Director: Peter Weir           (1989);    (Witness – 1985)

John Keating (Robin Williams);  Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard);  Nuwanda/Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) 


            A return to Dead Poets Society reveals an interesting aspect to the film that can go unnoticed at first.  The film is so inspirational, and emotional, and presents such an intriguing vision to learning and life, to the point that you want to just run home and pick up that old copy of Leaves of Grass, that it is easy to miss the significance of Peter Weir’s film.  He fails.  Keating, that is, not Weir.  Keating fails, ultimately.  He inspires a group of students (nicely done, by the way, rather than over doing everything the way Hollywood wishes – at the end, there is maybe only a little less than half of the class that stands for him – the fact remains, some people are just unreachable; the ‘I want to be a lawyer and I am going to be a lawyer goddamnit and I have no need for art thank you very much’ sort of thing), inspires and raises them so that they may or may not continue to push themselves to look at the world differently.  But by the end of the film, there is one student dead, another one expelled, and the stogy old headmaster is hammering away at Pritcher’s introduction to poetry with all of its soulless rules – order and structure has been returned to the classroom.

            The film fits in with a couple of strong reoccurring themes that appear in many of Weir’s films – that of the colliding worlds, the part that rules and order play in our lives, and the insolubility of these worlds.

            A brief look at one of the earlier films before Dead Poets Society connects one of Weir’s recurring themes. Witness.  Here, there is the theme of two worlds.  The Amish community lives in a world that is a sub-set, one that is ruled by very strict rules based on belief and religion.  They live under traditional rule, ignoring and moving about in an existence that is in direct denial to the rest of the world and technology.  The mother and son go to the city, with all of its own, alien rules and constructs, and they get trapped by them, witnessing the murder.  John Book (Harrison Ford) comes to the Amish world.  The film is this wrestling of the two worlds, the relationship between Book and Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) amidst the very traditional, disciplined existence of the Amish.  It doesn’t work – it can’t work.  She is threatened with becoming a social pariah, a scarlet letter of sorts, if she is seen too often with Book.  It is the threat of the disciplined, their unwillingness to bend or stretch the rules for the ones willing to expand their horizons, to test limits of the society they are in.  The ending is wonderfully done.  Book and Lapp are framed on the porch, he in front of the white clapboards of the farmhouse, her in the blackness of the doorway – framed together but separated and apart.  Then the scene is cut into isolating head shots, back and forth, with nothing said.  The emotion is there, felt in their eyes and body, but they are cut off and cannot communicate now that his necessity there is completed.  She is shown with the blackness of the doorway and the traditional farmhouse, the interior of the house, behind her.  It is what she has ahead of her.  Book is composed with the openness of the field, the sky, the road twisting off and over the hill.  They are and remain from separate worlds.

note: this is not the exactly the image I'm talking about, but it is the closest that I could find and it at least gets the idea across. Sorry about that.

note: this is not the exactly the image I'm talking about, but it is the closest that I could find and it at least gets the idea across. Sorry about that.

            For Dead Poets, all this is there as well.  Discipline, Tradition – the pillars of the school.  As the headmaster says, ‘the system is tested, it works, you can’t try and change it’.  Keating comes in from this other place, an idea of a different life more than a world.  The world of art, of beauty, of free-thinking and challenging oneself to see the world from new perspectives.  He comes to this world of tradition and rules, where individuality is unacceptable.  The ones that try to be outside the system are expelled and disciplined.  Nuwanda (Charlie Dalton), like the threats of being marked in Witness, marks himself.  He chooses to be outside, if not with a scarlet letter, then with scarlet markings – he lipsticks angular symbols on his cheeks, he paints a red lightning bolt on his chest.  But by the end of the film, his desk is empty.  The system will not tolerate challenges to it and it removes him.  The idea is in essence removed. 


            Neil is slightly different.  He is some Christ-like sacrifice – with his bare chest and his crown of thorns before the opened windows before his suicide – for art.  Art, beauty, poetry, thinking for oneself, they cannot exist within the system.  So, it ends with Keating being sent away.  The classroom is returned to its unchallenging and ordered ways.  There are a few who are inspired, but how long will it last?  Will they not have to succumb in the end, or be expelled?  Is it only death or expulsion for the arts?  Poets is an inspiring film, but its sentiment is one of deathly caution and observation – we are all succumbing to the world of money and rules and abiding by the law of noble pursuits (as Keating calls “Lawyers, Doctors, Engineer’s”).  Is there a path one can still find in the sticky structures and rules of society where art and an inspired life is possible?


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