Dead Poets Society sample essay
Both The Mosquito Coast and Weir’s next feature, Dead Poets Society (1989), foreground fathers myopically invested in misguided personal aspirations. A significant critical and commercial success, Dead Poets Society is a period piece set in the 1950s in Welton College, a private boys school, at the heart of New England’s establishment. It is a study in the mechanisms with which the ruling class absorbs and expels rebellious influences before proceeding undeterred in its primary mission of reproducing itself. As in Picnic, Weir introduces eager young lives both oozing potential and straining under expectation. In both period pieces Weir deftly establishes the restrictive weight of the institution’s traditions through repeated interior, constricted compositions.
Here, however, the challenge to the status quo, far from being a mysterious force, is an enthusiastic, unconventional teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), who nevertheless will play a role in leading the boys to a traumatic awakening. Keating’s passion for literature moves his students to personal quests of self-expression: “Make your lives extraordinary”, he pleads. The film evokes the American spirit of democratic self-actualisation, as epitomised by the poet Walt Whitman, a portrait of whom Keating displays in his classroom and gestures toward when inciting the boys to emulate his free spirit. Inspired by Keating, the boys re-establish the “Dead Poets Society”, a club that Keating himself had participated in when a student at Welton. They convene at night in the romantic setting of a nearby cave and share poetry.
Keating’s encouragement proves most successful with one of the “Dead Poets”, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), a teenager so neglected by his parents that he is fearful of human interaction, and petrified of public speaking. Weir subtly conveys the evolving effect Keating’s presence has on Todd, through dexterous camera placement in a series of scenes. In the initial scene, Todd chases his roommate, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), around their dorm room, trying to retrieve a poem he was composing as an assignment for Keating, which Neil is now playfully reciting aloud. The camera captures the action in a continuous spiralling, pan shot of the boys running in circles within their confined space, creating a spirited, flowing sense of movement. Later, in a long take (28 seconds), the static camera observes Todd, again in his room, as he reads his poem to himself while walking in circles.
He is initially pacing at a steady rhythm and smiling to himself, animated by his work, but he then gradually slows and begins to look less sure, before ultimately stopping and despondently tearing up his poem. A cut transfers us to the boys’ classroom the next day, where they are reading their compositions. Todd cowers, insisting he did not prepare a poem, but is encouraged by Keating to usher forth inspiration from Whitman’s portrait for an improvised composition in front of the class. As Keating covers Todd’s eyes, eliciting poetry from the student, the two walk around in continuous circles, followed by the camera, which in turn circles around them in a continuous shot. The effect is a vertiginous one of dizzying movement, which captures the moment of release and rupture for Todd, as he overcomes his inhibitions and spontaneously recites a heartfelt creation, eliciting impressed silence, followed by applause from his classmates. This series of circular movements, suggesting Todd’s burgeoning capacity for self-expression, represents Weir at his most subtle and sophisticated.
Todd’s ability to spontaneously compose and recite is rendered all the more persuasive by the almost subliminal referencing of the previous moments of circular movement. Keating’s influence holds different consequences for Todd’s roommate, the kind and charming Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). When Neil’s father learns that his son has discovered a passion for theatre, he forbids him from performing in the local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Neil defies him, only to be informed after the performance that his father is removing him from Welton the next day and sending him instead to military academy, after which he will attend medical school. The news constitutes a ten-year sentence for the artistically inclined teenager, who cannot bear the prospect. That night, in a haunting sequence of elisions, we learn through his parent’s distraught, slow motion reactions that Neil has killed himself.
John Keating is indirectly blamed for Neil’s death and the school authorities coax some of the boys Keating had taken into his trust into condemning his unconventional teaching. Rather than presenting a facile depiction of a repressive establishment’s collapse against the ultimately victorious seekers of self-expression (a favourite American tale), Weir explores the scapegoating mechanism through which the establishment responds to a challenge to its symbolic order. As Keating’s class sits sheepishly, listening to droll instruction from the school principal who orchestrated Keating’s dismissal and who is now teaching his poetry class, their former teacher enters the room to collect his belongings.
Before Keating leaves, Todd, previously unable to talk in front of a group, boldly stands on his desk (a position Keating had occasionally encouraged them to assume in order to “change their perspective”) and turns in one last circular motion, this time to face Keating and address him with the teacher’s favourite Whitman address, “Oh Captain, my Captain”. Rousing music builds to a crescendo as the school principal repeatedly orders Todd to get down or risk expulsion. The boy stands firm, looking more composed than ever before, as various other students follow his lead. A high angle point of view shot reveals Keating, with eyes watering, from Todd’s vantage point. With this final scene of defiance, Weir suggests that the seeds of discontent that will usher in the counter-culture of the 1960s have been sown.