Saturday, October 04, 2008

Film Review: O Lucky Man!

O Lucky Man! is Lindsay Anderson's most patently surrealist film and also his most visually expansive. As some directors are apt to do, Anderson retained many of the actors and actresses in If... and used them in his follow up movie---most notably keeping Malcolm McDowell as the central lead; McDowell plays a character with the identical name as had been cast four years before, Mick Travis. Much like the Boulting Brothers, whose economically budgeted, coal black satires influenced the Scottish director, Anderson largely maintain the same corps of actors and actresses from film to film. Those who have watched several of them in sequential order will quickly be able to recognize many of the same faces.

Reviewers frequently compare O Lucky Man! to Voltaire's satirical novel Candide---although there are a few similarities between the two, the comparison is a rather loose one at best, inasmuch as both works of fiction concern a young innocent thrust into a largely unfriendly, hostile environment of eccentric characters--- roaming freely with no firm sense of direction or purpose into one odd misadventure after another. At 186 minutes, the movie is over three hours long, and so lengthy, in fact, that one has to change DVDs between the first and second ninety minutes. Due to its meandering plot one is never quite sure where McDowell's peripatetic coffee salesman will end up. In the hands of a lesser talent, this degree of fluidity and pacing could have easily exhausted the audience's patience but the film's high visual quality and skillfully crafted screenplay (written by David Sherman, a frequently collaborator with Anderson) keeps viewers from growing bored.

Director Anderson enjoyed dividing his films into separate, but tightly interwoven segments. Where If.... was divided into six parts, all under different single word subheadings, O Lucky Man! is separated by title sequences into cardinal directions, all presumably regions of England that Travis, the coffee salesman, would cover as part of his business territory. At one section of the picture, the titles take on a particularly anarchic function, spouting forth a few minutes worth of non sequitors. Still another short section briefly parodies Tony Richardson's opening sequence of the 1963 film Tom Jones, itself filmed in the same manner, in keeping with the techniques of silent cinema. The movie also features frequent musical interludes provided by keyboardist Alan Price, probably best known as a member of the early British Invasion group The Animals. Price's songs thematically underscore the narrative of the film and also crop up periodically at the end of scenes, thus functioning as a kind of period-era Greek Chorus. Thankfully Price's compositions all the way through are surprisingly tuneful and of a consistently high quality, traits often in short supply for a movie soundtrack.

The director's background as a documentary filmmaker must have led to a burning desire to capture live a pop music performance. O Lucky Man! began its life as a rock documentary seeking to detail the touring and performance life of Alan Price's band. However, that idea was quickly discarded when Anderson decided that filming a documentary and paying substantial musical royalty fees would be far more expensive and prohibitive than making a feature film. Nonetheless the director retained the services of Price and his group when it was decided to film O Lucky Man! instead of the rockumentary. What is often forgotten in these days is that at the time of filming , in 1972, the incorporation of 100% rock n' roll into a film soundtrack, scorning altogether a conventional orchestral score was still a relatively infrequent phenomenon in major studio features. Now, rock music or some variation thereof is almost always used in the background and in the source music of almost every film, so much so that we take it for granted. Anderson would try his hand again at music documentary, even going so far as to visually record the mid 1980's tour of then-extremely popular British group Wham! It's hard to understand why the same man who directed If.... would have found anything about eighties dance pop the least bit appealing, but he did somehow. The final product, Wham! in China: Foreign Skies, was largely pronounced a mediocre effort at best, leading many to believe Anderson might have been wise to stick with Alan Price instead of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.

Anderson productions prior to O Lucky Man! had been limited in scope by relatively modest budgets. This time around, the unexpected commercial as well as critical success of the director's second film gave him the ability to, on his third cinematic effort, shoot on location all over the United Kingdom. While the director found more success on the stage than in the cinema, here we see Anderson disregard the spartan settings of the theater to embrace the full scope and breadth only possible with a big budget. It would be the only time the director would get the opportunity to utilize location shooting to such a grand degree, and to his credit the pictorial results are quite impressive indeed. Though a flop at the box office, O Lucky Man! is still considered by many critics and viewers as Lindsay Anderson's best. It is certainly his most epic in scale and construction. As it goes for many movies ahead of their time, the picture was certainly too bizarre for mainstream audiences and a shade too grotesque to suite the tastes of the art house crowd. With the passage of time the picture was acknowledged to be a cult film but it took the establishment of home video to build the film's reputation as a forgotten gem of the early 1970's.

As for the director's intent and unifying theme, O Lucky Man! plays as an extended allegory criticizing the supposed merits of the capitalist system. It maintains that although adopting an air of confidence and proper mindset is often thought to be enough in and of itself to be the road to financial success, the reality is much grimmer. The process of attaining wealth is shown to be an inhuman, unpleasant, and cruel endeavor run by heartless tycoons. Though many at the top advance a self-serving myth, adopted by Travis at the outset, namely that financial success comes to all those inclined to hard work and the proper attitude, Travis learns instead the dismal reality: the system is unfair, hypocritical, and hopelessly corrupt, gobbling up and grinding people underfoot without remorse. Director Anderson's films each scathingly criticized different facets of his native Great Britain and this installment holds particular scorn for big business excess, government paranoia, and military-industrial turpitude. The cast is in fine form throughout and even the notoriously crabby, cynical director allows himself a moment of unrestrained euphoria at the film's conclusion. It would be another decade before the next Anderson film was released. Lamentably it would be the 1982 critical and commercial disaster Britannia Hospital, which was savaged by both the press and the public so severely that its director never really recovered from the shock. Anderson directed only one major studio picture after that public relations debacle, dying unexpectedly in 1994 at the home of one of his first patrons.


RC said...

I like "If" a great deal.
It was simplistic, but focused on the authoritarian patriarchy, it's classism, sexism, repression, neurotic deviation and the dissidence it arouses in those it seeks to control.
It is a fine insider's look at fascism----I was reminded when I saw it of how much it created for me the sensation I was watching something analogous to what Jewish citizens in '37 Germany felt.
Abuse masquerading as legally sanctioned control . . .

O Lucky Man was ambitious, and I'll have to watch it again. I was not as taken with it when first I saw it, but I'n not sure I gave it it's full measure.
Thanks for the write up.

Kathryn Mackenzie said...

I've really enjoyed reading this review - thanks! I do think of 'O Lucky Man!' as essentially an optimistic film, with Travis finding some kind of redemption/understanding at the end. In contrast 'Britannia Hospital' offers no such hope, maybe this is why it is a much harder film for people to stomach.

You mention 'If you were there: Wham! in China'- we've got a lot of material relating to this in the Archive so I should really scan some and get it on my blog - though I think I'd need to be careful there was nothing too contentious i.e. anything critical of George Michael. In the correspondence files relating to the making of this film Lindsay Anderson often says the reason he was removed from the Wham project was that his film was 'too much China, not enough George Michael'!