by John Linton Roberson
One of the strangest moments in my film-viewing life was the day I found out Lindsay Anderson directed, of all things, WHALES OF AUGUST. Not that it's a bad film, but it's a bit like finding a Jane Austen novel was in fact written by Jonathan Swift. Anderson is the greatest film satirist of all time, embodying the proper use of the term, which most people use when they fucking mean "parody," all RIGHT? Sorry, bit testy there, ahem...Why do I love Lindsay Anderson, and why is he so ignored? His career included rather disparate work, including TV(as with most TV-based directors, he knew how to do much with little, like Altman or Penn), which he went back to late in his career, as with LOOK BACK IN ANGER with Malcolm McDowell, his frequent and best collaborator, for the BBC in the 80s. This followed his becoming persona non grata in the British film market due to the rise of Thatcher. This is because, though Anderson's work can be deeply critical of it, his films are steeped deeply in a forgotten language: Marxism. Or rather the marxist critique of how none of us controls our destiny in capitalism.
"They haven't the vaguest idea how to make them like this anymore."
These days, more than then, many could do with a dose of this. Don't worry, I ain't gonna propagandize. But Anderson was the only one to ever use this idea as an effective tool of satire, without it looking like--or being--propaganda. Not a small accomplishment, considering the films are also deeply funny, eerie, lacerating, and sobering. You will not think the same of your job, your upbringing, or your life and where it's going after seeing them. He was a master of pacing and storytelling; his films are always the BIG kind, like Kubrick or Greenaway, but unlike those very much with his feet in the mud with the rest of us.
Anderson's three best--and best-known--films all starred Malcolm McDowell as the capitalist era Candide Michael--Mick--Travis. His first, the legendary "If..."(1968) which now seems almost a vague prophecy of the Columbine massacre(see it and you'll see what I mean), in its presentation of the British Public School as microcosm and perpetuator of the British class system, which you, at the time, could not escape; your roles were set from then for life, and it was only around then this was changing, with great resistance and acrimony(as also presented in Medak & Barnes' THE RULING CLASS). Ceremony is more important than thought. Remembering arcane trivia about the school in the right order and manner is more important than knowing how to spell. And brilliant performance as a student means nothing against the wrong attitude and "setting a bad example." It showed the vicious cycle of reward and punishment tattoed in your brain by school from day one, and what happens when one realizes the lies while one is still young, impulsive, angry and still among the liars. In other words, how EVERYONE felt as a teenager, but without even an example of escape, walled in the school.
The final image of Malcolm McDowell out of his mind firing a machine gun from a rooftop was intense enough to land him the role of Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, so that should be enough for you to see this thing. It's also a beautifully poetic ninety minutes with moments of absurdism, lyricism, violence and hallucination. Indeed, it's hard to tell which parts are "true" and which aren't at times, especially toward the end. (Note: Anderson said the fact that some sections are b/w and color isn't meant as a clue; he just liked filming that way)
The third of these films, the messy but interesting BRITTANIA HOSPITAL(1982, shown about a thousand times on cable when I was a teen) shows the chaos of a hospital in just-pre-Thatcher-England, in the absolute grip of a million political groups and unions, attempting to host a visit from the Queen for their 400th anniversary, engulfed by protests, strikes by nearly every sector of the hospital, and an intrepid reporter named Mick Travis, spying on the Frankenstein-like experiments(literally) of the mad Dr. Millar, also carried over from a previous Travis film(though there is never much of an overt connection between the three parts of this trilogy). It chronicles this single day when vast masses of humanity engulf said manners and propriety.
In a twisted way it's a precedent for films like DO THE RIGHT THING.
But the best of these three is the middle, and the longest(and, not surprisingly, the one with Ralph Richardson and Helen Mirren), O LUCKY MAN! With every cast member except McDowell playing multiple parts, and a magnificent and quick three hours long, this film satirizes, uh, well, let's see:
--Politics & government
--the Upper Class
--the Middle Class
--the Lower Class
...and many more. And all through a single symbol. At the start of the film, we see a very different Mick Travis than we saw in If..., far less jaded and sullen, and more innocent and ready to please. And he gets ahead because he SMILES.
He smiles readily, sincerely, and shakes your hand and listens to all bullshit you say and genuinely means it. The innocent because he hasn't any soul.
He begins as a coffee salesman, working hard to give his employer confidence in him, upon the receipt of which he is rewarded the dubious territory of Scotland; prior to his leaving, a mysterious old man(Richardson) warns him calmly, in the same way most would say, "You take care" to a co-worker, one of the best bits of advice ever given:
"Try not to die like a dog."
Alan Price, formerly of the Animals(and later composer for BRITANNIA HOSPITAL and THE PLAGUE DOGS) provides the soundtrack of the story of the rise, fall, redemption and disillusionment of Mick Travis. But it rarely plays behind the action. Instead, Anderson simply shows the band playing, a la Brecht, focusing on the song and its ironic and poignant comment on the action as though it were a Greek chorus. The Beatlesque songs are exuberant, funny, and every bit as scathing as the film. Possibly the best use of a rock soundtrack in a film.
In quick succession:
he is interrogated at a mysterious government installation as a spy(in which reference is made to IF), the underrated and frightening Philip Stone as his interogator in a scene obviously patterned on the tortures in 1984, and meant to remind us of them;
Nursed(literally) back to health by a kindly madonna-figure, her children lead him back to civilization, where he immediately rents himself for medical tests when asked, only quibbling about the price and telling everyone what a good deal he got(and gets quite a shock, in the first and hilarious appearance of the mad Dr. Millar); throughout Travis always declares value in purely monetary terms. Money, to this newly realistic Travis, is the only true measure of everything--and he thinks that's a damn good thing. After escaping the experiments, he tries to become the assistant to the richest, most evil man in London(also played by Richardson), only to be used as the fall guy in an illegal international deal. In his trial, he doesn't go to jail, according to the judge, because he is guilty but because he lost the game; it is hinted, in other words, he is going to jail because the "proper sort" wouldn't get culled out thus, because they'd have more natural talent than to get caught.
Following are three haunting, lyrical shots interspersed with a brief series of title cards saying how many are on earth; how many are in prison; that Mick is one of those; and that they make him a better person, which they truly do. When released, he goes out with love and charity for all, and gets robbed, beaten, and gets a barrel rolled over him by the homeless.
And dammit, I can't tell you the end, except that Anderson's there as himself with McDowell as Travis. The end is very BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS(the book) and ties everything in this modern Pilgrim's Progress perfectly.One should see IF..., O LUCKY MAN! and BRITTANIA HOSPITAL in series to fully appreciate the breadth of Anderson's brilliance. He nearly beats Swift. This is one of my ten films of all time. I've seen it lots of times; go and do likewise.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2251&reviewer=151
originally posted: 12/09/99 17:04:41