Elegist of Empire
“Aggressive and defensive in about equal measure, he was gentle and irascible, bloody-minded and generous, courageous, uncompromising and endlessly evasive.” In this manner, the late English film and theater director Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994) described his artistic idol John Ford in a 1981 tribute to legendary American director. However, as this compassionate memoir by his friend, novelist and screenwriter Gavin Lambert, indicates, these words might equally be used to characterize their author. Lindsay Anderson was one of Britain’s most noted and productive theatre and film directors during the second half of the last century. Pugnacious and driven by demons he could not control save through work, Anderson was a member of the generation dubbed the “angry young men” along with playwrights John Osborne and Harold Pinter and film director Tony Richardson. Their work liberated the country’s theater and cinema from a regressive gentility as well as infusing its techniques with foreign influences. As a group, their vitality waned as England descended from the vigorous heyday of “Swinging London” to the economic doldrums of the 1970s. A trace of cynicism and more than a strain of dyed-in-the-wool conservatism emerged in the process, leaving these men increasingly isolated from the culture for which they had once been the epitome of experimentation and risk-taking. No longer savage critics of a hidebound, class-driven society, they found themselves eager to preserve the value of traditions that they observed crumble about them. Their vehemence transformed into nostalgia.
Anderson typifies this fascinating cultural pattern, yet at the same time he never wholly lost a hair-trigger disdain for the failures of his countrymen. When asked what he wished on his headstone, Anderson replied, “Surrounded by fucking idiots.” That fervor was, in many ways, the product of a damaged and divided temperament. He was gay, but found that to be an impediment rather than a fact of life. In his diary while a student at Oxford Anderson wrote, “I seems then that I am homosexual. Oh God. It really is rather awful and I suppose I shall never get rid of it.” He never did, but that sense of alienation led him to be a sympathetic appreciator of outsiders and a mindful critic of the excesses of masculinity. His first feature, The Sporting Life (1963), remains a masterful evocation of how the brutality of a soccer player’s (Richard Harris) emotions doom a relationship with his landlady (Rachel Roberts). Anderson cast the story as a sequence of flashbacks as Harris’s character is being operated on following a serious injury. The bracing ferocity of the team at play is paralleled by the equally tempestuous exchanges between Harris and Roberts.
Anderson’s best-known and most influential film remains If (1968), a poetic and provocative evocation of the tyranny embodied by the English school system. While This Sporting Life embodies the best qualities of what was known as kitchen-sink realism, If alternates between documentation of school customs and codes and surreal alterations of reality. The very film stock switches without warning between black and white and color. Characters are shot and then miraculously reappear. Images switch into slow motion in order to underscore the vehemence of the characters’ emotions, most memorably as an upperclassman works out on the parallel bars under the ardent gaze of a love-struck younger student. If‘s trio of protagonists, led by Malcolm McDowell (in his premiere role), remain outsiders in this hidebound world. They eventually succumb to revolutionary fervor and lash out in the final scene. While If concludes with change wrought through the barrel of a gun, what lingers about the film is the breadth of Anderson’s imagination and the passion with which he at the same time savages and memorializes the environment of his youth.
Anderson’s subsequent major films comprise a trilogy along with If. O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britania Hospital (1982) incorporate McDowell’s Mick Travis as a recurring character yet yield to an ever more corrosive cynicism and despair over any possibility of social alteration. Both pictures are imbued with a style of characterization associated with Bertolt Brecht, a kind of formalized exaggeration that lends an inhibiting distance to the proceedings. Vigorous and often wildly comic though the events might be, one finds it be easy to be engaged by the proceedings but hard to be sympathetic. On the other hand, Anderson’s use of music does bear mentioning. In If, he underscored the characters’ revolutionary yearnings with an African mass, the Missa Luba, while a set of extremely effective songs by the English rocker Alan Price (keyboard player with the Animals on “House of the Rising Sun”) act as Brechtian commentaries in O Lucky Man!. Their lyrics retain a sobering recognition of life’s limited opportunities for individuality and self-statement. Anderson felt those constraints most painfully. Age forty-eight when he began the production, he wrote in his diary, “Nobody realizes what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.”
That painful sense of inadequacy is balanced by Anderson’s impressive productivity. In addition to his films, he had a string of notable successes directing works in the theatre by David Storey, Joe Orton, and others. Never able to find a permanent companion, Anderson nonetheless remained passionately devoted to friends and family, aiding many people financially and putting them up in some cases for many years in his own home when they fell on hard times. Lambert’s memoir chronicles this fascinating yet heartbreaking odyssey. The two men had known once another since their schooldays, both having attended St. George’s School, where Anderson returned to shoot If, and later Oxford. Together, they founded the first serious British film journal, Sequence, while still in college. Lambert went on to work for the British Film Institute, direct a single film, Amber Sky (1955) and write a set of novels and screenplays, which include the adaptation of his narrative Inside Daisy Clover (1965). The two life-long friends were both gay, yet Lambert never felt abused by those circumstances nor did he suffer in solitude as Anderson chose to do for much of his life. Lambert possessed a resilience that his friend lacked, switching careers and residences several times. Much as he loathed elements about England, Anderson rarely left the country except to travel to film festivals or to engage in occasional business meetings in Hollywood. That intransigence constituted the core of Anderson’s character, yet what was once a matter of principle succumbed over a period of time to a kind of grumpy denial. And yet, that “absoluteness of stance,” as his friend the director Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) put it, was the force that drove his conscience. Much as that “absoluteness” could not permit him to enjoy his life as much as others enjoyed sharing it with him, Anderson possessed a dedication that our age of prevarication and flim-flam makes all the more admirable. Much as the world broke Anderson’s heart, it never broke until the very end his capacity to respond to our cupidity as well as our capacity for grandeur.