IF…. (1968): SCHOOL DAYS, SCHOOL DAYS – Review by Pauline Kael

I think If . . . . will be a success, but I think it’s far from a masterpiece, and I should like to make this distinction, because so many people are beginning to treat “youth” as the ultimate judge — as a collective Tolstoyan clean old peasant.

by Pauline Kael

From the advance rave quotes, I gather that many reviewers believe that If . . . . will be a great success with youth and that it is a masterpiece. One may suspect that in some cases the evaluation is based on the prediction. I think If . . . . will be a success, but I think it’s far from a masterpiece, and I should like to make this distinction, because so many people are beginning to treat “youth” as the ultimate judge — as a collective Tolstoyan clean old peasant. They want to be on the side of youth; they’re afraid of youth. (And this is not irrelevant to the subject of If . . . .) If they can be pushed by clever publicity into thinking “youth” will respond to a movie, they are then instrumental in getting “youth” to respond to it. Movie companies are using computerized demographic studies and market research to figure out how to promote movies. Here, taken from Variety, is the report on the technique adjudged most suitable for If . . . . by the same new “scientific” group at Paramount Pictures (a subsidiary of Gulf & Western) who worked out how to sell Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The report predicted that If . . . . will repeat its British success in the United States “if it is given the same kind of intensive marketing support that made it such a hit in its premiere engage­ment in London,” and described the key element as “a very extensive screening program for critics, writers, radio and TV commentators, educators, and members of government,” continuing, “We went out of our way to pursue every means of reaching the public through newspaper editorials, radio and television panels or discussions, magazine features and lectures before important opinion-making groups. The outpouring of ‘breaks’ in all communication media was phenomenal and most unusual in that [the film] was treated as a news event away from the usual coverage of motion pictures.” It’s easy to recognize the standard advertising campaign aimed at the mass audience-— the big ads and the appearances of stars and movie­makers on the TV talk shows — but we are still novices when it comes to an advertising campaign that feeds the appetite of the media for something new and exciting, and we may not spot techniques directed at the selective, educated audience. Obviously, these techniques couldn’t work if the film didn’t have something in it for people to react to, but if it does, the publicity people can build up a general impression of urgent, clamorous response. It’s no accident when all those rave reviews come out before a picture has opened; the early reviewers get the taste of triumph as they rush to be the first to jump on the bandwagon. And when this atmosphere of consensus about the importance of a picture is built up, anybody who doesn’t go along begins to seem “out of it” — “not with it.” If . . . . has been so well sold that people were discussing it in the Village Voice weeks before it opened; that’s real marketing, and it means that the whole underground press has been alerted by now. “Youth” will “discover” another movie; in a flash forward, one can already hear the discussions on WBAI. Once this process has begun to work and the publicity has caught on, the film is important; people want to see it because they are hearing about it wherever they go. The publicity men have manufactured “news,” and the mass media don’t want to be scooped and left behind.
The joke about all the rave quotes from the networks and Cue and Life and the Ladies’ Home Journal and Playboy and Look (“I’ll be talking about If . . . . forever”) and the rest is that the hero of If . . . . is firing a machine gun at everything they represent. They are turning “youth” on to armed revolt, and the market-research people and the press are so eager to sell to “youth” that they’d probably include a machine gun with the admission ticket if it were economically feasible. This may be one of the contradictions in capitalism that Marx did not foresee: the conglomerates that control the mass media are now selling “youth” the violent overthrow of the Establishment for the suicidally simple reason that they can find and develop a demand for it.
If . . . . deals with a schoolboys’ revolt on the model of Jean Vigo’s 1933 film Zero for Conduct. I think it will have psychological appeal here because it’s a revolt of the privileged and provides a basically psychological rationale for student revolution. The battle cry is for freedom and nonconformity and an end to stupidity, rigidity, hypocrisy, and cruelty. The violence is thus given a psychological meaning and justification: it’s to explode the repressive system, to liberate men from all the dull nastiness that the corrupt school represents. And because this kind of psychological rationale for student revolt is probably close to how students at American high schools and colleges feel, and because hatred and disgust for the old system provide a simpler, more basic justification than political and social and economic issues do, I think they’ll respond. Lindsay Anderson, the director of If . . . . gives the rebels a cause.
If . . . . may have a potential appeal for young people, but I rather doubt whether it would reach much of an audience without a brilliant selling job. It has a bleak, pseudo-documentary solemnity that is about as attractive to Americans as blood pudding. Anderson’s movies — This Sporting Life and If . . . . — draw their considerable power from what one can only assume is unconscious and semiconscious material. Ander­son is a major talent (partly because he isn’t interested in doing anything minor), but to be successful in the theatre or in movies it is not enough to be talented; one must have a certain kind of talent. We may admire sequences in an Anderson film, but his talent really isn’t likable, and even his best sequences are often baffling — heavy with multiple meanings that he doesn’t appear to think need sorting out. Yet though the material may be staggeringly private, if disguised, the manner of the presentation is coldly realistic and precise; the style is so controlled one might assume the content was, too. At first, and for a considerable stretch, If . . . . appears to be a clinical expose of the horrible organized bedlam inflicted on English boys in the name of a gentleman’s education. The film is especially fixated on the cruelties that the students perpetrate against each other, and one may suppose that all this lingering attention to scenes of juvenile sadism and flogging and homoeroticism and the allusions to the rot and collapse of the British upper classes are in the service of reform. The detailed (and I think obsessively dwelt-on) material about the school deceives one about where the movie is heading.
In Zero for Conduct, the schoolmasters and the other adults were presented non-realistically, the way the derisive, imaginative children perceived them — the principal a bearded dwarf in a top hat (in 1933 the beard meant the opposite of what beards mean now), another school official a tall, skinny spy sneaking around. Though to Americans the film might seem marvellously innocent and poetic, a charming satiric fantasy, with the black flag of anarchism that a child raises on the roof no more than an emblem of youth’s desire for liberty, the film was taken much more seriously in France, and was banned there until after the Liberation. The rebellion of children is, in a sense, the first — the primary — rebellion, and is the model for future rebellions, as the school is children’s first experience of an institution. Vigo’s school was like a prison. (Political rebels — especially, the bomb-throwing kind — spent their lives in and out of prisons, and Vigo’s father had actually spent part of his childhood in a children’s prison.) The words that the child who insti­gates the revolt speaks to the teacher tormenting him (“Mon­sieur le professeur, je vous dis merde!”), which sound like what every schoolboy on occasion longs to say to his teachers, had a more specifically dangerous meaning in France. Vigo’s father, the almost legendary anarchist leader Almereyda, had been one of the instigators of the mutiny of the French Army during the First World War — the only historical example of an army’s mutinying in the face of the enemy. The words “Je vous dis merde” had been Almereyda’s challenge to the government in the headlines of his newspaper, La Guerre Sociale. (His name was itself an anagram of “y a [de] la merde.”) When Zero for Conduct was attacked in France as violent, perverse, and obscene, there was no doubt that, as Andre Bazin said, “for Vigo the school is nothing less than society itself.” Anderson’s model for If . . . . is a key film both aesthetically and politically, and Anderson’s school, following the same plan, seems meant as a mirror of society, and his conscious aim in all that stuff about rigidity and sadism and the rot of the upper classes seems to be to demonstrate that our society drives us to violence as the only solution — that it is the only pure act that can come out of all this. Anderson’s adults are grotesques, but, unlike Vigo’s, they are presented literally, and may even be intended to be taken realistically, as proof of the effects of stultifying traditions. They will probably be taken by most adults in the audience as evidence of conditions that must be improved, and by at least some students as evidence that the only thing to do is blow everyone up — after all, killing them isn’t like killing real people, because they don’t seem to have any honest emotions. If . . . . is intended to be a revolutionary epic, and there are so many strong, coldly repellent scenes and such a powerful (even if possibly displaced) sense of anger that sequences that individually fail to move us accumulate steadily until the sheer grinding tendentiousness may make the climax pass for inevitable.
Vigo’s vision was “poetic” partly because of its consistency and our instant recognition of its meanings. We responded immediately to the juvenile conspirators, who were not the innocent children seen by adults whose own childhood has become a sentimental memory but, rather, children seen by a director so young and so close in temperament to childhood that they seemed to be children as they saw themselves. The movie could leap along and we could make the connections, and the Surreal touches were intensifications of vision that reawakened our own old feelings. But Anderson’s Surreal touches and episodes simply don’t work; they just seem to be odd things happening, and one’s reaction is “Huh?” I rather doubt whether one can successfully use Surreal distortions in such a humorless, tight style. Vigo, like Bunuel and Godard, could be wildly funny, and could do startling, imaginative things and make them seem perfectly natural. Anderson doesn’t have the right tone; he’s a scourge, not a poet, and the picture is clogged by all the difficult, ambitious things he attempts and flubs. Yet the visual style provides a kind of unity (despite the changes from color film to black and white, which I assume were the results of accident and economy -— I assume that when the light wasn’t adequate for using color film, they went on shooting with black and white), and Ander­son’s tone of cold, seething anger unifies the film, too. But we don’t really know — immediately and intuitively — why he is showing us what he is showing us. This kind of picture should hold together emotionally and intellectually much better than it does, yet Anderson precludes such criticism by setting up as the No. 1 target the disgusting, hypocritical headmaster, who is calling for reason when he gets it — ping! — right in the middle of the forehead.
The basic inconsistency — the true craziness — of Ander­son’s vision of youthful revolution is that he is full of bile about youth. Vigo’s children were united by the high spirits that were bursting out of repression (they saw one of the teachers, who had kept his high spirits, as a clown, and an ally), but Anderson devotes most of his energy to the meanness of the students, and it is really not a rebellion of the young that he shows us but a rebellion of a self-chosen few — three boys (and a girl picked up along the way) who set fire to the school on Speech Day and start sniping at those who flee the fire, including the rest of the young. Anderson’s concept of destroying the prison is to kill the inmates. The conspirators are cleaning out the whole mess, apparently — killing everybody, because nobody’s fit to live. The last shot is a glamorous, approving closeup of the hero as he fires away, like Robert Taylor aiming at “the Japs” at the end of “Bataan.” Anderson has dehumanized the other people as shamefully as Hollywood dehumanized “the Japs” during the war years, and has set up these few as the judges and purifiers of humanity. It’s as crazy, in its way, as it would be to make a movie hero of that demented boy at the University of Texas who climbed to the top of a tower and fired at everyone in sight, and yet because these kids are students at school and are firing away I think they will be taken as youth driven to clean out the dead wood.
Anderson may think he has made a movie about revolutionary youth and freedom, and I guess that’s what David Sherwin thinks he was putting into the script, but though they may think it’s there, it isn’t. We can read the signals, all right — the poster of Che and the hero’s forbidden mustache and his playing the “Missa Luba” — but are we to believe the signals or the style of the film, which is constricted and charged with inconsistent, ambivalent feelings? We could tell what Zero for Conduct stood for because the movie was free and liberating, but the material about the revolt feels added to If . . . because we haven’t sensed a movement toward freedom. Anderson is skillful at scenes of sadism, but when he wants to suggest that his nonconformist heroes have some of the joy of life that the others haven’t, he becomes as banal as a TV director and shows them speeding lyrically through the green countryside on a stolen motorcycle. And, because one of his arguments against the school is the homoerotic atmosphere, he apparently feels it is necessary to show that his hero has “healthy” appetites — and does so by presenting him in a sexual scrimmage with a girl who is harder and tougher than the boys. The ways in which Anderson tries to illustrate the desire for freedom are so mechanical and carry so little conviction that I think one may conclude that the heroes are shooting because he needs to discharge his rage — which may be closer to why the boy in Texas was shooting than it is to a revolution. Anderson seems to have lost sight of what was so apparent in Vigo’s view, and what was so funny in it — that school is a child’s mirror of society. Vigo’s vision was a comic metaphor; Anderson’s movie has no wings, and his literal­mindedness about the school leads to the climax of shooting up the people in the school. Vigo did not confuse the children’s view with “reality.” Anderson does, and what makes the film such a can of wriggly worms is that his confusion will probably be the basis of its appeal. It’s so convenient for older students to use a child’s experience of institutions and to take the school for the Establishment. The conglomerates and the mass media may go on playing their dangerous turning-on games as long as the clowns and academics and liberal institutions, rather than the real centers of power, are the targets.

The New Yorker, March 15, 1969


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