Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

[Ephebiphobia] If.... (1968)

If.... - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
Classes are back in session for the student body of a British boarding school, and that means that the students are going to have to reorient themselves to the strict rules and discipline that go hand-in-hand with attending. Some fall quickly in line, but others are developing something of a rebellious streak.

Chief among the rebellious boys are Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell in his first major film role), Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood), all three of them roommates in their junior year. Initially, they act out in the expected ways—drinking, smoking, growing their hair out, and disrespecting authority figures—but as the punishment they are meted out intensifies, so does their behavior.

Interestingly enough, most of the discipline isn't carried out by the faculty of the school, but rather by the seniors who have been entrusted with the responsibility in exchange for certain privileges—much like trustees in prison. These seniors deliver a brutal caning to Mick and his cohorts in a scene that is as difficult to watch for its violence as it is fascinating to watch for Mick's smooth and graceful acceptance of the punishment. After his friends have taken their lashings in the next room, Mick throws open the door and practically glides in, offering up a subtle smirk before assuming the position. He refuses to cry out in pain or allow them to break his spirit, even as they break his body. This was a supremely performed scene that seemed familiar even the first time that I watched it. I later found out why: It was, in fact, Malcolm McDowell's performance in this scene that inspired his entire performance in the timeless A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971).

Following their punishment, the boys get themselves into trouble again during a school-wide war games
If.... - The Rebels
The Rebels
event. While everyone else is shooting blanks, they are firing real rounds—not actually injuring anyone, mind you, just scaring the hell out of them. This time, they are forced to clean out a storage area beneath the stage in the school auditorium. In a rather unlikely turn of events, amongst the clutter and forgotten stage props they find a sizeable stash of weaponry and ammunition. Wishing, perhaps, that they had taken their war games prank to another level, they arm themselves to reach that elevation now.

A short time later, they smoke out a school meeting, and as the attendees flee the building, the boys are on a rooftop opposite them, heavily armed and opening fire—a finale that may have courted controversy at the time, but would probably never even hit celluloid in these darker days.

IF.... is frequently cited as one of the best British films of all time, and although there may be a case for that, it is sometimes a difficult film to get your head around. It is certainly beautiful, and fascinating on all levels, yet I can't help but wonder if there are parts of the movie that I simply didn't "get", or if there are parts of the movie that are specifically designed to make you feel as if you simply don't "get" them.

For starters, I spent a great deal of time pondering the significance of some scenes being shot in color and some scenes being shot in black and white. After a few of my theories were invalidated, I went to the Internet in search of answers, only to find that it was not an artistic choice after all—the cast and crew later went on record stating that it was completely arbitrary, as processing the entire feature in color was cost prohibitive.

If.... - Mick Vs. The Girl
Mick Vs. The Girl
At one point in the film, Mick and a cohort steal a motorcycle from a dealership and drive to the outskirts of the city, where they arrive at a diner. Here they meet a waitress known only as The Girl, and in a slightly-surreal scene (just one of many), she and Mick get into a squabble, both of them imitating jungle cats. They are fully-clothed one moment, naked the next, and then clothed once again.

It is scenes like these that make you wonder how much is "real" (within the confines of the film), and how much is fantasy. The nude cat-fight could certainly be considered a glimpse into Mick's psyche, seeing himself involved in an animalistic mating ritual with the beautiful girl, but if we accept the more surreal moments as fleeting fantasies, it calls into question the reality of other scenes. Did the shooting at the film's end really occur, or is this just another angsty teenage daydream manifesting itself before the camera? Immediately after the film ends, a title card appears on screen reading "If...", which may imply it is a fantasy (as in, "If I did this..." or "If this happened..."). Further questioning the reality of the shooting is the fact that McDowell portrays Mick Travis in two more films by director Lindsay Anderson (1973's O LUCKY MAN! and 1982's BRITANNIA HOSPITAL), neither of which hearken back to the events of this film at all.

The Girl herself shows up on a few more occasions, all of them rather unlikely. In one, Mick peers through a telescope and spies her through a window, which is doubtful as Mick is positioned at an all-boy's school. She shows up again, quite suddenly and from out of nowhere, when the boys discover the stash of weapons hidden in the storage area. She is even there during the climactic gunfight, firing at the staff right alongside the boys—a battle that she has absolutely no stake in. It is entirely feasible that her first appearance at the diner was her only genuine one, while all the ones that followed were merely Mick's wishful thinking.

If this movie were viewed solely as a scathing satire of the British boarding school system, it would be an
If... - Newspaper Ad
From Village Voice 03.06.69
experience that relatively few could truly relate to. However, if viewed as an allegory of youthful rebellion as a whole, it opens it up to greater heights. The faculty of the school represents the System at its most corrupt, and each of the grades represents various stages of youth in response to that System. The freshmen are frightened and awed by the power of those above them, and follow the rules blindly. The sophomores, having been through the ringer a few times, are slowly growing wary. The juniors have started to rebel, believing that they are capable of making a significant change. And by the time the students are seniors, they have given up the rebellion and either sold out or bought in, effectively becoming the System. It is the sad and soul-crushing evolution of societal life.

The whole film is open to interpretation. Whether The Girl is real or not, whether the shooting is real or not, whether anything at all in the entire film is real or not, this is one movie that invites armchair analysis, spirited debate and booze-driven discussion. So have at it.


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