I don’t know how old I was the first time I saw Dead Poets Society – eleven or twelve maybe? – but for a long time it was one of my favorite films. Yes, it’s a bit treacly and melodramatic and, dare I say, cheesy, but it moved and inspired me, sparked a deeper interest in poetry and literature, and made me want to be a writer. (OK, and I also had a mad crush on Knox Overstreet. Actually I think I cycled through crushes on all of the main characters. Except for Cameron, that tattling ginger bastard.)
And, thanks to Robin Williams’ performance as John Keating, it also made me hope that I might one day have an equally inspiring teacher – a teacher who made me feel like what I had to say was important, that I could be Great, and who, with a dash of enthusiasm, encouragement and the occasional John Wayne-as-Macbeth impersonation, would help me find My Voice. I fancied myself as the shy, quiet Todd Anderson, suppressing my own barbaric YAWP and longing for the right moment to stand on my desk (I was a bit of a daydreamer and fantasist, if you couldn’t tell).
The thing about Keating was that you totally believed in him, he was real. Williams took all of his maniacal nervous energy and poured it into the character and then tamped it down, letting it out in little bursts of subtle brilliance – a shift of expression, a twitch of the mouth, a look in his sad and lovely blue eyes. You knew that he loved his students, that he loved is job and that he was himself invigorated and inspired by inspiring them. And maybe Williams was able to make Keating so believable because, if you take away the ‘teacher’ bit and substitute ‘actor/comedian’, he pretty much was Keating – inspiring audiences and making them believe in him, whatever role he was playing.
I never really had a real live John Keating teacher, though I did have several who inspired and encouraged me in their own non-standing-on-desk ways. I can’t say that I would never have pursued writing if not for Dead Poets Society; it’s not as if I had zero interest in books and writing before Keating came along, but I think it definitely helped point me in that direction.
The last time I remember watching Dead Poets Society was like 12 years ago. I was showing it to my boyfriend at the time, who had never seen it. I’d raved about it and told him it was my favorite film, and I was excited to share it with him. He spent the whole time making fun of it, mocking its earnestness and questioning my taste and judgement. When it got to my favorite part – the bit where Keating pulls Todd up to the front of the class, covers his eyes and helps him to spontaneously compose a poem (the bit that always makes me cry) – he started laughing and going on about how lame it all was, and was I seriously crying? I turned the film off then, leaving poor Todd up there in front of the class, mid-poem, and I’m pretty sure we had a fight. I can’t remember if he did the whole, ‘No, no, let’s finish the film’ thing, but I do know that we left it there, and didn’t watch to the end.
So fuck it, I’m watching it now. For the Captain.