Cinema: A Bothered School Spirit

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DEAD POETS SOCIETY Directed by Peter Weir; Screenplay by Tom Schulman

Good old Welton: blue blazers, compulsory chapel, imitation Gothic architecture. A headmaster (Norman Lloyd) with a mellifluous voice and a pinched spirit. A student body harboring a minority of disaffected spirits awaiting rebellious mobilization. And over in the English department, a passionate eccentric, John Keating -- played by Robin Williams -- who is just the man to stir the lads up.

In the '50s, when Dead Poets Society takes place, prep schools of this type were basically boot camps for male Establishment offspring. They were also essential literary institutions. In those days hardly a month seemed to pass without the publication of some novel recounting a hormonal fire storm in one of these supposedly serene, and unquestionably enviable,settings. As traditional private schools changed, the fictional form they spawned fell into disuse, and, frankly, that engenders no deep sense of loss. All that quivering sensitivity! All that earnest soul-searching! All that whining about absent and misunderstanding parents, present and misunderstanding trigonometry teachers!

These attitudes are revisited in Dead Poets Society, which assiduously apes the manner of this antique genre, and they may put off viewers who will recollect having heard this song before. But the film is also at pains not to exploit or endorse the lowest impulses of its core audience, which is, of course, composed of adolescents. It contains no har-har pranks. No one wrecks a car, gets drunk or does anything more with a girl than hold hands.

Mostly the fine ensemble of young actors who are members of the film's eponymous secret society (notably Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke) grope with energetic sobriety toward an idea that Keating keeps putting to them every way he can. It is this: the business of education is not to gather facts but to find a ruling passion, something around which you can organize your life. This is a point that seems to elude most kids nowadays, probably because it is one that their popular culture rarely troubles to make to them.

Certainly it never does so as fairly as this picture does. Encouraged by his mentor, Leonard's character defies parental and school authority to reach out for his dream (he wants to be an actor, not the doctor his father insists he must become) and finds that it is beyond his emotional grasp. Though director Weir, who is good at unspoken menace (Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave), has created a subtly dark and claustrophobic atmosphere, the final tragedy is nonetheless somewhat implausible.

There are times when Keating's colorful nonconformity verges on the tiresome (he whistles Beethoven and declaims Whitman a little too self-consciously). But basically Williams, who has comparatively little screen time, has come to act, not to cut comic riffs, and he does so with forceful, ultimately compelling, simplicity. Like everyone else involved in this movie, he is taking a chance on an odd, imperfect but valuable enterprise. He and the movie deserve attention, respect and finally gratitude. Especially at the start of sequel summer.