DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)

Dead Poets Society - Wikipedia

(a “carpe vita tua” [“seize your life”] film review by Timothy J. Verret)

Once again, God has the most impeccable timing of bringing me films to see at EXACTLY the impeccable timing God wants me to see them. This is the case in point of my watching of DEAD POETS SOCIETY. It’s a film about “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) but for me, the film elevates the viewer to “carpe vita tua” (“seize your life”) while one still has all those “days to seize” of one’s inevitably short life.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY is directed by Peter Weir (WITNESS [1985] and FEARLESS [1993]) and stars Robin Williams as a very unorthodox teacher, John Keating, in a very orthodox school, and features a cast of very talented young actors. The students have never been taught by anyone quite like Keating. The first day in Keating’s class, Keating has every student rip out (actually, tear and shred) the pages of the introduction, “Understanding Poetry,” to the book they will be studying. Keating in his unorthodox teaching proceeds to help each and every student find their own voice not only in poetry but also in their own lives. This is vital because there are three students highlighted in this film who need to find their voices. There is Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) who wants to be an actor though his father wants him to be anything but an actor. There is Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) who wants the most beautiful girl he ever saw to fall in love him even though she is way out of his league. And then there is Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) who is painfully shy and feels a deep sense of low self-worth (boy, can I identify with that!). It’s Anderson, in particular, of great interest to me, because what Keating is able to teach Anderson is something Keating teaches all of us, i.e., “carpe vita tua” (“seize your life”).

The late Robin Williams is who we all know (knew) and love (loved), and his performance in DEAD POETS SOCIETY is unlike anything Williams has (had) shown us before. The “manic” Williams is the “merciful” Keating in Williams’ great performance in this film. John Keating teaches unorthodox methods that the faculty deem careless and irresponsible. What the faculty can’t grasp is that the rigid rules and regulations they impose on their students is what will impose on their students conforming to rigid rules and regulations and, basically, their students becoming robots. But that’s what the faculty wants, i.e., they want robots because then they won’t be challenged when it comes to their rigid rules and regulations. In school or not, the world wants robots, too. Robots have no freedom to be who they are created by God to be. A school (or a world) that turns out robots at graduation is a school (or a world) that turns out robots to live robotic lives. Keating won’t have that imposed on his students, and he goes to great lengths to ensure his students are exactly who God created them to be, i.e., precious and free. Keating probably wouldn’t admit he’s doing God’s Work in DEAD POETS SOCIETY, but this is EXACTLY what Keating is doing, i.e., doing God’s Work with his students to teach them, “do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Keating is “good, pleasing, and perfect” to God for Keating is doing God’s Will with God’s Students.

Perry auditions for a play and gets the role of Puck in William Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Sidebar: As an actor myself, I remember doing a Puck soliloquy in an acting class and because my elements are fire and wind, Puck’s elements, one of the students in my class exclaimed, “Timothy, that’s the best Puck I’ve ever seen!” Perry defies his father by playing free-spirited Puck and because of this, Perry’s NOT free-spirited father tells Perry he will be leaving this orthodox school to go into another orthodox military academy. Perry can’t accept the caged “orthodox life” that Keating taught him never to live, so Perry accepts the free “unorthodox death.” Overstreet conforms not to this world and pursues his romantic interests toward the most beautiful girl he ever saw and in a very touching scene, when Overstreet is in the audience next to her watching Perry in his play and grabs for her hand and probably because of the spell the play casts, she’s led to grasp Overstreet’s hand right back. And then there is Anderson. Thank God director Weir understands that Anderson is his shining “pupil” in DEAD POETS SOCIETY. When Keating is let go from his teaching position, it is Anderson who makes the first move to not conform to this decision. One of Keating’s teaching methods was to have each of his students stand on a desk so they could get a newer and better perspective on their lives from Up There. When Keating is leaving the class for the last time, it is Anderson who is the first one who stands up on his desk and says to Keating, “O Captain, my Captain” (from a poem by Walt Whitman, what Keating taught his students to call him). It is also Anderson who director Weir gives us as the final image of the film, so that we are left with, “Anderson, O Captain, my Captain, we see you up on that desk from where we are sitting, and we join you Up There!” Anderson is now “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) when Keating leaves but, more importantly in that final image now and forever, Anderson is “carpe vita tua” (“seize your life”).

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by Tom Schulman, DEAD POETS SOCIETY is a film where we are all invited to graduate, in school or not, to a higher plane in life and a higher life on a plane of “seizing your life.” It is a film that invites us to be fearless, daring, courageous, to “not conform to this world but renew your mind.” Robin Williams in an inspiring performance gives us John Keating who takes the minds and hearts of each of his students and gives them an “O Captain, my Captain” who they can follow to nonconformity, In doing so, we also can follow Keating, in school or not, to leave behind our robotic lives and discover what is God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will,” and this will is to “seize our lives” and NOT be held captive to any “O Captain, my Captain” who wants to teach us to conform.

“Rules were made to be broken.” Indeed, they were! But we don’t break rules just to break them. We break rules to be taught by God (and Keating) that we “break free” from conformity, because we won’t be robots for anyone when we “seize your life.”

3 thoughts on “DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)

  1. Have you seen Good Will Hunting? Another great performance by Robin Williams. He was one of my very favorite actors. I think you would like this film also, as it goes deep like Dead Poets Society. Excellent films (both of these).

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