Dead Poets Society

My, how far we’ve come — or have we? Some things, like the trials of adolescence, never seem to change. The only differences are the contexts and the forms. Dead Poets Society shows us the tug of conformity from one of the most conformist of American decades, the 1950s. But wait! Doesn’t every decade or social framework demand some kind of conformity? Are bobby sox and saddle shoes really all that different from tattoos and body piercings? Belonging somewhere is so important for us social creatures. How do we decide where we do or don’t fit in? Films have been exploring such questions forever.

Set in what seems to be a New England boarding school or ‘academy’ for boys of, say, eight to eighteen years of age, Dead Poets immerses us in the world of navy blazers and whitewall haircuts, “tradition-discipline-honor-excellence” codes, raging hormones, and the struggles of young men to discover themselves and their place.

Bucking mom or dad to pursue acting instead of law or medical school — speaking truth to power, as we know it now — was virtually unheard of in 1956. (It’s hard enough to find such bravery yet today.) In the context of a boys’ prep school, with tradition and discipline enshrined, breaking out of the mold was both heretical and physically dangerous. Teachers were enforcers as much as imparters of knowledge. But, on occasion, a teacher who shelters his own spark becomes the mentor and example we crave. After that, anything can happen.

More than twenty years on, this film holds its meaning and is worth a look for affecting performances. Robin Williams plays the academy alumnus who returns to teach poetry, to challenge and inspire his youthful charges to break out of conformist constraints. A young Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Fast Food Nation, Lord of War, Gattica, Waking Life) gives a memorable performance as an adolescent virtually invisible to his parents and struggling with how brave to be at school. Robert Sean Leonard of TV’s House, looking like a young and skinny Jim Carrey without the craziness, catches the existential fire and finds his muse but struggles to counter family pressure.

This is also the film that turned an aphorism from ancient Latin — carpe diem (seize the day) — into a cultural catchphrase. And over a decade or so, it morphed into everything from three-day festivals for carp (yes, the fish) to calligraphic wall hangings.

Cast: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Norman Lloyd,
Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Alexandra Powers
Director: Peter Weir
Theatrical release: 1989; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos