If….

(Lindsay Anderson, UK, 1968): If revolution was widely presumed necessary by 1968, Lindsay Anderson’s If…. added a rather complicating layer of fantasy to the proposition. By the time the film gets round to those images used to promote it so provocatively around the world — of then-unknown Malcolm McDowell taking out the faculty of his English boarding school with a machine gun — the act itself is as indistinguishable from angry teenage wish fulfillment as an earlier roll on a roadhouse floor with an enchantingly willing waitress. But if the movie’s most suggestive and dangerous depictions of especially English teenage revolt are never freed from the movie’s intricate blending of what might and might not be, they are utterly real insofar as the motivations that generates them. In If…., the hierarchies, humiliations and cruel rituals of a proper education, presided over an obliviously tradition-bound administration and enforced by an elite group of privileged student stormtroopers called The Whips, are offered up as every bit as deserving of violent armed resistance as the french military presence in The Battle of Algiers.

But where Pontecorvo’s Frantz Fanon-inspired anti-colonialist call to arms took the form of an occasionally too-convincing documentary immediacy, Anderson’s uprising at an upper-class educational institution tilted in the other direction entirely. Although himself a foundational figure in the British school of verité documentary practice known as ‘Free Cinema’, his second feature film aimed for a kind of surrealist sketch comedy — as English as afternoon tea and crumpets — that nevertheless provocatively proposed a very real insurgence of the imagination. Like so many other power structures that had by ’68 come to be considered irredeemably corrupt and oppressive, the old stone school in which McDowell’s Mick Travis formulates his notions of deadly revolt is a place where tradition is just another insidiously polite euphemism for tyranny.

Himself a graduate of the venerated old boys’ institution of Cheltenham College, Anderson was also gay, a not remotely incidental fact when it came to viewing a proper British education as an exercise in ritually enforced class privilege and conformity. From the beginning of the film, when McDowell’s Mick Travis arrives from summer holidays with the lower half of his face — which bears the flagrantly disallowed moustache that is our first indication of his constitutional resistance to rules and regulations — the school is depicted as an absurdly smug, hermetically walled-in haven for arbitrary reinforcement of the status quo. Under the sneeringly despicable lash of the Whips, a class system even within this already this upper class  ivory tower almost instantly emerges, and it’s as Darwinian as anything going on even in the darkest jungles of the furthest imperial outposts.

There’s some Lord of the Flies swarming around in here, but also survivalist prison melodramas and anti-military movies. In one scene, the question “Biles, why are you a freak?” is passed in whispers along the entire length of a dining hall table before reaching its eternally suffering recipient. The weak are preyed upon, mocked and made to serve their superiors; peer-enforced tests of school history and proper use of formal address are imposed as ritual conditions of survival; power is not only unconditional but beyond question; and the actual pedagogical content of education so ridiculously irrelevant it’s impossible not to realize the real thing being taught here is one’s place.

In the role that would land him the gig as Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange — itself an allegorical takedown of British vertical culture almost certainly informed by If…. — McDowell is the embodiment of charismatic, smirking, horndog insouciance from the moment that red scarf is unravelled and his dorm room redecorated with images that serve as pop-art, McLuhanesque suggests of the tremerous outside world penetrating the stone battlements: Mao, Geronimo, James Dean, Lenin, Charlotte Rampling. Swilling vodka from the bottle and busting out for a stolen-motorcycle joyride that culminates in that phantasmagorical shag on a roadside restaurant floor, Mick is offered as the incorrigible subversive whose very presence in the institution proves its flaws and perhaps (just perhaps) even portends its downfall. If the school can admit a guy like this into its hallowed halls, it’s asking for it.

While Mick’s bare-assed caning by the Whips remains the movie’s single most uncomfortable moment of revolt-inducing institutional cruelty (and prompts Mick’s most perfectly McDowellized line: “The thing I hate about you, Rowntree, is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum and your best teddy bear to Oxfam and expect the rest of us to lick your frigid fingers the rest of your frigid life”), the film is also distinctive for its bold and seemingly arbitrary switches from colour to monochrome; passages of potent but understated homoerotic suggestiveness; and ultimately English-as-hell formulation of an obliviously tradition-proud society on the verge of revolt. The irony, of course, is that Anderson is every bit as aware of the stiff-upper-lip, centuries-in-the-making intransigence of British class society as he is the need for it to be blown to bits, and it is across this moat that he fires his catapult. In the end, the revolution may be entirely imagined and life behind the walls may carry on every bit as cruelly as it ever did, but the reckoning, that it’s only reasonable to lob some grenades in the headmaster’s general direction, is as real as glint in McDowell’s eye. (Criterion)

 

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