Dead Poets Society

December 18, 2010 at 11:59 pm (Movies) (, )

I watched Dead Poets Society not long ago, for the first time in … lo, these many years. 


And … huh. 

This was a very early film for both Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard; the latter is still pretty wonderful, while the former has disappointed me deeply (two words: Great Expectations).  And this was where I fell for Robin Williams in a fair way. 

This was another movie, I believe, that I started watching on HBO after we first got it, along with STII and Ladyhawke and a couple of others.  I learned a lot from that movie.  I don’t recall ever having learned a single poem from school.  Seriously – not one.  (*ponders again*  Nope.  Zip.  We might have read some here and there, but learn any?  Heck no.)  Happily, I’m a geek; all the poetry I know I learned because of Star Trek (researching quotes and title sources) and Beauty and the Beast (the ’87 tv series, of course – poetry rich), and, yes, DPS

It was easier to watch when I was twenty, I guess; I still had my attempt at art school ahead of me.  I have since learned that teachers like John Keating are purely fictional.  In my life, at least; I guess it’s sort of like true love and coffee that’s really worth $5 a cup – it exists out there somewhere, but I haven’t seen it yet. 

This movie meant a tremendous amount to me when I first saw it.  Todd Anderson was, basically, me: “Mr. Anderson? Come on! Are you a man or an amoeba?”  He’s an amoeba – he can’t bring out an answer.  Picked like that, I never could either.  “Mr. Anderson! Don’t think that I don’t know that this assignment scares the hell out of you, you mole!”  The sheer agony of terror in his face when the assignment of writing a poem and reading it aloud came down – I know that feeling, know it well.  The difference is, I never had a teacher who recognized that I would have particular trouble with an assignment like this.  I never, ever had a teacher who used humor and trust to drag me up in front of a group and sound my barbaric yawp.  Hell, even with repeated watchings of the movie I didn’t even have a barbaric yawp until a few years ago. 

I needed a John Keating so very badly when I was in school.  There were glimmers, here and there … 10th grade World History had moments, but it was more a matter of “Get Mr. M. talking and that’s the whole class taken care of”.  (*Goodsearch*  Holy God – he’s still teaching at NHHS??  That’s … insane.)  The closest anyone ever came in my school career was the admissions director and Art History teacher at Paier.  Not that Art History teacher, the good one.  She was amazing, was Debbie.  She was John Keating packed into a tiny boyish female spectacled form.   Not particularly for me, really – but she was able to make me leave that classroom and drive home with a fire in my heart.  I wanted to go create things.  I wanted to go and learn things.  I felt like I could go and conquer the art world when I left that class.  And then I’d go to the painting classes, where I wanted so badly to idolize the teachers and gain their … if not respect, then support… and it didn’t go that way.  I suppose it’s my own weakness that I required it – but a few words from any one of them would have been so valuable to me. 

This is one of those films that stopped being just a movie to me.  There are movies like Princess Bride and STII and Ladyhawke and such that are inextricable parts of me; they cast shadows all around me.  The shadows DPS cast were such that it raised my expectations far too high – it set goals which, apparently, no real teacher can meet.  Damn. 

It had a terrible influence on me … There’s the American dream of “if you try hard enough you can do anything!“, and then there’s John Keating’s use of poetry in DPS.  “Carpe diem”, he says.  “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 question of these recurring, Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d 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?”  Ouch. 

No pressure.

There’s a scene that resonates a lot more now than it did once – at least, more fully.  Once I saw only Keating’s side of it.  Now I see both:

 McAllister: You take a big risk by encouraging them to become artists, John. When they realize that they’re not Rembrandts, Shakespeares, or Mozarts, they’ll hate you for it.
Keating: We’re not talking artists, George. We’re talking free thinkers.
McAllister: Free thinkers at seventeen?
Keating: Funny. I never pegged you as a cynic.
McAllister: Not a cynic. A realist. “Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I’ll show you a happy man.”
Keating: “But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”
McAllister: Tennyson?
Keating (with a grin): No. Keating.

I am, heaven help me, becoming more McAllister than Keating – more cynic/realist than free-thinker.  This is where one of my issues with American Idol kicks in: “When they realize that they’re not Rembrandts, Shakespeares, or Mozarts, they’ll hate you for it.”  The overly confident ones, the ones with the voices like cats in a sack who show up expecting adulation and shocked – shocked, I say – that the judges think they’re terrible.  It’s the flip side of trying to inspire: sometimes inspiration backfires on the universe. 

Oh, right – here’s the other area where my expectations were raised too high, where I never found what I needed in school:

Todd: Keating said that everybody took turns reading and I don’t wanna do that.
Neil: Gosh. You really have a problem with that, don’t you?

Neil’s tone of voice as he says that line isn’t what you might expect; it’s genuinely concerned.  If my high school “friends” ever said anything like it, it wasn’t in tones of concern.  But I can only deal with one source of bitterness per post … the scenes with RSL and Hawke are beautifully played.  They’re two boys with difficult families and high pressure at school, and Todd’s shyness and complete lack of confidence gains a bolster in Neil; Neil’s big heart and romantic (see Anne of Green Gables, not Harlequin) disposition finds grounding in Todd.  The performances are lovely, by them and all of them.  (I love Meeks.)

Back to the inspiration. 

“I’ll now read the traditional opening message by society member, Henry David Thoreau. ‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. … To put to rout all that was not life, and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.'”

Neil: Alfred Lord Tennyson:
Come my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world
for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset.
And though we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So very inspiring.  So very hard to live up to. 

Aaand there are some basic writing tips:

Keating: (So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.)  A man is not very tired, he is exhausted.  Don’t use “very sad”, use – Come on, Mr. Overstreet, you twerp –
Knox: Morose?
Keating: Exactly! Morose.

– Words to NaNo by. 

Keating: Mr. Hopkins, you were laughing. You’re up.
Hopkins: “The cat sat on the mat.”
Keating: Congratulations, Mr. Hopkins. Yours is the first poem to ever have a negative score on the Pritchard scale. We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing near you. I don’t mind that your poem had a simple theme. Sometimes the most beautiful poetry can be about simple things, like a cat, or a flower or rain. You see, poetry can come from anything with the stuff of revelation in it. Just don’t let your poems be ordinary.

Very true.  Very nice. 

Ah – and here’s the part that haunts my days and shadows my nights:

“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see, the world looks very different from up here. You don’t believe me? Come see for yourself. Come on. Come on!  Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try! Now, when you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think.  Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out! Don’t just walk off the edge like lemmings. Look around you…”

More words to live by:

Charlie: Knoxious, you’ve gotta calm down.
Knox: No, Charlie. That’s my problem. I’ve been calm all my life.

There is just so much to love.  The music as Neil opens the book.  The scene in which Todd is trying to write his poem, beating the meter out on the air, walking in a circle between the two beds.  As he faces outward on each circuit his face changes – he’s excited, and then comes around again and is a little more thoughtful, and then comes around again and is crestfallen.  It’s so well done. 


Poor Knox … He experiences the worst evening of his young life, meeting the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, Chris.  What’s wrong with that?  She’s dating a football hero from the co-ed public school.  She’s not going to look at a Dead Poet.  Unless, sparked by Mr. Keating’s lessons, he makes her look at him.  He nearly gets himself killed by placing a gentle kiss on her brow … he did *not* feel her up.  Poor Knox.  But, in the end, he’s the only one with the possibility of a happy ending.  One of the special features on the dvd pointed out that there are four storylines followed through the film: Knox and Chris, Charlie Dalton, Todd, and Neil.  Todd might be strengthened by this; he learned how to speak out and speak up and stand up, for himself and what he cared about – but it won’t be easy.  Charlie: expelled; maybe he could go on from there to a public school; his family had money, so that might smooth his way.  Neil … ah, Neil.  Neil broke my heart years ago, and again watching it now.  Not only the vision of the next ten years yoked to a course he desperately does not want (“that’s ten more years – that’s a lifetime!”), but … He just gave his maiden performance.  He did it really, really well.  And he was yanked literally from the wings and had it all taken clean away from him.  He had his treasure in his hands and it was taken away.  It was a warm and living thing with blood flowing and a strong heart pumping – and his father took it away and killed it.  He knew what he wanted to do with his life, knew it in his bones and found great joy in it – that’s one of the most amazing feelings there is, to find something you love and know, know, that this is what will occupy you for all the days of your life.  Having that taken away – whether slowly and gradually as it was for me or abruptly and savagely as it was for Neil – is one of the deepest pains there is.  Knox, though … Knox is beginning to make inroads with the girl he’s infatuated with.  It’s nice to think he might also be strengthened and come out of this wiser and still aflame. 

Though Nolan’s administration seems likely to do its best to quench it.

In a lot of ways I can’t believe I love this movie as much as I do, then and still.  It’s not a happy movie, in the end, at all, and the kind of ending DPS has is almost letter for letter the kind of ending I hate.  But somehow this pulls it off; it creates an atmosphere in which what happens is inevitable, and somehow doesn’t leave a sour taste.  Grief, yes; regret, yes.  But it’s what must be.  And the last scene was a balm, of sorts.  Yes, Todd will be all right, and so will Knox, and Pittsie.  Maybe even Keating, because of this. 

Cameron?  Scum, and always will be.



  1. Nahla said,

    Just watched that movie and came across your article while googling the movie.. I am enchanted by the movie as much as you are 🙂
    & really enjoyed reading this..

  2. So, a Creative Writing Major Walks into a Bar said,

    […] Feature image via. […]

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