Saturday 14 November 2015

Movie Review: If....(1968)

A school drama focusing on the emerging chasm between traditional values and counter-culture ethos, If.... is a potent celebration of the forces driving nihilism.

It's the start of a new year at an English public all-boys school. The "whips" are the senior students responsible for maintaining discipline, the "scum" are the sometimes bewildered young newcomers assigned to satisfy the whims of the seniors. The teachers and the Headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) get on with the job with pompous oblivion. Life at school consists of the usual mix of boring classes, sports, and rampant, often cruel high-jinx as the boys struggle with the painful process of evolving into men.

Mick (Malcolm McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick), and Johnny (David Wood) are three non-conforming students marching to the beat of their own drummer. They keep their hair long, engage in illicit drinking session, discuss social upheaval, and do their best to show the utmost disdain for Rowntree (Robert Swann), the Whip leader. As the year progresses a showdown looms between Mick and the authorities. Dramatic events are set in motion when Mick steals a motorcycle, enjoys a countryside wild ride, and meets The Girl (Christine Noonan), another advocate of anarchy.

Directed by Lindsay Anderson and featuring Malcolm McDowell's debut along with a cast of mostly unknowns, If... packs the turmoil of the 1960s into the self-contained setting of an isolated, traditional school in the English countryside. More about mood than plot, the film draws a sharp distinction between old and new, and presents archaic customs as fertile breeding grounds for revolution, with a young generation no longer impressed or interested in old hierarchical systems.

With student protests in Paris and youth-led anti-Vietnam War activism building to a peak, Anderson effortlessly taps into the disaffected-youth-as-hero premise, and finds in Mick, Wallace and Johnny three young men charting their own path and veering sharply away from the establishment. The two sides talk past each other, and the more rules and regulations are thrown at Mick's face, the more his level of discontent rises.

With a naturally snarling face, dangerous smile, and intense eyes, all barely hiding beneath a facade of civility, Malcolm McDowell emerges as a new talent with an intriguing screen persona.

Stylistically, most of the film depicts vignettes from life at the school, allowing the stiff formality, bullying, and whiffs of sexual exploitation to speak for themselves. Nothing needs to be said about what is specifically wrong with a system that entrenches whippings, classicism, and abuse of youngsters. While Anderson is careful to also show plenty of functional humanity and encouragement as part of the school's routine, there is enough unacknowledged rot to destroy the core, and Mick sees enough of it to want no part of this apple.

Several scenes unfold in black and white, apparently due to budget reasons, but the technique amplifies the film's creaking hinge between reality and fantasy. The Girl's introduction, including a brief but wild sex scene with Mick that earned the film an X-rating, marks an inflection point after which most of what happens could be construed as tumultuous wish fulfillment.

Boasting a sparse, almost rudimentary, and episodic format, If.... is a milestone on the road to more audacious filmmaking.

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