Dead Poets Society
I’ve been up and down on Dead Poets Society over the years, initially impressed by the picture and subsequently finding it rather lacking. As such, I hadn’t been minded to revisit it in a good while, but this occasion found me resolved somewhere between those two positions. On the one hand, Tom Schulman’s screenplay is often simplistic in its character and thematic content while sporting a veneer of substance and maturity. On the other, director Peter Weir imbues the proceedings with an immersive, tangible flavour of time, setting and atmosphere. It’s Witness all over again, basically, just slightly less satisfying in the final reckoning.
One element where my response hasn’t changed over the years, however, is Robin Williams’ performance. I’m entirely with Roger Ebert, who generally disliked the picture – “I was so moved, I wanted to throw up” – when he commented “For much of the time, Williams does a good job of playing an intelligent, quick-witted, well-read young man. But then there are scenes in which his stage persona punctures the character – as when he does impressions of Marlon Brando and John Wayne doing Shakespeare”.
Williams is indeed very good at suggesting a dedicated teacher, of the type who could inspire his students, but Weir – who, rather like Nic Roeg with his pop stars turned actors Jagger and Bowie, would later cast another funny man, Jim Carrey, to much more seamless effect – unwisely indulges his actor in exactly the same way Barry Levinson did, more germanely but also more brazenly, in Good Morning Vietnam a few years prior.
We’re mostly spared mawkish Williams, always his worst thespian front, but Weir should have known better than to encourage his comedic riffing, compounded by reaction shots of the kids in fits (which is also exactly what Levinson did in Vietnam, a big no-no of telling the audience something is funny). Pauline Kael’s response to Dead Poets Society was generally more measured, but she contrasting underlined her blind spot for the performer – her reviews of his ’80s work are littered with raves – and misapprehends of these scenes “there’s no undue clowning in it; he’s a gifted teacher demonstrating his skills”.
One might easily lay the charge, given the title and lofty ideals expressed, that Schulman’s picture is victim to pretentiousness, but it actually largely avoids that. Mainly because, and I suspect Weir was consciously in favour of this, the kids aren’t terribly interested in poetry, aside from Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) with his designs on acting. They use their meetings, by and large, to do anything but recite earnestly and lyrically, and when they do compose, it’s to impress girls (Josh Charles’ Knox running after Alexandra Powers’ Chris).
Of course. there’s also an ill-advised attempt to show the healing power of creative thinking, in which clinically shy Todd (Ethan Hawke) is forced to stand in front of his class and experiences a miraculous creative and compositional dam breaking; it’s a fantasy scene, as anyone so blocked would clam up even more when put on the spot before their peers, rather than undergo a catharsis (likewise, the graph to judge a poem’s worth is rather over-egged). Generally, though, Keating’s relatively moderate anarchy (he has nothing on Jack Black) is easy to understand as a source of inspiration, one grasped amid stricture and repression.
And the performances of the juniors, if they’re all very recognisable types, and their situations are entirely trope-tastic ones, are all strong. Ethan Hawke has gone on to the greatest fame, and had previously appeared in Joe Dante’s Explorers; he inhabits the tongue-tied Todd convincingly enough, although for me, Hawke has carried a hard-to-like quality throughout his screen career that makes it immensely difficult to empathise with a character who is, essentially, designated as the picture’s emotional core. He joins the school when we do, and while that’s also true of Keating, in the latter’s case we’re always at the level of the pupils looking in.
Charles is something out of a John Hughes screenplay, but transported back in time, the goof who won’t admit defeat to the girl out of his league, while Gale Hansen’s Charlie is the cocksure troublemaker who has no problem finding girls and bringing them back to society meetings. Leonard, meanwhile, is the dazzling star pupil, capable at anything he puts his mind to but unable to stand up to an oppressive and domineering dad (Kurtwood Smith).
It’s in his regard that the picture does somewhat trip up during the final reel. As Graham Fuller observed, following Neil’s triumphant performance as Puck, Dead Poets Society “lapses into bathos”, offering his unearned suicide in response to the threat of being sent to military school. It brings to a head the picture’s biggest problem; the polarity of its conflicting forces. As Kael noted, “The picture doesn’t rise to the level of tragedy, because it’s unwilling to give us an antagonist who isn’t hopelessly rigid” (true of Keating’s fellow masters, and of parents who rally round apportioning him the blame). While he doesn’t ask his son if he can fly, Smith isn’t ultimately that far from a more genteel version of Clarence Bodicker. Certainly as hissable in relative terms. That said, his and his wife’s (Carla Belver) reactions to the sight of Neil’s body are powerfully authentic.
And yet, Dead Poets Society rises beyond its shortcomings due to Weir’s world building. In much the same way as the Amish folk, or the also-school-focused sojourn to Hanging Rock, the director conjures a palpable sense of being transported to another place, one where his fascination with the rites and mores of the preparatory school’s institutional regalia is infectious; even more so, the opportunity to suggest that any break with this most conformist and Christian of establishments is of pagan, almost supernatural ilk. The boys’ first expedition to a meeting finds them running, hooded, through mist-shrouded woods to the welcoming womb of a natural cave, as if to engage in occult practices (quickly devolving into pipe smoking and sax playing).
Indeed, Weir cites the sequence as a “sort of shift into something more mythic and significant and in a way play with the time”, part of his key attraction to the material. Neil, naturally, auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Stig of the Dump hadn’t yet been published – and as part of his suicide ritual wears his own Puck’s crown (just not of thorns), suggestive of a messianic sacrifice. Maurice Jarre, again pairing with Weir, adds to the sense of the uncanny with his brooding electronic score. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History would further this educated elemental-ism, with its very privileged setting of murder, bacchanalia and drugs.
The picture is exquisitely shot, of course, be it bathing in autumnal hues as Keating is carried across a playing field at sunset, or giving way to winter and the end-of-term theatrical performance. This is very much the case of a director elevating merely solid material, driving impact from otherwise hollow speechifying and adages (“Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary”; “… dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life”). The picture would likely now be scolded for its hopelessly white, upper-middle-class self-indulgence. However, its problem isn’t its milieu but rather how well drawn it is (it is inhabited perfectly, but Schulman is in no way Weir’s equal). Weir, for his part, “didn’t care if it was a school for WASPS or ants”.
Weir came on board following the departure of director Jeff Kanew. Williams was already attached at this point – Liam Neeson had also been cast at one stage, while Mel Gibson and Bill Murray were considered; at one point, Dustin Hoffman was attached as both director and star – although this rather conflicts with IMDB info that Mickey Rourke wanted Weir to make changes to the script. Earlier, a stalling Williams had apparently failed to show up to shoot for Kanew and the production was scrapped as a consequence. Weir opted both to indulge the actor with “15 percent“ of Williams and refrain from having Keating die from Hodgkin’s disease in favour of concentrating on the kids.
The director was set to make Green Card, but had to wait for Gerard Depardieu to become available. He felt Dead Poets Society’s success was very much down to the artistic force of the individual over leaning towards the community, which he considered antithetical to the true artistic personality (albeit, one might see the desk-standing finale, and obediently ripping up text books as Pythonesque “Yes, we are all individuals!”, moments).
This is very much an inclusive tale of an exclusive boys’ school, one that woos rather than risks offending its audience, who are beguiled by a relatively safe, nostalgic milieu; it’s there to transport you as the period trappings announce themselves. This isn’t the rebellious spirit of If; it’s more armchair, or desk-storming. But that’s fine. Dead Poets Society is a good film and well-made, and one with sufficient artistic merit not to appear like an impostor in the Best Picture category. Certainly, a damn sight better than the one that won.