Monday, October 07, 2013

What if?

Richard Dawkins' account of his days in English boarding schools (in An Appetite for Wonder) included a mention of Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film If. As indeed he should. A cult classic. A surrealist drama unfolding in an Etonesque boys' school. It caught the late-Sixties zeitgeist perfectly. Which side are you on? Stultifying tradition, arbitrary authority and sexual repression, or violent, anarchical revolution.

At the time, I was a young professor caught somewhere in the middle, liberal in my inclinations, cautious in my actions. I was also the faculty sponsor of the film club and sometime, about 1970 I suppose, I watched If with students, a 16-mm print in a darkened auditorium. As I recall, it generated lots of animated discussion.

Sparked by Dawkins' mention of the film, I decided to watch it again. First, I checked my wife's Amazon Prime catalog. Lots of movies available, but no If . Next, the college library's extensive film collection on DVD. Nope. Then the library's stashed away VHS collection. Yes! Into an antiquated VHS machine, to play on a snowy TV screen smaller than my wife's computer.

Only after I had watched the film did I discover that it is available in its entirety on YouTube.

Celluloid, VHS, DVD, Netflix, on-demand: What a sleigh ride! No more film club. Anybody can watch anything, anytime, anywhere.

And what of If? Does it hold up? I think so. It is, however, an allegorical work of its time, and the very revolutionary zeitgeist it articulated transformed the British (and our) educational system. I suspect students today would find the film more inscrutable than provocative. For me it's a historical document of that best and worst of times. As I watched, I might have been back in the darkened auditorium, surrounded by students who were passionately engaged with the great public issues of the time -- pacifism, racism, feminism, environmentalism, Church reform -- treading my own tricky path between rigidity and chaos.

One more thing about the movie: the soundtrack. More on that tomorrow.