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June 12, 2007

The Mick of Time

Anderson and McDowell's Mick Travis trilogy dusted off in rare NYC revival

Angry young man: Malcolm McDowell in O Lucky Man!, the middle film in the Mick Travis trilogy featured this week at Anthology Film Archives (Photos: Paramount Pictures)

Sometimes, films are “rarely revived” for a reason. Example: Anthology Film Archives' screenings of Lindsay Anderson's Mick Travis trilogy (opening Wednesday), both a cautionary tale about overblown goals and unique opportunity to catch films that make more sense in Britain than here. Over a 14-year span, Anderson went from being one of England's boldest, most-acclaimed directors to a hard-to-finance bet, but that didn't stop him from trying to allegorically diagnose and decry every perceived weakness in the country. The absurdity of the public school system, bad health care, outdated monarchy, liberal delusions of class revolution, the ever-present scourge of reckless capitalism -- all came under his scattershot auspices.

If.... (1968) is the acknowledged masterpiece of the bunch, and its continuing high visibility (The Criterion Collection is releasing it on DVD in June) is no accident. The film demonstrates the difference between being dated as opposed to crystallizing a moment; the latter is beholden to its time for a viewpoint, the former doesn't get caught up in it. Anderson begins with a careful delineation of the snobbish, inexplicably preserved rituals of the traditional British boarding-school -- cruel house "whips" (older boys whose ostensible purpose is to set an example in each dormitory and whose real joy is molesting their charges and enforcing arbitrary procedures), bromides about the importance of house spirit and all. Where the other films aim at more universal British targets like corrupt unions and heartless medical care, If.... pins itself to an implicit clash between the public school system and Cool Brittania. Restlessness is evident in the clothing -- uniforms worn in class, groovy turtlenecks in the dorms -- before Anderson introduces his real subject: Malcolm McDowell's anti-authoritarian charms.

Striding in in a black coat pulled up to his nose ("Oh Lord, it's Guy Fawkes again," moans a classmate), McDowell takes his first cinematic role and runs with it. His sneering Mick Travis is a weird, misplaced dandy, as prone to faux romantic aphorisms ("There's no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts") as to fetishizing iconic '60s images of violence -- his pin-ups aren't naked girls, they're men with guns. In If...., the nihilistic rebel persona McDowell briefly rode to a crest of fame with A Clockwork Orange emerges fully-formed -- more maliciously witty, more capable of taking abuse and certainly no one's victim, but every bit as simultaneously wide-eyed innocent and completely amoral. (A glancing reference is made to Orange's Alex de Large in O Lucky Man! [1973], making explicit the continuity between two versions of rebellion.)

This initial Mick Travis is angry out of disappointed idealism, and If.... is the only film that (sort of) tows a liberal party line -- order bad, anarchy good. It's also the only time Mick is a coherent character - each of his subsequent incarnations (as an ambitious young capitalist and then a reporter without an ounce of idealism) bears no relation to the previous, serving Anderson's specific allegorical purpose. The later films confused political stances more, sacrificing agelessness for present-day relevance. Flat where If.... is fleet, pacing and tone fall into a bland muddle; cast members recur (sometimes in multiple roles) without the zest that previously came easily. All that stays the same is an inconsistency of style and more anger than most filmographies have in their entirety.

O Lucky Man! began life as an excuse for McDowell to work with Anderson again. Together with writer David Sherwin, he slapped together a script called Coffee Man about his time as a coffee sales agent. An underwhelmed Anderson read the first 20 pages, wrote Gavin Lambert in his book Mainly About Lindsay Anderson. "Not very good, is it?," he responded. "Too cozy, like an Ealing comedy. But keep going, and make it more epic." The results -- a three-hour plus film in chapter interludes that take If....'s neat headings and push them to pretentious absurdity by naming them after the four directions of the compass, as if trying to encompass not just the whole of England but the world -- strain watchability but have a dated charm.

Angry not-so-young man: Filmmaker Lindsay Anderson on the set of If...., circa 1968

According to press releases of the time, Anderson claimed Man! is about "what happens after school." That apparently included every conceivable aspect of life in '70s England, beginning with McDowell's soul-crushing instruction in the art of being a coffee vendor and proceeding through examples of police corruption, old-boy cronyism, joyless free love, the hypocrisy of the church -- the whole lot. But Anderson's oddest preoccupation is a bizarre brand of futurism, introduced via Professor Millar (played by Graham Crowden, formerly Travis' history tutor in If.... and arguably the trilogy’s most important constant). One of Mick's many self-consciously Candide-ian adventures leads him to Millar's clinic, where patently duplicitous bluster regarding mankind's self-made, impending apocalypse and the need for radical solutions really means a man's head grafted onto a pig's body. That's one of the more coherent episodes, which should give you a feel for the one-damn-thing-after-another rush.

"What I like about the film is that it has that irony," Anderson said in an interview quoted by biographer Erik Hedling. "It hasn't just got the simple irony of being nasty about rich people. It's nasty about poor people as well. It's nasty about people." That attitude reaches its logical conclusion in 1982's Brittania Hospital, perhaps even more indiscriminate than O Lucky Man! in only two hours but more satisfying in its all-encompassing anger. Anderson had fantastic visions for the film: "I see Arab sheiks thrown out the windows by union members, and floating in slow motion from the 20th floor, with life-support machines attached to their beds," Lambert quotes him as writing. The finished film is only a trifle less bizarre. The opening finds striking hospital union workers halting an ambulance to make sure someone really is dying inside, only to have the unfortunate comatose old man expire on the spot when the union workers inside refuse to deal with him during their tea break. Anderson was inspired, Hedling wrote, by "a front page of the Daily Mail from the end of the 1970s, which had shown a female trade union representative, called Battling Granny, who[se...] union, COHSE, was involved in an industrial dispute aimed at barring private patients from the hospital." The ambulance-checks were a real device that Anderson used unchanged, or so he claimed.

How to explain an extended allegory which posits a crumbling hospital as the whole of a crumbling Britain, complete with a "Rudyard Kipling ward"? Mick, now an opportunistic journalist, becomes a supporting player in a curiously (given Anderson's previous diss of the droll stiff-upper-lip comedy factory) Ealing-like ensemble laffer. Professor Millar, now a genius doctor, dominates the hospital with more experiments; a human being assembled Frankenstein-like is seemingly his main project, but the elusive specter of the "Genesis" experiment hangs over the whole film, leading to a climactic presentation that stands up with sci-fi's most outre conceits. The unions are Anderson's most immediate target -- he later wrote that they became "increasingly sectarian, increasingly materialist, until they deserved as well as received their defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher" -- but ultimately nothing less than the fate of mankind is at stake.

Brittania Hospital
isn't entirely successful -- its awkward staged comedy plays out with a deadening reserve -- but it's compellingly bitter throughout. Lambert notes that Polish director Andrzej Wajda wrote Anderson: "(I)t is the most Polish film produced anywhere in the world in recent years. As in every Polish masterpiece, there is twice as much material in it as there ought to be. It's as if you were anticipating censorship and counting on it to shape your film by cutting it. Perhaps it's a pity you've no censorship in England." Aside from Wajda's deeming the film a masterpiece, the judgment stands -- Brittania Hospital crams everything in (even a surprisingly gorehound-friendly death for Travis), leading to enjoyably bewildering viewing. If its sci-fi predictions are endearingly dated, then its portrait of an England boiling over with rebellion remains potent.



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Comments (2)

Please don't listen to the above claptrap. O Lucky Man! is brilliant, eminently watchable, and supremely entertaining. Like all great movies it is timeless yet well anchored in the specific era in which it was made. You are right that it is a 1970's British Candide. But how can you write a review of this film without mentioning the terrific performance of a young and gorgeous Helen Mirren?

Because hearing about her in The Queen for half a year should last me for the next few years.

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