Dead Poets Society

American Cinematographer, September 1989 | Go to article overview

Dead Poets Society


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The story of Dead Poets Society is not easily recounted. It works on as many levels as there are people in the audience. On the surface, it is the tale of the effect of a freethinking teacher on a group of young men attending a small Eastern prep school during the final days of 1959. With subtle encouragement from Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) an old and forbidden group is resurrected-the Dead Poets Society. Each young man must interpret for himself the challenge invoked at the beginning of each meeting of the Society-to "suck the marrow out of life." The challenge calls for action and each member of the society must balance the worth of his actions against their cost.

The Australian cinematographer John Seale has once again collaborated with his fellow countryman, director Peter Weir (Mosquito Coast and Witness). And, in a year that will be remembered for the sheer number of comic book tales brought to the screen, this film stands alone. It is a tribute to the filmmakers-Weir, Seale, writer John Schulman and the other talented crew members and the ensemble cast-that one cannot speak of this film in parts. The work of each one depends on and feeds into the work of the others.

Cinematographically, Seale has taken advantage of every opportunity the script, the art direction, the costuming and the locations gave him. Every image supports the story and every point in the story is supported by an image.

Even months after viewing the film, certain scenes come easily to mind: The joyous feeling of freedom when Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) flies down the hill on his bike chasing the wild ducks before him; the pain of Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) as he stands staring at the emptiness of the snowcovered landscape after he hears about the death of his friend; and the triumph and power of the final frames, when Todd and his fellow Dead Poets climb on their desk tops and see the world from a different angle. …

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