Sunday, June 28, 2009

If.... (1968)

By Eric Jessen 6/20/09

It spiraled out of control and I loved every minute of it. Real and surreal converged into an ending of glorious madness. Machine guns were blazing and bombs bursting, all aimed at the insidious and stringent British school system. Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis is the perfect catalyst for the revolution that brought the walls of “honor, duty, and tradition” tumbling down.
If.... begins with the real. The horrors of high school are revisited. There's needless cruelty by the students toward each other (yet another scene of the loner getting his head dumped in the toilet). There's good old-fashioned corporal punishment from teachers, priests (or at least they would have shown it if not for the fear of outrage) and mainly from headmasters. There's also religious fear mongering. The private school's reverend proclaims that, “Jesus Christ is our commanding officer and if we desert him we can expect no mercy.” There's even some adolescent homo-eroticism (it is an all boys school). It's all very real, and charming but as each minute passes energy builds in the undercurrent of a deep hatred for the school system.
Real turns into surreal. Mick unleashes his inner lion (you'll see). It starts out simple and builds. First he's mouthing off to authority, then he's escaping school and joy riding on a stolen motorcycle. That all seems plausible but then it gets ridiculous.
He stops at a coffee shop and forces himself on to the voluptuous waitress. After she slaps him they have passionate sex on the floor. Later Travis threatens to shoot and kill the school's teacher of gentlemanly military service, and then laughs as the teacher squirms in fear on the ground. In the following scene the teacher is pulled out of a man sized drawer in the wall and Travis insincerely apologizes.
McDowell's Travis looks at the world with a smirk. McDowell as the rebellious teen (If.... and A Clockwork Orange) can be hilariously entertaining but also frustrating because his characters seem to have a sarcastic detachment and indifference towards everything. McDowell's Travis is almost impossible to take seriously because he is in some ways inhuman. He has the aura and attitude of a person who sits back and laughs at, and hates everything around him. The point may be that he is the product of the tyrannical British school system. But I don't think If.... is effective in exposing the British school system because the surreal takes over the Travis character. He and his fellow rebels are as much the problem by the end when they're staring down and executing headmasters and clergymen with machine guns.
Where If.... is effective is in portraying the attitude of the adolescent boy. In this case, with this movie, McDowell is perfect for the role. Travis is cynical and whimsically rebellious.

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