Tag Archives: Boarding school

253. IF…. (1968)

“What child has ever been silly enough to ask, when Cinderella’s pumpkin turns into a golden coach, where reality ends and fantasy begins?”–Lindsay Anderson

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Wood, Richard Warwick, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Christine Noonan

PLOT: Mick Travis is a rebellious teenage boy at a British boarding school. Because of “general attitude,” he and two friends are persecuted and beaten by the “whips,” older students given privileges to enforce discipline. During military exercises, Mick and his friends discover a cache of automatic weapons and make plans to disrupt the school’s Founders’s Day celebration.

Still from If.... (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • In England if…. was controversial due to its unflattering portrayal of English boarding schools (particularly, one suspects, of the depiction of pervasive homosexuality) and, by extension, of English traditions in general. When David Sherwin and John Howlett brought their original screenplay to one producer, he called it “the most evil and perverted script he’s ever read.”
  • The film was inspired by ‘s 1933 Certified Weird anarchist screed Zéro de conduite, relocated from 1930s France to then-contemporary Britain.
  • if… was filmed mostly on location at Cheltenham College, director Lindsay Anderson’s alma mater. Many of the boys who appear in smaller roles were students there at the time. A doctored script, missing the final scenes, was given to the college, since the school never would have granted permission to shoot if they had known if…’s climax beforehand.
  • This was Malcolm McDowell’s film debut.
  • Look for portraits of famous revolutionaries and icons of rebellion like Che Guevara, Geronimo, Vladimir Lenin, James Dean and others hanging on the boys’s walls.
  • There is a legend that the film shifted from black and white to color because the producers ran out of money for color stock. Lindsay Anderson contradicted these rumors, saying that they decided to shoot the first chapel scene in black and white due to lighting considerations. He liked the effect so much that he inserted black and white scenes at random to disorient the viewer and to hint at the fantasy elements to come later.  Anderson insists there is no symbolic “code” or reasoning for why some scenes are monochrome and some in color.
  • Distributor Paramount was horrified by the film and certain it would bomb in Britain. They wanted to bury it, but at the last minute they needed a movie to screen in London to replace their current flop: Barbarella. if… went on to be a hit.
  • if…. won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, although in the commentary Malcolm McDowell recalls that he was told that the film actually came in third in the voting, but was chosen as a compromise because the jury could not break a deadlock between supporters of Costa-Gavras’s Z and Bo Widerberg’s Adalen 31.
  • Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell made three films together, in three different decades. In each of them McDowell plays a character named “Mick Travis,” although based on their varying personalities it’s unlikely that they are intended to be the same person. The other two “Mick Travis” films are 1973’s O Lucky Man! and 1982’s Britannia Hospital.
  • Anderson actually wrote a proper sequel for if…, which was to take place at a class reunion, which was unfilmed at the time of his death in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The final shootout, as a whole; it’s both a troubling massacre and an immensely satisfying revenge. Early posters of if… favored shots of star McDowell or the photogenic Girl; we prefer the brief image of a dowager who grabs a machine gun and pitches in for the defense of the school.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tiger mating ritual; chaplain in a drawer; granny with a machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Throughout most of its run time if… is a viciously realistic boarding school drama. But when the Headmaster sternly tells the boys “I take this seriously… very seriously indeed” after Mick shoots a chaplain and bayonets a teacher during the school’s campus war games, we suddenly realize the line between realism and fantasy has been thinner than we thought.


Original U.S. release trailer for if….

COMMENTS: if…‘s theme is the conflict between tradition and rebellion, age and youth, especially resonant concerns in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the firebrand film was fortuitously released a few months after the student riots in Paris. Structurally, ifContinue reading 253. IF…. (1968)

195. ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct

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“In Zero, the school principal may be a fastidious, bearded midget and the drawing on a schoolboy’s notebook may suddenly turn into an animated cartoon, but the characters and settings still belong to a recognizable and even familiar universe. This is not simply an ordinary place where strange things occasionally happen, but a poetic universe we all instinctively know.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Vigo’s Secret”

DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo

FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein, Gérard de Bédarieux

PLOT: On their first day back at boarding school after vacation, three boys are given a “zero for conduct” and Sunday detention for returning to bed after morning wake-up. Angry, they develop a plot to rebel and disrupt the school’s upcoming commemoration ceremony, and recruit a fourth boy into the scheme. Meanwhile, the school’s headmaster, a dwarf, and a mean monitor nicknamed “Beanpole” make life miserable for the children, while a friendly teacher amuses the boys but also earns the ire of the administration.

Still from Zero de Conduite (1933)
BACKGROUND:

  • Director Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films.  The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29.  Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.
  • The film’s odd length (45 minutes) reflects the financier’s belief that there was an untapped niche for medium-length films. Vigo cut his original feature-length treatment to the producer’s specifications.
  • The strange music that accompanies the pillow fight scene was composed by Maurice Jaubert, who wrote the theme, transcribed it in reverse, then recorded the inverted score. The tape was then played in reverse so that the original theme returned, but transformed.
  • The film was based partly on Vigo’s childhood experiences, and the character of Tabard (the boy who swears in class and refuses to apologize) was based on the director himself. The line Tabard speaks in defiance of his teachers is a direct quote of an infamous insult Vigo’s father addressed to the French government.
  • Zéro de conduite was banned by the Comité National du Cinema. The film contained the word “merde!” and two scenes of brief nudity, but it was suppressed not for obscenity but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Inexplicably passing on a still from the pillow-fight scene, we instead select an image from the climax at the final convocation. The headmaster sits in the front row next to a prefect in Napoleonic dress. As acrobats (dressed as soldiers) entertain with handstands and routines on pommel horses, a closeup reveals that the second row of VIPs are life-sized dummies. No wonder the children on the rooftop are about to rain debris down on the scene.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Zéro de conduite is an important historical film.  It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by (If…) With its dwarf headmaster, puppet spectators and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner. The movie’s manic/comic tone, meandering pacing, and even its too-long-for-a-short, too-short-for a feature length add to its singularity. Jean Vigo was already breaking cinema’s rules when they were only a few years old.

Clip from Criterion Collection special feature for Zéro de conduite

COMMENTS:  By banning Zéro de conduite, Jean Vigo’s film about an Continue reading 195. ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo

FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein,Gérard de Bédarieux

PLOT: Schoolboys stage a revolt at a French boarding school.

Still from Zero de Conduite (1933)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTZéro de conduite is an important historical film.  It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by (If…)  With its dwarf headmaster, disappearing balls and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner.  Its mildly surreal oddness nudges the needle on the weirdometer, but, despite its near-legendary status, it’s not thoroughly strange enough to make its way onto the List on the first ballot.

COMMENTS:  Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films.  The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29.  Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.

By banning Zéro de conduite, the director’s film about an imaginary rebellion in a boys’ boarding school, for thirteen years, the French censors only augmented Vigo’s legend.  From the perspective of patrons who are used to seeing political leaders openly mocked and clitorises graphically snipped off in movie theaters as they munch on popcorn, the idea of a movie with only a single “merde!’ and no violence, fetal rape, human centipedes, or even an obvious political target would be banned for over a decade is almost unimaginable.  The film contains hardly audible whispers of schoolboy homosexuality, but it was suppressed not for these but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.”  Vigo’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian philosophy, which pervades the film’s 44 minute running time, was too hot and subversive for 1933 sensibilities.

Today, of course, the movie is notably tame.  In fact, if you’ve been exposed to any of the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

CAPSULE: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Romanek

FEATURING: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley,

PLOT: Kathy,Tommy and Ruth grow up at the pleasant but isolated Hallisham Academy in a

Still from Never Let Me Go (2010)

fictional Britain that never was; they fall in and out of love with each other and grow up to discover that the purpose of their lives has already been set for them.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, though the mix of genres is unprecedented.  The premise is speculative—it would be science fiction had it been set in the future instead of an alternate past—but the execution is conventional, laid down with a Merchant-Ivory-ish gravitas.

COMMENTS: I’ll respect convention and won’t give away the “spoiler” for Never Let Me Go, despite the facts that 1). the trailer reveals it to the observant viewer who has seen a couple of key B-movies from which the premise is derived, and 2). the mystery surrounding the children of Hallisham Academy is divulged about twenty minutes into the film. Point 2) is key, because this movie works not by slowly revealing twists and secrets, but by keeping us watching in horror at the ironic inevitability of the children’s unfolding fate. Locked away from the outside world in the comfortable but disquietingly totalitarian Academy, the kids make up horrible stories about what happens to disobedient children who leave the grounds (dismemberment and starvation); their myths about their own fates persist into adulthood, but the audience always understands that they are doomed even as they cling to desperate hopes.  One of the biggest problems with the film is that it lacks background detail; viewing things entirely from the perspective of the trapped children, we never get enough of a sense of the larger society and its skewed politics and ethics, and are left to raise a lot of issues for ourselves. Too many questions about this Brave Alternate World are left unanswered (primarily, why our protagonists go so gently into that good night, hardly struggling against their fate). The love story is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any the less emotionally affecting, thanks to some great performances. Carey Mulligan, a rising star, carries the film with an often heartbreaking performance: smarter and less prone to illusion than her companions, the despair starts to register in her eyes just a few moments before it reaches Garfield or Knightley’s.  She also cries on cue, including a doozy that rolls down her face and ends up hanging off her chin for a second or two.  Garfield, currently being groomed to be the next Spider-Man, is acceptable as the awkward and occasionally unbalanced male love interest, and Knightley is pro as the seethingly jealous and gently vindictive third point of the love triangle. Kudos go out to the casting director for signing a trio of child actors that are not only fine thespians, but are also almost perfect genetic models for their grown-up counterparts. The cinematography is pleasing, sometimes poetic, with lonely fields and deserted beaches lit by soft golden glows. Despite its effective mood of melancholy, however, the film never really takes off. Director Romanek seems self-conscious in adapting the famed literary property. He’s so careful to be respectful, restrained and tastefully subtle so that the film will come off as “serious” and “important” that the tale fails to live and breathe.  (Having the lead character deliver the obvious moral in a closing monologue—just in case viewers missed the script’s Oscar-caliber metaphors—was a bad decision).  The end result is a story that sends the viewer out mildly depressed, rather than existentially shattered. Despite not quite achieving its full potential, Never Let Me Go still a good choice for the arthouse patron jonesing for a flick with Brit accents, teardrops, and no car chases.

The film was adapted, with the author’s blessing and oversight, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel.  Ishiguro’s main weird movie connection is that he wrote the original screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World, although director Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles significantly surrealized the British writer’s scenario.  Director Mark Romanek’s previous feature was One Hour Photo (2002), an offbeat psychological thriller that cast Robin Williams way against type as a creepy, delusional photo developer.  His first, hard to find feature Static (1985), about a worker in a crucifix factory who thinks he has found a way to take pictures of Heaven, is reputedly quite weird (thanks to L. Robb Hubbard for reminding us of that last point).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an alternate universe that exudes some of the creepy calm of Wolf Rilla’s great English science-fiction flick Village of the Damned, but also the gloomy romanticism of Keats and Shelley.”–Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)