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DEAD POETS SOCIETY

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Kurtwood Smith
Director: Peter Weir
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Touchstone
Features: See Review
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: December 13, 2005

 

“Carpe Diem.  Seize the day.”

 

Film ****

 

We have all had teachers who molded us and inspired us for good or ill.   Some teachers can make any subject interesting and inspire a lifelong appreciation for literature, music, science, math, or even history.  Robin Williams plays one such teacher in Dead Poets Society and as Professor John Keating, he even attempts to change the way his students look at their lives, using comedy, physical activity, and literature itself.  He wants them to lead extraordinary lives no matter where their road takes them.  Many poems masterfully capture this longing and he imparts it to them by having them read a particularly exhilarating line of poetry out loud instead of just reading it, then kicking a ball as hard as they can while listening to symphonies.  He asks another student to comment on Walt Whitman’s picture after reading about his “barbaric yawp” and forces him to open up emotionally.   In fact, my own love for Walt Whitman began with this very movie. 

 

Later, the boys write their own poems and share them around a campfire in a cave at their “meetings.”  They memorize immortal poems and passages from Thoreau and other rebels.  Unfortunately, much like rock music, this artistic pursuit opens their minds and leads them into trouble.  These were the “beats” in a rigid prep school.  Unfortunately, seizing the day and trying to live extraordinary lives are not priorities of these parents, who simply want their sons to get perfect grades, lead perfect lives, and go to an Ivy league school before producing lots of money and perfect children.  Whitman and Emerson were merely to be memorized, not understood, loved, or lived.  Every teacher has a stiff upper lip, a cold heart, a swift reflex to punishment, and seems as easily frazzled by disorder as Mr. Neal (played to perfection by Kurtwood Smith) who makes sure his slippers are perfectly together next to the bed before he gets in.  I wondered why the camera shot of this was so long, or even why it was in there, but now I understand. 

 

I find this film to be very original and fascinating because it shows how young men can be “cool” in their literary pursuits.  That appealed to the writer in me, obviously!  Eventually he also tells them about a fraternity of sorts that he was involved in called the Dead Poets Society, in which young men read literature and poems to each other and used them to “woo” women as he puts it.  One of his best students, Neal, brilliantly portrayed by Robert Sean Leonard, goes so far as to capture a leading role in a production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and opening to great acclaim.  This is a problem because his father expressly forbade him to do the play for fear that it would interfere with his schoolwork.  Despite straight A’s and a great performance in his first production, his father is furious, and thus sets in motion a tragedy which eventually leads to Professor Keating’s dismissal. 

 

The great question raised by the film is whether young people have the right to determine what kind of lives they should lead.  This is asked in many excellent movies, but here the setting is a boarding school attended by sons of the wealthy, not an arts school.  One of the best lines in the entire movie is when the headmaster tells professor Keating that when the young men realize they are not Shakespeares or Picassos they will hate him.  What a sad but common attitude for an educator to have!  

 

This is a film which was marketed as a comedy vehicle for Robin Williams but was in fact a drama about a remarkable teacher who used humor in the classroom.  I think that many viewers were surprised at how dark and serious the movie actually was. 

 

Cast members and writers say over and over that Peter Weir filled them all with visions of what cinema could be and inspired great work from them all.  He preserved their egos while still bringing out the best in them.  

 

Video ***1/2

 

I have not viewed the original DVD release so I am unable to compare them, but I see no flaws in this serviceable transfer. 

 

Audio ***1/2

 

While the rear channels are used mainly just for ambience, the sound mix overall is excellent and shines in 5.1. 

 

Features ****

 

This release has many wonderful features which were worth waiting for.  “Dead Poets:  A Look Back” is wonderful and has interviews with most of the leads including Kurtwood Smith, who is best known as Red Foreman in “That 70’s Show.”  He is chilling as Neal Perry’s controlling, dominating father.  

 

“Raw Takes” is amazing because it shows a deleted scene in which the boys share poems and thoughts after the play.  “Master of Sound: Alan Splet” is a set of interviews with Peter Weir and David Lynch who discuss the adventurous techniques of one of their favorite sound creators, who might spend three days getting the sound of leaves.  Lynch appears just in a scary picture with his narration.  “Cinematography Master Class” presents John Seale discussing cinematography in general and work on this film in particular.  It is from a training video on the subject.  The original theatrical trailer is here, which does seem to make the movie seem more comedic than it is.  The commentary with Weir, Seale, and writer Schulman is a bit dry but very insightful.  Weir had actually attended a school like this in Australia and mentions how he wishes you could “smell” the school---the moldy hallways, old leather, and the absence of your parents.  The film captures it authentically.

 

Summary:

 

Gentlemen, we have the technology, and finally one of the best movies of the 80’s is presented in a worthy format.  Enjoyable for all ages, a literary and cinematographic adventure even Uncle Walt Whitman would love

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