I’ve written a fair number of reviews on films upon which I am not qualified to comment and of those films I’ve noticed a couple dividing lines. There are classes of classics. There are those that are great and seen as great, there are those that are decent and seen as brilliant, there are those seen as great but are actually crushingly dull or crashingly messy, there are those that are rarely seen and understandably so, then there are those, like If…. (1968), that are seen casually by a few, understood to be great, and yet almost never mentioned. One might blame the subject matter or the British-ness of If…. for its lack of popular mention. But it is the fact that it is British, and thus in English, that causes me the most irritation. You won’t hear a lot of people mention M (1931), but that’s German and from the early 30’s, not the sort of thing you grew up watching on Saturday afternoons, but The Third Man (1949) (British) or Pickup on South Street (1953) (American) are movies, based on quality and accessibility, you might expect people to recognize by name. And yet, every time that I hear these films mentioned, it’s in the casual way you might mention The Thin Man (1934) or a matinee serial. “Perhaps a serious viewer can pick it up somewhere along the way between helpings of Truffaut and Bergman,” says the snob, “but only as a light interlude.
Life is chaos in an English boarding school. Between the frustrated teachers and arcane silliness are extreme brutality and ambiguous male relationships. Mich Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is living his own life, waxing philosophical on issues he might not fully understand, reading tabloids and constructing collages out of dark images (next to the, shall we say, more traditional viewing diet of the lonely adolescent boy). He and his friends Knightly (David Wood) and Wallace (Richard Warwick) are put upon by the Whips, Rowntree (Robert Swann) and Denson (Hugh Thomas), and lackies like Stephans (Guy Ross) who don’t like their long hair or general listlessness. There’s also the new boy, Jute (Sean Bury), one of the juniors, who is made to memorize trivia on pain of beating. There is romance, pain, and bullying, and occasional learning. Though the lessons don’t often come in the classroom.
Reading Lord of the Flies before seeing Lindsay Anderson‘s If…. was a mistake. If you were amazed by children killing one another, then you don’t know what it is to be in a British boarding school. What little I know of these places, as described in Stephen Fry‘s sensationally good memoir Moab Is My Washpot, is fully confirmed in If….. That is to say, If…. is an accurate portrayal of the place and the time. Casual cruelty and sincere homoeroticism are the modi operandi and the comic way in which it is accepted may inform Britain’s upper classes more than anything else. Thus, If…. is very funny. It brings in these extremely surreal moments (in plot and style) that suggest that If…. is as much a hazy recollection as genuine history.
The American preoccupation with Britain’s cultural oddities makes If…. a prime candidate for (relatively) wide-spread appreciation along the lines of The History Boys (2006). You come for the fetish, but you stay for the meaning. If…. is an extended metaphor for British society. In fact, the characters play such tight roles in the school that one could (as IMDb has done) call this an allegory. The useless figure heads, the violent and sexually disturbing clergy, snobbish, power-hungry twits bossing the others around, the groveling juniors and the would-be sophisticated crusaders like Mick and his friends can all find their parallels if desired. Many probably do.
If…. isn’t a bald or preaching film. It is done, at first, very naturally and realistically and always from a safe distance with plenty of breathing room. The goings on in the school are very odd–a prefect shouts out “Run, run in the corridors!”–but it’s in a believably playful manner. When the darker underbelly begins to show itself to Mick and his friends, however, things turn towards the strange and the violent. Even then, the perspective doesn’t change. There is (almost) always a sense that the children may be emotionally scarred, but they’ll basically come out alright. Even the most aberrant behavior is seen in a ‘boys will be boys’ light.
The cinematography by Miroslav Ondrícek moves almost randomly between color and black and white. We’re always observing the action in the same way that I feel with a good book, as though you’re the close, unnamed, silent friend of the main character who has no particular time obligations. You’re there because he likes you to be nearby, but you can always roam around. You’re always the Nick Carraway. But the thing you can do in a movie that you can’t do in a book–or perhaps can’t do as easily–is take the camera and just look at something for a few seconds, like a window reflecting the clouds or a building at sunset or grass blowing in the wind, and underline the immersion in the world by suggesting freedom of movement. Because you take that shot and everyone gets to see what they want, think about what they want while always being present so you can project yourself more fully into the scene.
A great writer like Dickens may be able to accomplish that, but any director can pull that of by accident. And, after listening to a retrospective on my Criterion Blu-ray (brag), I get the impression that Anderson directed in a way that was easy-going and allowed room for inspiration. But that style is really at the whim of a directors taste because that’s really the only constant presence you can have. There’s planning which is open to mistakes or accidents, there’s an actor’s mood, the weather might do something to the light, but there is always an eye from the director or the cinematographer–the people watching–that can correct or ruin the scene because of their own taste and creativity. And I love Anderson’s tastes.
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