My first attempt at college life came in 1973-4, 2 1/2 years after I’d graduated from high school at the age of 16. I lasted three semesters, and was a film major. Until that point, I had no concrete learning about film. I knew what I liked (even then, it was Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather and Performance), but had no idea why. I didn’t have much of a sense of film history, and I definitely had no theory.
The history took care of itself. In those three semesters, I got a crash course, for the college I attended had the largest free film program in the country (ah, the wonder years before Prop. 13). We’d get a double-bill five nights a week, plus whatever we watched in my classes (most memorably, for better or worse, week after week of silent Ukrainian movies). It stuck with me, so even when, as a grad student in English, I would bitch and moan about the canon and the necessity to know old English literature, I was in good stead in film classes because I had the background most of the young undergrad whippersnappers lacked.
I would spent hours in the film section of the school library, reading as I stood. There was one book in particular ... I wish I could remember the name of it, it was an anthology of pieces on theory, it had a lot of material about Cinéma vérité, and whatever was current in the early 1970s world of film theory. In the meantime, of course, I was beginning my lifelong love affair with Pauline Kael, who offered a very different perspective.
Lindsay Anderson’s name came up a lot in those books. Anderson began as a critic, and helped create the Free Cinema movement. Anderson’s early years as a film maker were spent on documentary shorts, one of which, Thursday’s Children, won an Oscar. His first feature film, This Sporting Life, starred Richard Harris as a rugby player, and was very much a part of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas from England at the time. I read all about this in that college library, but often I was reading about movies I’d never seen. (I can recall a classmate who loved the movies of Preston Sturges. He could go on at length about their greatness. During one conversation, it came out that he’d never actually seen a Preston Sturges movie.)
So, I knew who Lindsay Anderson was. I have vague memories of seeing if.... when it came out, although that was before I was a film major and I knew nothing of Anderson. I never saw another Anderson film, but somewhere in there I caught This Sporting Life, which I remember liking quite a bit.
A few days ago, I finally saw O Lucky Man! It’s the second film in a trilogy (Malcolm McDowell plays the same character he played in if....). As many have noted, in the period between the first and second films in the trilogy, McDowell had starred in A Clockwork Orange, and it was hard to see him in O Lucky Man! without recalling Alex the droog. I can’t speak to 1973, but I can tell you that more than 40 years later, I watched O Lucky Man! and couldn’t get Alex out of my mind, even though the characters are very similar.
O Lucky Man! is full of innovative touches. Musician Alan Price wrote the music, and he and his band turn up throughout the movie as a kind of Greek chorus, performing their songs as commentary to the action. Many actors played multiple roles, and if you think I’m going to complain about a 27-year-old Helen Mirren turning up as more than one character, you don’t know me very well. The movie is expansive, creative, overflowing with ideas.
So why was I so bored? Perhaps it speaks well for O Lucky Man! that I stuck with it until the end of its 3+ hour running time (although I admit in the middle, I watched an episode of Outlander). But it felt episodic to me, and I was rarely taken with the episodes. There was some commentary about class, but it went over my head for the most part, when it wasn't so obvious it was beating that head into submission. I could usually see what Anderson was trying to accomplish, and someone who liked the film more than I did might say he did accomplish his intentions. But I rarely cared, and I admit I preferred Outlander. It’s unfair to a film to watch it in pieces, and I take the blame for that ... partly. But the reason I took a break is that the film wasn’t compelling enough to keep me watching.
If you appreciate artful fantasy, if you love Malcolm McDowell, if you just want to see what kinds of movies were being made in England during the great period of American movies in the 1967-1975 era, by all means, check out O Lucky Man! As for me, 5/10. #984 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Or, for a better way to spend your time contemplating the English films of the era, check out Nicolas Roeg's Performance (directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don't Look Now.