A Look Back at Cannes Winners from the 1960s: ‘If….’

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poster1If…

Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Written by David Sherwin

UK, 1968

If….(1968) directed by Lindsay Anderson and winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1969 premiered one year following the May ’68 protests in France. The screenplay was written by David Sherwin who based the narrative off his experiences at Tonbridge School in Kent. The script made its way to Nicholas Ray who was interested in making the film but felt that a British director should direct it. Anderson was approached and accepted the project. He wanted to make a film similar to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1934) and even screened the film to his screenwriters in the pre-production stage. If… was given an X-rating upon release for nudity and violence. Aside from the more graphic scenes the censor board was probably put off by the ideological message of the film.

Like Vigo’s film, If…. is about authority figures losing their legitimacy and students revolting. Like many anti-establishment films of the sixties (Daisies (1966) by Vera Chytilová and Jean-Luc Godard’s sixties films) If…. tapped into the utopian dreams of youth of the sixties that were rejecting traditional lifestyles and authorities in the West. Anderson’s film focuses on the failed ideological interpellation of three students: Mick Travis (Malcom McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick), and Johnny (David Wood). These students identify with the counter-culture movement and reject the authority of the “whips” (fellow seniors that are put in charge by the teachers). Mick, Wallace, and Travis are in their final year of school and clash constantly with the authorities, drinking vodka in their room, sarcastically reply to the whips and teachers, and convey a general attitude that disagrees with their school. Near the end of the second act the whips deliver a vicious caning sessions to the three boys that motivates them to fight back. They receive some sympathy from the headmaster who tries to understand where they are coming from but in the end their ideological contradictions turn violent.

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Anderson explores the ideological state apparatus that is central to late-capitalist societies (replacing the religious institutions that occupied this position 2oo years ago) by following the three rebellious youths. Mick, Wallace, and Johnny reject the conformist thinking of their peers and act out in banal ways that increasingly get under the skin of their whips. When authorities fail to legitimize themselves in the realm of ideas they resort to violence (authorities rule with a combination of consent and coercion). The whips’ feeble attempts to make themselves an authorities to the three loose links in the ideological chain of this institution eventually resort to a violent caning session that leaves the leader of the rebellious triad in tears. The violent end of the film is foreshadowed several times (for example: “violence and revolution are the only pure acts”) in various dialogues between the three boys throughout the film and it becomes apparent to them that it is the only position they are able to take against this institution. What allows this idea to become less abhorrent is the particular way Anderson presents this material. The director does not use a strictly realistic style but repeatedly dabbles in surrealism, switching the color palette from color to black and white with seemingly no narrative justification. When the three boys are forced to clean up an old storage basement as punishment for scaring a teacher during a war games exercise they stumble upon a cabinet full of rifles and ammunition. Now that they are weaponized they exact their revolt against the school during the Founder’s Day event when parents and relatives are visiting the students.

One of the most interesting aspects of If…. is how Anderson depicts sexuality and sexual repression. Living in an all boys school, the students have nearly no contact with women. In one scene the prefect’s wife, Mrs. Kemp (Mary MacLeod) has dinner with the students and the teachers. Mick, Wallace, and Johnny are sitting next to her, patronizing her with sarcastic, overpolite questions all the while leering at her, a repressed, timid woman. In a latter scene, filmed in black and white, we see this woman walking through the kitchen completely naked, representing a sexual fantasy of the boys or maybe even herself. In another scene, Mick and Johnny escape from school and steal a motorcycle in the city. They arrive at a cafe where a young, beautiful woman (“unnamed woman” (Christine Noonan)) is working alone. Anderson cuts to another black and white sequence of Mick and the woman wrestling naked on the floor, another fantasy sequence to show the audience the sexual urges of these boys. The film also includes of the earliest moments of queer cinema in British culture. Wallace is preparing for his gymnastics routine in the gym while Bobby Phillips, a younger student, watches in awe as Wallace majestically offers up his body to him. Their love is never explicitly shown but heavenly implied throughout the film and the gymnasium scene is the most tender, intimate, and touching moment in this satirical film.

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The unnamed woman Mick and Johnny met in the cafe appears again when Mick is looking through a telescope and he sees her staring at him in an apartment. When the boys find the guns the unnamed woman joins them in their assault. The final scene is metaphorical and should be viewed that way rather than a moment of realism. The boys start a fire inside the school which forces the parents, students, and teachers to rush outside only to be ambushed by the three rebels, the unnamed woman, and Wallace’s lover, Bobby. They assault the crowd with grenades and guns, slaughtering them without mercy. The headmaster tries to plead with them, walking slowly in the direction until the unnamed woman pulls a revolver and shoots him in the head. There is nothing more offensive to fascistic institutions than a woman with a gun (for more on this topic see the book “Male Fantasies Volume 1” by Klaus Theweleit) and Anderson wisely chose this character to decapitate the king of this out-of-date kingdom, bringing Anderson’s anti-conformity message home.

If…. is being remembered in Sound on Sight because it was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or in 1969. Anderson had some tough competition at the 1969 festival, competing against 25 other films including Easy Rider (1969), My Night at Maud’s (1969), and Z (1969). The jury president, Luchino Visconti, chose If…. and his decision remains to be a wise one because Anderson’s film is a magnificent portrayal of youth rebellion that feels simultaneously of its time and eternal which is what great works of art should strive to be.

– Cody Lang

 



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