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Dead Poets Society is a late-80s movie, one of the early ones where Robin Williams went from doing "funny maniac on coke" to "sad clown." As such, he still manages to be funny a couple of times.

The movie is set at a prestigious boarding school in New England, with a bunch of seniors coming back for their final year and newcomer Tod Anderson (Ethan Hawke) as our shy POV character. The boys are decent enough sorts; mostly they just want to smoke their cigarettes and go to study group. They're all obviously college bound and their parents have their lives planned out for them, especially Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), whose father immediately dominates him in front of his friends by making him drop an extracurricular that he enjoys.

And then they meet Mr. Keating (Williams), who is teaching them English (mostly poetry). The first thing he does is tell them to call him "O Captain, my Captain." He then informs them that they should be "sucking the marrow out of life" and "seizing the day." On his inspiration, they re-form the Dead Poets Society, go to a cave in the woods, and read to each other.

The overall message, though, that Keating imparts is to take risks and be daring, bold and live for the moment. This message, imparted to teenage boys, has (shockingly) some consequences - one boy is beaten by the headmaster (oh, sorry, "disciplined" with a wooden paddle) because he slips an article into the school paper asking that girls be admitted to the school. Another gets his ass kicked at a party because he drunkenly (and very chastely, in fairness) kisses a jock's girlfriend on the forehead. See, it's all very tame - these kids didn't exactly lead lives of quiet desperation, but their acts of rebellion aren't very meaningful.

But then Neil joins the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream as Puck, against his father's orders, and then lies to both his father and Keating about it. He performs (and there's a kind of awkward jump in the movie; we see him entering the theater and watching the director block a scene, and next thing we know it's opening night), gets a standing ovation, and his father takes him home and informs him that he'll be going to military school immediately.

Overreaction? Oh, Neil won't be overshadowed. He shoots himself. The Dead Poets sell out and blame Keating (the one that doesn't is expelled) for putting horrible ideas into their heads. Keating leaves, and the boy stage one final protest - they stand on their desks (which should in no way hold their weight) as the headmaster, now their English teacher, flails helplessly.

OK. So I have some problems with this movie. Flunks the Bechdel test nice and hard, but given that it's set at a boys' school, that's less of an issue. I do sort of have a problem with the object of Knox's affection being basically kissed while pass-out drunk and finding that endearing, but again, it's treated so innocently it's hard to get offended). It's easy to get angry at Neil's father (Kurtwood Smith) for being a dick, but I like the way he's portrayed as softening when he sees his son in pain but being unwilling to bend because he feels that all his hard work (he's not moneyed by birth like some of the other families) shouldn't go into his son acting. He's unreasonable, yes, but he's not abusive, and when his son dies he's appropriately hysterical.

The issue I have is how Keating builds himself up, not the poetry. The first thing he does is tell the kids to call him "Captain." He performs for them, he has them learn to think for themselves and "find their own voice", which in 1959 is a big deal, but he never tells them that what they do will have consequences. He never tells them that finding your voice is a lifelong activity, and if they burn all their opportunities now, they might lose the opportunity later to find their voices. He does tell them to pull it back after the "let girls into the school" stunt, but that's because the headmaster dresses him down for his teaching methods.

The class resembles more of a cult, and poetry is really more of a vehicle than an end in itself. I really liked this movie when I was 16...but that was when the message of the movie really hit home. Now, looking at it, it's a little creepy in places. And also, as Michelle points out, it's interesting that 80s movies looking at the 50s see repression while 2011 movies looking at the 50s see pleasant nostalgia. So it goes.

My grade: C+
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: Death at a Funeral


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