If… (1969), Dir. Lindsay Anderson [Criterion, 2007]
Through the hothouse lens of a boy’s boarding school, Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 film If... explores the rumblings of an approaching revolution. Anderson regiments the film into firmly defined chapters—Ritual and Religion, Discipline and Resistance—yet If… never becomes episodic or predictable. As Travis, played by a shockingly young Malcolm McDowell, seduces a girl in a rough, animal fashion at once comic and carnal, Anderson refuses to distinguish between reality and fantasy. As reality unwinds, episodes of violence become more pronounced. We slowly inhabit the imaginary world of a disturbed young man, who the film insists is our hero.
Made two years before A Clockwork Orange, If… centerpiece is young Travis, glowing with a nascent lunacy Kubrick would bring to flower. When Travis and his chum skip school, they fly through the countryside on a stolen motorcycle. The sequence is strikingly similar to A Clockwork Orange. Cars flash by on a country road, orchestral music swells in the background, and we know McDowell will soon embrace darker mischief. As in Orange, McDowell fixates on a single piece of music as his defining pleasure and catalyst for violence. The song, Miss Luba, a version of the Latin mass performed by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin, a choir of Congolese children, is chilling and beautiful.
Anderson rich rendering of College House—Travis’ boarding school—keeps the film’s relationship between illusion and reality from becoming didactic. The fresh-faced new boys learning the rules, the sadistic seniors lording over the daily madness in dandy vests with matching truncheons… Anderson recalls the horrors of high school well, and intimates the subtler forces at work. Homosexual desire appears not only as a normal facet of the all male universe (hey—it’s an English boarding school!), but the primary method by which the older boys lord over those below them. Anderson creates a believable world, and his themes of unrest are all the stronger for it. Into this world Anderson injects the politics of the period. Travis’s study is plastered with images of war, sex and chaos. A year younger than the seniors, Travis is clearly of a different generation, and chafing under their authority. The lessons the boys learn are of violence and survival, for College House has always been governed by the traditions of sadomasochism and emotional cruelty.
Anderson alternates throughout the film between color and black and white, and the story seems to mirror this dichotomy, with the mood shifting from dreary to ecstatic, comic to horrific. Anderson makes his case against the corrupting agents of class oppression and beauracatic stupidity with skill and humor: the headmaster is a comic buffoon, the Chaplin a pederast. A mock fight in black and white might distract Travis and his cohorts for a moment, but what thrills Travis most is when things go too far. The film shifts to color, and he gleefully exclaims, “Look—real blood!”
Still, it is hard to watch the finale today and feel the electricity it generated thirty nine years ago. Knowing that McDowell would take on his iconic role as Alex de Large in a movie that still has the ability to shock, If…’s revolutionary politics seem a bit dated. Drawing us in to a familiar narrative, the film evolves slowly from a tale of adolescent humor and hierarchy into a darker, surreal allegory of the culture wars. If... remains a riotous pleasure, but plays too farcical for someone of my generation to find foreboding.