Peter Weir’s 1989 classic, Dead Poets Society, is one of those films that never leaves you. When the credits start rolling and the screen eventually turns black, you find yourself still pondering about all these “dead poets” referenced in the movie, about these romantic notions that “words and ideas can change the world.” In truth, we mull them over long after the credits have rolled because they are quite literally universal themes that exist today, existed in 1989, and existed in the writings of those poets who lived hundreds of years before that. It’s a coming of age story that is relevant in every period of time. Along with these immortal motifs is the story of a group of impressionable young boys who have to deal with the pressures of attending a grueling prep school, parents who have their futures perfectly laid out for them, and the weight of trying to figure out their identities and their place in the world. Their somewhat bleak existence is pierced with a ray of light in the form of a new English teacher, aptly named John Keating (Robin Williams).
Welton Academy, or as the students like to call it, Hell-ton, is a school of tradition. Honor, Discipline, Excellence, and the very aforementioned, Tradition, are the four pillars by which the school is run. We see the students learning science, Latin, and trigonometry in a setting that seems more like a prison than a classroom. The teachers are stern, never smiling, and only lecturing but never really teaching. Enter new English teacher, John Keating, and we see a stark difference with his methods of educating. He has them rip out the entire introduction to “Understanding Poetry” from their textbooks because unlike the preface states, it is impossible to “measure” poetry in order to determine which literary work is greater. He has them march in the courtyard so as to warn them about the dangers of conformity, and he even has them stand on his desk, so they can view things from a different perspective. He ultimately inspires them to “seize the day!” With their doe-eyed expressions, it is clear he’s touching each and every one of their lives, leaving an everlasting mark with each passing moment.
Like the film itself, Keating’s influence stays with the students even after the bell rings. The boys, including a young Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson and Robert Sean Leonard as Neil Perry, reconvene an old school club that alumnus Keating was once a member of: the titular Dead Poets Society. At their meetings, in the woods where they want to live deep and “suck all the marrow of life,” they read Thoreau and Shelley, rap verses, and woo girls. With the spirit that Keating is instilling in them, they also become a little more daring, a little more hopeful. Dutiful son Neil acts against his dad’s wishes and decides to try out for the school play, pursuing his dream of becoming an actor. Meanwhile, in one of the best scenes in the film, Wallflower Todd overcomes his fear of public speaking when Keating pushes him to compose an original poem on the spot in front of the entire class. For the first time, Todd realizes his potential. A delighted and satisfied Keating demands, “Don’t you forget this.”
They never do. Williams’ role as Keating is just the right combination of sincerity and buoyancy. We get serious moments from him, but we also see Williams do what he did best: make us laugh. He reads Shakespeare while doing Brando and Wayne impersonations, and he is able to fill his character with such life that even though he’s not on screen for half the film, his spirit still is.
In the end, Dead Poets Society is somewhat predictable. The pressures are too much for one of the students, always the brightest, and that beautiful but sometimes tragic influence of words gets to his core. If words and ideas can change the world, then they can just as easily change one schoolboy’s story, and they do. Still, it’s a film filled with lovely notions that will make you reminisce back to your high school English days, and make you wish you had your own John Keating, or in my case, make you remember and appreciate the one you had.
I included this film in this week’s Film Canon series because last week, John Keating died. His name was Phillip Marcus. He was a scholar in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, an expert in modern British Literature, in early and contemporary American Literature, and was an avid believer in different interpretations when reading and approaching a piece of composition. To him it wasn’t just about the formalist approach, but about a biographical, historical, feminist, and even a psychological interpretation of any reading. He especially loved to apply Freudian and Jungian theories to any of the written works we were studying. As it turns out, Philip Roth’s “Eli the Fanatic” and Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” are drenched in Jungian notions. He just loved to view things in any and every different way possible, but above all else, he believed the most meaningful study one could make when analyzing a poem, a short story, or an entire novel, was your own interpretation. He cherished words that were written decades or centuries before, but even more so, he cherished what those words meant to someone today.
Phillip Marcus was my John Keating. He didn’t stand on desks, or have us march around the courtyard, but he taught us to be free thinkers and he instilled within his students the belief that words and ideas can change the world. This was his creed, and in the last day of every semester, no matter what the course he was teaching, he would give his students a copy of a quote from one of his favorite movies, this movie:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
I only knew part of his verse, but my god, it was special, so striking that remnants of it would be scattered all throughout hundreds of other verses of those he taught. The powerful play will go on, but captain, your verse will always live on. Through me, through us.