Friday, August 17, 2007

When Do We Live?

if.... (1968)

Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonan’s celebrated
tussle in the extraordinary if…

THE time-honoured British Boarding School subgenera has been a stock scenario since the 1930s; explorations of how our hero - a potentially recalcitrant individual - could be brought to accept the wisdom of an Empiric value system. But it wasn’t just in actual boarding house narratives that public school values found cinematic expression. From the 1950s, headmaster-like commanding officers exerted stern benevolence; indeed, this pervious ethos enveloped anything from horse-play (“come chaps, off with their trousers!”) in THE DAMBUSTERS, to the exclusive girls school in the endearingly abysmal gothic LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. Winner of the 1969 Palme d’Or, and a loose remake of the Jean Vigo short ZERO DE CONDUITE, Lindsay Anderson’s if…. is one of the most stimulating and visceral of all British films. Scripted by David Sherwin, it introduced Malcolm McDowell and featured a veritable repertory company of distinguished actors (among them Arthur Lowe, Graham Crowden and Mona Washbourne) who would subsequently inhabit two further Anderson/Sherwin films headlining McDowell as wily Everyman Mick Travis - the horrors of big business in O LUCKY MAN!, and the critique of Thatcherite healthcare BRITANNIA HOSPITAL.

Released in the wake of actual revolution in Paris, where students challenged the authority of De Gaulle and the French State, if…. is a blueprint for future anarchy that might take any number of contrarian forms: participating in public demonstrations, starting an underground newspaper, or simply buying a copy of The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. The film plays like a lighter version of Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, with the mischievous and always watchable McDowell as the protagonist in both films. The actor already radiates his mix of arrogance and compassion here, which would be honed and forever etched into Kubrick's lead droog. It is in if…, however, that you understand more fully why McDowell's character is the way he is, your frustration and rage growing until you're relieved and horrified at the same time by its climax. if…. may, at times, display an overt fascination with the sadism it sets out to challenge, but its condemnation of the meaningless, colonialist rituals of a minor public school is utterly convincing. Tradition is only as good as those who maintain it, and Royston Lambert’s 1974 written survey of boarding school life, The Hothouse Society, offers ready evidence that Anderson’s work is closer to documentary than many critics would allow.

A publicity pose of Noonan, who plays if….’s enigmatic heroine. It's such an odd role and the actress - short and solidly built beneath a curtain of black hair - seems a decidedly non-ethereal person to have been cast, but she lays absolute claim to it.

The character of The Girl (Christine Noonan) first appears as a waitress, where she communicates with Travis through sight and smell. Venting their passion like a pair of tigers, they roll violently on the floor, all teeth, claws and flailing limbs; suddenly there is a change that cements the sequence as one of the most memorable in British cinema: the two wrestlers are suddenly naked, The Girl baring her teeth and sinking them into Mick's arm.With her taking part in their vicious final assault, the climax becomes more fanciful; she's an inspirational image, like the magazine clippings adorning the dormitory walls. The presence of The Girl in this final sequence helps to coalesce the rebels into an alternative family, fighting for righteousness and brotherhood. All these years later, she retains her uncanny ability to provoke and encourage our vestiges of revolutionary spirit, and there are those of us who will always love her for it.

if… is a great film because it both loves and hates Britain. It captures the wing collars and tailcoats, "whips" (prefects) and "scum" (fags), crusty masters and militaristic padres, chaotic feelings and quasi-fascistic discipline. Yet at the same time it cherishes the friendships and loyalties of an all-male school, including the moments of kindness - and the crushes. For many who were fortunate enough to see the film on the threshold of adulthood, it became a true rite of passage. On the surface a seething, surrealist tirade against the hypocrisies of The System, the film (which was largely shot in Anderson’s old haunt of Cheltenham) uses its setting to explore more universal issues, such as society’s refusal to conduct itself in accordance with the morals it professes to hold. This fundamental question is posed in the history class scene: were the atrocities of the past the fault of lone dictators, or the collective result of the population? Ultimately, we create our own Hitlers and Hungerford’s.