|If...., the 1968 black and white and color film by British
director Lindsay Anderson, is a good and interesting film, and one that
certainly has moments of candor and depth. But it’s simply not a great
film. It lacks daring and innovative technical aspects, even as it does
very daring things with its screenplay and the often random back and
forth switching between color and black and white film, which,
according to the DVD features, came about due to the technical
limitations of lighting a shot in a cathedral. Anderson so liked the
look that he reputedly told his cinematographer that he’d use black and
white hell mell, whenever he felt the desire. The net result is that
the random switching implies a meaning, and, had Anderson never stated
his real reason for doing so, there would have been reams of words
written over the deeply symbolic meaning of why scenes A, C, and E were
in color, while B and D were in black and white. In his admission,
Anderson therefore mocked the very criticism of intent that has plagued
film criticism for decades. Of course, according to those who knew
Anderson, like the film’s star, Malcolm McDowell, it was right in
keeping with Anderson’s persona to so tweak the critics.
Regardless, the film has a rather straightforward trajectory: set in a British ‘public school’ (which is really a ‘private school’), it follows a group of three teens who cause trouble- the leader being Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell). The film opens with all the boys returning after summer vacation, and Travis immediately running afoul of the Whips- a group of senior boys who, via tradition, are allowed to bully all the other younger boys. Mostly, they are fey dilettantes with a barely repressed air of homosexuality about them. They leer at the younger boys like pedophiles, and have them do all sorts of odious things, like warming up toilet seats for them. Any Whip who tried that where I grew up would have been emasculated before he got to park his ass on the seat, but in Britain, it seems, such was taken as a given. The whips run their school like prison warders, and the adult headmasters and administrators are portrayed as fools or uncaring idiots who are clueless as to what really goes on. As all the male characters, save McDowell’s, are rather interchangeable, I don’t even feel it worth mentioning their names nor portrayer’s names. Assorted teen things go on, Mick steals a motorcycle, gets involved with an immensely busty young waitress (Christine Noonan) whose name is never revealed, and one of his pals ends up homosexually seducing a younger boy. Mick’s resentment grows, and the film really hinges on whether he is a budding psychopath- ala the character McDowell later essayed in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Little Alex, or whether he is a principled revolutionary. The latter option exists because Mick plasters his room with iconic revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin, and artists, but also because he seems not the least bit prejudiced against his queer friend, not another boy who is picked upon for his obesity and Judaism.
After an ‘incident’ where Mick and his two pals are caned by the Whips (with Micjk getting especial violence), there seems to be no turning back. Mick and his two ‘mates’ take a blood oath, and, along with his waitress girlfriend, they scale the roof of their college, and during an important visitor’s address, on Founders’ Day, they set a fire, so that the gathered crowd comes rushing out, and start, one by one, picking off the people with guns and ammo they found. The waitress ends up plugging the headmaster who is pleading for the violence to stop, and for the boys to trust him. Given the film’s play with color and black and white, there seems an anarchistic feel to the film, whose narrative recapitulates its visuals’ anarchy. Thus, the film ends with Mick continuing to fire away at his victims below, as the film’s title appears in red, over a black background.
The film was a smash hit in the U.K., but also came under critical fire. Most contemporary critics immediately tried to tie it to the massive student protests that swept through Europe that year, but the single-minded violence of Mick and his acolytes really is at odds with that movement. Later critics tried to portray the film as a precursor to the Columbine shootings, in America, as well as similar ‘going postal’ incidents. Yet, those comparisons failed, too, because Mick’s anger is not of the ‘take all of the bastards with us’ sort, but purposely directed at removing an evil blight- one of his mottoes being: One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place. As naïve an opinion as that is, at least his acts are political acts, albeit different from his real world contemporaries on college campuses, and directed at no one person nor party, just the oppressive cosmos, whereas the Columbine killers were just psychotics and psychopaths. Of course, that critics continually missed the boat on this film should come as no surprise since most of them regurgitated the meme that the film was somehow surreal. While the film does stretch reality, and occasionally blend fantasy with realism, that is not what surrealism is. Surrealism is when there is a break with reality that is unforeseen, and seemingly beyond reality. There are scenes in films by Federico Fellini that involve moments- like a horse that appears where it should not be, and in others’ films, that are surreal, but fantasy alone is not surrealism. There needs to be an initial seeming randomness that, after the fact, seems less random, something that invokes John Keats’ Negative Capability. Nothing like that occurs in this film, nor are there any real ‘poetic’ moments. This film, despite some great moments, is always prosaic- in the best sense.
I mention this because, in the two disk set, by The Criterion Collection, on the commentary track by Malcolm McDowell and film historian David Robinson, both claim director Anderson a poet of cinema. This is generally just a platitude that such moments accord, but it is nonetheless wrong. Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, Ingmar Bergman, Theo Angelopolus, Bela Tarr, and Andrei Tarkovsky, etc., are poets with a camera. Anderson is not. But that does not mean this is not a good film; just not one filled with poesy. That commentary for the film comes on Disk One. Disk Two has features such as a 2003 episode of the Scotch television show Cast And Crew, which reunites McDowell with the film’s cast and crew (save for the deceased Anderson), and interview with one of the minor actors from the film, and an Oscar-winning 1954 documentary by Anderson, called Thursday’s Children, about a school for deaf children. Before he made feature films, Anderson was a documentarian. The film runs about 110 minutes and is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
While the film’s visuals, by cinematographer Miloslav Ondricek, and editing are solid, it is the lack of contemporary and non-diegetic music that make the biggest impact. So much of what McDowell conveys through his character is enhanced by the fact that it is character-driven, not manipulated via music. Along with some of the great films by Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu, this film is one of the best arguments against scoring films. In fact, the only music in the film, diegetic or not, is an Africanized Latin mass called Missa Luba. While the screenplay, by David Sherwin, has its moments, the thing that most keeps the film from approaching greatness is that it is simply too one dimensional. While we get dimensions of Mick Taylor’s persona, that’s about it. All the whips, adults, and younger boys- even the nameless waitress, are little more than props to tell Mick’s tale, and, while Mick has some moments, they are good pearls on a rather tattered string. The same could be said, in fact, for all the episodes in this picaresque film. Like so many other films that are hailed as masterpieces, If.... is not one. But it is a good film, and, perhaps one of those rare instances when it is something even better than a good film, it is an interesting film, warts and all- from its extended anomies to its over the top depictions of British youth. Its title is often claimed as deriving from the similarly titled poem by Rudyard Kipling, but Anderson never made such a claim, and the title (four dot ellipsis and all- gotta love that!) more likely refers to the film as a hope of some sort, a desiderata, if not of the filmmaker, then his lead character. In fact, the film could very well be a daydream of Mick’s, much like the film American Psycho is a fantasy of its lead character, Patrick Bateman. Regardless, whether one sees affinities with American Psycho or The 400 Blows (especially the classroom scenes), If.... is a film worth seeing. Its ability to develop characters (via peering vignettes that move quickly) and mix humor and drama are admirable, even if it never quite meshes into a fine whole, makes it an important film, for both world and British cinema. But, as I’ve stated before, the import of a film, artistically, philosophically, or politically, is a different creature from its excellence ort greatness, and, unfortunately only the former beast lives onscreen. Luckily, for cineastes, so did McDowell, even if Mick Travis may not have.
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