Last night we screened Lindsay Anderson's classic If...
Our good friend Christy Fowlston wrote a piece for our program and heres what he had to say...
No film can be too personal.
The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments.
Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.
An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.
Or so said the first manifesto of the Free Cinema movement. Several years before the Royal Court’s ‘angry young men’ reshaped British drama forever, Lindsay Anderson was already busy challenging the cultural and social order, cutting his cinematic teeth with shoestring documentaries funded by the BFI. Struggling to get his films shown, Anderson joined forces with friends Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti, the four of them deciding to show their short documentary films in a single programme at the National Film Theatre. Despite the fact that the group had made their films independently of one another, Anderson identified a shared, novel attitude to their filmmaking, and opportunistically concocted a ‘Free Cinema Manifesto’ for the occasion. Such was the press attention garnered by Anderson’s manifesto that not only did all the screenings sell out, but a further five Free Cinema programmes took place over the next three years (with notable contributions from Roman Polanski and François Truffaut). With its evident contempt for mainstream British films, institutions and attitudes, and its respectful portrayal of ordinary people, Free Cinema, With Anderson as its spokesman, was the artistic melting pot from which the British New Wave was born.
What do you have?
Picking up where Free Cinema left off in 1959, The British New wave (BNW) consisted of perhaps no more than 9 major works, more than half of which were directed by the founders of Free Cinema (including Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night Sunday Morning). The late 50s saw the emergence of a youth culture eager to reject the fustiness and hidebound attitudes of their parents and the prevalent culture. BNW films told the stories of characters and issues on the social margins of society that would previously have been left untold. Anderson’s own contribution, This Sporting Life (1963), was his first feature length film and arguably the final film in the BNW movement. In common with most of the BNW’s films, This Sporting Life was based on a novel with a screenplay adapted by the author, David Storey (from his novel of the same name). It tells the story of Richard Harris’ inimical, violent coal miner, manipulated on the rugby field and manipulator off it. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that Anderson made another full length film. But This Sporting Life’s themes of power and class would be central to his next, and greatest, film.
There's no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.
Set in an elite and elitist public school, Anderson’s 1968 film, If… is certainly a departure from the BNW’s focus on working or lower middle class people. Malcolm McDowell takes the lead (in his first screen appearance) as the sixth form rebel Mick Travis. Arriving back at school at the beginning of term with a non-regulation moustache, a fellow pupil remarks "God, it's Guy Fawkes back again". It’s a line that anticipates the unexpected finale of a film that was made while the students were literally manning the barricades in protests in France.
If… is a searing allegory of British society where public school serves as a microcosm. The contempt for British mores and institutions of Anderson’s earlier work is present, and so too are some more esoteric cinematic elements that Anderson had temporarily abandoned in This Sporting Life. Colour scenes are interspersed with monochrome, the day-to-day drudgery of school life is broken up with fantasy and surrealism. The repeated use of a Congolese mass as a musical motif hints at the escape to another world that Travis and his friends long for.
Many people (myself included) have looked for some sort of meaning in the unusual mixture of black and white, and colour film in If…, there was even a rumour at the time of the film’s release that the black and white scenes had been included because the production had run out of money and could not afford to process all the scenes in colour. In fact, they filmed the first chapel scene in black and white because, in tests, the natural light rendered the high speed colour film they were using grainy, and shifting colours coming through the stained glass window made colour-correction impossible. When Anderson checked the dailies he liked the way the monochrome ‘broke up the surface of the film’ and decided to insert more black and white scenes to disorientate the viewer.
Although a piece of its time If… still resonates. The young, charismatic, pseudo-liberal headmaster with his condescending understanding of Travis and his band of ‘hair rebels’ smacks of David Cameron (or any of the current shower of ‘caring’ Tories). And having served a brief sentence in the early nineties at a public school where some of the scenes in If… were shot, I can confirm that many of the prefects’ more unadmirable attitudes were still very much in evidence then. With the UK government’s Cabinet once again stuffed full of Eton’s spawn, and many of the grand old institutions in the City teetering, what better time to take a seditious look at Anderson’s anarchic fantasy?