Take a Drink: every time an adult exerts pressure on a student
Take a Drink: whenever Robin Williams attacks a stodgy idea
Take a Drink: for every poem
Take a Drink: for basketball
Take a Drink: “Carpe Diem”
Do a Shot: “Oh Captain, My Captain”
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Robin Williams’s passing seems like it has prompted all of the world to revisit his films, and it’s just a shame that it takes something like this to prompt that. I won’t go into perhaps the fiftieth eulogy you’ve read (although you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better one than this), but there’s no doubt Williams was one of the most versatile actors we had, from his empathetic everyman with hidden depths on this or Goodwill Hunting to more chilling characters in One Hour Photo or the next review I’ll run today, Insomnia, to, of course, his many comic faces.
Permit me just one Patch Adams joke.
Dead Poets Society tells the tale of a group of 1950s prep school students and their new unconventional English teacher who inspires them to find the beauty in literature, the freedom in nonconformity, and the strength and talent within themselves.
The schoolboy/inspirational teacher, Goodbye Mr. Chips type of film has a storied history, to the point where its clichés seem too impregnable to hope to deliver something new in the genre. Dead Poets Society did that, however, or at very least took it to new emotional heights.
Director Peter Weir takes many familiar elements, the stodgy administration, the vivacious students full of untapped potential and pathos, the free-thinking educator who inspires them, the overbearing father, the rose-colored innocence of the 1950s… and spins them into a series of slow-building emotional crescendos that rank among the most effective in cinema history.
This scene alone produced enough salt water to float a thousand Mormons.
He and DP John Seale also shoot a damn fine-looking film, full of colorful New England scenery and evocative visual metaphors. The cast, though, is what really makes this film work, from Josh Charles’s lovestruck romantic to Ethan Hawke’s atypically quiet, reticent young man who clinches the greatness of the final scene to perhaps the most perfectly cast hardass father ever in Kurtwood Smith.
He told his own father he was disappointed in him by the time he turned eight.
The two students, though, are the heartbreaking Robert Sean Leonard, who runs the whole gamut of emotion from cocky leader with the world at his feet to an overwhelmed and desperate young man who only sees one way out, to, of course, Robin Williams. Up to this point Williams really had only shown one hugely popular dimension, but Dead Poet’s Society demonstrated he had so much more to offer. His John Keating can do John Wayne impressions with the best of them, sure, but also had a reservoir of deep thought and feeling and a soulful, gentle mentor to his students. Who wouldn’t want him as a teacher or a confidant? The best thing about his role, though, is by all accounts of his personal life, he may not have been acting much at all.
The film is a bit overlong, and not without its corniness, which is understandable when you consider that Dead Poets Society is a teacher’s fantasy, not a student’s. Sure, real teenagers don’t really act like that, but as an adult’s memories of youth, or a teacher’s ideal, they are recognizable.
No teenagers ever.
I’m also loathe to broach this, especially considering the context of recent events, but the suicide scene always stuck in my craw a bit. It’s indisputably powerfully done, but there’s a romanticizing of the act which is precisely the opposite message we want to be giving to people in similar circumstances. Suicide is tragic, it is understandable, and even possible to empathize with, but it is absolutely NOT romantic.
Life is indeed short and fleeting, and perhaps it is true that the most we can hope for is “That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse”. Well, the play does go on, but it is safe to say that Robin Williams contributed many a well-loved verse, and that Dead Poets Society was among his finest.