Thursday, May 26, 2011
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
(June 1989, U.S.)
Over the years, I've come to think that if you want truly inspiring drama, you need to watch comic actors when they're NOT acting like crazed, hilarious lunatics. Say what you want about a guy like Jim Carrey for example, but I thought he did a suberb twist of drama in THE TRUMAN SHOW (also a Peter Weir film) and THE MAJESTIC. But we'll talk about him at another time. For now, let's stay focussed on the dramatic power that funny man Robin Williams gives in DEAD POETS SOCIETY, a film set at a conservative and aristocratic boys prep school that tells the story of English teacher John Keating (Williams) who inspires his students to change their lives of conformity through his teaching of poetry and literature. John Keating is the kind of teacher that I'm sure many of us wish we had in high school; a teacher who would listen, who would encourage, who would strive to push each one of us to find our own voice during a time of our lives when conformity and acceptance are keys to our social survival.
The teaching methods of John Keating are unorthodox by the Welton Academy standards of the 1950s, to say the least. His students are seventeen year-old boys who more or less have their entire futures already mapped out by their domineering parents and the honorable traditions of the school itself. They're puzzled at first by the standards of which Keating tries to get them to not only appreciate poetry beyond the bullshit textbook mathematical formulas, but to also allow poetry and the printed word to inspire their lives and to achieve their own greatness. But as film cliche would have it, the boys not only open up but learn to take their own measures in finding themselves. Todd Anderson, terribly inhibited with self-consciousness, will overcome his fear of public speaking and find poetic words from his very soul and Knox Overstreet will find the courage to "woo" the beautiful girl he loves with his own poetic voice.
Each boy experiences their own triumph through Keating's inspiration, but the real story lies with Neil Perry. His overbearing father has instilled nothing but fear in his son to the point of his (Neil's) not being able to communication with him at all. Whether he likes it or not, Neil will go on to Harvard medical school and become a doctor. But what Neil really wants to do is act the lead role of Puck in a local production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". To do this, he'll have to go "all the way" and defy his father's demands with a forged letter of permission. For a very short time, he'll bask in the wonderous glory of the stage, the theater and the unconditional passion he feels while doing what it is he truly loves. It won't last long, though. When he's discovered on stage by his father, your heart sinks as you watch all of that fade away. Furious, Neil's father takes him home and tells him that he intends to enroll him in a military school to prepare him for Harvard and his inevitable career in medicine. Unable to cope with the future that awaits him or to make his father understand his feelings, Neil prepares himself for his final fate. You watch him and you literally feel a knot in your stomach because you know exactly what he's going to do when he reveals the key that opens his father's drawer and takes out an object wrapped in a white cloth (okay, just in case you're too damn clueless to have figured out what it is I'm talking about...Neil shoots himself). His suicide is tragic not only because a beautiful soul has been lost but it will ultimately also cost Keating his job when he's made the "scapegoat" for his unorthodox teachings to such fragile, impressionable young minds.
The film ends beautifully, though, when Keating is preparing to exit the English room and leave the school for good. Todd for the first time breaks his reserve by standing on his desk and calling out "O Captain! My Captain!". Much of the class climb onto their own desks to duplicate Todd's tribute. Keating leaves happily with tears in his eyes and simple says, "Thank you, boys." Touching...very touching.
Okay, it's personal story time. During the Summer of 1989, I was dating a girl whom I shall call Caren (because that's really her name). We saw DEAD POETS SOCIETY on our first date at a small movie theater in Roslyn, Long Island. Needless to say, we both loved it, and personally, I think a first date that involves a movie is always a better date when you BOTH liked it. Anyway, we continued to date right up until summer's end when we both amicably agreed to end the relationship and move on. Sounds simple and easy, right? It should have been but it wasn't. What happened over the next several years can only be described as an emotional rollercoaster ride of romance and friendship in which I was not wearing my safety belt. It ended badly and we didn't speak for several years until I finally decided to contact her to give myself the badly-needed closure that was necessary for me to move on with my life. In a scene that greatly resembled the finale of a three-act play, we said goodbye to each other on a street in New York City in July of 1998 and she moved out west. I haven't seen her since that day. I met the woman who would one day become my wife just a few months later. Many of you reading this now can probably relate to a story like that, or one close to it. For myself, I can only conclude that it was a fortunate thing that Caren and I didn't make it together. For had we, I would not be the woman whom I am just as much in love with as I was when I first knew her. For had we, Caren would not be with the man whom I'm sure she's just as happy with also. So, it is to Caren that I dedicate this post. I haven't forgotten the Summer of 1989. I hope you haven't, either.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Neil Perry: "Mr. Keating? Mr. Keating? Sir? Oh, Captain! My Captain!"
John Keating: "Gentlemen."