Was up to the ancestral homestead for the weekend, finally catching up on a little laundry (well, 5 weeks worth) and getting a little solitude (my mother was working, so the house was otherwise empty), and ended up doing nothing intentionally productive. Instead, I seemed to have fallen into watching satellite television, which is much like cable television in two ways: one, it contains a remarkable amount of uninteresting channels and chaff, and two, I don’t have it at home.
I typically watch no more than 3 hours of television a week, these days. Life is just too busy for that sort of thing, despite the fact that there are a few television shows that I really like these days (Fringe, Supernatural, Glee…). But with nothing particularly planned to do and the accumulated stress and lack of relaxation built up (also for 5 weeks, like the laundry), I found the allure of the idiot box overwhelming.
Fortunately, there are occasional and entirely random gems which appear on television.
(Actually, to be honest, I think most of the better parts of my life are reliant on serendipity. This is really hard to plan for..)
In this case, I was treated to a TVO movie double-feature of If… and O Lucky Man!. I had never really heard of them before, aside from an aside mentioned by Malcolm McDowell in a number of interviews. If… was his first film, and it was based on that performance that Stanley Kubrick cast him as the lead character in A Clockwork Orange.
I’d never heard of the director, Linsay Anderson, either. But that’s not entirely surprising, as there are a great number of things I have never heard of. I know this, as I seem to be constantly discovering things that I don’t know, and based on the perceived rate of new things being created and the slower rate at which I discover new unknown things, I can safely conclude that I really don’t know anything.
Also, I’m not a scholar of film, and have made a conscious decision to avoid most films which might primarily be called “drama” or “classic”, simply because, given the aforementioned rate of growth of the things I don’t know (or, to generalize, the things I haven’t experienced), I could be buried in all those things, and never experience the really good cheese that matters to me.
That’s a really long way of saying: can’t watch everything.
But, given that this was somewhat of a captive audience, and there were words such as “odd”, “strange” and “surreal” attached to the opening monologue describing these films, I continued to watch.
I was riveted.
My tastes tend toward the incredibly odd, in many ways. Sure, I like many of the songs that might be called “top 40”, but I also have been known to be fascinated by songs which resemble the buzzing of neon lights combined with the dripping of a faucet. For every really popular movie I like, I’ve got six which are likely considered bottom of the barrel — and which I enjoyed beyond words.
These movies are my kinda movie.
If… was a parody of British public schools, at least the boy’s schools. I find the notion that boarding schools in the UK are called “public” to be rather confusing, as the “public” school that I attended was the typical North American sort, where students are at school only for the day, and then return home at night, and where there is no formality or extreme discipline at all.
I’ve always wondered about boarding schools… I wondered if the intense and focussed environment would be good or bad. In most representations, it seems to be portrayed as a hellish ordeal, with a predatory and opportunistic caste system imposed between the years of the school and perpetuated in a sort of victim-becomes-oppressor tradition which is at least casually accepted if not explicitly condoned by the teachers and staff.
An alternative, slightly less terrifying vision of this is seen in Harry Potter, of course. But while If… can be called “surreal”, it was definitely not magical..
In If…, Malcolm McDowell plays Mick Travis, a rebellious teen half-way or better through his years in College House (which I presume is a specific house within the overall school). Curiously enough, McDowell also plays Mick Travis in O Lucky Man!, but the connection between the two roles is coincidental, at best.
If… mostly follows Mick as he and his cohorts act out and defy just about everything, including logic. They are derelict from their pretend war training. They leave campus and steal a motorbike. They smoke and drink and inhabit what appears to be a “known secret” room, where they’ve tacked photographs of models, soldiers and polical figures taken out of magazines to the wall.
One of the many surreal and deadpan moments of If..
Trying to describe this movie feels a bit like gripping an eel: firm, yet resisting; possible to hold very carefully for a while, but easily slipping out of your grasp and flopping about on the floor…
Other things about this film make it stand out as odd, such as the flipping back and forth between colour and black and white, seemingly without reason. The post-movie interviews and what small bits I’ve read subsequently suggest that this was done because of lighting difficulties in certain areas, or because they were running out of money. I can’t decide if there was deliberate choice behind it, or serendipity — or whether that even matters.
After all, I think that great art can come from taking advantage of serendipity, just as great enjoyment can…
Ultimately, the movie ends satisfactorily, almost inevitably. One could call it a tragedy, I suppose, but that would imply more sympathy than we are really meant to feel.
The second movie, O Lucky Man! is a “sequel” of sorts, featuring McDowell impossibly returning as Mick Travis, with the incidents from the first film at College House perhaps existing in a sort of parallel dimension. And parallels continue, as many of the actors which return for this film also appeared prominently in If….
The best absurd moments in O Lucky Man! are the ones which are frighteningly serious.
Indeed, several of the actors and actresses play multiple roles in O Lucky Man!, but usually with enough visual change to make them distinct. As one commenter put it, it lends an air of “theatricality” to the performance, much like watching a stage play with a small company.
Where the target of parody of If… is clear, the focus of the ire in O Lucky Man! is much less distinct. Indeed, where the former is set almost exclusively in one location (College House), the latter is set in a never-ending parade of increasingly surreal locations and scenarios, from a simple seduction by the matron of a boarding house to the stumbling across and imprisonment in a secret military installation, from the backroom stripjoint/sex club to stumbling into a well-funded mad scientist medical experimentor’s lab; from being promoted from green recruit to representing the entirety of North East England in sales for a coffee company; from breaking the theatrical curtain and hanging out with the band who provides the musical backdrop of the movie to accidentally becoming the assistant to a ruthless multi-millionaire on the cusp of sinister dealings with a third-world dictator.
And I’ve left much of this movie out, I think. A three-hour masterpiece of non-stop accelerating impossibilities.
But what was it parodying?
I’ve heard it suggested that it was anti-capitalist, decrying the heartless and self-blinding money seekers, and there’s some of that in there. There’s also some extremes of corruption, and bitter comparison of the lives of the highest and lowest echelons of society.
It’s also a musical. Did I mention that?
Well, not exactly a musical, in that none of the main characters sing the songs. The band which appears to sing the underlying music (and briefly becomes a setting for the main character) has music specifically written to underscore the movie, and it’s pretty good tunes, some even sounding vaguely familiar, as if I had heard them out of context (and I probably have).
I have an analytical mind, and it forces me to try to understand things, and quantify them somehow. Abstract paintings are murderous to my internal senses, and tend to either drive me to distraction or, in most cases, completely fail to interest me. They are too quick, too immediate for my mind to really linger on them long, and thus pass quickly from my attention.
Abstract music is something I can tend to appreciate more. You can spend more time with it. It’s not immediate, and the experience has a motion and an order imposed on it by the simple linearity of time. But even then, if too abstract, it will simply fail to engage me, and turn into enjoyable but somewhat less intense experience.
Abstract movies, however, combine the qualities of both of these artforms. They are a sequence of moving abstract paintings, with words and ideas and sound transmitted over time. The best of these begin slowly, engage you with some normalcy before diverging from reality into their own twisted mirror-world.
I would suggest that this is one of those things I really enjoy about good horror, too, that it starts with the normal and slowly, gradually, imperceptably (at first), changes into its ultimate nightmarish form, when the moment of revelation isn’t so much “Boo!” as it is “Aha!”.
Interestingly, in both films (with the exception of the colour vs. black and white shift), there didn’t seem to be many memorable camera tricks. Shots were standard, almost static frames. A few close-ups, and the use of title and dialogue cards instead of spoken dialogue, perhaps, but these served more as interstitial moments rather than the main body of work.
As said before, however, I’m no scholar of film. (Heck, one might easily argue that I’m hardly a scholar of anything, let alone anything art-related..).
I just wonder a lot. Often out loud.