Home News “Dead Poets Society” has certain Australian characteristics

“Dead Poets Society” has certain Australian characteristics

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Australian correspondence is the weekly newsletter from our Australian bureau. This week’s issue is written by Damien Cave, Australia Bureau Chief since 2017.

That night, when my 13-year-old daughter came home from a year-long adventure at a boarding school in the Australian bush, we played an old movie she’d asked to see: Dead Poets Society.

As many of you may know, it’s a coming-of-age story set in an American private school, starring Robin Williams as an inspiring teacher. I loved it when it came out in 1989 (I was a teenager at the time), but when the director’s name – Peter Weir – appeared on the screen in my Sydney living room, I watched it again Read it again.

I never realized this classic film, beloved by many Americans, was directed by an Australian. Somehow, the same man responsible for Australian classics like Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock was also the director of American favorites like Dead Poets Society and Truman’s World.

Like me, at least I would like to believe, Mr. Weir seemed familiar with the culture of both English-settled countries, and was perhaps able to see the deep grooves and shadows of each more clearly because he had had the opportunity to see it from a distance.

I watched this movie with new eyes. I’m already looking for the secrets and lessons it might hold for my daughter. I wondered if I would sympathize more with adults this time around than with moderately rebellious teenagers (no), but I also decided to look for something that might make the film more Australian than I’d noticed on previous viewings.

What, if anything, will Australian audiences find relevant and relatable?

At first, this movie struck me as very American. I recognized the importance attached to Henry David Thoreau, an American writer who lived not far from Massachusetts, where I grew up.His quote from “Walden” about the need to live prudently and “suck all the marrow out of life” has run through our family: I sent my daughter some of Thoreau’s works in a letter; The most recent simulated communication written about An article written for The Times.

After some research, I discovered that the film’s screenwriter, Tom Schulman, won an Academy Award for his efforts, and the story was based on his experiences at a prep school he attended in Nashville. There’s also a hint of Hollywood narcissism – the main character, Neil Perry, wants to be an actor, not a poet or a pianist. People love nothing more than movies that make their cause seem rebellious and heroic.

But in the character of Robin Williams and the way he was treated, I felt like I could see a bit of the Australian too. Mr. Williams’ performance is remarkably restrained, thanks in part to Mr. Weir’s direction. Which makes the demise of the character’s career at the hands of more traditional forces all the more painful. I think this plays a role in part because John Keating (yes, that’s the name of Williams’ character, not related to Australia’s Prime Minister) goes to the edge of that uniquely Australian thing: tall poppy syndrome.

Keating is an alumnus of the fictional Welton College where he teaches. As a student he was captain of the football team that went to Cambridge and was the founder of Dead Poets Society – voted “most likely to do anything” according to an almanac discovered by his students, he encouraged his students Call him “Captain”.

He had good reason to boast, and the fact that school administrators knew him by his achievements and reputation hints at resentment and the tall-poppy phenomenon—which can mean any number of things, but is usually defined as “when people A social attitude that occurs when one is resented, disliked, or criticized for one’s success.”

In my experience, many Australians hate it as part of their culture, but they also find it almost irresistible. As Ben Sherry, Internationally renowned chef A professor in Melbourne’s Attica told me when I first arrived in Oz that Australians were still bad at celebrating each other’s successes.

If Keating was too big, exuded arrogance or simply resembled stand-up comedian Robin Williams, many Australians wouldn’t be able to relate to the character. But instead, in my interpretation, he is a tall poppy who remains humble while standing firm in his beliefs.

As an English teacher, not some arrogant college boss, he quietly called for carpe diem. He’s a master, not a maverick (reference Top Gun!), and as he holds his head high and climbs onto his desk, he calmly encourages not to follow the crowd. Yes, he was fired and blamed for some terrible things that he was ultimately not responsible for. But maybe that’s the point the movie and Mr. Weill are trying to make?

The filmmakers aim to appeal to rigid guardians who view nonconformity as arrogance, whether it is or not. In this case, Americans may be drawn to antiheroes. But while Australians like to think of themselves as cultural rebels or larrikins, the reality is that most people in the country tend to agree with wardens and any rules.

I’ve never interviewed Mr. Weir (man, if you see this, please leave me a comment), but I know he understands this dynamic from first-hand experience. He attended a conservative boys’ school in Sydney (Scotland) and once said he would be happy to join the school’s “Dead Poets Society”, hence the film’s title.

If there’s a message he’s trying to convey, perhaps it’s a critique of Australia’s tendency to disparage iconoclasts and push back bolder, more creative collaborators – to see unity and remaining broadly the same as everyone else, even if that means Wandering in mediocrity is the best way to live in Australia and society as a whole.

I encountered some of these struggles the other day when I found myself teaching a journalism class at the University of New South Wales. After taking a feature writing class, I encourage students to write longer, more complex, thought-provoking stories, no matter what journalism they do. I tell them to go out and report on things they are passionate about without asking for permission.

I didn’t channel Keating. I didn’t stand on any table or ask anyone to call me captain.

But one of the students asked me if I had any advice that could help me transcend my narrow role while avoiding scorn—and being labeled a “tall poppy.”

I admit my answer is wrong.As an American who has written a book Partly because of the dangers of my home country’s culture of extreme individuality, perhaps I’m more receptive to Australia’s pressure to be humble.

My final advice is to be humble when pursuing ideas that don’t necessarily fit your job description; try to show what your passion can bring to the publication and its readers through your work rather than self-promotion.

Like Keating and Weir, I guess I try to find a middle ground between the best of America and Australia, building a relationship between the two for the next generation. If both countries make it a priority, perhaps both countries will benefit.

Now here’s our story for the week.



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