With school term upon us, for those either teaching or still lucky enough to be learning, here's a reflective thought about the time that is sometimes called the happiest days of our lives.
So much of learning comes from the particular personality and charisma of the teacher. My English teacher at St. Benedict's was something of an eccentric; not necessarily with the zany flamboyance of Robin Williams, but she was able to get things across in a certain galvanising way that set that little spark of inspiration alight. As a result, English turned from what was a standard educational chore into a major creative pursuit. So in the years following the end of school, the sight of Robin Williams inspiring his pupils about the beauties of the English language struck some familiar chords.
Williams himself I've often thought had the attributes of a crying clown: an incredibly creative comedian, who could produce jokes with as much spontanaiety and timing as Mozart could produce musical notes, but also with a poignant side. In recent years his sentimentality has been attacked by some critics, but here in the hands of Australian director Peter Weir (who also made the excellent Witness) he had an ideal nurturer for his talents. Besides all that, they had a compelling story by Tom Schulman to work with, covering youthful hopes and dreams within a harsh establishment-oriented school environment, typified by veteran Norman Lloyd as the headteacher.
Williams as teacher John Keating was the star of the show, but the main focus of the story is on the boys, particularly Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), the film's main "observer" of the drama, and his roommate Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard, right), as well as their like-minded friends Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) and the most rebellious of the group, Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), all of whom are suddenly swept away by Keating's quirkiness and inspiration. We've all experienced these kinds of children in one form or another before.
Neil's story is especially poignant, rebelling studiously against his disciplinarian father (Kurtwood Smith) in the process of discovering that he has acting blood in him, whilst for me the much more relatable character is that of Todd Anderson: shy, repressed in his passions for art and poetry, but who suddenly breaks loose at unexpected moments, and is ultimately the first to openly express support and admiration for John Keating when events in the story turn tragic.
Neil's father (Kurtwood Smith) cannot come to terms with his son's sudden acting aspirations.
Peter Weir (with the help of composer Maurice Jarre) indulges in his flair for otherworldliness, as Neil relives his lost dreams of playing Puck.
This motley band of young rogues, unwittingly instilled by Keating (a former pupil at the same school) revive a long forgotten band of Bards known as the Dead Poets Society (some pedantic English teachers noted the lack of an apostrophe in the word "Poets"), who recite works of the Greats to indulge in their rebelliousness, and satisfying their own desires to woo girls in the process. One such pretty specimen (Alexandra Powers) flutters into Knox Overstreet's life, and he pursues her lovingly - in spite, alas, of her attachment to a dorky football player. The fact that he fails in the quest does not matter - his yearning from the heart is the more important achievement.
I saw Dead Poets Society - three times - in that pivotal year of 1989 whilst at college, where triumph as well as tragedy were both past and present, and it was a reminder that education is not only about studying the world around you, but also learning about yourself. As well as reminding me of those recent (not always happy) halcyon school days, the film also spoke towards a greater idealism of pushing yourself from what you know you can do already to what you are capable of doing, and how strong a mentor's influence - parental or non-parental (ie. teacher) - can be on your future life. Some of those ideals never worked out - for most of the boys or for myself - but that isn't important. It was the pursuit of the dream that mattered. A life-affirming film.