or Don’t Look Back in Anger

Shot during the Prague Spring and released after the Russian invasion, Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If….’ would seem to have earned its parenthetical (1968). With its violent anti-authoritarianism, long-haired hero and touches of surrealism, the film is ideal double-bill material for ‘La Chinoise’ or ‘Easy Rider’. Yet, if you can characterise a man by the marches he goes on, Lindsay Anderson was more Aldermarston than Grosvenor Square, and the hero of his film owes less to Danny Cohn-Bendit than to James Dean and Jimmy Porter. ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘Look Back in Anger’. Today the two works signify a generalized discontent at the conformist Fifties. But for Anderson they held more personal meanings.

Anderson began his film career in 1947 while still at Oxford as co-editor of the undergraduate journal Sequence. Although the magazine itself lasted just 14 issues, its personnel and ethos were taken up by Sight and Sound under Anderson’s childhood friend (and future biographer) Gavin Lambert in the early Fifties. Generally credited as one of the first attempts to ‘take Hollywood seriously’, the magazine is best understood not as a precursor to Cahiers du Cinema (whose pro-Hollywood crusade commenced about 1953) but as a partial blow against puritan-left orthodoxy, whose values, chief among them ‘realism’, derived from the British documentary movement of the ’30s.

The new emphasis comprised a concern for ‘poetic’ style — a quality found in both the European art cinema of Jean Vigo and the westerns of John Ford — and a somewhat revised political-moral commitment: left-wing, but not Communist, as much of the preceding generation had been. ‘Poetry’ became the alibi of favoured Hollywood directors, but in general the Hollywood cinema was seen to debase its audiences: British directors who went there, like Hitchcock (in person), or David Lean (in spirit) were not well regarded. Attempts to discern the serious from the meretricious among Hollywood films constituted much of Anderson’s critical work, and ‘Rebel Without A Cause’, Nicholas Ray’s global sensation of 1955, was a pertinent example of the latter. Anderson’s own early films, made under the banner of Free Cinema, and like Sight and Sound, sponsored by the BFI, were not intended as calling cards for more remunerative engagements abroad. They dealt with working-class subjects and expressed, in the words of one sage, ‘a kind of exterior, poetic pathos on behalf of anything poor and old’. The movement’s breakthrough moment came in early 1956, which saw the first screenings of the Free Cinema films by Anderson and his Sight and Sound colleagues Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, and the yet more seismic debut of ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the Royal Court theatre under Richardson’s direction.

While never writing off Hollywood cinema tout court, Sight and Sound generally assumed that good work was only possible by accident or by luck, and that excepting privileged figures like Ford (about whom Anderson wrote a book), popular cinema was not only frivolous but dangerous. Much of this stemmed from the journal’s patchy left-wing commitment. One of Anderson’s celebrated polemics roasted Elia Kazan’s ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954), whose anti-union bias he traced to the director’s treacherous role in the HUAC hearings. The fact that it was shot by the same man — Russian cinematographer Boris Kaufman — who was ‘man with a movie camera’ on Vigo’s films (Dziga Vertov was his brother) was demonstration enough of Hollywood’s power to corrupt. If John Ford’s ultra-conservatism somehow escaped censure, Nicholas Ray, a veteran of New York’s Group Theatre in the 1940s along with Kazan, was damned by association; if not exactly reactionary, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, Anderson wrote in 1957, was ‘an obsessed film, in which the artist completely identifies with his subject, unable to show it in any sort of perspective’.

Blind to the formal brilliance of Ray’s best films, Anderson was crippled by the anti-Americanism typical of his magazine, his generation, and his class (‘energy without depth’ was, says Lambert, his verdict on the USA). But there was perhaps a more intimate reason for the attack. Early in 1956 Gavin Lambert had quit London, Sight and Sound, and his friend after meeting Nicholas Ray, and being summoned (as personal assistant and lover) to Hollywood — just as the rest of the gang were making their mark. Anderson would protest, but ‘Rebel’, symbol of a vulgar culture that habit would not allow him to embrace, was a shaping force in his life and work. The film (‘starring our favourite our favourite actor, James Dean, whom we constantly imitate with buddy-buddy talk and pretend knife-fights’) not only inspired the writers of ‘If….’; its director came close to making what turned out to be Anderson’s film after one its Oxford undergraduate co-authors, David Sherwin, having sent off a hopeful draft, was lucky enough to win a meeting with Ray. (In fact, the great man offered him a similar ‘PA’ job to that which he had given to Lambert a few years before.)

Personal ties and coincidences apart, ‘If….’ itself stands out from Anderson’s earlier work because it, like ‘Rebel’, is ‘an obsessed film’, in which there is minimal distance between its subject and its author — Anderson’s old school tie secured him access to film on location at Cheltenham College. Traces of Anderson’s other concerns as a critic emerge — the film’s surrealist edge, for example, is clear, and recalls not only the Czech New Wave (personally present in the figure of cinematographer Mirek Ondricek), whose stance against Soviet Socialist Realism mirrored Anderson’s hostility to the McCarthyite Kazan school of direction, but also Jean Vigo, whose ‘Zero de Conduite’ (1933) was itself a classic take on classroom rebellion.

Nevertheless, the film was far stronger than Anderson’s earlier work precisely because it had abandoned the kitchen-sink spirit of ’56. The Free Cinema films, like Anderson’s feature debut ‘This Sporting Life’ (1963), had traced the alleged impoverishment of working-class cultural traditions in the context of post-war affluence and the modern ‘American’ consumer capitalism of which ‘Rebel’ was a contradictory kind of product — their literary counterpart is Hoggart’s ‘The Uses of Literacy’. But because this world was totally alien to Anderson (unlike Hoggart), his attitude towards it was always in contradiction his own Free Cinema motto: ‘no film can be too personal’. The success of ‘If….’ can be put down in part to the fact that it dealt with his own class experience, could not have been more personal, and that it is as a result far more anti-traditional. Fifties Anderson celebrates the anachronism of Covent Garden porters; Sixties Anderson rages against the archaism of the public school system. Within its cultural DNA is an archetype of American teen rebellion that Anderson (described by Iain Sinclair as a ‘leather-coated patrician’) could only ever consciously regard as other, giving a dissonant edge to this seemingly uber-English, super-personal film. As Jimmy Porter once said, ‘perhaps all our children will be Americans’.

Henry K. Miller