Lindsay Anderson’s If … marks that transition in British cinema from the ash-stained drinking glasses and filthy bathrooms of the so-called Kitchen Sink movies of the late 1950s, thru to the mid 1960s, to the more surrealistic 1970s, with its drugs and hippies. Like Performance, it is a benchmark, so far ahead of its time that it is almost rendered old fashioned upon contemporaneous viewing. Anderson’s previous film, This Sporting Life the most sunken of Kitchen Sink movies, bleak, black and white, and starring Richard Harris at his most simian. Subsequent Anderson films, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital are much more Bunuelian, nearly to the point of incomprehension. But If …, smack in the middle, has a foot in each camp. Indeed, about half the film is in black and white rather than color. The Criterion Collection’s two disc edition of If …, which hits the street on June 19th for $39.95, in a stunning transfer (with beautiful photography by Miroslav Ondrícek), gives the viewer ample opportunity to acquaint or re-familiarize himself with this key film, which bubbles with rebellion, resistance, and repression.
Anderson is one of those rarities, like Truffaut, Peter Bogdanovich and Bertrand Tavernier, a critic turned director. But of course, while writing his criticism (mostly on John Ford), Anderson, just like his comrades, didn’t view himself as a critic per se, but rather as a filmmaker ab ovo. Anderson had full careers equally as a documentarian and as a stage director. Though based on a script by David Sherwin, If … does also include reflections of Anderson himself, Scottish and, as we now know, gay, and thus doubly at odds with prevailing British society.
The narrative concerns Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), unwilling resident of an elite boys school. He has two fellow nonconformist friends, Johnny (David Wood), and the gay Wallace (Richard Warwick), whose conversations often turn to death and decay. The film examines the rigidity of the class system in the school, is frank about the levels of homosexuality present, and is contemptuous of authority, against which the three boys, along with a truck stop girl (Christine Noonan) they meet, rebel, in a series of fantasy sequences.
This aspect of the film remains the most controversial, but for different reasons in different era. Then, to embrace revolution, even if by the end of a gun, was to welcome change. Today, post-Columbine, the sequence is unsettling to those who don’t perhaps understand or who have repressed memories of the sort of rage that high school or school in general engender in most people. Without endorsing the actions of school assassins, or knowing the direct motivations, one can certainly understand the almost inexpressible anger that educational institutions traffic in, indeed use as a form of control. Though some may find it difficult to cheer when the Headmaster is shot in the head, for those who still husband anger at what they endured in school it is a moment of great liberation, though not without its own form of sadness.
The disc is packed with supplements. Malcolm McDowell’s audio commentary, which he shares with Anderson expert David Robinson, is priceless. McDowell describes first meeting Anderson (Robinson notes in his parallel track that Anderson fell in love with all his leading actors, including MM), notes that he had a huge crush on Noonan, and that he went into the editing room with Anderson’s blessing to remove stray shots of his penis from the nude wrestling scene. McDowell also reveals that Anderson helped him figure out how to play Alex in A Clockwork Orange, pointing out a moment in If … (which occurs at 1:13:24) and telling McDowell, “Play it like that.”
Kicking off disc two is an episode of a Scottish TV show fronted by Kristy Wark, Cast and Crew (42:04), which reunited filmmakers over significant movies. Aired in 2003, this one gathered If … DP Ondricek, editor Ian Rakoff, director’s assistant Stephen Frears, producer Michael Medwin, and screenwriter Sherwin. McDowell appears in a separate interview. Sherwin reveals, among other things, that the script was originally called Crusaders.
In addition, there is also a new video interview (14:36) with actor Graham Crowden, who played the equally rebellious, if beaten down, History Master, and there is Thursday’s Children (22:08), the Oscar winning short film by Anderson and Guy Brenton, made in 1954, about a school for deaf children, narrated by Richard Burton. Apparently Oscar’s history of favoring children and the disabled stretches back to the dawn of time.
Supplementally speaking, all that’s missing from the disc is Is That All There Is?, a final program that Anderson made about himself in the twilight of his career. Perhaps it will appear on some forthcoming Lindsay Anderson disc from Criterion. Home, Whales of August, a version of Look Back in Anger, and Britannia Hospital have all been released on DVD already, leaving as available potential Criterion’s This Sporting Life, The White Bus, O Lucky Man!, and In Celebration.
Inside the box is a 32-page insert featuring cast and crew, transfer info, and chapter titles, plus an essay by David Ehrenstein, diary excerpts by writer Sherwin, and interview excerpts with Anderson. There is also a 12-page promotional pamphlet, advertising Criterion’s Technicolor films.
Leave a Reply