Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

50 films: #10. If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

February 3, 2018

Sad news yesterday of the death at 75 of screenwriter David Sherwin – do read his Guardian obituary and this lovely piece by Malcolm McDowell, who played Mick Travis in his trilogy of films – prompted me to revisit a film that on reflection is probably my favourite of all time: Lindsay Anderson’s If…., which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

A teenager who habitually read film guides, I knew of the reputation of If…. long before I saw it. I’ve written before here of the impact the death of my uncle William had on me when I was 14, and of the legacy that he left me, partly through the things he had owned that I inherited. From his collection of videos, I took a couple that contained films he’d recorded off the television: one was Death in Venice, and the other was If…. He’d recorded If…., I discovered on doing an audit of all my videos a month ago prior to chucking them out, on the occasion of Lindsay Anderson’s death in 1994, when it was broadcast on Channel 4 with a specially recorded introduction by Stephen Frears, who had worked on it as a young assistant director.

I don’t think I watched it until I was 16 or 17, and then probably only when it was shown late one Friday night on BBC2, in the days when BBC2 did that sort of thing. It must have been a mindblowing film to watch at that age. When the BFI rereleased it in cinemas in 2002 and there were two screenings in Cambridge, I went to both. By that time it had become an obsession. Last September I happened to meet Philip Bagenal, who played scientifically-minded Peanuts in the film shortly before going up to Cambridge. I was too starstruck to tell him how moved I was to be in his presence.

If…. originated as a script, Crusaders, written by Sherwin and John Howlett while the two were teenagers at Tonbridge School. Anderson eventually filmed it mainly at his own Cheltenham College. The film amounts to a study of power relationships within one house, College House, at an independent school, and of the repressive regime of the Whips (four prefects, Rowntree, Denson, Fortinbras and Barnes). Rebelling against their brutality are five Crusaders, senior boys Mick Travis, Johnny Knightly and Wallace, junior boy Bobby Phillips, and a girl (called simply The Girl in the credits) whom Travis and Knightly meet in a roadside café while playing truant.

The opening of the film, which sets the familiar black and white Paramount logo against the school song, ‘Stand up, stand up for College’, sung to the familiar tune Ellacombe, is excitingly uneasy, and I think I have always found it so. Still uneasier, suddenly the titles are in colour. A great deal has been written about Anderson’s juxtaposition of black & white and colour film, much of it nonsense. I think it’s generally accepted now that logistical problems led to the filming of the interior of the chapel being done with black & white film. I’m sure Anderson, mischievous to the last, would have enjoyed critics looking for meaning in the contrasts between the colour and monochrome sequences, which might or might not really be there. Still, the contrasts can be striking. Take for instance the Whips’ study, filmed in colour, a place of privilege and sober discussion, set against the happy austerity of the juniors’ black & white kitchen, where the scum are having a great time eating beans on toast. Or the fencing scene, where the Crusaders’ black & white game of war with their mock Shakespearean dialogue turns, West Side Story-like, into real war when they burst balletically through a door and Wallace draws Mick Travis’s blood, however accidentally. Travis is thrilled.

I got sidetracked. Let’s talk about Jute and about power. Our way into the film is through Jute (Sean Bury). Like us, he’s a new boy in the school. In the opening scene he is overawed, gazing uncomprehendingly at the noticeboard, not knowing the rules. Even the perpetually bullied junior boy Biles sneers at him, ‘You’re blocking my view, scum.’ Jute’s never the main player in the film, he’s an everyman (or everyboy), and through the film we follow his assimilation into the school. At the start he’s unsure. He calls Rowntree ‘sir’ even though he’s not a teacher; in chapel Brunning has to help him find the right hymn; he struggles to remember the right words when Brunning and Markland test him on school vocab; in gym he quakes before the vaulting horse like a fawn. But increasingly he takes part, he’s a joiner in. He plays rugby, sings in the chapel choir, he takes on ceremonial roles like bringing the chalice the house has just won to the top table. By the end he’s serving in chapel. Jute is the boy schools like this are supposed to turn out.

Starting at the same time as Jute is straggly-moustached John Thomas (Ben Aris), one of those teachers who is both disappointed and disappointing. He is shown up to his room by the housemaster’s wife in the film’s first black & white sequence. Both he and Mrs Kemp are shy and nervous, and after she leaves he sits on his bed in this drab little room, the eaves imposing, and seems to be the embodiment of human loneliness. He too assimilates in a way, and in rugby practice appears to be popular with the boys, but later scenes tell a different story. Whip Denson, doing his nightly rounds, finds Thomas working on his car and advises him not to be too long. ‘Sorry, Denson,’ he replies. When, out on manoeuvres with the cadet corps, he dives for cover and is liberally drizzled with hot tea from a leaking urn, it becomes clear he is a man without authority. Simply by looking unlucky, he becomes unlucky.

It’s not a matter of everyone knowing their place in established power structures, it’s also about people (Denson among them) who don’t toe the line. Just as John Thomas cowers before Denson, so too does housemaster Mr Kemp (Arthur Lowe) before all the Whips. Here is a man who by temperament should have been a bank manager, not put in charge of children. Warned of insurrection by Rowntree he simply devolves his power to the Whip, saying pathetically, ‘You must do what you think best,’ and popping another orange segment into his mouth. The Headmaster (a magnificent Peter Jeffrey) paints himself as a progressive, making platitudinous speeches to the prefects, but turns out to be just another fool. By their failure to fulfil their designated roles they are complicit in the Whips’ reign of terror.

Terrifying it is, too. Barnes and Denson stalk the corridors and yell ‘DORMITORY INSPECTION IN THREE MINUTES’ with military synchronicity. You can see why they don’t like Travis, a boy (man, really; he returns to school with a resplendent moustache that only Knightly is allowed to see before he shaves it off) who is determined to stick out, apparently for the pleasure of sticking out. Though Knightly and Wallace are committed to the cause, Travis is invariably the one who goes a step too far. A marvellous scene in the Crusaders’ study with the three boys talking at cross purposes illustrates perfectly the temperamental differences between them. Travis poseurishly expounds his theories of war (‘Violence and revolution are the only pure acts’), while Knightly, the joker, reads the horoscope aloud for the others’ amusement, and dreamy Wallace talks of his concerns that he’s going bald.

What I’ve written so far may give the impression that If…. is a cold and earnest film. In fact it’s so far from that. It depicts the whole experience of being young, including the romance of youth. Take Wallace’s love affair with Bobby Phillips, a junior boy a few years younger than him though more mature in outlook, a relationship depicted with such economy and tenderness. They don’t share more than a handful of scenes together, but it’s one of my favourite romantic relationships in film. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember that scene. Phillips, about to put his sweater on, looks down and sees Wallace preparing to leap up to the high bar. They exchange glances as Biles and Machin look on. Wallace’s gymnastics are hypnotic, set to Marc Wilkinson’s shimmering music (itself partly inspired by the Missa Luba that Travis likes to put on his record player, and sometimes underscoring it in the film). It feels like one of the mesmerising scenes with backwards music from the end of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, the film supposed to have inspired this one. Who wouldn’t fall for Wallace under these circumstances? Bobby puts his sweater on but continues to gaze, distractedly. The moment of falling in love has never been better depicted on screen.

Some boys are misfits. Peanuts, for instance, whom Travis approaches one night, apparently to invite him to become a Crusader. Peanuts looks at the stars through his telescope and talks of space. His concerns seem to be higher, and he hands back the bullet Travis offers him. He’s a pacifist, we might think; only out on manoeuvres he embraces warfare absolutely, condemning his charges for failing to do the Yell of Hate, so it can’t be that. Meanwhile, Mick accepts the thing Peanuts offers in return, his telescope, but uses it to look not at the stars but at the Girl he and Knightly have enlisted to join the resistance. Stephans is another nearly boy, intent on becoming a Whip, and unpopular with others because of his priggishness. Might he have made a Crusader instead? He’d surely have had more fun that way.

Let’s look at Biles, strung up in the toilets by his bullies. Who would think to view him sideways on? The anarchy of the gaze.

There’s a peculiarly British kind of anarchy and absurdity in the humour too: in the medical test, where the boys have to answer four questions (‘Ringworm? Eye disease? VD? Confirmation class?’); in Mr Kemp’s pink-pyjamaed performance of ‘Fairest Isle’ accompanied by his wife on the recorder; in the unexpected reappearance of the Chaplain, recently slaughtered on the battlefield by Travis (complete with Yell of Hate), alive and well and living in the Headmaster’s drawer; in the Headmaster’s reprimand to the boys, perhaps the funniest moment of the film: ‘So often I’ve noticed that it’s the hair rebels who step into the breach when there’s a crisis, whether it be a fire in the house, or to sacrifice a week’s holiday in order to give a party of slum children seven days in the country.’

What about the ending? The actions of the Crusaders may be understandable, but can they be justified? It’s easy to be on their side, but what if they asked you up on the roof? There’s a tremendous power in that final crescendo, with the beating, then the play battle, then the real battle, some of the agony of the ending coming from the conflict between the viewer’s desire to be one of the cool kids and the attendant reality of the civilian casualties. The extras in that scene, the parents and grandparents of the boys, look so ordinary. They don’t deserve to die. And yet a change surely has to come, and this may be a way of effecting it. The discomfort is part of the thrill. (And the guns.)

Then the title appears on screen again, ending the film as it began. Was this just an academic hypothesis, an exercise, as the Brechtian intertitles might lead you to believe? Even if so, it’s an engrossing one. I love it because it seems to contain everything (well, except girls). I loved that, watching it as a boy, there were any number of characters I saw reflections of myself in, so many that I might have been. I think I wanted to be Wallace, probably because I had a thing for Bobby Phillips. In reality I was probably Markland.

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Grand Tour #26 – Sweden. The Brothers Lionheart / Astrid Lindgren

November 25, 2017

Ah, Astrid Lindgren. Not that I haven’t enjoyed reading my way through the EU, but if I did this project again I’d choose exclusively children’s books. Lindgren was a big deal in my boyhood, her books having a peculiarly Scandinavian exoticism that they shared with Alf Prøysen’s Mrs Pepperpot (rechristened ‘Mrs Pepperbox’ by my ancient Austrian babysitter Lisl). They were probably exotic because they showed a life that was recognisably like mine and yet intangibly different (same as the American books I loved like Maurice Sendak, Treehorn and Peanuts, I suppose). I loved Pippi Longstocking struggling with her pluttification, and more than that even I loved mischievous Lotta, with her piggly bear Bamsie and her sister Mia Maria and her kind brother Jonas, on whom I probably had a bit of a crush. It was Ilon Wikland’s illustrations that did it, his hair looked so Swedish.

For me, Ilon Wikland is the true heroine of Lindgren’s 1973 book The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta), which I read in the translation by Joan Tate. More on that later. I was particularly keen on reading this book firstly because I hadn’t read it before and secondly because of the controversy it inspired. More on that later too, and some spoilers.

Nine-year-old Karl is a sickly boy, and is upset when he overhears a conversation in which it is mentioned that he is dying. His older brother Jonatan (Jonathan in the translation, but I’ll stick with the original spelling because it’s sexier) consoles Karl with stories of the afterlife in mythical Nangiyala, a carefree world where you can fish to your heart’s content. Still, Karl seems to have an acute case of separation anxiety, and doesn’t want to leave Jonatan behind. ‘Just think how good it would be if you’d gone there first,’ he says, ‘so that it was you who was sitting there fishing.’ As luck would have it, Jonatan does indeed precede Karl to Nangiyala, dying saving Karl’s life in a house fire, and he visits Karl from beyond the grave apparently in the persona of a pigeon (or concealed among the pigeon’s feathers, a prosaic reading that I enjoy less), after which Karl joins him in Nangiyala.

The metaphysical intrigue of the opening chapter didn’t prepare me for the boredom of what followed. Well, not boredom; this is a good book; but if you’ve read The Horse and His Boy and recall how tedious that was (‘O dispatcher of messages, here is a letter from my uncle Ahoshta Tarkaan to Kidrash Tarkaan lord of Calavar’), then this is … well, not the same, but at any rate close enough that I thought of the comparison. Karl and Jonatan’s life in beautiful Cherry Valley is threatened by the machinations of the evil ruler Tengil who has enslaved neighbouring Wild Rose Valley with the aid of the mysterious Katla (who turns out, spoiler alert, to be a dragon). Jonatan is involved in the resistance, and Karl, fired by loyalty to his brother, becomes his staunch ally. They ride around in death-defying missions on their trusty steeds Grim and Fyalar, allies and enemies defy expectations predictably, and at some point everyone learns the true meaning of something.

I’m being unkind because it comes to me naturally, but actually there’s a lot to love about this book, and it’s only my profound antipathy to fantasy that stopped me embracing it as I’d hoped I would. Firstly, just how dark it is. The brothers witness the regime’s brutality first-hand when Tengil visits Cherry Valley and identifies several people to be taken off to camps where they will die. A man who challenges him is put to death instantly with a sword. For the child reader of Lindgren, this is not a smooth progression from Lotta and Pippi Longstocking, it’s a portrait of a totalitarian state. Its morality seems solid, the recurring message being that sometimes you have to take the hard road for the greater good, if you want to be more than just (to use the phrase Jonatan often repeats) ‘a bit of filth’. Towards the end of the book, as the final showdown approaches, he saves the life of an enemy, Park, prompting a question from Karl.

‘Why did you save that man Park’s life? Was that a good thing?’

‘I don’t know whether it was a good thing,’ said Jonathan. ‘But there are things you have to do, otherwise you’re not a human being, but just a bit of filth. I’ve told you that before.’

‘But suppose he’d realized who you were,’ I said. ‘And they’d caught you.’

‘Well, then they would have caught Lionheart and not a bit of filth,’ said Jonathan.

It was only when contemplating the book afterwards that Adrienne Rich came into my head:

and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

That’s the ending of one of her Twenty-One Love Poems, which I’ve loved since I was about 20, and it feels relevant here. Jonatan and Karl exist in a series of lives and afterlives (not that the word afterlife appears in the book). In the first world, when confronted by Karl’s anxiety about death, Jonatan comforts him with the concept of Nangiyala. When the same thing occurs in Nangiyala, Jonatan talks of a further afterlife, Nangilima. And who’s to say there isn’t another one beyond Nangilima. The point is that death is gone through and survived, though the Christian allegory (if this is one) isn’t as crass or offensive as it can be in the hands of C.S. Lewis.

The controversy comes at the end, where, having been brought to Nangiyala by Jonatan, Karl has to repay the favour by helping Jonatan get to Nangilima, effectively by helping him die. The tables have turned: at the start of the book Karl was dying of his unspecified coughing sickness; now, Jonatan, as a result of his having been licked by the flame of the dragon Katla, is becoming paralysed and can only move his arms. I suspect nowadays it is the suggestion that death is preferable to disability that would upset and anger people; forty years ago it was the suicide pact. Critical reviews damned the book’s ‘romantic-deterministic dream’. I sympathise up to a point, but I’ve always rather liked this kind of fatalism, and I was moved by the conclusion.

And I sat beside him and held his hand and felt that he was strong and good through and through and that nothing was really dangerous so long as he was there.

To return, finally, to Ilon Wikland, 87 years old this year: I salute the versatility of her illustrations, in places so tender, in others so terrifying. The depictions of Katla are terrifying and audacious, those of Jonatan and Karl simple and touching. A slight dissonance: Karl’s narrative occasional makes unflattering mention of his own looks compared to those of his brother, of his ‘snout’, for instance; in Wikland’s illustrations his nose is charmingly retroussé. I endorse this change.

Grand Tour #22 – Lithuania. Breathing into Marble / Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė

September 30, 2017

Ah, Lithuania. The very name evokes memories of wondering where Lithuania was and why I should care about it. I once had some school trousers marked ‘Made in Lithuania’, on the observation of which fact my mother said blithely, ‘Oh, you should tell Mr Roberts, he’d be really interested.’ (Roberts here being the altered name of my geography teacher.) I neglected to take her advice, lacking the nerve, and also thinking perhaps that for proof Mr Roberts might ask to see inside my trousers; sure enough, within a year, he left the school following a misdemeanour (that for the sake of accuracy I should stress was not sexual). Apart from those trousers, which I wore almost every weekday for a period of presumably a couple of years, my experience of Lithuania (was it Lithuania? yes it was) is nonexistent.

Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė! (Bless you.) A Lithuanian writer who has had a novel published in translation, which is what makes her of interest to us (to me, at any rate). Namely her 2006 novel Breathing into Marble (Kvėpavimas į marmurą), which appeared last year in a translation by Marija Marcinkute, published by Noir Press.

I don’t normally shrink from the spoiler, but in this case I think I will, partly because I don’t want to deter future readers of the book, but mainly because the plot elements that might count as spoilers aren’t really the point. I could say, X kills Y at the start of the book, but the interest of the book is primarily psychological, and in places supernatural. So I’ll just write about some of the things I thought while I was reading it.

Breathing into Marble is ostensibly about the relationship between a woman, Isabel, and her wild adopted son, Ilya. Isabel and her husband Liudas have a son already, the precocious Gailius, but on a visit to the orphanage run by her friend Beatrice, Isabel takes a shine to the uncommunicative boy with the piercing brown eyes who refuses to take her hand.

I think about feral children a lot, read books about them, watch films about them. Ilya’s not feral, but he’s an enigma, his pre-orphanage childhood unknown. Perhaps it is the trauma of Isabel’s own childhood, which we do see in flashback, that is the source of her bond with Ilya, that makes her determined to get through to him, even at the expense of the other things she holds dear.

From a distance Ilya’s tiny face was hard and dark, but when Isabel drew closer it stirred like wind-blown blossom.

No, it wasn’t blossom yet – more like a tightly folded bud, the petals of his personality firmly knotted still inside, all his lines shy and inarticulate.

Nobody could tell yet when he would bloom, what he would be like and into what he would mature.

It is hinted occasionally that Ilya shares a kinship with the fox. I don’t know why stories of foxes move me so much, but that is certainly the case. Harriet Graham’s unjustly forgotten children’s novel A Fox Under My Jacket, Fantastic Mr Fox, and so on, but particularly David Garnett’s fable of vulpine metamorphosis Lady into Fox. Ilya spies a fox in its den, and the den becomes a place of pilgrimage to him; an encounter with a deer also has a profound affect on him. A boy closer to animals than to people. A part of the book’s mythology that appealed to me.

Gailius is a sympathetic character, Ilya’s ‘good’ counterpart, a boy wise beyond his years but with a spirituality of his own that upsets Isabel. Perhaps as a result of his occasional epileptic fits he has a morbid streak. He talks matter-of-factly about his own death, and even anticipates it in a section drawn from his notebook, where we briefly hear his own voice, the only part of the novel told in the first person.

When I think about death I can’t picture it. I can only feel it as it approaches – it always comes a bit too early … I know that my death is growing up with me, and that it is sharp and fast, like a stab. It won’t attack me from the back. It will call out with its secret, velvet voice and, when I turn, it will pierce me like a knife. But we will have looked into each other’s eyes. It isn’t sly – it’s just that death is much faster than we are.

I salute Černiauskaitė (and her translator) for their creation of a mood of macabre unease. It reminded me at times of Ian McEwan’s early books, of intelligent horror films like Goodnight Mommy, of the Dardenne brothers’ The Son. If this sounds like your sort of thing, give it a go.

Grand Tour #18 – Romania. Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent / Mircea Eliade

August 7, 2017

Mircea Eliade’s Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent was written in the 1920s when the author was the same age as its nameless narrator (seventeen), but not discovered and published until after Eliade’s death in 1986; this translation by Christopher Moncrieff, ‘with reference to an original translation by Christopher Bartholomew’, appeared in 2016.

There’s some ambiguity about the title: the cover of the Istros Books edition has the word ‘Diary’ obliterated and replaced with ‘Novel’, and indeed the Romanian title, Romanul adolescentului miop, seems to suggest a novel rather than a diary; in fact the book is a fictional diary that chronicles inter alia the diarist’s efforts to write his magnum opus, to be entitled The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. Simple really.

His primary motivating factor for writing the novel is that he’s not doing well at school, and he thinks that if he manages to get the novel written and published within the year it will impress his teachers enough that they’ll pass him in spite of his poor performance. The characters will be based on people he knows. When he announces that his friend Robert will be used to exemplify ridiculousness, Robert modifies his behaviour so as not to be ridiculous any more. He’s worried about writing convincing girl characters, so asks his cousin for advice on what it’s like to be a girl.

This is by way of giving a taste of the interior world we are immersed in. The book has been championed by Nicholas Lezard, who says it’s funnier than Adrian Mole. I’d take issue with that, but to anyone even vaguely familiar with Mole the similarities leap out. Take the diarist’s minute inventory of his procrastinations as he tries to learn trigonometry in a single day, which recalls Adrian’s minute-by-minute account of his class’s calamitous trip to the British Museum:

By evening I had read twenty-seven pages, with a hundred and one to go. This was because at 4.30 I had taken a cold shower; at 5.30 I had decided I was starving and went downstairs to have something to eat; at 6.30 I started reading a magazine; at 7 o’clock I was thirsty, at 7.15 my pencil broke, at 7.30 the sound of the birds twittering made me feel melancholy, at 8 o’clock I felt persecuted, at 8.15 I lit the lamp, – even though it wasn’t really necessary – at 8.30 I studied my face in the mirror, at 8.40 I made some notes for the psychological aspects of my novel, at 8.50 I decided to have a short rest so as not to overexert myself, and at 8.55 I was called to supper.

After supper I played the piano for quite a long time, something I hadn’t done for several years. It was quarter past eleven when I went back up to the attic.

His friend Dinu is the equivalent of Adrian’s Nigel, a friendly rival. While he is slaving away at his maths work, Dinu has a private tutor. When his own mother gets him a tutor to help with German, the tutor is a 16-year-old boy… There is also a John Tydeman figure, Mr Leontescu, a magazine editor to whom the diarist gives his writing for publication without remuneration. I’m sick of calling him ‘the diarist’ or ‘the narrator’. Fuck writers who don’t name their characters. I’m calling him Jake Westmorland from now on.

Jake has emotional crises and setbacks. A passage relating one:

Today, just before sunset, I died. From now on, a different light will shine on my disfigured face. My clouded eyes will see the world in a different way, and another life will rise up from the depths of my soul.

Again, pure Adrian Mole, but in Adrian’s case the reader would be in hysterics because of the certainty that within a couple of days things would be all right again (not that one doesn’t love Adrian or feel his pain). Lightness rules Adrian’s world. Jake’s volatile episodes last longer, and affect the reader more deeply. Adrian’s bookishness, similarly, is always played for comic effect (‘Started reading Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I think I might like to be a vet when I grow up.’) but Jake’s is not, though we may still be amused by his devotion to the likes of Anatole France or his fantasies of himself as Ibsen’s Brand… (The real bookworm is Jake’s friend Marcu, who is delighted when he is suspended from school for reading in class as it gives him the time to finish Les Misérables.)

Another book that frequently occurred to me as I read this one was The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil, one of those novels I seem to have absorbed by accident. The darker side of adolescence is indulged in these books as it isn’t in Adrian Mole’s safe suburban hell. Musil’s protagonists visit a prostitute, Božena, and some of them sleep with her; Jake has a similar experience, and is ashamed. Flagellation figures heavily in Musil’s book, and features in one bleak scene in Eliade’s, where Jake whips himself.

But the book ends, pleasingly, on a upbeat note. You come to care for Jake and to see yourself in him. Well, I did anyway. In the raucous choir singing Christmas carols, in the intentions to reform his work ethic perpetually scuppered by apathy (evoking memories of Christmas when I was about 15, a shadow cast over the whole holiday by a piece of physics homework I swore to do immediately but didn’t get around to until the last moment), in his spaniel-heartedness (quoting The History Boys here, as usual). Reading Ionel Teodoreanu’s book Childhood Lane, Jake falls for the character of Sonia.

Forgive me, Ionel Teodoreanu; but if Sonia really exists, then tell her that an ugly boy who doesn’t know what he wants is sad because of her eyes.

The sweet melancholy of feelings like this is one of my fonder memories of adolescence, the discovery of new emotions in oneself. Nice to revisit it.