‘if….’ is a distant fantasy in 2019

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It’s difficult to look back on the counterculture movements of the 1960s without a degree of melancholy or disappointment. That’s not to say the movement was an abject failure; social liberties, artistic expression and the ideals of a new generation were all redefined by it. But to know of the rise of global inequality, to know the era’s revolutionary leaders like Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh would see their utopian dreams fall to the ashes of tyranny, to know the baby-boom generation’s youthful spirit of rebellion would melt away into the establishment, casts a shadow over the brilliant tie-dye glow of the ‘60s. 

So as the classic 1968 British New Wave film “if….” stands as a quintessential product of the counterculture movement, looking back on it is something of a challenge. Directed by prominent New Wave filmmaker and counterculture icon Lindsay Anderson, the surrealist depiction of class conflict in a posh British boarding school offered at its release an analogous vision of youth rebellion put to the extreme.

That rebellious angst is captured in the plight of three lower sixth-form students nearing the end of their time at the school. Persecuted by the head boys (the “Whips”) who dominate the school over the head of clueless administrators, the boys, led by their leader Mick (Malcolm McDowell in his breakout role), find themselves verbally berated, stripped of their civil liberties and, in one intense scene, brutally caned. Inspired by their contemporary revolutionaries, uber-violent insurrection becomes their out — “Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” Mick muses at one point. 

As a piece of technical filmmaking, “if….” exists as a strongly subdued but ultimately slick slice of dark comedy that leans heavily on its infamous ending. It is probably most cinematically intriguing for its obvious influence on classic films, such as “Taxi Driver” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” or maybe most obviously on the revenge fantasies of Quentin Tarantino. 

But whether the film holds up for a modern audience will by and large be determined by whether “if….” is seen more as proselytizing or fantasy. Because Anderson mixes long stretches of typical boarding school life with talking dead men, public sex and absurd scholarly warfare (not to mention arbitrary swaps to black-and-white film), it’s difficult to fully grasp Anderson’s vision from our modern perspective.

Did Anderson see the bloodshed of “if….” as an urgent possibility for the mistreated youth of the world to reclaim social justice? Did he envision or idolize a path of history proved largely incorrect? Or did Anderson seek to paint the angst of the persecuted baby boomers as merely a precursor to hopeless, laughably comedic fantasies?

Either way, it’s always a strange feeling to know the end of a tragedy.

Contact David Newman at [email protected].