Sunday, March 8, 2020

Lindsay Anderson | if....

a society needing to die
by Douglas Messerli

Screenplay by David Sherwin (based on a story by David Sherwin and John Howlett), Lindsay Anderson (director) if…. / 1968

I first saw Lindsay Anderson’s Palme d’Or-winning film upon its original release in 1968, I guess even before Howard and I met. Once again, I don’t think I completely comprehended its full sense of satire as I did this time around; but I do remember my curiosity (along with some excitement) about the predatory sexual behavior that the sixth form (final year) students imposed upon the younger boys, the “scum,” as they describe them. Now I recognize it for what it then represented: pure pedophilia.
      The British private school system which Anderson portrays is what I have always disliked about the English. The social and psychological hierarchies in this fictional “College” is based, in part, on those institutions of the society at large. The older torture the young, and all torture the weaker and the fresh. Indeed, we see this horror played out from the eyes of a young innocent, Jute (Sean Bury), who on the first day of the new term cannot even find out where he is to sleep, and needs to be taught by his elders how to address all of the often brutal seniors, and faculty.
      US high schools also embrace some of these bullying tactics, but if you’re clever and skittish as I was, you might escape them. But in a nightmare world where any moment the “Whips,” seniors and Housemasters represented most horribly by Robert Swann as Rowntree and Arthur Lowe as the Housemaster, along with several others who regularly bugger the beautiful young boys. It is made quite clear that if you are a good-looking young boy in this school you will eventually, and maybe often, be forced into the beds of the seniors, housemasters, and even faculty.

    This is a breeding ground, as so very many British films have made clear, of homosexual behavior that—given the British laws of the day—one will later have to deny. One need only go back to E. M. Forster’s Maurice or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to perceive how prevalent this was. Lock up hundreds of testosterone-heavy boys together, along with a violent prison-like existence, what else might you expect?
      The alternative to this is represented most clearly by the smirking, cynical, and dismissive Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) and his small gang of friends, Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny Knightly (David Wood), including a local female pub-worker (Christine Noonan)—although even Wallace has his eyes on the young boys, particularly the lovely Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster), whom we later see laying in his bed with Wallace’s arm around his shoulder.
       On a day of escape (requiring permission from the elders), Travis and Knightly steal a new motorcycle, rushing out into a neighboring village where they meet the Noonan character, where Travis imagines, in a surrealist-like encounter, that the pub-worker appears nude, a scene which, in order to portray, given the British censors, Anderson had to scrub away the genitals of all the boys in the shower scenes at the school. The misogyny and hypocrisy at the heart of this film, were played out as well by the English authorities.
      A bit like Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite—Anderson admits the influence of this 1933 film, and even showed it to his writers, David Sherwin and John Howlett—yet far more violently, Travis and his small gang, uncovering a secret trove of weapons in this militaristically dominated school, turn them upon faculty, “Whips,” and family members equally on the College’s Founders’ Day celebration, executing many of their torturer’s over the years. The establishment is brought down, a least temporarily, by the outsiders.
     Instead of simple childhood rebellion, however, Anderson’s film, I presume is based on the Rudyard Kipling poem of faith a belief, “If,” whose two first stanzas reveal the crux of his vision:

If you can keep your head when all about you  
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;  
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;  
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;  
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;  
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

     Yet, we know that even today the world Boris Johnson and the Brexiters present are merely another representation of the locked-up world which Anderson was satirizing. The faith of Kipling’s poem has been lost in the 21st Century world. The hate/love relationship with the world and their own people continues, just as the film moves in and out of time with its black-and-white and color images.

    Bobby Phillips, himself, is utterly enchanted by the spectacularly-gifted gymnast Wallace so much so that he quite literally falls into a kind of heat, forcing him to remove his sweater. Yet surely, he will later be punished by the same society for his youthful love, demanding that he find a woman to replace those pangs of young homosexuality, just as Maurice was abandoned by his Clive Durham and Charles Ryder is later ignored by his lover Sebastian. Director Lindsay Anderson seems to suggest this kind of society needs to die.
    Anderson himself, however, seemed to be a repressed gay man, unable to even live up to Kipling’s Victorian-based values. As Malcolm McDowell wrote, after the director’s death:

           I know that he was in love with Richard Harris the star of
           Anderson's first feature, This Sporting Life. I am sure that
           it was the same with me and Albert Finney and the rest.
           It wasn't a physical thing. But I suppose he always fell in
           love with his leading men. He would always pick someone
           who was unattainable because he [the actor] was heterosexual.

Los Angeles, March 8, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

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