The Student
The Student
Cult Column: If….
by Zac Draysey, 16/06/20

Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) is a somewhat under-appreciated masterpiece. Produced in the midst of the sixties’ counterculture movement, it explores themes of rebellion in a way that is both evocative and surreal. The film follows three lower sixth formers at an English boarding school in their struggle against the stiff and repressive school establishment. In a sense the film can be seen as a left-wing political allegory, the upper sixth formers representing the ruling class, the lower sixth formers as the revolutionary intellectual elite, and the lower years as the downtrodden masses. Fundamentally, however, the film is about the joy of teenage rebellion. While it regularly hints at the genuine emancipatory tendencies behind the often impotent manifestations of this spirit of rebellion, the film is aware of its own absurdity and, in fact, celebrates it.

It is not difficult to see why the film was so controversial upon release, even prompting Lord Brabourne to call it ‘evil and perverted’. The public school setting is used to explore the hypocritical piety of the upper classes. School life is defined by bizarre and senseless rituals, cruelty on the part of both staff and students, and a stern militarism. The film contrasts this with the three protagonists, led by the charismatic Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), who struggle to subvert and overcome their environment.  Their veneration of revolutionary politics and their free sexual exploration express an attitude of dissent which culminates in astonishing scenes of violence against the school.

Visually, the film enforces its central themes by using a stark contrast between images of the school environment and countercultural imagery, whether these are of political insurrection or of sexual liberation. Moreover, the seemingly random introduction of black and white shots serves to give some scenes a dreamlike quality.

The soundtrack centres around ‘Sanctus’ from the Missa Luba. This is a piece of Latin choral music sung in a traditional Congolese style and, as such, is an apt representation of the film’s central tension. While the start of the chorus sounds as if it could be sung by the school’s choir, the African style that takes over as the song progresses expresses the escape into the unfamiliar for which Mick and the crusaders strive. This is intertwined with Marc Wilkinson’s score which uses strings in a way that is sometimes unsettling and other times ecstatic.

Despite its odd setting, If.… manages to capture the spirit of the sixties better than many other films which take on the era more directly. It embodies a then emerging form of radical politics which had no attachment to the dour authoritarianism of the traditional left, but which engaged in a joyous experiment in new forms of living through a collective release of repressed potentialities. As such, the work is reminiscent of the radical Freudianism of thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, who saw political and libidinal liberation as two sides of the same process. In a world of ever increasing despair, If…. provides an often dark and surreal perspective permeated by the desire for a better life. It seems to be haunted by what Marcuse called ‘the spectre of a world which could be free’.

Image: mdfilmfest