Thursday, September 04, 2008

Lindsay Anderson: If...

Lindsay Anderson's If... is another very typical work of its time (it was released in 1968), alive with a sense of possibilities and bursting with anti-establishment fervour. For the audiences now, however, it feels ironic if not completely anachronistic. This tale of violent "resistance" by a small bunch of young students against their superiors and their "oppressors" at a British public school will remind more of random shootings in American schools rather than an act of revolution, even in the abstract. There was a flurry of articles a few months back, many of them film related, in American and European media about the youth movements of 1968 on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, most of them feeling nostalgic about the last time when there was any hope for change. The young generation now is probably the most conformist ever so a film like If... can only be appreciated as an artifact from a lost time.

There is also another reason for the change in perspective for contemporary audiences. Even at that time there were voices (even non-traditionalist and non-conservative) which expressed doubts and fears about the nature of youth movements. Albert Camus' essay The Rebel is probably the most representative and famous of these. Camus talked about the ethical issues (and granting that they were indeed "romantic" acts) behind anarchism and statements like "violence and revolution are the only pure acts" or "one man can change the world with a single bullet in the right place." Many of these doubts were later justified when the violent youth movements themselves degenerated into banal terroristic acts. A few months back I saw Fassbinder's The Third Generation which tried to comment on one such organization - the Baader-Meinhof gang in West Germany - about how their idealism degenerated into something that will find a place in a B-grade Bonnie and Clyde film.

If... is a great film, and totally deserving of the classic status that it has achieved. Malcolm McDowell leads a small gang of boys to rise up in violent "revolution" against the administrators and their seniors at the school who routinely punish the young boys in the name of abstractions like "glory", "tradition", "obedience" etc. The narrative of the film is very loose, we just see episodes from the life of these young boys. There is a beautiful sequence when McDowell and one of his friends escape outside and flirt with a beautiful waitress (who later joins their gang). Another member of his gang is attracted to a pretty blond boy who is his junior and there is a beautiful and quietly erotic scene in which the young boy gazes down from the railing at him when he is practicing gymnastics on the rails. I read somewhere that Anderson was himself a closeted homosexual and I think that explains the homoerotic gaze that is present in the film in quite a few places.

I also found the use of alternate B&W and Colour sequences interesting. On the commentary McDowell says that Anderson initially tried it just as an idea because he was not able to light the interiors of the Chapel as he wanted but then he liked the result and he used it at quite a few other places. As a result of this film gets a strange texture and mood. The B&W scenes have this dreamy quality which add to the atmosphere of the film. The long shots of the school are also very poetic and beautiful. The scenes of violence are also presented in a surrealistic manner which, for those few who had doubts (the film was apparently highly controversial when it came), makes it clear that it is not meant to be seen literally. A good article on the film from The Guardian.

4 comments:

www.alt-flix.co.uk said...

You are absolutely correct. If... is a truly wonderful film. I'm still not sure if the follow up O Lucky Man! is a little bit better - all things considered.
There is some great stuff about the making of if on 'Never Apologise', the Malcolm McDowell one man show about Lindsay Anderson, which has just been released in the cinema.

Alok said...

O Lucky Man! is also brilliant though a bit patchy at few places which is justifiable because it follows a very loose picaresque structure. I read about the Malcolm McDowell show...I hope they release it as some DVD extra sometime.

www.alt-flix.co.uk said...

alok. The Malcolm McDowell one man show called 'Never Apologise' will receive it own DVD release (in the UK only at the moment) at the end of October. So it probably wont end up as an extra on a different release.

Alok said...

oh good...there was quite a bit of coverage here in US about it. Will definitely keep an eye for the dvd when it is released. thanks.