Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Dir. Peter Weir
Starring: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles

This is not the first time I have watched Dead Poets Society. I watched it when I was myself a schoolboy. I was not inspired by the story. Rather, I thought the film was pretty lame. I did not enjoy it at that time, and I was not looking forward to watching it again. 

To my surprise, two decades later, I really enjoyed the movie. I can see why the critics loved it. The film itself (the story, acting or direction) will not have changed in the intervening twenty years. A film’s quality is set upon completion. What has changed is my reaction to and appreciation of it. I am reminded of the scene in the film where teacher John Keating orders his class to tear out the introduction to a compilation of poetry which claims that the “importance” of a piece of poetry can be objectively measured and used to guide the reader’s appreciation thereof. This is mere herd mentality. Instead, one should learn to appreciate art for itself and make up ones own opinions. These opinions will inevitably depend upon the person involved – their receptiveness, their imagination, their personality. Appreciation cannot be measured objectively; it is an entirely subjective experience. This is just as much the case for films as it is for poetry. 

In Dead Poets Society a conservative New England prepatory school (which is not what the English would call a prep school – instead it is a boarding school) in the 1950s is shaken up by the arrival of young teacher John Keating (Robin Williams, seen in Insomnia and Good Will Hunting). He has come to teach English, but he demands that his students challenge orthodoxy and learn to feel the poetry rather than cramming received opinions into their brains to help them prepare for exams. He wants them to show intelligence rather than learning; wants them to get something out of the subject more than just a pass mark. He wants them to dare, to try, to grow – “Carpe Diem! Sieze the day boys! Make your lives extraordinary!” He wants them to think. He wants them to realise that they have a voice and it deserves to be heard no matter how barbaric their yawp. 

This is, of course, contrary to Welton Academy’s belief in Tradition and Discipline. The school system, much like that in the 1960s British classic If…, seeks to stifle individuality, promote conformity. It exists to ensure that its teenage charges are prepared for the life-course their parents have already decided for them: Welton – Ivy League – doctor / lawyer / banker. The boys are to have no say in this life-course. The future is their clam – they’ve been in its grip since the day they were born. Inevitably there is going to be a smash.

The problems come from a group of boys who allow themselves to be inspired by Keating. They follow in his footsteps by reforming the 'Dead Poets Society'. His ‘unconventional methods’ – I think the phrase is even used by the headmaster – include getting them to stand on desks, rip pages from textbooks and march around the courtyard. When Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) has trouble expressing himself Keating pushes and pushes and pushes him until he comes up with some freestyle poetry about a “sweaty-toothed” Walt Whitman. The scene is reminiscent of Williams pushing Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting 

Keating is blamed for the smash. And well he might be. He gives them hope. Disatisfaction occurs when reality cannot match up with expectations. When the boys had no expectations they could face reality. “Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I’ll show you a happy man” McAllister (Leon Pownall) quotes. By trying to make them reach for the stars Keating sets them up for a fall. Sometimes it works out: Knox (Josh Charles) gets the girl, Todd finds his voice. Sometimes it doesn’t: natural ringleader Dalton (Gale Hansen) is expelled, and even worse in in store for Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). The lines by Thoreau read at the start of every meeting of the Dead Poets Society contains the exhortation “To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.” Neil is faced with ten years of unlife. Ten years in which he is forbidden to act. Ten years in which he must attend military school and then study to become a doctor at Harvard. He wants none of this. Faced with a future in which he will not live he decides not to. Words are dangerous. Like Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild he trusts the words that have touched him – words which were, again, by Thoreau – and refuses to live any other way. 

So how has my opinion of the film changed in the last twenty years? I still don’t believe it; I had very good teachers, but none of them were inspirational. The whole idea that schoolboys would want to recreate a student society their teacher had been a part of just strikes me as extremely unlikely. No, what attracted me was the father-son bond. Keating is literally in loco parentis. The boys are in boarding school away from their parents. Mr Perry is a humourless martinet. Todd’s parents see him as an afterthought – they even give him the same present two years in a row. I find that, at my time of life, anything to do with father-son love gets me weeping. The boys’ final betrayal of Keating – and the emotional last scene – gets me. When I mentioned on Facebook that I had watched Dead Poets Society I received comments of the calibre of ‘O Captain, my Captain! *weeps uncontrollably*’. I think this is the emotional core of the film. Added to which, the boys are not clichés. There are Jocks and Cheerleaders at a neighbouring school, several of the group are Nerds (to be honest considering that they form a poetry club they are probably all Nerds). But there is no rivalry amongst the boys – they are supportive of each other. I can appreciate all this with distance. Probably at the time it all seemed so normal – I underwent singe sex education in a private school. I maybe did not regard the situation as especially remarkable, which would make the inspiration garnered from Mr Keating even more unbelievable.  
The mouse terrified the entire class
I am glad that I revisited Dead Poets Society after this break. It is not a ‘hidden classic‘ – it has been critically acclaimed. But, with maturity, it has allowed me to get something out of a film that I did not like at first watch. 

What have I learnt about Vermont?
Vermont from this film just seems to be a cipher for ‘conservative and blue-blooded New England’. Much like the upper class university featured in The Rules of Attraction (set in neighbouring New Hampshire), Dead Poets Society features an upper class boarding school. It is stated that Perry’s parents are not rich like Dalton’s, yet the father still travels to Chicago on business. This is a crammer school to provide the next generation of society’s cream – lawyers, bankers and doctors – by preparing them for the Ivy League. It seems to recruit its students from the local area however, so presumably the environs are fairly wealthy. It is also able to recruit teachers from overseas. While Keating was an old boy he had been teaching in London. His colleague McAllister is Scottish.

There are pronounced seasonal shifts. Autumns have rich golden foliage; winter sees snow thick on the ground and lakes frozen over. There are lakes and rivers and flocks of geese. 

Can we go there?
Okay, I’m angry now. Considering how hard I found it to find any films set in Delaware I have now stumbled across one set in Vermont but filmed in Delaware. This therefore means that my three 'Vermont' movies were filmed, respectively, in California, Massachusetts and Delaware.
Welton Academy and the town of Welton itself do not exist. The school used was actually St. Andrew’s School in Middletown. This school has produced some notable freethinkers- its alumni include Loudon Wainwright III and Tom Verlaine. Additional filming took place around Middletown and New Castle. These include the Everett Theatre in Middletown, Westover Hills in New Castle (the Perry residence was 708 Edgehill Road) and Beaver Valley Cave on the Pennsylvania border (though the interior was recreated in a warehouse for shooting). The cave is known as ‘Delaware’s Only Cave’; it is on private land and cannot be visited. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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