Dead Poets Society (1989)

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I must have seen Dead Poets Society on TV back in the nineties, and revisiting it today makes for a complex mixture of remembrance, rediscovery and mild mourning that Robin Williams is gone. There is a small but definite dramatic subgenre out there that could be called “inspirational teacher” movies (and once you lump mentors, coaches and grumpy old guys teaching young men a lesson in there, it becomes a rather large subgenre) and Dead Poets Society seems to be its flagship title. A throwback at the boarding academies of the late fifties, this is a film that glorifies English classes to an admirable degree. Poetry has seldom been so cool (well, maybe in 8 Mile) and the link between English literature and taking ownership of one’s life is unusual enough to be interesting. It helps that, having been conceived as a period piece from the start, Dead Poets Society hasn’t aged much in nearly thirty years. The only thing that makes the movie wistful is Robin Williams—at times, it seems as if half of the film’s appeal is “wouldn’t it have been cool to have Robin Williams as your teacher?” and the circumstances of Williams’ death since then do make the film even more poignant. (Alas, I suspect that it also gives his character a free pass on a few disputable choices … as the film says, “free-thinking at seventeen”?)  The atmosphere of the boarding school comes with a heavy dose of nostalgia that isn’t as unpleasant as you’d think. It all amounts to a decent film, even a powerful one for those who find that it has resonance over their own experiences. 

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