Darwin's Film Club: Dead Poets Society
Peter Weir's classic look at the repressive and cloistered life of students at a New England boarding school turns twenty this year. Looking back, it's easy to dismiss the embarrassing hi-jinx of Robin Williams, the mawkish sentimentality of his misty-eyed pupils, and the manipulative emotional pornography of the screenplay.
But that's a little harsh.
The period it deals with (1959) was at the time of its release only thirty years past, and so is fifty years past for us now. Thus, Dead Poets itself is two thirds as distant to us as its subject was then, if that's not too garbled to follow.
History reminds us that the pyramids were as ancient to Herodotus when he wrote about Egypt, as Herodotus is to us when we read him now.
I suppose what I'm saying is that I somehow consider DPS to be a 'modern' film which dealt with a 'bygone' era. Yet in a few short years any film set in 1989 will display the very same rustic patina of age as did those portraying the staid world of 1959.
That's a little disturbing to me. But moving on.
The stars have moved on too. Robert Sean Leonard, despite landing a role in the top TV series House, was ultimately too bland to carve out a decent filmography. His character's overly gleeful thepianism (the Puck nonsense) and his pointless suicide always irked me a little, and perhaps later casting agents felt the same secret irritation when passing him over.
On the other hand Ethan Hawke (who had already starred with River Phoenix in Joe Dante's underrated Explorers of 1985) managed a string of decent follow up hits: Alive, Gattaca, Snow Falling On Cedars, Training Day, etc. His character in Dead Poets, though terminally shy and neurotic, was slightly less annoying–this obviously stood him in good stead.
He even wrote a novel; perhaps the inspirational Mr Keating's exhortations to his on-screen persona eventually affected his real life.
Despite failing memories on the subject, Keating was in fact Robin Williams's third or fourth attempt at a straight role(†). There was instantly talk of Oscars, but it came to naught.
Nevertheless, he has reprised this quirky, fast-talking yet emotionally naive family-man-without-a-family in several different incarnations annually ever since, sometimes with great success (Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, Mrs Doubtfire), though mostly without (Father's Day, Jakob The Liar, RV).
You may have noticed that these days his serious roles require him to dust off his 'other' character, the practically catatonic and utterly guileless straight man (see What Dreams May Come, Insomnia, One Hour Photo). Unfortunately, this later invention neither impresses nor entertains.
In the last twenty years he has averaged three or fours films a year, sadly few of which have any merit. All right, that's a bit dismissive I know, I'll admit he has had some phenomenal successes but if you take a look at the sheer volume of his output, you'll find it's mostly dross I'm afraid.
My reason for bringing all this up is that a television screening of Dead Poets in the local takeaway gave me a flashback to 1989 and reminded me of a bizarre phenomenon that accompanied every screening of the film on its original release–a spontaneous round of applause as the credits rolled, as if we were at a play. People looked around puzzled with themselves, but clapping anyway. It seemed appropriate.
The undeniable fact is that Dead Poets Society is a hell of a film. The applause came naturally.
But does this behaviour exist any more? Has it happened recently? Maybe even to you?
- † By the way, at some point a waitress successfully sued Williams for giving her herpes–I just couldn't fit this into the main article. [back ↩]