I like Dead Poets Society. It's a nice movie, with just the right admixture of tragedy and inspiration, although it threatens at times to veer onto the boulevard of saccharine platitudes. The young men of Welton Academy are a little too earnest, a little too well-scrubbed, a little too thirsty for eyedropper wisdom. And Charles Keating, brought to life by one of Robin Williams' more memorable performances, is desperately eager to give it to them.
Charles Keating. So much to like about him, and so much to wince at. He is a charismatic, flamboyant instructor, the kind students like because he's not dull, and because his lessons are as much about life as they are about the subject matter. He is a dedicated mentor to his students, investing in them as people, and all of this is laudable. His passion for the written word is a tangible thing, and he labors to infect the young men in his classroom with the same malady. At this he is effective - perhaps too effective. Keating is an unreconstructed Romantic, an adherent to the school of thought that life is about feelings and dreams and marrow-sucking, and he is such an adherent that he cannot bring himself to teach the seamy underside to that rainbow. Louisa May Alcott wrote, "I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty; I woke, and found that life was duty." You can rip out the introduction all you want, but structure still matters, and drudgery is real.
One of the reasons this falls short of being an all-time favorite of mine is the number of people who absorb the first part of the lesson but not the second. Carpe diem, high schoolers crowed in my day, the more highbrow forerunner of YOLO. And yet this film isn't about that. It is at heart a cautionary tale about taking Keating's advice, yet leavening it with wisdom, about finding the balance between passion and reality. To his credit, Keating has some awareness of the dangerous fires he is stoking. “There is a time for daring and a time for caution, and a wise man knows which is called for...Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” Put differently - dream big, but don't forget to tie your shoes.