Pick of the Week: DEAD POETS SOCIETY

Exactly what it sounds like, the pick of the week column is written up by the Cinapse team on rotation, focusing on films that are past the marketing cycle of either their theatrical release or their home video release. So maybe the pick of the week will be only a couple of years old. Or maybe it’ll be a silent film, cult classic, or forgotten gem. The only guarantee is that the writer loves the chosen film and can’t wait to share it with you. Cinapse is all about thoughtfully advocating film, new and old, and celebrating what we love no matter how marketable that may be. So join us as we share about what we’re discovering, and hopefully you’ll find some new films for your watch list, or some new validation that others out there love what you love too! Engage with us in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook! And now, our Cinapse Pick Of The Week…

In all the hype over the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton’s Batman, it may have escaped your notice that 2014 also marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Dead Poets Society. In fact, if you’re under thirty years old or so, it may have escaped your notice that DPS ever existed at all — which is a crying damn shame, as we say here in Texas.

Now, a cynic might scoff at both the premise and execution of the Dead Poets story. From the raising of the “Tradition” banner in the first scene, you know who are the “good guys” and “bad guys,” you might say. Robin Williams is inspirational! They all stand in their chairs! They learn important life lessons! Blech/gag/barf. But I challenge you; I invite you to check that cynicism at the door and see if you can’t extract something powerful and meaningful here.

Dead Poets Society follows a group of friends at a prep school in 1959, whose routine is turned on its head by Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), their new unorthodox literature/poetry teacher. He encourages them to open their minds and their hearts and expand their horizons, something that has unforeseen consequences for most of them, including the vibrant Neil (Robert Sean Leonard, House) with his overbearing father (Kurtwood Smith, Robocop); shy Todd (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise) living in the shadow of his older brother; lovesick Knox (Josh Charles, The Good Wife); and rebellious beatnik Charlie (Gale Hansen).

From a technical perspective, everything works. The actors all do a great job, and even Williams manages to not only be believable but earn a Best Actor Academy Award nomination as a professorial type with a romantic side, with the script giving him just enough comedy to be charming instead of schticky and over-the-top. It’s as visually interesting as a movie in a spartan, stone boy’s school can be, with gorgeous outdoor scenes of the Delaware countryside in all seasons mixed in liberally. The score is lovely, and incorporates classical composers Beethoven and Handel. In addition to Williams’ Oscar nomination, Dead Poets was also nominated for Best Picture, and won for Best Original Screenplay. Twenty-five years after the fact, all these things hold up well — it doesn’t feel dated or like an “80s movie” at all, and you can still tell why it received such acclaim.

But the thing that matters most — the thing that got me as a middle schooler, and even more so now as a thirtysomething — is the idea behind DPS. Carpe Diem — seize the day. As a kid, it was no more than a seed planted — a funny catch-phrase we all kind of laughed at in an attempt to appear cool, but still a seed. It was a movie I wanted to watch more times than I was able to, in a time long before the internet and instant everything. And having now watched it again after many years, I remember why, and realize it’s a movie with a message I need now more than ever. Because according to Thoreau, “[t]he mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and I don’t want that to be me.

I think DPS speaks to me because I can see something of myself in each character, whether it’s a problem I’ve had or a way I wish I could be. I can sympathize with Neil, feeling trapped by expectations, or Todd, struggling to find his voice and express himself to others. I can wish I had the quiet courage of Knox to pursue love against the odds, or Charlie’s who-cares-what-people-think willingness to challenge the rules and convention. I can even appreciate Mr. Keating’s dedication to his calling and love of his life’s work — even as I’m jealous that I’ve never yet found the same thing.

The good news is, it’s not too late — it’s never too late — to learn to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” (Thoreau again.) If you’re with me, start by revisiting — or discovering for the first time — this quadranscentennial gem. I dare you not to cry at the end.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
 — Henry David Thoreau

“The question, O me! so sad, recurring — 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.”

-Walt Whitman

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