Sunday, June 24, 2007

If.... (1968) review

"If...." has to be one of my favorite films. Words do not describe the power of this movie to provoke, and its images stay with you for life. This is what Lindsay Anderson wanted--from us--the audience. I will try not to repeat BFI's incredible text on this film, it really does nail what the film is about, and how
and why it was made. Give it a read, it has a lot to offer.

As specific as the setting of this movie is, there is a universality to it that renders it eternal. This wasn't necessarily intentional. There are so few films that are this pure, and "If...." illustrates how unique the 1960s-1970s were for directors. It was a time when aspiring directors had an open window to leave their mark in ways they hadn't been able to since the 1920s. One can only hope that similar artistic freedoms are waiting around the corner....

Of course, the obvious parallel in life for this film--in 20/20 hindsight--would be the Columbine Massacre in Colorado, or even the events at Virginia Tech, but "If...." is a strange bird of a specific English context (though its themes of hierarchy and repression are universal). Nearly every Englishman I have ever met or spoken with confirms that Anderson basically nailed it, and that this is a pretty close portrayal of the public schools in Britain (which are anything but, they're private places where the leaders of tomorrow are traumatized into their current behaviors). It's the "English disease," but who said they're the only ones confronting the crisis of hierarchy?

Again, arbitrary pecking-orders are universal, which explains the wide acclaim for the film. It's very basic presentation of oppression and the inevitable reaction it creates in any era. It's realism and surrealism is sometimes expressed in the use of both black and white and color, making for a very dreamy experience.

One could be forgiven in thinking this film is social realism, and in many respects it is. However, there are many scenes where Anderson slips into pure fantasy--such as the ending--but these approaches are a part of cinema, and they are thematic. "If...." is rife with symbolism. This must have been one of the first British films to deal point-blank with homosexuality in-general, but "If...." is multi-faceted. Like Pasolini, Anderson was gay, and he makes some interesting observations about homosexual behavior (not necessarily homosexuals) that echo Pier Paolo's in "Salo"--that sex of any kind can become the inverse of liberation in the wrong hands.

Surely, this is an early postmodernist film in its ambiguity towards the rebels lead by Mick Travis (the "Crusaders," led by Malcolm MacDowell) and their oppressors (the "Whips" and the Headmaster, instructors, etc.) in the pecking-order of the English boarding school system. In a regular film, by a regular filmmaker, we the viewers would be prone to invest our loyalties squarely with Mick and his Crusaders. That is, "If...." it were merely a pandering to the radical left of its time, we probably wouldn't be interested in it today at all. Of interest is the fact that "the Whips" appear to be the real power at the school, not the adults, who appear to have abdicated their authority and power to them out of convenience. Was "If..." typical of its time?

There are countless films from the 1960s-70s that did this, and they aren't part of the public mind for a good reason: they were too topical, often too much of their time, and they aren't very good. Anderson never cops-out in this film, and offers no pat explanations. His film truly is "epic" in its thematic scope of the eternal human yearning for liberty, and also a big step for gay cinema in the UK, possibly a first in its depictions of homosexual relationships. It's also a great poetic work of cinema, and one of the greatest British films ever made.

The title of the film has perplexed a lot of people over the years, and is a reference to the Kipling poem of the same name ("If-"). "In the end, they all sign-on," states the protagonist of Derek Jarman's "Jubilee" (1977). Indeed, the ending of "If...." confirms that to violently-rebel (armed only with guns, an iconography and empty-slogans) is to become what one once condemned. This is no crass emulation of the student uprisings of May, 1968.

It is a Nietzschean parable, rife with existential angst, and so much more. Anderson's "crusaders" are not very different from their tormentors, and, as strange as it may seem, there was a similar uprising at the Tonbridge School in 19th century Kent. Kipling even wrote indirectly of the event, and so the tale is closer to reality than one might think.

The real public school "rebels" went on to become vanguards of the British Empire, underscoring how rebellion is often more than it seems. Often, it's merely a "will to power." Thematically--and in his own experiences--the context of "If...." was a subject close to Lindsay Anderson's own life and his heart. Other than Ken Russell and Michael Powell
, I cannot imagine a better British director.

See it, if you can! has written that the new Criterion edition is likely the best we'll ever see in the digital domain. Note: "If...."(1968), "O Lucky Man!" (1973) and "Britannia Hospital" (1982) are sometimes known as the "Mick Travis Trilogy." This came about because of the collaboration between McDowell and Anderson, and stands as one of the most important series of British films ever made. It should also be noted that Stanley Kubrick hired Malcolm McDowell on the basis of his performance in "If..." for his role as Alex in "A Clockwork Orange" (1971-72, due to a re-release and cuts over an initial X-rating).

After the student uprisings of May 1968, and the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August, the Tet offensive, the assassinations, the riots, the demonstrations, the divisions, the December release of this film in that explosive year must have been a real bombshell to Western audiences (and it definitely was in the UK). Adults should wish to be so scandalized again. This is the violence inherent in the system, expressed by a conservative. A movie can change one's life. Lindsay Anderson converted his dreams into celluloid.