Look Back in Anger

That said, If . . . (which, so far as I know, has never until now been reviewed in the Voice) should be no one's idea of an agitprop masterpiece. Nor is it particularly topical, despite the iconic pinups of Che (and the young Charlotte Rampling) scattered about and the emphasis on the rebellious students' overlong locks. The project evidently originated with two disgruntled public school graduates who began working on the treatment at Oxford in 1960. Fans of Rebel Without a Cause, they first sent their script to Nicholas Ray. Anderson did not become involved for another six years—at which time the distinguished documentarian and cineaste made the movie his own, a follow-up to This Sporting Life, his first feature and previous attack on institutional masculinity, Brit style.

If . . . is, however, full of social allegory and free-floating parodies of British political rhetoric. The movie was originally called The Crusaders; its new title makes a cheeky reference to the Rudyard Kipling celebration of imperial responsibility: "If you can keep your head while all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/You'll be a man, my son." Interestingly, though, If . . . lacks a clear-cut generational divide. Alternately groping and cuffing their charges, the teachers are less villainous than the strutting upperclassmen known as whips, who enforce the school's rigid caste system and punish the dashing rebel McDowell with cold showers and canings.

McDowell's ordeal is far more visceral than his revolt. He and his mates are inspired by the Congolese mass, Missa Luba—perhaps the movie's polite equivalent of rock music. In a stolen moment of motorbike freedom, they pick up a feisty (though silent) working-class bird who becomes their mascot. If they seem a bit abstract, so is the movie, which is filled with solemnly surrealistic interpolations—a priest being stored in a chest of drawers, a house mother wandering naked through the empty dormitory. Scarcely less capricious than the school's idiotic, platitude-spouting administration are the film's shifts back and forth from color to black and white.

A sort of existential documentary: Raymond Kojitski in Terrorists in Retirement
photo: Mosco Boucault
A sort of existential documentary: Raymond Kojitski in Terrorists in Retirement

Details

Terrorists in Retirement
Directed by Mosco Boucault
Film Forum
Through January 23

If . . .
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Written by David Sherwin and John Howlett
A Paramount Repertory release
Film Forum
January 12 through 18

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If . . . was explicitly modeled on Jean Vigo's lyrical paean to schoolboy rebellion, Zero de Conduite. The climax is a direct swipe from Vigo's 1933 film, albeit with the stakes considerably raised. I don't believe that audiences were shocked by the disproportionate violence back in 1969. After all, that was wartime. But if originally mistaken for a Maoist cell, the school's alienated clique today seems more a premonition of the killers at Columbine—something Stanley Kubrick apparently intuited when he cast the suddenly hot McDowell as the futuristic juvenile delinquent in A Clockwork Orange.

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