté. Hmmm, deaths caused by disregarding the real needs of those in his charge. Sounds vaguely familiar here…
Keating teaching montage. Make that a Robin Williams being Robin Williams but with literature jokes montage.
If someone re-made DPS today: here are a few unavoidable additions and alterations:
One of these characters would have to be gay. [Probably Meeks and Pitts based on their roof-top dance party]
Keating would try to get a black student admitted.
Todd Anderson would be played by Jesse Eisenberg.
There would be at least three Belle and Sebastian songs in the soundtrack.
It would be set in a women’s school. Oh wait.
There would be no kissing of passed-out drunk girls.
Another shot of birds being scared into flight. This is becoming some sort of fetish.
The public high school seems like it’s from another universe.
Can hardly watch this soccer scene without anticipating the great music cue coming up here.
Here it is. So great. But how is that record-player being powered? Is there an outlet in the middle of the field? World’s longest extension cord?
Seems out of character for Neil to be willing to forge a letter from his father. I know he’s juiced with Keating mojo, but geez. Next he is going to boost the school’s hearse to go get milkshakes and go to the hop.
Knox’s poem to Chris is one of the five most embarrassing movie moments of the last thirty years. Keating coming to the rescue makes you want to kiss him on the mouth.
Apparently, the ass-clown who read the cat poem was actually a student at the school where the film was shot.
“Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing.”
Hawke is freaking great here. Body language and delivery unbelievably natural and totally captures the bright, shy kid that is in every English class.
When I think of this movie, I think of this montage with Ode to Joy playing behind it. This is the apex of the movie and it’s all down here from here. About half the time I watch the movie, I stop here.
Knox is now officially in stalker territory.
This is one of those staged teaching moments where the lesson is 100% dependent on the students reacting in exactly one way. I’d like to know what proportion of the time the three students just sort of wander around and Mr. Keating stands there and says “Well, uh…OK then.”
Weird to demand students to be non-conformist. Logical paradox.
This movie used to be a dream of what kind of student I wanted to be. Later, a myth of what teaching would be like. Now, it’s a cautionary tale about parenting.
“If I were ever going to buy you a deskset, twice, it would probably be this one.”
What are the chances that Charlie Dalton overdoses on blow at Studio 54 at the age of 35? 2-to-1?
Assuming Knox doesn’t drink regularly, a beer and a few shots would put him on the floor.
Charlie is really skeezy right here and the way the film treats these two girls is pretty offensive.
Alright, here we are at the most troublesome part of the movie. First, narratively lazy. Chris just happens to be passed out on the couch when Knox sits down. Second, where is Chet Danbury? Off somewhere groping some other drunk girl? And isn’t this assault? You can’t kiss passed-out girls, can you? I mean, if he copped a feel, that’s a felony. And why does Chris leap to Knox’s defense? Wouldn’t she more likely say “Yea, beat the shit out of this asshole, Chet!”
I readily admit I have no idea what these schools were like at this time, but this assembly and witchhunt over an article about admitting women seems melodramatic. Also, another scene that depends on a really long extension cord.
Does Charlie want to get thrown out? I never really thought so. I think he thought he could get away with it. Also, in the re-make, there’s no way that this interrogation/corporal punishment sequence stays in. Brings home the stakes here though.
The headmaster needed some humanizing. Bring home the point that these boys are in his care and that their parents have charged him, at considerably expense, with preparing them for college. It’s a compelling argument and would serve as a foil to the boys’ antics.
Williams’ role here is the bizarro twin of his role in Good Will Hunting. Both have dead wives. Both seem to be slumming it rather than doing bigger and better things. Why do they both need to have dead wives? Because presumably if you are paired off in a heterosexual couple you have better things to do than help out adolescent boys. Sort of condescending if you ask me.
Why doesn’t Neil take Keating’s advice? It’s not terrible actually. Take your shot by talking and if it doesn’t work out, wait it out. This is a common problem of the depressed: the sense that things can’t ever change.
Honestly ladies, is there any way in the world that Chris talks to Knox ever again after the poetry in class stunt? Is this a nerdy male fantasy of women that if you are smart and sensitive and a little scary that the head cheerleader might fall for you?
There’s a little flicker in Keating’s face that suggests he knows that Neil is lying. Rough.
Here is the sum total of the non-conformity that Keating inspires: publishing a satirical piece in the paper, reading poetry in a cave after curfew, acting in a 500-year-old play, and dating a girl.
Leonard is so great here. Enunciation and joy in the lines. You can see why he went on to have a great stage career. I once saw him in a production of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love and he was transcendentally good (in another campus role as well).
The selection of Midsummmer Night’s Dream and giving Puck’s epilogue to Neil is a little on the nose.
Pit in my stomach as Neil stands on the stage looking at his father.
Hardest part of the movie. Dad: “Tell me what you feel?” Neil: “…………”
Fathers and sons, man. Fathers and sons.
From what I know of depression and suicide, this is a gross exaggeration of how it goes down. It makes for compelling cinema, but wildly misrepresents folks who struggle with suicidal thoughts. So dramatic, the naked torso and the wreathed crown.
In strictly Aritotelian terms, DPS is tragedy (the main characters are worse off at the end than in the beginning), right? I think most people (myself included) tend to think of this as somehow inspirational, but you could definitely see it as some sort of weird conservative cautionary tale.
Never thought about this before, but this scene recalls Neil’s consolation of Todd on his birthday. The “deskset” is a symbol of parental expectation and emotional negligence, so it makes a great deal of sense for him to take his life over his own father’s deskset.
Slow motion “Nooooooooooo” has to be banned from cinema. No good comes from it.
Hawke’s crying here is amazing. When was the last time you saw a teenage male lose his shit like that in a movie? Like embarassingly, blubberingly, vomitously inconsolable. No manly stiff upper lip or bro-hugs. Completely broken down.
Score has morphed from nostalgic hammer dulcimer to elegiac pan-flute. Weeping.
The boys lined up and singing through tears. Brutal.
The inquiry. This is exactly how this would go down today. Blame must be assigned. Punishments meted out. Scapegoat identified and banished. Supposed to make everyone feel better, but no one really does. Nothing is fixed, everything is glossed over.
Chances that Cameron eventually works for ExxonMobil? 95%? Higher?
One of the more satisfying movie punches ever.
Isn’t Nwanda what Kathy Bates called herself in Fried Green Tomatoes?
I can’t believe Knox signed the statement. Doing my best Mark Hamill: “That’s not true! That’s impossible!” *jumps deep into the core of Cloud City to be rescued by the Millenium Falcon*
“What about the Realists?” One of the fantasies of this is that all of poetry and literature is about self-expression and intellectual freedom. Actually, just as much if not more of it is about the difficulty and price of those things. Neither Keating nor the film can handle that though.
I know it’s cheesy. I know it would never happen. I know that this is sentimentality of the highest order. But goddamm, gets me every time.
They should make a sequel set around their 20th high school reunion (the movie was made 22 years ago). Would be part Big Chill, part Indian Summer. Keating teaches poetry to inmates and Todd Anderson wrote a coming-of-age story based on Keating. Charlie is dead and Knox and Chris are divorced with three kids. Ends with Keating dying and asking the boys for forgiveness. Neil’s dad overhears the conversations and breaks down screaming “It was all my fault!”
The movie made 235 million dollars worldwide and $45 million in rentals. On a 16 million dollar budget. This thing was a giant freaking hit.
Plot, casting, look, and themes weirdly similar to Good Will Hunting, except everything is taken to the extreme in GWH.
Peter Weir has a really diverse record of good movies. The Mosquito Coast, Master and Commander, The Truman Show. Hard to imagine a wider range of completely watchable movies.
I think it’s cheating to set these movies, you know the ones that deal with conformity and pressure and the like, in the past. You don’t have to wrestle with the more difficult questions that contemporary society presents. Here, of course Neil should be able to be in the play. Of course the white women shouldn’t treat their maids so badly in The Help. Of course women should have the freedom to choose their careers in Mona Lisa Smile. By setting these things in the past where the social issues of the day are now already decided, you don’t actually have to represent the issue in all of its complexity. That’s one reason I will alway prize novels that deal with their own times (a la Freedom) rather than dislocating them in the historical past or some dystopian future. That’s dodging the issue. That’s not to say that some don’t work, but by and large, it’s cheating.
Thanks for hanging in there (if you did, though I guess you did if you are reading this). Was a kick.
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