"If...." seems like a perfect accompaniment piece to Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct". It is a mad, mad, mad movie; and it pulls you into its world. When everything can go bad, it does. When everything frustrates you, the film pulls another little item out its incredibly large box of tricks to infuriate you further. The cohesiveness of the movie is non-existent, jumping from color to black-and-white with no shame or explanation many times, leaving the viewer bewildered, searching for the meaning in it all.
Starting out, seeming like a commentary on the levels of hierarchy within a highscool, we are introduced to a strict university whose rules are enforced by a group of older boys named whips. The whips are serviced by the scum, the very young boys, who don't see their service as demeaning. Every child is subject to the whims of those in control. The rules are enforced severely, sometimes physically, and the discipline is rarely pleasant. Add to this the borderline rape that occurs daily and the fluid sexuality of several of the whips and you have the best breeding grounds for a psychopath.
Enter Travis (Malcolm McDowell in a breakout role), a boy who is drawn to violence as many are to women. Instead of pin-ups in the study room, he places images of men at war.
Travis has two friends, Johnny and Wallace, who are like minded individuals, though he is most certainly their leader.
Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.
For the first third of the movie "If...." firmly cements its own styles. There are random black-and-white scenes that usually occur when the mood has calmed down, for instance when the kids are going to bed or during a sermon. The older boys are the rulers and they have no sympathy for vagrants.
The most important scene in the film has Travis and his two friends getting beaten by the whips because they have a bad attitude. They are taken into an office and told that they are going to get punished, unable to resist and thriving from the building rebellious thoughts, Travis can't help but shoot his mouth off—he is beaten twice as long for it.
"If...." is often heralded as allegorical, but allegorical of what? I see it more as a satire, a devastating mockery of the educational system and traditional morals. The men of the school are all of the philosophy that the old ways were the best. But the old ways don't work for Travis. It's the same 'radical' type thinking that now dominates psychology text books when it comes to child raising. If you physically discipline your child, you are setting a double standard. Whether or not you agree, the same is true for "If....". When the 'law' comes down on Travis we all wince because we see it makes him more resentful towards the law.
Much of the movie deals with Travis' musings on war. The destruction of humanity is attractive to him, so the film heavily implies. "If...." seems like a warning to the educational system, to those in power (governmentally perhaps) that you can only push the people down so many times.
"If...." deals with a revolution in the same way that war movies deal with it. Most movies bless the revolutionists, since hindsight has often proved them right. With "If....", we aren't sure who exactly to cheer for—it is like picking the lesser of two evils.
Kubrick must have seen this movie, I can think of no other director whose work is so similar. First of all, Malcolm McDowell's performance is eerily similar to his turn in "A Clockwork Orange"; but more than that, there is present the idea of creating a monster. The constant repression, discipline, and mockery is enough to turn anyone sour—it happens here and Kubrick does it in "Full Metal Jacket".
In the end, the movie is vexing. You feel like you're missing something because of how the color changes and the dreamscape scenes blend together throughout the movie.
"If...." has one too many fancy attempts at grandiose commentary. It's purposely aggravating yet entertaining; but perhaps too clouded to do any real good.
Posted by Micah Jones