Anarchy in the U.K.

The growing pains of Lindsay Anderson, Free Cinema's angry young man
by Steve Erickson  posted August 14, 2008
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Lindsay Anderson: Revolutionary Romantic,
Film Society of Lincoln Center, August 15-28, 2008

Lindsay Anderson was no follower of fashion. But his first three features benefited greatly from the cultural changes of the ’60s and ’70s. The rise of the angry young man in British theater and cinema and the protest culture that coalesced later in the ’60s form a backdrop to This Sporting Life, If...., and O Lucky Man!. His best films sing the praises of the imagination—in a British tradition stretching back to William Blake—as a means of revolt.

Anderson began approaching the cinema as a critic, championing John Ford and Humphrey Jennings, and as a documentarian. (Two Ford films are included in the Lincoln Center retrospective.) His shorts and first feature paralleled the French New Wave; the editing of This Sporting Life suggests the influence of Alain Resnais (although it’s far more accessible than the French director’s early work). Anderson’s Gallic counterparts, even one as uncommercial as Jacques Rivette, were far more successful at navigating their way through their country’s national film industry. Remaining marginal his whole career, Anderson only got to completed a handful of features before his death in 1994. His final work was an autobiographical documentary for the BBC, included on the Criterion DVD of This Sporting Life alongside his earliest shorts.

At the time of its 1963 release, This Sporting Life was lumped together with the vogue for “kitchen sink realism.” That label isn’t exactly inaccurate, but it certainly doesn’t describe the whole film. Denys Coop’s cinematography is as stylized as that of any film noir, often placing the actors in pools of light amid jet-black backgrounds. (He also captures the drama of rugby matches, although the film doesn’t dwell on the sport itself.) The narrative is told through flashbacks: lout-turned-rugby-star Frank (Richard Harris) begins to recall his rise to minor celebrity as he goes under anesthesia for dental surgery. This Sporting Life captures the bleak textures of working-class Wales, where life’s options are very limited even for those with money. However, its dreariness is always expressive, even a bit larger-than-life.

This Sporting Life shows few signs of age. With a few changes, its narrative could apply to any number of musicians or actors whom fame treats unkindly and whose bank account supersedes their humanity. Indeed, it plays like a precursor to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. One wonders what a follow-up film that extended the naturalism of This Sporting Life might have achieved, but the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre goes in a much different direction. Following it, the director turned toward fantasy, but in a manner always engaged with the real world. In retrospect, the jumbled time frames of This Sporting Life point toward an inchoate discomfort with realism.

Drawing on Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, If.... (1968) celebrates violent insurrection—at least as a possibility well worth considering. (After the bloody climax, the title, followed by an ellipsis, reappears.) But it’s never entirely certain what real-world course of action Anderson recommends. While it never stages the kind of overtly dialectical political discussions that crop up in late-'60s Godard, it’s hard to walk away from the film with a single message. Marked by surreal and dreamlike elements, it subverts one’s tendency to read it literally. The fantasies of its protagonist, Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), are incorporated into the narrative: drawn to a restaurant cashier (Christine Noonan)—the film’s only female character, referred to as "the girl"—he imagines himself rolling around on the floor nude with her.

Set at an all-male boarding school, If.... introduces Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), the protagonist of O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital as well, with his mustachioed face covered in cloth. College House is dominated by a tradition-bound faculty that tolerates a sky-high level of bullying: one boy is suspended upside down, with his face dangling into a toilet.

There’s no rock ’n’ roll in If...., just African and classical music. No one uses any substances stronger or more taboo than alcohol. Erotic yearning is far more common than actual sex. Nevertheless, If.... sums up the ’60s counterculture’s hopes as much as Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s psychedelia-steeped Performance. To be fair, the ending hasn’t aged well; as critic Howard Hampton and others, including McDowell, have pointed out, it now evokes Columbine and other school shootings as much as May '68. Its violence, initially enacted with BB guns and then with real bullets, feels like an authentically adolescent fantasy, and the film leaves open the possibility that the ending is another one of Travis's dreams. Rather than advocating bloodshed, the film finds hope in the blurring of fantasy and reality.

If.... contains another reflection of social change that may be easier to see now than it was in the late '60s. While Travis is heterosexual, the film is permeated with homoeroticism. In one of its loveliest sequences, a boy gazes with longing at a gymnast exercising below him. This was as honest as Anderson’s films got about his own sexuality.

O Lucky Man! (1973) reintroduces Travis, although the character bears no resemblance to If....’s antihero apart from his name. Anderson's most ambitious film, it lasts almost three hours, with a rock soundtrack by singer-composer Alan Price, which manages to combine the spirits of Brecht/Weill and Randy Newman, performed onscreen. If the spirit of Vigo hovers over If...., O Lucky Man!’s reference points are more literary than cinematic. It’s the film equivalent of a picaresque novel, far truer to the genre than Tony Richardson’s more famous Tom Jones adaptation.

O Lucky Man! offers a more complex portrait of Anderson’s politics than If.... Its misanthropic distrust of human nature trumps easy categorization. The film also suggests an unease with the sexual revolution—perhaps Anderson felt more comfortable with the eroticism of If.... because it was largely confined to fantasy. (McDowell has described him as a “celibate homosexual,” and Gavin Lambert’s book Mainly About Lindsay Anderson documents Anderson’s unease with his gayness.) In the mid '70s, O Lucky Man! might have seemed like an odd mix of radical and conservative critique—politically incorrect avant la lettre, including a scene in which homeless people nearly kill Travis rather than acting like noble victims—but its pessimism about some of the changes spawned by the '60s seems quite understandable now.

The film throws Travis, now a naive young capitalist at a coffee factory, into a dystopian version of ’70s England. Everywhere, he sees debased sexuality, greed, and the police and military abusing their powers. The narrative is bizarre, laden with sci-fi overtones, and culminates in a moment of reflexivity that anticipates David Lynch’s Inland Empire.

Watching O Lucky Man! now is a far stranger experience than seeing If.... or This Sporting Life. The film hasn’t exactly dated, but it’s flaky in a way that reflects the post-Easy Rider freedoms available to directors in the ’70s. Still, it’s an entertaining ride that takes the surrealist overtones of If.... to their limit. A vibrant energy level co-exists with a heavy dose of pessimism. After this point, the high spirits faded from Anderson’s work.

After O Lucky Man!, Anderson suffered from the inability to keep up with the times that also struck many American filmmakers whose work blossomed in the late '60s and '70s. The finale of the Mick Travis trilogy, Britannia Hospital (1982) takes the bitterness implicit in O Lucky Man! and completely surrenders to it. Released at a peak moment of British jingoism, it’s successful at communicating Anderson’s anger about the state of his country, but not much else. By the time it came out in 1982, the torch had been passed: younger British directors like Derek Jarman and Alan Clarke had picked up Anderson’s rebellious spirit, if not his style.

If Anderson’s best work ranks among the highlights of British cinema, why has he fallen so far into obscurity? Mike Kaplan’s documentary Never Apologize, screening at Lincoln Center and based on a performance by McDowell, offers some suggestions, almost by accident. In it, McDowell describes an angry, drunken luncheon in which Anderson, enraged by the presence of John Schlesinger, insulted Alan Bates for working with director Alan Bridges. In the letter Anderson wrote in place of an apology, he rages against the co-option of the British filmmakers of his generation. For the most part, McDowell is content to nostalgically evoke the making of If...., O Lucky Man!, and The Whales of August (1987), Anderson’s final narrative film. Kaplan does nothing to make McDowell’s performance, which relies heavily on the actor reading Anderson’s letters and diary excerpts, particularly cinematic. All the same, McDowell’s evocation of Anderson’s prickly personality is compelling and his description of Anderson’s meeting with a dying John Ford moving.

For all the vitality of If...., an Anderson retrospective can’t help feeling somewhat melancholy: a display of high accomplishments alongside unfulfilled potential. His films conjure up an alternate vision of what British cinema could have been, free—after This Sporting Life—from the dual temptations of working-class realism (and its watered-down descendants like The Full Monty) and the Merchant-Ivory brand of literary adaptations. No one else has made films like If.... and O Lucky Man! They’re products of their time, unquestionably, but also fruits of a unique imagination. 

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Courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center/MGM
Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital
Photo Gallery: Anarchy in the U.K.

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August 15-21, 2008 Lindsay Anderson: Revolutionary Romantic

THE AUTHOR

Steve Erickson lives in New York and writes for Gay City News, Film and Video, Baltimore City Paper, and GreenCine.

More articles by Steve Erickson