The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents December 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Atonement
DVD Playback
Jean Renoir
If
Taxi Driver
ASC Close-Up
If (1968)
1.66:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95




Lindsay Anderson’s If…. begins as a classic slice of ’60s British “kitchen sink” realism, ushering viewers into the confines of a venerable British boarding school and its rigidly hierarchical caste system. Rank-and-file students chafe under the repressive rule of a few privileged upperclassmen (known rather fittingly as Whips) and the school’s out-of-touch, old-boy administrators. But with the classic entrance of charismatic student Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), a black scarf thrown across his mouth like a third-world rebel, the picture begins to take viewers down an increasingly subversive path. Prone to uttering mystical pronouncements such as, “There’s no such thing as a wrong war … violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” Travis brings his friends, Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood), around to the notion of rebellion against the powers-that-be. When the trio is made an example of through a savage beating by the Whips, their ultimate course of action is set. All that’s left is a violent denouement that still stands as one of the most powerful and controversial final scenes ever shot.

Stylistically, If…. is as iconoclastic as its main character. Throughout the film, Anderson and Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, ASC, ACK alternate color and crisp monochrome in a seemingly random strategy that resists easy explanation. But the continually shifting texture succeeds in giving the film a dreamlike, emotional logic that contributes to its poetic feel. Anderson was clearly going after something “bigger” than realism; he also resisted including any period pop music and cultural trappings to avoid tying the film to a particular era.

Another distinctive aspect of If…. are its brief, arresting flights into surrealism. In one memorable scene, Travis and Johnny escape from a campus rugby match and enter a town diner, where Travis has a sudden, animalistic sexual encounter with an aggressive waitress (Christine Noonan). Such scenes are made more effective by Ondricek’s clean lighting style, which prevents the film from floating off into fantasia. Though the themes of the film are epic, Anderson and Ondricek wisely kept the visual style restrained and economical. For the pivotal scene in which Travis and his friends are whipped in the school gym, the camera is placed in an adjoining room for three full minutes, keeping the actual punishment from view. The sickening sound of the lashings gives the audience all the information it needs.

Long unavailable on DVD, If …. was recently released by The Criterion Collection, which maintained its usual high standards on the transfer (approved by Ondricek and assistant film editor Ian Rakoff). Colors are slightly faded but as accurate as one can expect, considering the age of the film. The black-and-white scenes are crisp, with solid blacks, while grain is apparent but not too distracting.

Criterion has spread a feast of analysis over two discs. Included on disc one is an audio commentary by McDowell and British film critic David Robinson; the two were recorded separately, five years apart, and their contrasting commentary styles make for a rewarding two hours. Robinson lends a scholarly tone to the proceedings, whereas McDowell takes a more spontaneous approach, offering several amusing stories about his many collaborations with Anderson. (The actor reprised his role as Travis in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.) McDowell recalls that he once asked the mercurial director, “You’re not Labor or Conservative — what are you?” Anderson replied, “I’m an anarchist. I want to pull the whole bloody lot down!” McDowell sees the boarding school in If …. as “a microcosm for what was happening in Britain in the Sixties. The country was going through a [collective] nervous breakdown. When you’ve been number one and suddenly you’re not even in the top 10, and you’re economically weak and a laughingstock, it really takes its toll.”

Robinson opines that the true target of the film’s revolutionary trio is more all encompassing: “that moribund, class-ridden, paternalistic, opportunistic, commercialized 20th-century society, not exclusively British but symbolized by the public school.” He also clears up the mystery behind the film’s mix of black-and-white and color footage. Lighting the scenes in the school’s massive chapel for color would have been too costly, and it was impossible to shoot the entire film in black-and-white because it would have adversely affected TV sales. Realizing that color is enhanced when used intermittently, Anderson decided to make the variation in the film’s visual surface a conscious aesthetic, and judiciously shot other scenes in monochrome as well. According to Robinson, Anderson stressed that there was no symbolism in the choice — only such factors as “intuition, pattern and convenience” influenced his decisions.

Disc two contains an illuminating 2003 episode from the Scottish TV series Cast and Crew that reunites many of the film’s main players, including McDowell, Ondricek and assistant director Stephen Frears. A new interview with actor Graham Crowden, who plays one of the school’s more eccentric teachers, is also included, along with Anderson’s Academy Award-winning documentary short Thursday’s Children.


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