Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thoughts on Lindsay Anderson's "O Lucky Man!"

Time to re-examine an overlooked classic: O Lucky Man!

A surreal, wildly allegorical satire of politics, business -- aw, hell, of humanity itself -- this 1973 film by British director Lindsay Anderson towers among the greatest motion pictures.

I first saw this picture 15 years ago in a film-appreciation course in graduate school at the University of Virginia. It blew my mind. Immediately, I went out and bought what was, at the time, the only available version of this 3-hour film: a scratchy print spread across two VHS cassette tapes. I've watched O Lucky Man! at least once a year ever since and never grow tired of viewing the picture. I discover something new and amazing with every viewing; it is a rich cinematic entertainment – provocative, terrifying, wickedly funny, scathingly satirical and ultimately…yes…refreshingly optimistic, albeit in a guarded way.

Warner Bros. finally and without fanfare released this brilliant masterwork on DVD in late 2007. So quiet was the release on DVD that even I did not hear about it until stumbling across the news quite by accident months later. I placed an order through Amazon and waited with great anticipation until the two-disc special edition finally arrived. Hallelujah.

O Lucky Man! chronicles the episodic adventures of one Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), a young coffee salesman whose thirst for success drives his every move. Given an opportunity to prove himself in the coffee company's north territory of England, Travis sets out with a compass and an apple (!) given by his manager. In rapid succession, he is seduced by his landlady, taken to a strip club by the mayor, presented a gift of a golden suit, captured and tortured at a military base, subjected to bizarre human experiments at a private medical clinic (reminiscent of Island of Lost Souls), taken under the wing of a rock band, featuring keyboardist Alan Price (of Animals fame) and seduced yet again by the band's muse, Patricia (a stunningly beautiful and far-out Helen Mirren). Incredibly, all of this flows seamlessly and with a wry, detached British humor that might be the missing link between pictures produced in the late 1940s by Ealing Studios (see Kind Hearts and Coronets) and Monty Python. Patricia's dad Sir James is a corrupt British industrialist looking to exploit third-world countries in Africa for financial gain. Travis becomes his executive assistant and ultimate fall-guy when Scotland Yard closes in on Sir James' evil schemes, including genocide.

From would-be capitalist to prison convict, Travis emerges with a newfound belief system: altruism. He quotes Thomas Payne! He preaches brotherly love to London's poor – the bums, the meth abusers, those who guzzle paint thinner for a cheap high. And they scorn him just as readily as the British aristocracy had used him as scapegoat for their international crimes. Travis stands apart from all social classes, much like Voltaire’s Candide, who found he had to remain detached from society to maintain his idealism.

All the while, like a Greek Chorus, Alan Price and his incredible band sing original compositions that comment upon and provide wry counterpoint to the story unfolding before us:

"Smile while you're makin’ it. Laugh while you’re takin’ it. Even though you're fakin’ it. Nobody’s gonna know."

In the hugely satisfying twist ending, the movie actually turns into itself, spiraling around like a snail shell to evolve into the motion picture we have just witnessed. Mesmerizing.

Even this rudimentary plot outline cannot do justice to a film that unspools like dream logic, punctuated by the stuff of nightmares.

Director Lindsay Anderson shared a world-view not unlike that of Stanley Kubrick, which is to say both artists had an abiding mistrust of social systems and politics, especially. Kubrick directed Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), arguably the greatest satire ever committed to film. Anderson's O Lucky Man! has to rank second. For perspective, I would place David Fincher's Fight Club (1999) in 3rd place.Lindsay Anderson toiled under the radar for much of his career, although he directed at least three modern classics, starting with the stark realism of This Sporting Life (1963), continuing with the nightmarish If… (1968) and following with his greatest film, O Lucky Man! McDowell appeared as Mick Travis in If..., O Lucky Man and Anderson’s less effective Britannia Hospital (1982), although the character appears to be the same in name only.

It can be difficult to determine if Anderson was a misanthropist, or perhaps a great humanist throwing up a warning cry against subservience to politics and blind, social obeisance of any kind.
I believe he argues in favor of turning our backs on society, on a world he sees as being hopelessly entrenched in corruption – whether it is the world of the rich or the destitute. He offers no solution, nor is that his obligation. If anything, Anderson’s film retreats into idealized fantasy by the end, although he may be equally suggesting that escape in any form is preferable to living in a world dominated by powerful, larcenous men with nothing but money and murder on their minds.

For those who question the morality of our society, or merely seek better to understand the place we occupy as individuals within that society, O Lucky Man! is essential viewing. It is no mere mockery of later 20th century capitalism; indeed, in its themes and exploration of the human condition, O lucky Man is timeless. Approach it with an open mind and it might just change your life.

I mean this most sincerely; no hyperbole intended. O Lucky Man! is the cinematic equivalent of expanded consciousness. It remains, 35 years later, a tremendously fulfilling work of art cleverly disguised as film entertainment.

If you have a friend on whom you think
you can rely - You are a lucky man!
If you've found the reason to live on and
not to die - You are a lucky man!
You know, the preachers and the poets and the scholars don't know it,
Temples and statues and steeples won't show it,
If you've got the secret just try not to blow it - Stay a lucky man!

If you've found the meaning of the truth
in this old world - You are a lucky man!
If knowledge hangs around your neck like
pearls instead of chains - You are a lucky man!
Takers and fakers and talkers won't tell you.
Teachers and preachers will just buy and sell you.
When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell-
You'll be a lucky man!

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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