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DEAD POETS SOCIETY: 30 Years Later

Leticia revisits Dead Poets Society for its 30th anniversary.

With modern life demanding more and more activities, sometimes it becomes difficult to manage enough time for everything. As good cinephiles, film always has a space in our schedules, but keeping up with all the productions is still not an easy task. It takes dedication, and often, to prioritize the new releases, so we end up letting go of old classics. Dead Poets Society was one of those classics for me. However, in the year the feature directed by Peter Weir turns 30 years, I decided to change this situation. I know it’s hard to believe, but aside from the presence of Robin Williams in the cast and some quotes randomly posted on Tumblr, I didn’t know anything else about the movie, something that brought negative and positive points to my experience — my biggest surprise was to see a baby faced Ethan Hawke.

Founded under the pillars of tradition, honor, discipline and excellence, the Welton Academy is presented as one of the best preparatory schools in the United States. The first scenes of the film establish the rigid academic atmosphere, enhanced by the way in which teachers apply their subject — by repetition, exhaustive practice of exercises and punishment for those who do not meet the imposed goals. Against this whole system is Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), a former student of the academy and the newest professor in the English department. Mr. Keating’s first lesson to his students, applied outside the classroom, is about seizing the day. Having teaching methods described as non-orthodox by other teachers, Mr. Keating challenges his students to think outside the box, for themselves.

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989) – Source: IMDB

For students who live almost automatically in favor of a routine for advanced studies, the lessons of Mr. Keating first provoke reactions as “think he’ll test us on that stuff?”. It’s only later that the boys adapt and give themselves to the teacher’s way of educating, the classes become a moment of deserved relaxation, and the teacher become a confident figure. That’s when the society naming the film comes into play — by investigating Mr. Keating’s life at the academy, the leading group of boys discovers that he belonged to the dead poets society. Inspired by what their members did, the students receive the answer that the dead poets were dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life by reading and absorbing poems written by great poets, such as Henry D. Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and some of their own, at meetings in an old Indian cave located on the outskirts of the academy.

It’s at that moment that the movie disappointed me a bit. By the explanation, I created the expectation that the meetings would be realized with specific purposes. I imagined that during the meetings, the boys would take advantage of that time to vent on problems they were facing, after all, at least two characters there had obvious issues — Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) carries the weight of his older brother’s reputation on his shoulders all the time, and shows discomfort at having to read, which may mean he is dyslexic; in turn, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) comes from a home with an authoritarian father, unable to express his own wishes and desires — I thought this was a great opportunity to address more deeply the lives of these characters in the screenplay. Instead, the meetings were marked by smoke wheels and a reading or another of some poem.

Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and Gale Hansen – source: IMDB

I understand that away from the stern glares of either the parents and the faculty members of the academy, a group of young boys would probably just want to enjoy themselves, as if they were taking a minute off from their stressful routines, yet this expectation break made me think on how today coming-of-age movies deal more openly with some issues, such as mental health, for example, while including fun moments typical of teenagers — a negative point of Dead Poets Society, however, a plus point for our society. It’s a relief to realize that our reception as a society on matters once considered as a taboo has changed for the better. This change of thinking is even clearer with the scene of physical punishment suffered by Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) — the student is beaten by the director of the academy with a wooden device. To think that situations like this happened in the past is surreal and unacceptable. In addition, Knox Overstreet’s (Josh Charles) insistence on conquering Chris Noel (Alexandra Powers) may even have been seen as a romantic act in 1989, however, I hope nowadays more boys know that “no” means “no”.

Overall, Dead Poets Society is an excellent drama with a clever screenplay — it’s not for nothing that it won an Oscar for that — and the most significant and well-done suicide scene I’ve ever seen. Of all Mr. Keating’s lessons, the one that spoke to me the most was about trusting in your own beliefs and trusting yourself, despite hateful comments.

We all have a need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go ‘that’s baaaad’.

John Keating

It’s not a simple lesson, especially when you’re a young adult, but it’s for everyone — whether you’re an Ivy League student or simply a cinephile.

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