Plot: At the start of a new school year at a highly-exclusive all-boys prep school in Vermont (actually, central Delaware), a new English teacher is demonstrating some pretty unconventional teaching techniques. John Keating quickly becomes a favorite teacher among the student body at Welton Academy, but his reputation as a rebel – which came to be when he was a pupil at Welton himself – makes the school’s administration uneasy. Keating’s students soon discover that Keating was once part of a secret club, the “Dead Poets Society.” The Dead Poets Society, in simplest terms, is a group of students that would sneak out of the school dorms at night to a cave where, by candlelight or lamplight or flashlight, would read aloud works of classic writers, as well as their own original pieces. Some of Keating’s students decide to reconvene the Dead Poets Society and, between the experiences with the Dead Poets Society and Keating’s teaching, the lives of a handful of students at Welton Academy are changed – some for better and some for worse.
Dead Poets Society, a movie treasured by first-year English majors and other intolerable people, really isn’t my type of film. For starters, there are no zombies – in spite of the fact that the film’s title could easily be misinterpreted to be about undead zombie poets. (Carpe cerebrum … “Seize the brains!”)
I must confess that I also have a personal grudge against Dead Poets Society. In fact, to say that I have a bad attitude about this movie would be akin to calling Robin Williams’ filmography “spotty” – a bold understatement regarding a man who, in 1998 alone, starred in both the abysmal Patch Adams as well as the insufferable What Dreams May Come. While it’s almost too easy to make fun of something like Patch Adams, there are plenty of people who love the shit out of Dead Poets Society. Not me.
I had Dead Poets Society – more so the quotes than the actual movie – forced down my throat by bookworms and theater geeks as an undergraduate at a small religious undergraduate school in Central Pennsylvania. For the same reason, I was unable to listen to Radiohead for a really long time.
I don’t like Dead Poets Society. I’d watched it quite a few times in the past. It’s syrupy. It’s manipulatively sentimental. I would never purposely choose to watch it again.
Yet, because of the nature of this 50 Movies project, my date with Dead Poets Society has been inevitable. When it comes to Delaware, you don’t really have much of a choice of films. Between Delaware and … oh … South Dakota, there aren’t a whole lot of states less friendly when it comes to allowing movies to be filmed within their boundaries. Narrow that field down to just `80s movies and you can’t be too picky.
Dead Poets Society is a Delaware movie through and through. Although the story is based on screenwriter Tom Schulman’s real-life exploits at an all boys prep school in Tennessee and is supposed to take place in Vermont, but the movie was actually filmed entirely at St. Andrew’s School, a private co-ed boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, and in its surrounding area. For anyone from Delaware, the scenery will be immediately familiar.
It pains me to say this … it really does … but – after watching Dead Poets Society for the first time in many years – I … I actually enjoyed it.
Don’t get me wrong. The film’s flaws are many. Its characters are one-dimensional. I found fault with SpaceCamp for this same reason: that Dead Poets Society‘s seem to fit the archetypes way too easily. I watch a lot of genre flicks and there’s nothing wrong with these types of characters in the right context – but when your movie professes to be a serious drama, it’s inexcusable. Of the boys, there’s “the shy one,” “the geek,” “the dreamer,” “the lovesick Romeo.” The adults are even worse, made out to be so stuffy and uptight and aristocratic and white that you can’t help but cheer for Robin Williams’ Keating and his devil-may-care attitude.
Speaking of Robin Williams, don’t automatically buy into the hype that his performance here is as special as his Best Actor Oscar nomination would have you believe.
Williams shows restraint in comparison with some of his more manic performances of which his fans love and his detractors loathe. But since when do we equate an actor just “dialing it back” with excellent acting? Surely there has to be something under the surface? Not to mention, no matter how “restrained” Williams’ performance is supposed to be, he still can’t help but break out a few of his awful impressions.
On the other hand, the young actors fair much better. (Just where was Robert Sean Leonard’s Best Actor nomination?)
Most bothersome are the mixed messages that the movie gives with all this carpe diem talk. Go ahead and “seize the day,” says Keating. Just don’t break any school rules. Carpe Diem is a great message within the classroom, but what happens when Keating’s students try and apply it to real life? If you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society, I’m not going to spoil the end for you, but it ends up pretty badly for at least one of his students. Within the context of the film, Carpe Diem is downright trite – the kind of motto that looks really great as an inspirational quote in someone’s Facebook profile.
HOWEVER, where Dead Poets Society fails as a serious drama, it succeeds as popcorn entertainment. It looks great. It sounds great. As a fantasy, Dead Poets Society hits all the right notes.
What writer wouldn’t want to live in a world where poetry serves as the de facto secret weapon to woo the ladies and reciting classic literature in a cave is considered a serious act of rebellion? Hopefully one of these days someone will make a movie in which writing movie reviews on a blog will make you more desirable to the opposite sex.
In reality, 99 percent of poetry usually only attracts a certain type of girl – and it’s not at all the homecoming queen type of whom the characters of Dead Poets Society would take interest. Reading poetry in a cave isn’t all types of badass, unless you’re going to a hoity-toity prep school like Welton Academy – or, I guess, the “small religious undergraduate school” that I attended more than a decade ago, which is perhaps why so many of the people I knew there found the film so appealing.
I’m not saying that Dead Poets Society is a bad movie. It’s just not a great one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend the rest of the afternoon eating leftover Halloween candy and watching people hurt themselves on YouTube. Carpe Diem, motherfuckers!
From the soundtrack — “Let’s Have a Party” performed by Wanda Jackson
Next week: Florida
50 Movies for 50 States Contest Scoreboard
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Next week’s voting begins next Tuesday at 8 a.m. EST
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