Why Lindsay Anderson's "If..." couldn't be made today, and why it's needed more than ever.
Tomorrow night in New York there will be a rare screening of the 1968 British film If... as part of the Queer/Art/Film series so ably put together by Ira Sachs and Adam Baran. This film helped me get through my hellish high school experience — because even though I did not go to a British boy's boarding school and was never caned (or had my nipples twisted by a priest) I felt a complete identification with the students suffering in the stultifying atmosphere of the school in the film. And as a teen struggling with coming out one year pre-Stonewall the sub-plot in the film of a homosexual romance between two of the boys, presented without judgement — in fact presented romantically, I found the film transgressively thrilling.
Of course, the heroes of the film fight back against the school in a climax of bloody violence that makes Columbine look like a picnic — it was made at a time when revolt was in the air and student protests were taking place across the U.S. and Europe. But in the U.S. it was the students who were dying at the hands of the National Guard. In this film, Malcolm McDowell as Mick and his buddies take up arms and open fire on graduation ceremonies. For me, this was divine sublimation. I was that angry, but I certainly wasn't going to act out any of my fantasies of revenge. Today however, in a country where it's easy to get a gun, we actually have scenes like that in If... And they are not dramatically satisfying. They are tragic.
And everyone weeps for the fallen. But in the last few months, looking at the young suicides - those who killed themselves because they were tormented for their sexuality, real or percieved - I know that a suicide is rage turned inward, rage turned at a target where it will be effective since rage against bullies, schools, adults seems hopeless to these young people we have lost.
If... gave me courage to survive my high school years. And showed me an image of gay love that was casual, no big deal, just something that was simply right. More revolutionary that shooting prefects from a rooftop.
I haven't seen If... since the late 60s. In the last few years issues like Columbine and other acts like it have made me wonder if it were even more relevant today. Not because it made heroes of the boys who fought back, but it made it clear why they felt the need to do so. And with the recent increased coverage of lgbt youth suicide (I won't say increased suicide, because it's always been there, quiet and not covered by media with the serious it has always deserved) I find If... even more important to see and talk about in the lgbt community even here in the U.S.
Consider the case of Andrew Shrivell — a cyber-bully in a position of power. He might have been able to continue his insane attacks had not the recent events helped shine an light on his ugly little mind. But this is the tip of the iceberg, and like most icebergs, the vast majority of nastiness is below the radar screen and not covered by media. It is the living hell kids go through every day.
"It Gets Better" videos are a good thing. They give hope to those who have resources enough to find them. But it doesn't change day to day reality. And when you can members of Congress, and institutionalized religion on the side of bullies, it's no wonder teachers look the other way and our schools become our local version of Lord of the Flies.
The truth is that children are not comfortable with ambiguity at certain ages. They like certainty, categories, clarity, definition. And lgbt people upset those categories. Hell, there are adults who never grew out of the this childish need to see the world in black and white. Those of us who've been over the rainbow know there are all different shades in between and a whole universe of colors to play with. And that's nothing to be scared of — rather it is to be celebrated.
The problem with If... is that Columbine happened. And while I had revenge fantasies, I have no desire at all to shoot down the student body of Pat Robertson's Liberty University. I just want to shatter their color blinders.