Criterion // 1969 // 112 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 19th, 2011
"When do we live? That's what I want to know." -- Mick Travis
Like so many auteurs who emerged in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Britain's Lindsay Anderson was not first a filmmaker. As with his French contemporaries (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and others), he was a film critic before he picked up a camera. Writing before he'd made his first feature (but after a string of interesting short documentaries), Anderson had this to say about cinema:
"It is a matter of fact, not of opinion, that the cinema is an art...If L'Atalante, Strike, Rashomon and Louisiana Story are not works of art, then there is no way of describing them. And if Griffith, Renoir, Jennings and de Sica are not artists, we will have to invent a new word for them."
Now, over fifty years since this was written, we could easily add Anderson's name to the list of those working in cinema to whom the word "artist" applies. What's most impressive about this fact is that it is made on the basis of a handful of features and a dozen or so critical documentaries. Unlike his hero Jean Vigo, Lindsay Anderson lived to a ripe old age, but the two share a reputation which is completely incommensurate with the quantitative measure of how much film they left behind. While Vigo may have been the more influential of the two directors, Anderson's place in cinema history is ensured by the stunning quality of his work, the way each film creates its own complete world and presents it to the viewer. This ability is most obvious in Anderson's masterpiece, If..., which the people at Criterion are kindly upgrading as If...(Blu-ray) after their excellent 2007 DVD.
Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, Caligula) is a young man trying to get by at a British public school. Despite the lack of ladies, the malice of the older boys, and the indifference of the adults, Mick has a few friends and an okay life. However, as he awakens to the absurdity of the school hierarchy, he becomes increasingly rebellious.
The charms of cinema are often available in other media, like novels, drama, and painting. Novels and drama offer interesting characters and fun plots (and drama provides good performances), while painting can give a sense of spectacles. However, if you watch enough films eventually there will be a scene that seems purely cinematic, the kind of knock-you-flat moment that could only happen in front of a camera. The introduction of Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis is one of those scenes. McDowell had appeared in TV and on the stage, but this was his film debut, and this mysterious young man with a scarf obscuring his face (to hide the moustache he'd grown against the school's regulations) is absolutely fascinating. The camera follows him around, seemingly as intrigued as we are by his masked visage while simultaneously introducing us to the school and its inhabitants. The intersection of plot, character, cinematic technique, and cinema history makes the scene a powerful one -- and it is only the first a series of iconic moments in a film that was at the heart of political and cinematic debates when it arrived in 1968.
Although Anderson and his screenwriters claimed that their film is more universal, it seems more than coincidence that If... emerged just as the student revolts across the world (especially in France) were turning violent. The film continued to prove its relevance when it was released on DVD in 2007. As our own Brett Cullum notes, it was a little disorienting watching If... so shortly after the shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech. It's also a bit disconcerting to be reviewing this film so soon after the "Arab Spring" uprisings, which included their share of student protests. I doubt there's an explicit connection between If... and the Arab uprisings, but the film offers an interesting commentary on how to respond to the perception of tyranny.
However, while the film continues to be startlingly relevant today, we should also take seriously Anderson's claim that it is not intended to be a realistic portrayal of British boarding school life. His word for the film is "allegory," and it's an appropriate one. If... uses the boarding school setting to dramatic the perennial struggle between youth and age, anarchy and the totalitarian, and the damage that power can do to those who wield it.
All this might make If... sound like a ponderous treatise on politics, but luckily it's not. Taking a cue from Vigo and his film Zero de Conduit, Anderson uses his allegorical take to inject a certain amount of surrealism and humor into his story. Certainly the film's ending is a bit of a downer, but many of the scenes before the end are comic, and some even lighthearted.
This release is a hi-def update of Criterion's previous release, struck from the same hi-def remastering that produced the DVD, but now with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer. This is how the film should be seen on home video. Although there are a few instances of print damage, for the most part this is a clean print that reveals a tight grain structure and lots of fine detail. The muted color scheme is perfectly saturated, and no compression artifacts or digital mucking about appear. The film's famous black-and-white sequences appear especially sharp. The uncompressed mono track shows the limits of age a bit more. Although dialogue is clean and clear, the track lacks depth and presence. It's fine for the film, but one wishes that the "Sanctus" from Missa Luba could really come alive.
All the extras from the previous DVD have been ported over to this set as well. The commentary from McDowell and historian David Robinson is cut together from different sources (an interview with e and a newly recorded piece from Robinson). Both participants are informative, and McDowell shares a lot of personal stories while Robinson gives background on the cinematic and historic grounds for the film. There's also an episode of Cast and Crew from 2003 that features input from McDowell and a number of the crew, including the cinematographer, the assistant director (Stephen Frears!), the producer, and screenwriter. It's interesting to see the old crowd talk about the film with thirty years' perspective on it. Actor Graham Crowden appears on camera for a short interview to talk about his experience on the film and his impressions of Lindsay Anderson. Perhaps the most significant extra is the inclusion of Thursday's Children, one of Lindsay Anderson's earlier documentaries. It shows the absolute commitment and seriousness with which he takes the project of cinema, and provides an interesting contrast to the main feature. The usual booklet includes an essay by critic David Ehrenstein, a reproduction of screenwriter Sherwin's journal of the making of the film, and an excellent interview of Anderson interviewing himself.
If... might seem like a dodgy proposition for American audiences who know little of the British class and educational system of today, let alone of forty years ago. For some that may be the case. If... creates its own little world, and it's a world that many audience members will find boring or hostile, especially if the film is approached simply because Malcolm McDowell is the star. Its allegorical pretentions (including the occasional use of black-and-white cinematography) might also turn some viewers off.
If I may be indulged with another quote from Anderson, I think he'll sum up his aims for this film quite nicely:
"Just as in this context, words like 'instruction', 'culture', even 'art' acquire connotations of pretentiousness and gloomy didacticism, so the idea of pleasure dwindles into that of 'fun'. But what a pinched, jejune notion of pleasure this is, that exercises only the most superficial faculties, and affects a kind of modish infantilism to justify its retreat from the responsibilities of being an adult."
Despite his focus on rebellious adolescents (and their antics), If... is a film that is resolutely concerned with "the responsibilities of being an adult" without giving in to "gloomy didacticism." It's an important film, a beautiful one, and one that will hopefully get the wider audience it deserves thanks to this nigh-perfect Criterion Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film