Monday, 27 August 2007

Review of the if.... DVD (Criterion & Paramount)

Hopefully you have all gone out and bought the DVD of Lindsay Anderson’s if...., which came a little too late to catch the DVD boom, but it’s great to finally have it in a digital format and to be able to put to bed our worn out colour-washed VHS tapes — or can we?
I helped to get the film released on DVD. As the author of the book on Lindsay Anderson’s Diaries, and at the request of Malcolm McDowell and David Sherwin, I emailed and phoned Criterion to tell them that Malcolm had recorded a commentary, that David was keen to do one, and that I would gladly turn over my if.... archive to them (which includes the 35mm trailer and probably the best collection of production and press photos in private hands). I then spoke to the top people at Paramount, told them of Criterion’s interest and planted the seed for them to licence the film to Criterion (something they had not done with any of their titles before).
Time passed, a year or two, and the DVD is at last here. I got no thanks, of course, except from Roy Baird who rightly has a financial stake in the film and who will get royalties from the DVD.
So what’s the DVD like? The same master was used for the British and American release. The American 2-disc release on the Criterion label has a sharper picture because the extras have been mostly placed on a second disc therefore freeing up disc space for the main video and audio track. The difference can be seen in these screen grabs of Sean Bury taken from the invaluable DVDbeaver site. Click on the pictures to see a larger image:

There is more detail in Sean’s face in the first picture, which comes from the Criterion set.

The film was remastered under the supervision of Miroslav Ondricek, who photographed the film, and it has been enhanced for 16.9 TV and monitors, but it isn’t quite right. It’s an anamorphic transfer. If.... wasn’t made in an anamorphic format. After making if...., Ondricek excelled in anamorphic formats for Milos Forman (Amadeus) and George Roy Hill (Slaughterhouse-Five). Lindsay Anderson insisted on a non-anamorphic format when he and Ondricek worked together on O Lucky Man! It contributed to a strain in their working relationship. With Lindsay Anderson no longer with us, Miroslav Ondricek has had his way and produced a version of if.... that does not look like the format in which it was intended. To create a ‘longer’ image, the picture seems to have been been zoomed. This creates many poorly-framed chin-chops and top-of-the-head crops, so that it looks like something made for modern television.

It is disappointing to report that the print used is the censored print — the one with reduced nudity. It needn’t have been. I’ve seen two uncut 35mm prints in Britain and could have pointed Criterion in the right direction.

The Criterion release comes with a booklet, low on photographs, and containing an article written by a gay Martin Scorsese fan. It also reprints an interview Lindsay Anderson conducted with himself for a press release, taken from my book, ‘Lindsay Anderson, The Diaries’, and used without permission and without crediting me. A couple of weeks before the release of the DVD I got a phone-call from Karl, the excellent Stirling archivist, asking me did I have more of the interview? and asking after it’s source. I told him it came with the original press pack and that I’d placed a copy in the archive.

The main extra is the commentary by Malcolm McDowell, whose championing of the works of Lindsay Anderson has been lifelong and sincere. He really is a national treasure. David Robinson, who visited the set of if...., and who, in 1968, wrote a superb article for the Financial Times, doesn’t rate the film as highly as Lindsay’s This Sporting Life, and couldn’t be bothered watching the film again, but Criterion were happy to make do with his dullish essay read in a Jackanory fashion.

For a screen specific commentary of the film, read the book I wrote for Turner Classic Movies. There are plenty of copies at the better book shops, such as the NFT, and on-line. Here is a sample:

“The inclusion of chapter headings is possibly a borrowing from Zero de Conduite but more probably it’s a steal from the Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis, which Anderson adored, which begins with a monochrome still of the house where most of the action takes place, and which uses different views of the house as chapter headings throughout the film (the monochrome turning into full colour as the ‘still’ comes to life). The three-part ‘overture’ of sound is taken in form from Lindsay Anderson’s favourite John Ford film, They Were Expendable.
The most striking thing about the opening sequence that follows is that we are plunged headlong into the innate lunacy and surrealism of life in a British boarding school. The opening shot is of a corridor full of uniformed schoolboys — juniors in short jackets, seniors in tail-coats. There is a lot of pushing and shoving and shrieking and shouting. The keen observer will notice that in the background of the corridor, centre right and centre left of the frame, two young boys, filmed in profile, are facing each other and talking to each other across the corridor. They appear to be about seven feet tall, or suspended in the air. The frame is so busy that it easy to miss them. One’s attention is quickly taken by a small boy jumping on a wheeled trunk pulled by a senior — the camera low to the ground so that we are not looking down at the boy. We see a double line of boys going up and down a staircase. The boys coming down are carrying the paraphernalia of school life — musical instruments, sports equipment — one boy is reading a book. Back in the corridor, two boys collide. A tin of baked beans spills from the trunk tray carried by one of the boys. In anger he speaks the film’s first words, a shout of: ‘Machin, you bloody shag!’ Machin uses the tin as a makeshift puck.
The boy who spoke first is Markland, played by Charles Sturridge, who would go on to become a film-maker and direct Brideshead Revisted (1981).
Rowntree (Robert Swann), the head of the house, enters from on high — imperiously — walking downstairs, his back to the camera. It is no coincidence that the first we see of him is his cane. At the bottom of the the stairs he turns round — the camera tracking a few feet to the left, almost unnoticeably because it tracks at the pace at which Rowntree moves. We see Rowntree’s face. He shouts: “Run! Run in the corridor!’
Which is exactly not what we expected to hear.’

Taken from pages 48 & 49 of the Turner Classic Movies British Film Guide, ‘if’, by Paul Sutton

Thursday's Children, Lindsay's Oscar-winning film about a school for deaf-and-dumb infants, is a fine and welcome extra, though surely it would have been better to include The White Bus which, in many ways, served as a blue-print for if.... (including a reverse of the famous changes from colour into monochrome) and which was made with many of the same crew.

Everyone agrees that Graham Crowden's interview is a highlight on the disc. Graham was almost a forgot man in Lindsay Anderson circles until I tracked him down and invited him to a meeting of Lindsay Anderson Memorial Foundation. I took Graham's portrait that day, and later did an extensive interview with him (for Camera 3). Both are included elsewhere in this blog (click on the photograph to see it better).

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