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Dead Poet’s Society: A Classic Revisited

Wallace Jones takes us back to 1989 with a look-back at one of cinema’s greatest stories of rebellion, self-discovery, and friendship

'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 questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled 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?'


One of cinema’s most acclaimed movies, Dead Poets Society follows the captivating story of a new English professor in a single-sex preparatory boarding school as he instils new notions that challenge traditional methods.


Set in Vermont, New England, the movie explores themes related to friendship, camaraderie, rebellion, and loss by highlighting Mr. Keating’s (Robbin Williams) passion in inspiring his students through unconventional methods and pushing them to think more critically. Williams, along with the rest of the cast, including Ethan Hawke and Robert Shawn Leonard, draw the audience in with the debate of creative arts within an educational pressure of traditional studies such science, mathematics, and practical skills. The performances delivered leave viewers emotional and yearning for more.


With new student, Todd Anderson, and new teacher, Mr. Keating, starting their first year at Welton Academy, Anderson becomes friends with a mischievous and quietly rebellious group. The group contains a multitude of different personalities, some shy (Anderson), some outgoing (Dalton), some bold and moral (Cameron), others obedient and curious (Meeks and Pitts). Another is too complex to describe (Perry). Nonetheless, the characters are complex and symbolic of human relationships and personalities. While Perry is the main character of the movie, his female counterparts remain only in the background, with underdeveloped plots.


Mr. Keating challenges typical teaching methods and encourages students to 'seize the day.' While the majority of the students come from well-off families, the boys find themselves wrestling against their predetermined roles to become bankers, lawyers, and doctors. The students and Mr. Keating go on to redefine and revive the ‘Dead Poets Society’, a literary society for writing, reciting, and performing poetry.


The motivation and passion the students have in the society drives them to think more critically and challenge society. Perry, for example, attempts to become an actor against his father’s wishes. This reclaimed society and creativity comes with disastrous consequences for some of those involved – exclusion, ambition-squashing, and the loss of a life. Despite the consequences, by the end of the movie, the remaining students still show their loyalty to Mr. Keating, emphasizing his positive impact on their growth. Although Mr. Keating departs, his legacy lives on.


While the lack of emphasis on female characters is only one of the movies shortcomings, some have argued that the movie romanticizes rebellion. On the other hand, the movie shows a great character development through Perry’s character, from shy, to defiant. The movie is also entrenched with memorable scenes.


Dead Poets Society allows the audience to grow intense emotions towards the characters’ tribulations, victories, joys, and downs. The movie also allows the viewer to experience raw, generally unfiltered emotions through on-the-spot poetry and emotional outbursts of anguish at character deaths, unrequited romantic endeavors and societal pressure. To quote the film, reading and writing poetry is not an aesthetic choice, it is a choice due to being 'members of the human race”' The moving poetry and exciting tales within the movie have continued to affect even the most modern of poetry and literature lovers.


An excerpt from the script demonstrates Anderson’s hidden talent for creating poetry, after being given one phrase by the teacher Keating and his sudden creation of a awe-inspiring work of poetry.


'I close my eyes, and this image floats beside me.

A sweaty toothed mad man with a stare that pounds my brain. 

His hands reach out and choke me, and all the time he's mumbling. 

'Truth, truth.'

Like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold. 

You push it, stretch it, but it'll never be enough. 

You kick at it, beat it, it'll never cover any of us.

From the moment we enter crying, 

to the moment we leave dying,

it'll just cover your face, 

as you wail and cry and scream.'

A must-watch film that's relatable even today.

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