August 20, 2009

Holding 'If....' Accountable

A couple of days ago, my significant other and I turned the clock back and watched Lindsay Anderson's classic rebel-rouser If.... via Netflix. You remember this one: English public-school student Mick Travis (snarkily played by Malcolm McDowell) and his cronies, beaten down (and just plain beaten) by the "whip" upperclassmen, decide to fight back and wage all-out war against the school. With its surreal shifts from color to black-and-white photography, scathing put downs--Travis blasts one whip with the line, "The thing I hate about you, Rowntree, is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum, and your best teddy bear to Oxfam, and expect us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life"--and unpleasant depiction of the British school system (an allegory, apparently, for society), the film pulls no punches and hits hard at the end, resulting in a battle with, as Travis would say, "real bullets."

There was a problem, however, that compromised my enjoyment of the film. In the past, I've viewed the film as purely allegorical and bearing no resemblance to current events, owing to its fantastic touches (a bishop rises from a drawer in the headmaster's study to shake hands with Travis after the student almost murders him) and radical characterizations. ("There's no such thing as a wrong war," opines Travis in one scene. "Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.") But now, in the light of the aftermath of the 1999 school shootings at Columbine, Colo., and the 2007 murders at Virginia Tech, among others, If.... doesn't seem so innocent. Publicity for the film at the time appeared to advocate rebellion, in the "spirit" of student protests of the time, and that generated some controversy in its day. Yet the film, with its allegorical and philosophical leanings, seemed removed from reality and hardly literal; it was a comment more on the status quo rather than an open letter inciting armed battle, though its marketing efforts appeared to take advantage of the sentiments of the era.

Still, in this day and age, the ramifications of If.... appear to be broad--and, in this writer's opinion, more than a little disturbing.

The question is: Can art be held accountable for human behavior, even if there is no direct link from one to the other? If....--the successor to Jean Vigo's short school-rebellion flick Zero for Conduct--may now be considered the grandfather of militant-student movies, preceding films such as Heathers and Elephant by more than 20 years and certainly outdoing them in overall treatment and technique. As such, Anderson's film must be viewed in a certain light: that of a world in which the threat of firearms may be present at schools worldwide.

I'm not suggesting that If.... is entirely responsible for the culture of today. But while I was revisiting the film after not having seen it for some time previously, I was unnerved by the fact that it ends violently with a gun battle at a school--started by the protagonists. Is it possible that such a depiction could register in the hearts and minds of certain individuals who really have a beef with society and aren't afraid of acting on it? Is it possible that this fantastic, surreal film could be taken too literally?

Anderson would probably scoff at my concerns, but I can't. If a movie is good enough, people will get involved in it--no matter how out-there the treatment is. There are Star Wars fans who espouse a Jedi religion, for Pete's sake! There are people who speak Klingon! Movies will never stop being real to people, and people will never stop immersing themselves in them. I don't think If.... has the following of Star Wars or Star Trek, and that's probably a good thing. I do think, however, that it has a lot to answer for, and the way to address it would be to study it...perhaps in the classroom. Making students aware of it and inciting debate would temper its more superficial qualities and perhaps get people thinking about its subtext rather than its surface.

Better to think before acting anyway, isn't it? I believe Travis would agree.

No comments:

Post a Comment