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Lindsay Anderson’s if… on Criterion

The film is told with rigorous control, with unobtrusive camerawork and naturalistic, unpretentious sound design.

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Lindsay Anderson’s if… on Criterion

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place,” proclaims Mick Travis, the boarding school rebel who spearheads a revolution in Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic social satire if…. Malcolm McDowell plays the role, three years before he starred as the nihilistic Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and his international celebrity exploded. While the two parts share some similarities—a smiling, cocksure refusal to play by societal rules or toady up to authority figures—their motivation to destroy is quite different. Alex sees the world as a decadent playground for his entertainment, whereas Mick Travis dreams of something better and commits to the idea of burning down the old establishment to make way for the new order. As for what that new order is, he never clarifies, but it will certainly be a reaction against the oppressive, class-conscious regime of pompous, condescending headmasters and the sadistic, smug, paddle-wielding gang of senior classmates called The Whips.

if… opens with the arrival of students after their summer break. Ground rules are laid out: there are the oppressors and the oppressed, with the younger children (labeled “Scum”) attending to the beck and call of their elders. At its most lenient, this involves running back and forth to bring toast and jam during tea time, but if the rules of politesse are not followed to the letter, heads are dunked in toilet bowls or flunkies are instructed to stand under ice cold showers for two-minute intervals. Mick Travis and his handful of bright, idealistic friends are among the seemingly powerless, and they find their strength through cunning subversion. On the first day of the semester, Mick arrives wearing a black hat and scarf covering his entire face, and when he reveals himself he has a neatly trimmed moustache as an act of minor rebellion—a gentle “fuck you” to the powers that be. Mick promptly shaves it off, but not before complaining, “When do we live? That’s what I want to know.” As said by McDowell, with the boyish insouciance that became his trademark, it doesn’t sound sanctimonious.

Played with that deadpan quality we come to expect from highbrow, stiff upper lip British comedy, if… is told with rigorous control, with unobtrusive camerawork and naturalistic, unpretentious sound design. In seemingly arbitrary fashion, the film stock jumps back and forth between black and white and color (with black and white lending a more dreamlike or delicate quality to certain passages). It’s not kitchen sink social realism as seen in the films of Ken Loach (whose Poor Cow also touched a nerve in the late 1960s), since the performances are slightly heightened—even borderline caricature. While Mick’s moustache isn’t weird in and of itself, and there’s nothing radically out of the ordinary in his listening to a beautiful African chant with accompanying drumbeat on his record player, and it’s perfectly befitting that he would have photographs of guerrillas on his wall, these images and ideas build up a cumulative power so that when if… ventures into more overt surrealism, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. When Mick steals a motorcycle, slips away from school and has a spontaneous romance with a good looking waitress (Christine Noonan), their courtship involves a slap, snarling at each other like wild animals, and finally rolling around on the floor—clothed and naked in a series of jump cuts.

This surreal quality is playful and often anachronistic (one of the characters who dies suddenly reappears in the headmaster’s study, popping out of a cabinet to say a line of dialogue before lying back, corpse-like, as the drawer is shut upon him). The prefect’s wife takes off her clothes and roams freely through the empty hallways while everyone else is caught up in an occasion of pomp and circumstance. Mick and his friends have an elaborate fencing match, play-acting their way through it like the Three Musketeers until they are entranced by the appearance of “blood…real blood!” It all feels like part of existentialist shrink R.D. Laing’s once-popular belief that madness is the only sane response to an insane world.

All that mania seems like a necessary release from repressive school life, which can stand in as allegory for whatever you like: the routine humiliations of working in an office, the government crushing individualism under its thumb, the necessary catharsis of art and expression in an increasingly corporate landscape, or even a nostalgic trip down memory lane as we realize that the rules laid down in school are often the same ones set forth in life. Reality grows especially harsh as the dictatorial Whips close in on our heroes and dole out a series of brutal beatings—culminating in an after-school paddling in the gymnasium that both hobbles Mick and strengthens his resolve.

While the paddling doesn’t have the blood and spittle of The Passion of the Christ, it plays just as rough. Tension builds when Mick has to wait outside the gym and listen to the beating of two other boys, and then when he takes his twenty lashes we cut away to younger schoolchildren listening in fear as he has to take his lumps. The scene has incredible dramatic power as Mick wipes away a single tear and is called upon to thank his oppressors. This turning point in the film leads to the grand finale, where Mick and his revolutionaries utter no more spoken dialogue and somehow come across a cache of guns and hand grenades that they lethally break out when the parents visit the school on Founders’ Day. It is pure Guy Hawkes-style mayhem, again with a surrealist bent. (One of the villains gets shot in the head and immediately bursts into flame.)

Anderson was well known as a provocateur, both abrasive and caustically funny. He gleefully poked mocking holes into all sorts of cultural institutions—yet he too was repressed in his own way. Quiet about being gay, he never allows the homosexuality in if… to move beyond suggestion. However, if the gymnasium hazing and the climactic shootout are the most iconic sequences, the gay subtext leads to the most striking visual poetry. Young Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) shyly watches from a balcony as Mick’s handsome pal Wallace (Richard Warwick) does graceful acrobatics and somersaults on a balance beam. Slow motion transforms Wallace into a moving sculpture, and as Bobby regards him with silent adoration, it becomes homoeroticism at its most transcendent. While not as spirited and confrontational as the rest of if… (it’s almost timid in its mildness), it provides a gentle and touching counterpoint to the sharply drawn ironies that abound throughout.

if… was wildly popular in Great Britain, a parallel reaction to the counterculture youth movement’s rage against the conservative regime, but it was equally embraced in countries that suffered under corrupt totalitarian governments. Nowadays, where global culture grows increasingly homogenized, we associate survival with conformity, and it’s refreshing to look back at this late-60s time capsule when young people violently disagreed with that notion. Naughty behavior and a taste for the ridiculous can be, in and of themselves, revolutionary—a refusal to adapt to constructed norms. Mick pushes it to the limit and, as reason and logic take a reprieve, the fantastic and the absurd take over.

Image/Sound/Extras: The high-def transfer of if…, presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, is first rate, with incredible clarity in the image. It is approved by director of photography Miroslav Ondricek, who outdoes himself with beautifully vivid black and white contrasting nicely with evenly lit color sequences. The audio track is likewise restored, and the Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono is clean and clear, with no noticeable hiss. Supplemental materials on the two-disc set are generous, including a feature length commentary by Malcolm McDowell and film historian David Robinson. McDowell’s anecdotes are both informative and funny, and always reverential towards the director who discovered him. Robinson makes an excellent foil, particularly in their lively exchanges about Anderson’s directorial choices. “It was completely arbitrary,” McDowell howls, even as Robinson points out the clever cross-cutting between the Whips, shot in vivid color as they laze about their study playing games of one-upsmanship, and the Scums, in black-and-white as they cheerily make do with a humble meal of pork and beans. The ever-lively, charismatic McDowell adds a personal touch when discussing his first audition for Anderson, as well as some of his shrewd directorial advice and one-liners, and Robinson too seems to have a clear understanding of the director’s character as well as his aesthetics. “His indifference to being liked was matched by his need to be loved.”

Disc Two contains a brief but lively interview with actor Graham Crowden, who plays the whimsical history teacher in if… and discusses Anderson’s paternal, supportive approach to actors. Anderson’s short, Academy Award winning documentary, Thursday’s Children, about a school for deaf children, is a fascinating and humanitarian social document. An episode of BBC Scotland’s Cast & Crew has several crew members and Anderson’s protégé Stephen Frears discussing the long shadow if… has cast over the years—and a pre-taped Malcolm McDowell shares even more anecdotes, including the one where he asked Anderson if he could roll around on the floor naked with his co-star Christine Noonan, and his gleeful delight when the director agreed—o lucky man, indeed!

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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