By Travis Mackenzie Hoover
[O Lucky Man! screens as part of the "Lindsay Anderson: Revolutionary Romantic" series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Click here for screening information.]
O Lucky Man! is an easy film to condescend to. I did when I first saw it, days before returning for my second year of dubious film theory studies in the 1990's: having already been primed to find political significance and revolutionary intent in the most innocent of sources, it was a slam-dunk to take the film's casual cynicism and flamboyant self-pity and write it off as one more exercise in left-wing melancholy. As it turns out, it is an exercise in left-wing melancholy, entered into under the most casual of pretexts and tossed off with the kind of wigged-out imagery that might make you an artist or might make you a designer of progressive rock album covers. Still, the film had a habit of following me around: one dorm-room night it played on the late late show and wowed the people trapped on the wasteland that is the York University campus; it subsequently became one of the faves of a girl on whom I had a terrible, unrequited crush. And in my first apartment—living alone after the undefinable flight of my first roommate—that girl's castoff VHS dub of the Man was something that, for lack of a copy of the soundtrack, I would play for the opening title song, watching/listening over and over again in a repetitious Aspie sort of way.
It's not a significant film for any of these personal reasons, but the shambling depression of those encounters mirrored that of the movie. Those who have seen O Lucky Man! are familiar with its radical-chic frowny-pique: Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), familiar from the Godard-against-Godard of if..., is a go-getter salesman being primed for pushing coffee. An early training scene has him being praised for his "sincere" smile: it's clear that he's as sincere as Dan Quayle on the stump, but he's also an innocent who thinks that his determination to succeed and willingness to cut moral corners are going to do him much good. This is the interesting point. While the film will make all sort of bad excuses for corruption, the insistence on Mick Travis as corrupt and innocent at the same time is a welcome relief from the familiar trajectory of idealistic-dreamer-disillusioned-by-evil movie. We like Mick because he likes things and wants to get them, and because, like us, he's not at all perfect. It's regrettable that the Candide-like adventures to which he's subjected either misunderstand or sidestep this little moral ambiguity, but that one gesture makes it a nice thing to watch when you, as we all do from time to time, get overwhelmed by the contradictory demands of a confusing life.
Anyway. Mick is sent to a far-flung but comfortable outpost of England to take over from a high-performing salesman who flew the coop without explaining why. He struggles initially, perception not being reality (and perception being the pep-talk he received at the hands of his training seminar), but he eventually falls into contact with a hotelier just as corrupt as him. He takes Mick to an elaborate smoker complete with porn films and live sex show, which is simultaneously depicted as degrading and delightful. He's happy... everything he ever asked for, none of it reasonable. Topping it all off is his amazing luck at catching the ardor of his rooming-house landlady, which means he gets laid regularly and gets to cuckold a weak but understanding husband. Plus Ralph Richardson lives in the next room—he gives our hero a gold-lame suit for reasons unknown and gently indulges his young neighbor's passion for business while knowing better. Credibility is not exactly at the forefront of any of this: it more boils down to male wish-fulfillment than anything at all trenchant, but, as a male with wishes of his own, I am inclined to look the other way every once in a while. It's a nice set-up, besides, for the disappointments to come.
Those disappointments don't exactly blow your mind intellectually: they fall under the rubric of head movies for nerds, or surrealism on the cheap, or more commonly, Seriously Fucked-Up Shit. Called away by the company to an even lonelier outpost, Mick finds himself knocking on the door of a military compound that arrests him, lets him loose on the grounds, arrests him again, and tortures him, a sudden, unexplained explosion thrown into the mix. He wanders around, finds a church, is nurtured, and winds up suckling on the breast of a woman who looks remarkably like his old landlady (I guess some people just can't get enough Mick Travis). Hitching a ride, he comes across an experimental facility looking for subjects, haggles a price, gets a speech on how science will solve all our problems, and then discovers the horrible nature of the experiments. Every one of the message moments is like getting hit over the head with a ball peen hammer: the military is hiding things and engaged in black ops, natural love and sex are good for you (as is winging some Freudian imagery), and science as escape hatch is a fallacy which will harm us more than help us. Even in 1973, none of this was original or groundbreaking, and the film fails to develop any of its thrown-together symbols and themes—it's more interested in impressive cheap shots than political engagement.
But I hasten to add that all of these cheap shots make me happy. The haphazard stabs at surrealism are a lot of fun, if for no better reason than that they entertain us with disorientation; the cynicism is a lot of fun for how it blows off some frustrated steam; the sexuality is a lot of fun for reasons too obvious to enumerate. Even Alan Price and his band are fun, though the use of Price's songs—a Brechtian device that proves little but entertains much—are a touch heavy handed. And the sense of occasion with which Lindsay Anderson renders it all sells the deal. Anderson was the dandy of the Free Cinema group, and one of the few non-stiffs to come out of the less-than-impressive British New Wave/Kitchen Sink Realism scene: though he was just as prone to self-deception as his stiff-upper-lip contemporaries, he wasn't about to deceive himself out of his desires or less-than-noble needs. Whatever the cons and pretensions of his oeuvre, he would never have made something as unpleasantly moralistic as Darling or Georgy Girl to get easy points for tabloid sensationalism. He likes the idea of bad people doing bad things, and even as he gives himself easy outs he wouldn't call them true socialism or high mass at St. Paul's Cathedral.
Those easy outs do still rankle, though. This film runs to the edge of a lesser-discussed tendency of the so-called Golden Age of the Seventies: that the acknowledgment of corruption can turn into a justification for same. It's not entirely clear what Anderson intends us to get out of his apparently top-to-bottom exploration of a corrupt society—in the end, it's top-to-bottom less through exhaustive consideration than through hyperbole and overgeneralization. When graffiti in one scene interjects "REVOLUTION IS THE OPIATE OF THE INTELLECTUALS," it seems like Anderson is giving himself excuses not to get his hands dirty. The movie's cynicism is a defense mechanism, designed to circumnavigate true engagement with politics for the "moral ambiguity" that is the eternal out of the pretentious ditherer.
Funny, then, to see the film unload a lot of avant-garde and Brechtian devices as if it were a one-man-band of seditious intent. Alan Price's songs—the impetus for the movie—are meant as a sort of Greek Chorus, which gets him certain fourth-wall-breaking bonus points but overlooks the fact that the composer can't muster The Threepenny Opera: his idea of a scorching throwdown is "life just isn't fair—there are no easy days, and no easy ways, just get out there and do it!" Similarly, Anderson's doubling-tripling of many actors—with Richardson playing both the boarder and the evil industrialist Sir James Burgess, and a couple of the female players embodying various female sex objects and/or goddesses—is a crossing of surrealism and Kind Hearts and Coronets that's more mind-bending than mind-expanding. The journey of the film through the various quadrants of England (North/South/etc.) gives an abstract sheen to the various episodes, but never means much (maybe you have to be English), and the general sense of sexy (and sexist) unreality is a very entertaining way of distracting from the film's simple, laissez-faire ideology.
But nothing really distracts from the fact that O Lucky Man! has given up the game. When the film shifts into its final half/third/quarter/whatever in London, it throws copper baron Sir James at us as the embodiment of everything Mick has wanted: he first hires him as an assistant and then crushes his demonic idealism. After an embarrassingly obvious scene in which an African dictator stumps for his country (he's played by the conspicuously white Arthur Lowe, another Brechtian adventure that would have been less racist if Anderson had just left it alone), Mick is made the patsy for Sir James' misdeeds, incarcerated, "reformed," and then has his re-illusionment disillusioned again at the hands of poor pickpockets and the ingrate homeless. No new tale to tell. Forget about making a difference: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and even the little people are corrupt. Anderson gives up so easily that his big smackdown of "moral ambiguity" seems designed to stamp out all of the crisscrossing little ambiguities that make life so difficult, but which must be followed through if we expect to have our eventual relief.
Still, relief is always a dream deferred. In those days in that empty apartment—in what I imagined to be the worst neighborhood in Toronto, where the police would eventually raid my place, mistaking it for the crack den upstairs—it was hard to imagine that relief, or at least enough of that relief, would ever materialize. And while I can't say the movie approaches a holy grail for me, circumstances have given me a sentimental fondness for it. Alone, lonely, beginning my decade-long descent into isolation that would be broken only by my Asperger's diagnosis, the movie at that point made more sense for making no sense, when there were days that the opening song—"If you have a reason to live on and not to die, you are a lucky man"—seemed less like the lazy barroom philosophizing it is than the ugly frustration that produces so much of that boozy pontificating. We are obligated not to give up so easily, and to fight the power that Anderson so irresponsibly obscures. But there are times that we don't need British dandies to cover those things, and at those times we are so thwarted that we must blow off steam.
There is no reason to consider O Lucky Man! a masterpiece, or morally committed, or politically astute, or trenchantly satirical, or anything that might lift it into the realm of greatness that it strains for without straining itself too terribly hard. It's for those nights when we're fed up and pissed off and need to be comforted that much of this doesn't make sense no matter how hard we try, and that we have to honor our frustration when it all falls apart. It should not be placed in the company of works that doggedly follow up on the loose ends and painful complexities that might get us out of some of our quagmires, which work to make this movie's cheap cynicism obsolete. Until such time as that happens, and you're feeling low, and you're feeling just as tired, and you've exhausted your options for the day, Mick Travis will be more than happy to waste some funky time with you. It's not much, but some days, it's the only way to fly.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.