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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

If.... (1968)



Reviews and Comments

There is something about satire that carries the conviction of intelligence. If something achieves a level of satire, it automatically looks like good satire, probably because satire is imbued with an innate defense mechanism, not dissimilar from a rose's thorns. To criticize a satire is, whether in actuality or perception, to side with the target of the satire and therefore to become its victim. But I have to call If.... out as the sham that it is. This is an emperor with no clothes.

I'm sure it played great to the hippies of the late 60s (although its sensibilities are diametrically opposed to flower power ideology). Some kids at a boarding school are subjects of tyrannical rule. The establishment cannot tolerate the individuality of three kids in particular, who have the nerve wear their hair long. Finally, they snap, but the suits had it coming, didn't they?

Come on. This is juvenile. Oh, it's acted and directed well, but I don't buy the straw man argument. Satire works when real wrongs are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, not when they are fabricated outright. But let's say I agreed that the ultimate evil is "the establishment" for its merciless suppression of individuality. What is this movie saying about it? I can think of a few different ways to interpret the ending -- based on whether we ultimately consider the three renegades as heroes, or as victims of a society that drove them mad -- and none of them are convincing to me.

I'd be inclined to give it more thought, but the movie commits a far worse crime than being unclear about its message: it's a flat out bore. There is no clear storyline here, just a jumble of scenes that establish what life at this boarding school is like. In this respect, the influence of the French New Wave is evident. The New Wave rejected the idea of subservience to a rigid narrative structure. Movies like The 400 Blows and Breathless took their time to portray the reality of living the lives of their characters. Those films are interesting, even magical, because they capture nuances of life that we recognize as truthful and can relate to. But If.... isn't about portraying reality as much as trying to convince us of what reality is like. That's not nearly so interesting.

The film compromises its own goal, too, with the insertion of avant-garde artsy nonsense. At one point, a guy opens a drawer, where we discover the vicar lives. The joke might have worked in a Zucker brothers comedy, but here it only undermines its own effort to convince us it is real. Once you start talking about people living in drawers, we can only find reality in symbolism. But what does this really symbolize? For all the pretentious nonsense we might concoct about the compartmentalization of religion, I'm convinced the real reason for the scene is to incite stoned audiences to murmur, "That's deep, man."

The use of black and white photography is similarly misleading. The film switches between black and white and color, seemingly at random. Most of it is in color, but certain scenes, including those that take place inside the chapel, are in black and white. Why? To quote the director, Lindsay Anderson: "The use of black and white and color are what Brecht calls processes of distanciation which detach the spectator from his emotion." Anderson was making a little joke. The real reason, as he himself admits, and which is corroborated by the producer Michael Medwin, is that it cost too much money to light some of the complex sets for color. The use of black and white was nothing more than a budget consideration, but this did not stop critics from waxing long on what metaphorical implications there might be.

I don't hold the meaningless use of black and white against the film. It was an interesting way to solve a practical problem. But it is a great illustration of the film as a whole: it looks like something that has deep meaning and significance, when in fact there is none at all.