Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just try not to blow it: The mind-bending films of Lindsay Anderson

Film Society members can be the wankiest wankers who ever wanked. If they’re not creaming their pants over the way Truffaut uses establishing shots, they’re sneering at you for getting excited about pictures with a dash of genre in them.

But they still have their uses. While we are now lucky to live in an age where even something as French as Eyes Without a Face can easily found on the internet, or be picked up from the local DVD store for a couple of dollars, it wasn’t always like this.

When my love for film ballooned into a full-blown obsession sometime around 1993, the most frustrating thing in the world was reading about all these fantastic movies that never quite seemed to make it to the arse end of the planet. Even something as well-known as Citizen Kane proved surprisingly hard to find, and getting hold of work by the likes of Nicholas Roeg proved incredibly difficult.

I also had a ridiculous amount of trouble trying to get hold of Hammer horror films, which were another magnificent obsession that I went through, and I only just managed to find Count Yorga on YouTube last month. Finding any interesting films could be a real chore

So when I ended up in a city with a decent film society in the mid nineties, it was only natural that I would join up and sit with a few dozen other people in an uncomfortable lecture theatre to watch a 40-year-old print of Battleship Potemkin.

I’ve completely forgotten many of those films I saw in my two years with the Dunedin Film Society. This isn’t that surprising, considering there were a few I walked out on, unable to stand the sight of people moaning about ducks flying to Moscow for the winter while staring out windows for another goddamn half-hour.

But some of the stuff they screened was just incredibly good and made an undeniable impact on this particularly impressionable brain. The two main things I got out of that film society was that it showed me how fucking brilliant Peter Sellers was, and it totally turned me on to Lindsay Anderson movies.

Sellers could play anything. Sometimes he would try a bit too hard, but the results were always incredibly entertaining. They showed half a dozen of his films over a couple of months, and no two characters were the same. He would be having a laugh in The Mouse That Roared one week, playing a seventy-year-old cinema projectionist in The Smallest Show On Earth the next, and two weeks later, he would be more uptight and upright than a plank of wood in It’s All right, Jack.

It was no secret that Sellers could be a prick behind the camera, but in front of it, he was a star. He would throw himself into characters that would, in any other actor’s hands, be utterly repellent. But they’re just so bloody charming and oozing charisma, they’re impossible to hate.

Sellers could make the loathsome Clare Quilty in Lolita a likeable rogue, or even pull off all three roles in Doctor Strangelove – his 'Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!' is still one of the great moments of 20th century cinema. A proclivity towards silly disguises and sillier voices aside, he could also reach unexpected depths of emotion, given the right part, and his real last role in Being There was heartbreaking.

The films Sellers were in ranged from grindingly average to heartbreakingly genius, but the Lindsay Anderson films they showed at the Society were all stone cold brilliance.

I knew about If… long before joining the society, but then they showed all of the Mick Travis films, the White Bus and This Sporting Life, and I was utterly stunned by how much I loved them all.

This Sporting Life featured a magnificent Richard Harris as a brute who uses his self loathing to get smashed into the mud of a rugby league field, and The White Bus was a 46-minute preview of the quietly beautiful surrealism that would later saturate his films.

But while If.. was justifiably lauded, as the themes of teenage rebellion were universal, I just couldn't identify with that whole boarding school mentality. And then the Mick Travis that turned up in O Lucky Man is a a young man who is heading out into the world with the confidence and naivety of youth, unsure where he's going, but going there anyway, and seeing some weird shit along the way, listening to pop music and dressing in flashy clothes, but ultimately wondering what it's all about.

That guy I could identify with.

I always hate having to pick my favourite film of all time when people ask – how the hell do you compare The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and 2001: A Space Odyssey? - but if I'm really pushed, I'll always, always go for O Lucky Man!

It’s a bit weird and rambling and messy, but it’s also full of depth and incredibly funny, with some magnificently dated musical accompaniment from the great Alan Price. While some parts are genuinely disturbing, Malcolm McDowell is so ridiculously charming that the film cruises by on his innocent smirk, bemusement and drive for success.

By this film, Anderson had gathered a company of remarkably distinctive character actors (who often played several characters in the same film), and also perfected his blend of kitchen sink magical realism, working class ideals expressed through quiet surrealism.

Mick is beaten down by the great powers of society – no businessman, policeman, politician, judge doctor or scientist can be trusted, and the only real human warmth is found in the creative industries of the movies and rock music.

It's no surprise that Grant Morrison often cited it as an influence, and cheerfully ripped off its strange vibe in his Doom Patrol and early Invisibles issues, because it's a film that's deeply weird – the whole chocolate sandwich sequence is intensely strange in a very Northern English way, an intense torture scene in interrupted by a tea lady, easy money in medical experimentation sees the head of a man horribly grafted onto an animal’s body and a demonstration of a terrible chemical weapon is all business and dry numbers.

Which was all right, because I was okay with the weird. I also have a deep soft spot for films that end in a big song and dance number, so when all the actors and the characters they play (no difference, same thing), show up at the end and dance the end away, it's all just wonderfully groovy.

And it was also exactly what I needed in my life at that time - not just the weirdness and the strangeness and the chocolate sandwiches. In the end, all Mick Travis needs to do is smile, and everything will be okay. He could live in misery and ideological confusion, or he could just beam a Buddha smile and dance.

It's perfect.

Travis came back (and lost his head) in Britannia Hospital, a film which was much angrier about the deep injustices of modern society, but still ended with a giant brain in a jar quoting Hamlet. And Lindsay Anderson kept himself busy with a variety of projects, (you can find a splendidly bitchy television essay on Free Cinema here).

But he did reach some kind of artistic high with O Lucky Man! It's not a film for everybody, but it's so unique, so weird, and so joyful, it'll always be my favourite.

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