Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

May 30, 2009

if.... (1968)

by Will Ross

In the long tradition of teenage rebellion in cinema, no films regard pubescent dreams of anarchy with more seriousness and fear than if...., the most famous film of English director Lindsay Anderson and the screen debut of actor Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, a prototype of the sadistic youth he would play to greater fame in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

if.... is often misinterpreted as an anarchic revolutionary manifesto, showing young men in an English boarding school thumbing their noses at authority. The film shifts its focus between many students, sometimes through common schoolyard bullying, sometimes through acerbic quarreling, but always highlighting the power structures and struggles. The protagonists, though, are Mick and his two loyal thugs (referred to in the closing credits as “crusaders”). There’s no plot beyond the escalating conflict between the crusaders and the whips, older students at the school who have been placed in a disciplinary position. The film is divided into eight chapters, highlighted by white title cards and a red number on black, but like the film’s occasional shifting between black and white and colour scenes, this is more an exercise in pacing and tone than a division of stories or thematic structuring.

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There is so much abuse of authority that it’s hard not to sympathize with the students’ obsession with antagonism (“Violence and revolution are the only pure acts”, Mick muses to his friends in one scene), but their hatred for authority is so blind and pointless that they reject the only man in authority who understands their feelings, the headmaster himself. Both parties (the whips and crusaders) relish their power over younger students (two characters have implied pedophilic feelings).

The film is about immoral struggles for power, but for most of the film Anderson presents a fairly realistic view of daily goings-on with public school students. In one particularly memorable scene, a group of students dragg another into a bathroom, pull his pants off, and hang him in the stall with his hair in the toilet. Wallace, the crusader with implied pedophilic interests, discovers him and helps him down with some irritation. Instead of weeping or running or panicking, the student, soaked in toilet water, accepts his place as a tortured boy and politely says, “Excuse me please, you’re standing on my clothes.”

Until the last twenty minutes, the film functions as an almost entirely straight-faced depiction of public schooling in England. Anderson’s classical shooting style serves to emphasize the rigid grounding in the real world instilled by the school, and none of the events that unfold seem implausible or extraordinary. The film’s bizarre tone is mostly set by its jumps in and out of colour and its choir music and score by Mark Wilkinson, which is at its best when it turns a beautiful joyride on a stolen motorcycle into an unnerving nightmare; the strings seem to mourn the boys’ ill-gotten freedom and power. The only scene in the bulk of the film not tied to reality is Mick’s encounter with the film’s sole adolescent woman, whose underdevelopment as the only major female character is easily the film’s greatest failing.

If you’ve read up on if.... in any detail, chances are you’ve heard of its notorious ending. Although, as I’ve mentioned, most of the film excluding one scene is very realistic, in the last two chapters Anderson catapults the viewer through increasingly surreal moments. The housemaster’s wife walks naked down empty hallways with no obvious motivation. The headmaster opens a drawer in his office and someone is resting inside. The crusaders come across a forgotten munitions cache while clearing out a storage area. It all culminates in a five-minute climax that broadens the film’s scope from a satire of English public schools to a scathing critique of education systems that turn young men either into frigid, cruel power mongers or senseless instruments of chaos and slaughter.

if.... is a film of such strength and ambition that it can easily be forgiven for its digressions and minor pretensions. The film’s vision is so ambitious, so compelling and so uncompromising that it strong-arms its way into greatness with as much ferocity as its anti-heroes.

And yes, the four dots in the title are grammatically correct.


Anonymous said...

Ushered to the top of my must see list.

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