Monday, September 10, 2012

If. . . : The Anti-Harry Potter

If . . ., a 1968 British satire starring itty bitty Malcolm McDowell, includes trappings familiar to devotees of the Harry Potter series, or fans of British boarding house fiction: fussy uniforms, power-mad prefects, and even a house cup. However, instead of learning loyalty, empathy, and insight, our trio of protagonists, led by the wry rebel Mick Travis (McDowell), internalize the violence and dehumanizing disdain with which they are treated by upperclassmen and administration alike. So I guess it's sort of like Harry Potter if Slytherin ran Hogwarts.

The film details and satirizes the rigid class system that structures the unnamed boarding school the boys attend. Arbitrary rules and brutal physical punishment is doled out by senior "Whips," who also claim and exploit first-year boys as unpaid servants, with the hint of sexual servitude. The Whips step into the authority vacuum created by the faculty, who blithely ignore, and thereby sanction, the abuse. Most of the professors also demonstrate some brand of perversion, whether it be walking around naked in the boys dormitory or nearing orgasm while overhearing the House Master sing a hymn.

Mick and his two friends resist the Whips through verbal insubordination and offers of assistance to the vulnerable first-years. But after receiving a particularly brutal beating, Mick and his two mates swear a blood oath to avenge themselves on the Whips and the system that encourages and enables their sadism, with Mick ominously declaring "there is no such thing as a wrong war."

As Mick becomes more committed to violence, the film becomes more surreal, with the most unusual element being the frequent and unexplained appearance of an unnamed "Girl" who seems to embody all the freedom and ferocity that the school seems committed to squelching in its attendees. Notably, there are also some sequences shot in black and white, and after wracking my brain trying to figure out their significance (The unreliability of memory? The draining effects of oppression?), Wikipedia informed me that it was due to a) obstructing light coming through the huge windows and b) a lack of production funds. Awesome.

If . . . is the first in a trilogy of loosely connected Travis films by counter-culture director Lindsay Anderson. The conclusion, which I won't spoil for you here, manages to be simultaneously wildly satirical and deeply political, suggesting that the cultural cold war raging during the film's making was constantly on the verge of becoming hot. Bachelorette, THIS is how you do satire.

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