Throwback Thursday: Dead Poets Society Still Carpes the Diem

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

My film reviews over the last couple of weeks have taken us back to high school social angst. Today I want to focus on the role that teachers play in shaping us as individuals. No movie exemplifies the power of great teachers better than 1989’s Dead Poets Society.

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In the late 1950s, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) starts his senior year at the prestigious Welton Academy boarding school feeling like a lonely outsider. Through his charismatic roommate Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), however, he becomes a quiet member of a group of friends. Enter the irreverent new English Teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) who challenges the members of the group to find their passions and break out of their rule-following shells.

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There’s a lot of standing on desks in this film.

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More desk standing.

On Keating’s first day, he instructs his class to read a textbook’s introduction to poetry which relies on mathematical keys to determine the value of a poem. Then he directs the boys to rip out the pages, making the point that you can’t judge a poem—or art in general—with a rubric. As the school year progresses, Keating continuously challenges his students to think outside the box. He says, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” There are so many quotable Keating lines from the film it’s hard to pick a favorite. However, the one that resonates the most is “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Keating’s teachings can be boiled down to that: advice that works well in the movie and in real life.

Williams had dabbled with serious roles before (The World According to Garp), but this was his first big dramatic role that caught on with audiences, and it’s one of the most beloved. He seems to have taken the drama from Garp and the heart from Good Morning, Vietnam to invent a role that is both inspirational and aspirational. He walks the line of being sincere and fun without being too treacly (a major problem with his Patch Adams).

The student actors aren’t too shabby either. Hawke and Leonard both play their roles well and go on to bigger careers. Hawke’s sympathetic character is our entry into this world of boarding schools and conformity. He’s our eyes and ears. But it’s Leonard who breaks our hearts by the end: Neil seizes the day by following his passion for acting. When his father refuses to allow him to pursue his dream, the devastation in his eyes helps us understand why he makes the choices he does. Kurtwood Smith, who has made a career of playing this type of character, also excels as Neil’s father.

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Widespread desk standing.

Peter Weir directs the film with a sure hand, composing the scenes and shots deliberately. With his breakthrough Picnic at Hanging Rock, he showed how society influences us and our reactions to nature and events. There was an almost dreamlike quality to the story of missing girls from a boarding school in Australia. In Dead Poets Society, we lose the dreamlike haze and atmospheric moodiness of nature. Instead, Weir shows the different ways in which society oppresses us from the inside. While Picnic refuses to give an answer to any of the questions it raises, Dead Poets Society definitely has an answer in mind.

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Of course, I had to end with this great desk stand.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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