Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 2, 2012
Last night Alex Cox and I sat down for a private screening of O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973). Alex had met both Anderson and Malcolm McDowell back in the seventies, and had even presented Anderson with a script for a film that never got made (Scousers). At one point Alex, who had not seen O Lucky Man! in a very long time, couldn’t help but blurt out that “it’s even better than I remember!” Alex was also surprised by how certain sequences in the film had clearly influenced his own Highway Patrolman (1991), and we both marveled at how, despite being almost 40 years old, the film retained all its original power and packed a prescient edge. O Lucky Man! is even more relevant now to the U.S. because at the time of its release it was chronicling the nervous collapse of English society from an engineering country to a service country. It’s the same spasm that now grips the U.S. psyche.
O Lucky Man! is the middle film in a loose trilogy directed by Anderson, written by David Sherwin, and starring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis. It remains McDowell’s favorite film of the many he’s worked on. The adventures of the “everyman” Mick Travis started in the boarding school with if… (1968), but McDowell adds a lot more of himself and his personal experiences into O Lucky Man! whereas the same can not be said for Britannia Hospital (1982).
O Lucky Man! hits close to home for those of us in the U.S., especially when the audience can see that big business interests are clearly going into third world countries to exploit their resources. It was savaged by critics, yet when “the safe-guarding of investments” is mentioned as being protected by “random elimination techniques” purveyed by a private company, it’s hard not to think of Halliburton and drone warfare.
Watching if… nowadays it’s hard not to recoil at the way it uncomfortably brings up images of the Columbine shootings, but at the time it was released it touched a very different nerve that coincided with the 1960s counter-cultural zeitgeist calling for armed revolution. Comfort is a concept Anderson was happy to wage war on, as he felt much of societal decline stemmed from a stagnation too readily embraced by the bourgeois. Anderson wanted to shake things up, but it would also later result in Anderson feeling like he’d been pigeonholed as a director who only made arthouse films.
Britannia Hospital tackles the British National Health Service but all three of the Mick Travis films have contemporary British society in mind. They also share a rotating cast of other actors that make repeat appearances and include surrealistic sequences that give Anderson’s satire an unusual edge. if… was Malcolm McDowell’s first screen role, it launched his career, and was pivotal to his being cast in the lead for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) – a film that gets referenced in many different ways during O Lucky Man!
It was Malcolm McDowell who provided the genesis for O Lucky Man! When if… won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, McDowell pressed upon Anderson that they should work together again on another film. Anderson told him that good scripts were hard to come by and told the actor to write it himself. McDowell drew on his early experiences as a coffee salesman, Sherwin flushed out the treatment into a feature-length script (including real events that had happened to him), and Anderson then added a variety of elements that also contributed to its unusual structure, such as a number of musical interludes by Alan Price, purposefully modeled after the chorus in Greek dramas who both comment and appear in the action.
Price, the original keyboardist for The Animals, hailed from Newcastle and Anderson made sure he had a constant supply of Newcastle Brown Ale on his piano during all the musical bits. Rolling Price into the film was also a way for Anderson to ameliorate his frustration at not having been able to film a documentary of Price on tour, due to the prohibitive cost of licensing the cover songs which the band was performing. The musical interludes are only one of many distinctive touches. Anderson also employs the intermittent use of black leader to punctuate scene transitions, has many of the actors playing up to three or four different roles, and dabbles with meta-awareness right from the get-go, having fun with the plasticity of cinema by kicking off with a grainy, b&w, silent short starring McDowell as a Latino laborer whose hands are cut off for stealing coffee beans, which then switches to the first song where we see Anderson and his film crew shooting Price at his piano (several empty beer bottles already in view).
The length of the film adds to the epic feel of Anderson’s film, but as McDowell explains in his celebration of Anderson’s life, Never Apologize (2007), Anderson had a vocabulary for his vision on what differentiated a film from being small, or rather “mini,” versus big, a.k.a epic – and evoking poetry was at its center:
Never Apologize, a documentary brought to my attention by Jim Dee (Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo), was directed by Mike Kaplan. It captures McDowell pacing on stage as he reminisces about his mentor and friend, sometimes reading straight from letters written by Anderson that only recently saw the light of day. McDowell also provides very entertaining impressions of John Gielgud (which includes a hilarious behind-the-scenes peak at working on Caligula), John Ford (idolized by Anderson, who visiting his death bed), Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (who starred in Anderson’s last feature film, The Whales of August), and many more. O Lucky Man! gets the lion’s share of attention, and contributes a running theme to the documentary. When the studio told McDowell that they were nervous about the near three-hour running time to O Lucky Man!, and insisted on trimming it down, a screening was held wherein the projectionist accidentally skipped over reel 9. Malcolm thought it a brilliant cut.
Five years later, when at attempt was made to restore the missing reel, the negative was missing and a grainy dupe had to be employed. Lindsay actually like the textual difference and is quoted by McDowell as saying “art is sometimes a happy accident.” (Speaking of things gone missing, does anyone reading this have a copy of The Old Crowd, Anderson’s made-for-TV film from 1979? Alex speaks quite highly of it, but it remains elusive.)
After our screening, I pointed a camera at Alex and fired off some questions regarding the film. It’s strictly amateur hour stuff, no edits, bad audio and lighting, etc. It makes Between Two Ferns look like the Oscars and I’m tempted to call it Between Two Dogs because Alex is flanked by his two Australian cattle dogs, Pearl and Gray. On the plus side, you’ll get some nice tidbits from Alex regarding Masonic porno bars and some digs from Anderson toward the studio system. With my apologies out of the way, you can click below for more:
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