Counterbalancing these stories of tragedy, madness and degradation are tales of writers and their works that serve to inspire us. Perhaps the most notable of these films is Dead Poets Society (1989), featuring an academy award-winning screenplay by Tom Schulman in which Robin Williams plays nonconformist prep school teacher Mr. Keating (a derivative of "Keats"). Keating delights and challenges his students by using the words and lessons of great poets to help them express their deeper selves, focusing on iconic patriarchs like Walt Whitman - in one scene, encouraging them to sound their gigantic "yawp!" a poetic declaration of brazen individualism from Leaves of Grass. In another oft-cited scene, he insists the students en masse rip the page from their poetry books that encourages a systematic, cold analysis of a poem in assessing its "success"; he also teaches them the motto carpe diem ("seize the day").
The students discover the "Dead Poets Society" (the term "dead poets" coming from another Whitman passage), the secret club to which Keating belonged when he was a student at the school, and reform it for themselves. All of this begins to transform their lives, giving them the courage to "woo" women and pursue their goals. For Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), however, that pursuit has tragic consequences, as his love of theater contradicts his straight-laced father's wishes for him. Dead Poets Society is one of the best examples of imparting the flavor and spirit of foundational poets and writers, especially Whitman, in terms of a larger dramatic structure that works and also fulfills the excitements necessary to cinema. It also takes the risk of following through on the inspirational messages with a weighty impact on its characters. The last lesson is the ending scene, with the students, lead by star in-the-making Ethan Hawke, standing on their desks and saluting their teacher one last time with the honorific "O Captain, My Captain," another nod to Walt.
In the much lesser known but just as worthy Beautiful Dreamers (1990), Walt Whitman himself is the main protagonist. Rip Torn, best known as Garry Shandling's sidekick on The Larry Sanders Show, but also responsible for a respectable body of film work, plays the poet and gives perhaps what is one of cinema's most underappreciated performances. He accomplishes a primary and rarely realized ambition of films about writers - he makes Whitman a tangible and believable presence, one drawn from his poems but adding a new dimension to them. In a story based on true events, Whitman brings his own brand of non-conformism to bear on the rights and treatment of mentally ill patients at an asylum in 19th century Canada, beginning with a scene in which he gruffly pronounces his dissatisfaction at a psychiatry conference.
His progressive and humanitarian ideas help inspire the like-minded psychiatrist Dr. Bucke (Colm Feore) who needs a push in the right direction (and later became a noted biographer of Whitman in real life). Seeing Torn as Whitman face the task of challenging an inhumane system with his grand vision of humanity, while grounded in a historical situation, gives us a unique dramatic opportunity to witness how Whitman's famous ideas, so influential in the history of American poetry, might appear when faced with the realities of the world. This one is not to be missed - and it features one of the sweetest and most refreshing nude scenes ever filmed.
Another little known and seen film, Pandaemonium (2000), centers on the friendship and creative relationship of two titans of English poetry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Linus Roache) and William Wordsworth (John Hannah). During the era of the French Revolution, Coleridge moves to the countryside, where he attempts to establish a rural retreat/artist's community, a kind of burgeoning commune (way) ahead of its time, out of which he runs a literary magazine. Wordsworth and his free-thinking sister, Dorothy, come to visit the cottage, and this sparks a mutually inspiring exchange of artistic ideas between the two men, including a collaboration on the Lyrical Ballads, along with a romance between Samuel and Dorothy, despite the fact that Samuel is married and has a child. In the context of Coleridge's utopian experiment, the film affords us a sense of how the charisma, optimism and sensitivity of perception in these two men fuels some of the best known poetry the world has known.
Especially powerful is a scene in which together, high on laudanum (a drug often used for mystical inspiration by poets, similar in reputation to absinthe) the two write poetry feverishly throughout the night, slipping in and out of a transcendent, dream-like furor of creativity, the kind that lead to poems like Kubla Khan. There is also an appreciation of Coleridge's project of radical philosophy couched in a loving domesticity, the latter celebrated in his famous poem Frost at Midnight, in which he observes his infant son. This is a cautionary tale also, as inspiration spirals into rivalry and things end tragically, with the two poets turned against each other (the filmmakers side with Coleridge) and Dorothy hopelessly addicted to laudanum; but not before we see the kind of hopefulness and idealism that can enable spectacular writing.
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