Film Techniques and the Use of Symbolism: Dead Poets Society

         The opening scenes of a feature film can play a major role in establishing key elements that parallel throughout the rest of the film. The three key elements are settings, characters and plot. The film Dead Poets Society is an Academy Award-winning 1989 film, directed by Peter Weir. Set in 1959, it tells the story of an English teacher at a highly conservative and autocratic boys' school that inspires his students to make changes to their conformed lives through his teaching of literature.

         The story is set at the fictional Welton Academy in Vermont and was filmed at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware. Seven boys, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), the very timid Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), Charlie "Nuwanda" Dalton (Gale Hansen), Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) and Gerard Pitts (James Waterston) attend the prestigious Welton Academy prep school, which is based on four principles: Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence. According to the boys, the four pillars of "Hellton" are Travesty, Horror, Decadence, and Excrement. Director, Peter Weir, shot the film in chronological order to better capture the development of the relationships between the boys and their growing respect for Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), an untraditional instructor.

         The first scene in Dead Poets Society is set in a dim room with a candle being lit by boys in school uniform. Although very brief, this scene is symbolic of many things. The candle being lit symbolizes knowledge, which is backed up by the boys' school uniform. The darkness of the room is also symbolic of the boys' unhappiness. The candle may also be symbolic of the light to guide them out of their misery, which is Mr. Keating, who appears in the following scene, which incorporates symbolic, technical and audio codes to establish setting and characters.

         Scene two is situated in a large assembly area similar to a church with hundreds of boys in uniform seated in rows with the room quite brightly lit. One of the cameras is set so that it is positioned high above the front stage, looking down on all the boys in the assembly area. This implies that all the boys are small and easy to conquer or squash. It is symbolic of their overall weakness, even as a large group. There is a murmur of talking that is symbolic of all the boys being merged into one unit and their lack of individuality. The boys are all wearing identical uniform, which again is symbolic of the boys having no individuality and their likeness to an army, which is usually thought of with a negative feeling. In this scene there is no sign of any females or any feminine symbols such as flowers, which indicates that the school is strictly for boys. When the boys come down the aisle playing instruments and holding flags up high, this is also somewhat representative of an army soldier. In this instance, it is introducing the principal of the school, who is portrayed in a negative light.

         The flags carried are symbolic of ancient times and tradition. Bagpipes are being played, which symbolize the very religious and traditional Scotsmen and Irishmen. When the camera focuses on the principal, it is shot from the ground up, looking up at the principal, making him appear big which is symbolic of his power over the students. The principal is dressed in a preacher's robe, which represents the school being very religious. The boys all chant the three pillars of the school, in complete unison, tradition, discipline, honor and excellence. The four pillars being chanted in unison reinforce the fact that the school is a very traditional, religious and strict school.

         The room is brightly lit as this is the scene in which the first character portrayed in a positive light is introduced, Mr. Keating. There are many techniques used when Mr. Keating is introduced, to let the viewer be aware that he is in great contrast compared to the other teachers. One of these techniques is the contrast of age between Mr. Keating and the other teachers. He is very young compared to the others. When Mr. Keating stands up, he gives a smile to everyone that is something no other teacher does in the film.

         Themes are brought forward through the use of thematic devices. Such devices can be found in opening scenes to establish a possible plot involving themes and issues. An example of this is the first scene of Dead Poets Society when the candle is being lit and light is symbolic of knowledge. In the next scene there are many boys in uniforms and teachers with stern faces. In another scene, the character Neil is being yelled at by his father, and Neil does little about it, and there is a scene where the boys make fun of the four pillars. When combined all of these scenes together, a likely plot emerges of an unhappy boy going to a school that he does not like and unable to have a say in his own life. From here, the viewer can move on to assume that the most probable source of conflict will be the boys' parents and mainly focusing on Neil's father. From this possible plot, the viewer can then assume particular themes associated with the film such as how far should parent go just to try and do what is best for their children. The movie itself depicts a process of awakening, in which the boys (and the audience) discover that authority can and must always act as a guide, but the only place where one can find out one's true identity is within oneself. To that end, the boys secretly revive an old literary club in which Keating had been a member called the Dead Poets Society.

         The directors of films such as Dead Poets Society place much emphasis on symbolic, technical and audio codes in the opening scenes of film. This is so that the viewers can establish a basic idea of the setting, characters and plot involved to spark their interest towards the film.

Tara Wagner

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