Archive for July 20th, 2015



by J.D. Lafrance

Peter Weir is a filmmaker fascinated by outsider protagonists thrust into strange environments that they must navigate, be it an Australian journalist in 1965 Jakarta (The Year of Living Dangerously) or a veteran Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country (Witness) or a headstrong inventor that moves his family from the United States to the jungles of Central America (The Mosquito Coast). Dead Poets Society (1989) continues this thematic preoccupation with a shy student spending his senior year of high school at a conservative all-boys prep boarding school in the 1950s where he falls in with a tight-knit group of colorful students and is in turn taught by the new English teacher whose unconventional methods are alien to the traditional ways of the school.

Right from the opening credits, Weir immerses us in the stuffy, authoritative atmosphere of Welton Academy where its students literally carry its ideals a.k.a. the Four Pillars (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence) on banners into chapel with all the pomp and circumstance befitting such an esteemed institution. Like new student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), we are immersed in this foreign world and watch as he tries to adapt to and make sense of it all. He starts off as an inexperienced blank slate for Neil Parry (Robert Sean Leonard), the artistically-inclined student (despite his strict father’s wishes), and his friends – Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the strictly-by-the-book type, Gerard Pitts (James Waterston), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), the romantic, and Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), the rebel who’s up for anything – to imprint upon. They even have their own version of the Four Pillars: travesty, horror, decadence, and excrement.

Their first class with Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) is a memorable one as he takes them out of the classroom and into the hall. He quotes Walt Whitman, evokes the phrase carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) and gets them to look at old photographs of students in the trophy case to give an indication of their own mortality and to inspire them to also seize the day. For a brief but pivotal spell, Keating gets his students to think about English literature in a different way than they are normally accustomed to and this starts with having them rip out the introduction to their textbook that posits poetry should be tracked like a graph with its two axises being the poem’s perfection rated against its importance, which then determines its greatness. Through humor, Keating exposes the absurdity of applying a mathematical formula to art. He forces his students to think about poetry differently through the shock tactic of tearing out pages of the book thereby tearing down their pre-conceived notions of how poetry should be studied. (more…)

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