40-year-old 'If ...' finally available on DVD
“If...” is a fascinating movie — and not just because it could’ve been made yesterday, instead of almost 40 years ago.
Originally released in 1969, this surreal look at a British boys school is finally available on DVD in an excellent new edition from Criterion. It’s well worth watching because (despite its heavy English accent) it could be set right here in the states and tell the same sort of story.
Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell in his screen debut) is returning for his senior year at a tough boys school. (Imagine a nasty Hogwarts minus the magic.) A born rebel whose study is plastered with photos of revolutionary figures (along with plenty of pin-ups), he bumps heads with the senior Whips — fellow students who maintain rough discipline over their fellow students. As the film begins, the conflicts are mostly lighthearted, with Mick comedically tweaking his too-serious Whip classmates. But as “if...” progresses, the battle lines are drawn more vividly and the punishments grow harsher, culminating in an extended thrashing of Mick and his two comrades-in-arms. By the film’s third act, when Mick utters the memorable line “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place,” you know this is one teen movie that’s not going to end with a pool party.
Actually, it’s hard to tell just how “if...” does end. As the movie passes the halfway mark, director Lindsay Anderson starts to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Is the encounter with the girl in the city true? How about the shooting of the minister? And what about that wild ending, where Mick and his mates take on the rest of the school with grenades exploding and guns blazing? It’s like Columbine, 30 years earlier, but is it really happening? By the time “if...” ends with a close-up of a smiling Mick, it hardly matters. (By the way, McDowell’s startling performance is what convinced Stanley Kubrick to cast him in “A Clockwork Orange” a few years later.)
Criterion, as usual, does an excellent job with the DVD. The two-disc set includes commentary from McDowell and film historian David Robinson, a TV show devoted to the film, an Oscar-winning documentary about deaf children by Anderson and a thick booklet with essays, quotes and more info about the film. If the movie itself leaves you a tad perplexed — and it will — the bonus features will probably answer some of your questions.
I can’t really recommend “Heavy Petting.” It’s mildly entertaining to hear counterculture icons like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman share salacious stories about their misspent youths, but no one says anything especially pithy or profound. The producers spice things up with ironic clips from old educational shorts, Hollywood teen flicks and once-controversial rock ‘n’ roll performances, but they keep cutting back to the boring talking heads. I remember renting this movie more than a decade ago — on videotape! — and wishing the producers had skipped the speakers and just showed more of those fascinating old films.
Now, with the release of “Heavy Petting” on DVD, I get my wish.
I can take Disc 1, which features the movie itself, and set it aside. I can use it as a coaster or a snack tray. It doesn’t really matter, because the best part of “Heavy Petting” are the extras on Disc 2. Here’s the real peek into the past, a collection of 10 vintage education films from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. They offer a tantalizing peek into the past, revealing the wants, desires and fears of a long-gone America. Some of them, including two films for students, are surprisingly frank and informative. Others are wildly paranoid. “Dance Little Children” describes an entire town getting the V.D. thanks to a big city woman in plaid stretch pants. And “Perversion for Profit” has a furious journalist ranting about some quaint-looking girlie magazines. (If he’d lived to see the Internet, his head would’ve exploded.)
If nothing else, the bonus films on “Heavy Petting” prove that the good ol’ days weren’t so innocent after all.
Will Pfeifer writes about new DVDs on Tuesdays and older ones on Sundays for the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star. Contact him at 815-987-1244 or email@example.com.