Somehow, I have managed to get this far in my blog without a tip of the hat to Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant film If . . . . (1968)– which I first saw on 42nd Street at 2AM on a double bill with Inadmissible Evidence with a group of filmmaker friends, including a young Warren Sonbert. Despite the lateness of the hour, the film knocked me out then, and knocks me out still, as one of the few really gay-positive films of the era, and a real harbinger of the shape of things to come. It’s a truly liberating film, full of the promise of change and hope, and one of the masterpieces of British cinema. David Ehrenstein has a brilliant essay on it, which you can read by clicking here, and he’s the one who reminded me that I’d been remiss in not mentioning it thus far; although it certainly owes a debt to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, it’s a film that inescapably belongs to the 1960s, to a time when everything was new, and possible.
As David writes in his essay, “There’s nothing quite like a work of art that captures the zeitgeist right at its moment of maximum impact. And more than any other film of its time, If…. nails the sixties. As anyone who lived through that tumultuous era can tell you, it was a decade rife with cinematic expressions of free-spirited utopianism, restless iconoclasm, and woozy, drug-fueled reverie.
But while works as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Blow-Up (1966), Easy Rider (1969), La Chinoise (1967), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) embody the sixties look and feel, none of them sport the emotional and intellectual intensity of Anderson’s darkly comic drama. It has no references to current events. No drugs (though the boys do drink vodka). And instead of a pop-music score, the African Missa Luba is heard playing on the Victrola. Anderson’s interest might best be described as classical rather than topical. If…., that is, concerns youthful yearnings to revolt that are simultaneously of its time and eternal.
When the central hero of If…. (less played than virtually embodied by [Malcolm] McDowell) says that ‘violence and revolution are the only pure acts,’ he’s being extravagant in a way typical of a youth of his class and education. He also says, ‘When do we live? That’s what I want to know’—words that almost any impatient-to-live youth, regardless of class or education, would say. For If…. takes place in that protean moment when childhood steps aside as the adult to be is formed. And it’s the formation of that future adult that is the film’s central subject.”