Friday, January 23, 2009
If.... (1968) A Film by Lindsay Anderson
"Violence and revolution are the only pure acts," states Malcolm McDowell in If...., British director Lindsay Anderson's tale of public school rebellion. Later on in the film, McDowell finds himself cut and gazes down at his hand; "real blood," he whispers in awe. This is the kind of dichotomy that is ever-present in Anderson's wonderful allegorical satire, which lead a counterculture rampage in 60's Britain. McDowell, before his definitive turn as Alex in Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, is Mick, a senior at a prestigious school for boys that is run by The Whips, a small pack of snobbish seniors with a penchant for brutal discipline. The film often approaches its serious subject matter lightheartedly, explaining McDowell's seemingly contradictory turn of quotation and also providing a telling reminder of the apparent casualty in teenagers that often precipitates tragedy (although its less unnerving and more symbolic in If....).
Mick and his two comrades Johnny and Wallace become increasingly fed up with the oppressive environment they inhabit, which at the time was a tad too subtly representative of Anderson's view of Britain as a whole to please the system. Many dismissed If.... as "madness", but its anarchic view is one that still packs a punch. Anderson's direction is modest and classical, but also absurd and deceptive at times (think a slightly tamed Godard). Mick and his friends long for the company of beautiful woman - evidenced by the numerous posters tacked on their dorm walls - and when they finally escape the school in the middle of the film, steal a motorcycle in a flash of male bravado too convenient to be true, and schmooze a dreamy waitress, the film officially makes a departure from the realism associated with Anderson's early work. Much of the film spasmodically jumps into the fantasy world of the protagonists that is suppressed by the highbrow school. At times these scenes are shot in black and white, which at first was resorted to for practical reasons (the cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek could not guarantee color consistency in the scenes that take place in a chapel) but eventually seems to be used with some logic, such as in a similarly hyper-realized moment when Johnny swirls on a gymnastics beam in front of the wide-eyed Bobby Phillips.
Part of the reason for If....'s controversial nature is that it is unflinching and unsentimental in its depiction of punishment. One of the greatest scenes of the film involves the three rebels taking turns entering a room to be physically abused by the head Whip on account of "general attitude"; the camera holds on a static shot in the room as the first two enter and return with off-screen noise, until finally Mick enters. His slyness affords him a tensely prolonged sequence of stick to the ass. Whether taken as a dark comedy (whose surreal moments are quite memorable), a comment on the social standing of Britain, or a study of fleeting youth, the prevalence of fantasy under a dominating authority, and rebellion, If.... is an energetically paced, enjoyable classic.