When news of Robin Williams’s untimely death broke earlier this week, my Facebook feed immediately went into overdrive with various tributes and RIP messages. Putting my initial emotions of shock and sadness aside, I found it kind of interesting to watch, given that his body of work spanned several decades and ranged from improvisational comedy to Oscar caliber drama. Who do you think of first, everyone seemed to wonder, the funny Robin Williams or the serious one?
Over time a pattern emerged. My younger friends tended to post Aladdin-themed tributes –
while my older, more experienced friends posted Mork and Mindy references, early sketch comedy, and/or old stand-up bits.
But like so many of my fellow English majors in between, I could only think of Robin Williams in one very special movie. That movie is Dead Poets Society.
When they’re good, movies can be a lot like friends. Some of them you like. Some of them you love. And then, every so often – maybe only once in a lifetime – you find one that changes everything. Dead Poets Society was that kind of movie for me. I had the poster. I performed monologues from it in my high school drama class. I frequently incorporate lines from its dialogue into my everyday conversations (“We’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing near you.”) It’s one of only a handful of movies I put on my hard drive to take to Korea. And yes, I do occasionally find myself dropping Robin Williams-esque wisdom on my own students. (“Don’t listen to your friends. Do what you want to do.”)
Because so many lesser movies have now been modeled after it, it’s fashionable to write Dead Poets Society off as just another cheesy “inspirational” movie about an unorthodox teacher who profoundly affects the lives of his students. But that’s not really fair or even accurate. For any number of reasons, Dead Poets Society was (and is) much better than most of its descendants. Here are five reasons why.
Like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Williams’s character, Mr.Keating, only has a few minutes of screen time in Dead Poets Society. In the first few scenes he is shown using literature and poetry to inspire boldness and self-assurance in his students. After that, he steps back and the movie begins to focus on these students as they use this inspiration in their lives. This is very effective storytelling. It focuses on the message instead of the messenger.
2. It has no political agenda.
Despite the fact that Dead Poets Society is set in a conservative prep school, it’s not a movie about conservative values versus liberal ones. Unlike its angry little sister Mona Lisa Smile, in which Julia Roberts berates female students who want to get married and start families, Dead Poets Society is strictly about individualism. Mr. Keating is not trying to save anyone or encourage his students to share his points of view. He’s encouraging them to think for themselves.
In one scene, for example, Keating asks his students to walk around a courtyard in any manner they choose. As the other students start to walk, one of them stays to the side.
Keating: Mr.Dalton, will you be joining us?
Charlie Dalton: Exercising the right not to walk.
Keating: Thank you, Mr.Dalton. You’ve just illustrated the point.
3. It champions small acts of rebellion.
Though it’s easy to focus on the bigger sub-plots (Knox falling in love, Neil joining the play against his father’s wishes, etc.), Dead Poets Society also finds time to revel in the small things. My favorite example of this is when Ethan Hawke’s painfully shy character, Todd, finally begins to exert control over his own life. His parents, who clearly favor Todd’s more successful older brother, send him a desk set for his birthday. This desk set is identical to the one they’d given him the year before. Todd’s reaction to this negligence can be seen in the video above.
I love how the movie stays practical in this way. There’s no grand plot to sow chaos and overthrow the school administration in Dead Poets Society. The boys don’t become bohemians, paint themselves purple, and start taking massive quantities of drugs. Instead, the movie is about finding simple ways to make Life more extraordinary. As in real life, the characters usually accomplish this by slightly bending or ignoring the rules. No grandstanding.
4. It doesn’t demonize any personality types or socio-economic backgrounds.
One thing that really bothers me about a lot of movies is the way they demonize people who look a certain way or come from certain backgrounds. Specifically, I hate the way attractive, successful people are almost always portrayed as horrible, self-absorbed cut-throats while ordinary-looking, working-class people are unquestionably heroic. The fact is: people are people. Some are kind and some are not. Being rich does not make you a bad person, and being poor does not make you virtuous. Your actions make you who you are. (Once again, this is a movie about individualism.) Dead Poets Society recognizes this. It makes it clear that some of the boys come from wealthier families than the others, but none of them are seen as any better or worse than anyone else. The only villain is the one who turns out to be a liar (see video).
5. It has the best scene about falling in love ever.
Forget Titanic. Forget The Notebook. If you want to see what it’s really like to fall in love, watch Dead Poets Society and wait for the scene when Knox calls Chris for the first time. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. First, the exquisite agony you feel when you can’t stop thinking about someone but you have no idea what to say to them. And then, just when you think you can’t take it anymore, there’s that little spark that lets you know they’ve thought about you too.
KNOX Yawp! Can you believe it? She was gonna call me. She invited me to a party with her. CHARLIE At Chet Danburry's house. KNOX Yeah. CHARLIE Well? KNOX So? CHARLIE So, you don't really think she means you're going with her? KNOX Well, of course not, Charlie. But that's not the point. That's not the point at all. CHARLIE What is the point? KNOX The point, Charlie, is, uh-- CHARLIE Yeah? KNOX (smiles) that she was thinking about me.
Robin Williams 1951-2014