Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dead Poets Society

The first time I watched Dead Poets Society (1989) I was a teenager. The movie was directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show), the scenario was written by Tom Schulman, and it stars Robin Williams, more famous for comedies than for dramas, Ethan Hawke (Gattaca), and the magnificent Robert Sean Leonard (Much ado about Nothing, House MD). As a secondary role you will also see Doug Savant, from Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives ! Will you be able to spot him ? Hint : « the cat sat on the mat ». The story is set at a conservative boys prep school, where John Keating (Williams) arrives to teach literature. Gradually and in spite of the other teachers, he inspires his students to go against conformity and « seize the day ».

The two main characters of the boy’s group are Neil (Leonard) and Todd (Hawke), surrounded by a solid group that is a bit cliché : the romantic, the geeks, the irreverent, the traitor, etc...  Keating’s teachings have different impact on each of them : for one it is the chance to get his dream girl, for another a chance to be daring. Neil discovers he dreams of acting, which goes against what his parents have in mind for him. Todd, shy and generally scared, finally opens up, pushed by Keating.

Todd’s evolution is the most spectacular one, and shows with all its intensity in the very final scene, where he finally finds the courage to follow his instincts.

What I often wondered about is when is this story supposed to happen. At first it looks fairly conservative, and I would have thought 1960s, but then we see one of the characters go out and meet this girl who is a cheerleader in a proper american high school. But apart from that, I loved the movie. The view of education is summarized right here :

John Keating: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

Nolan: At these boys' age? Not on your life!

At first it seems Keating is inciting impressionable boys to be daring, up until he realises they might be taking him a bit too literally :

John Keating: Sucking the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone.

John Keating: There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.


Everything is made to make the parents look bad, particularly Neil’s father, who has a plan for his son and will not let anything get in the way. This asks the question : when can we consider children are able to decide for themselves what is good for them ? Should we conform to what society requires, or should we live life as we want ? It is easy to feel how good the boys feel to be able to express their needs and wants, in an environment where they are expected to study and be quiet. It shocked me as a teenager, and it still shocks me as an adult, to see how parents and teachers seem to go out of their way to make sure the kids cannot enjoy a single moment or do anything they like. It backfires eventually, because what happens to Neil is his father’s fault, rather than Keating. To me this film represents a turn in mentalities – our parents’ generation were educated to do as they’re told, whereas our generation is more inclined to following what they want. Maybe I am wrong ?

Final words : Carpe diem - seize the day, and make your lives extraordinary

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