Lindsay Anderson Essay - Critical Essays

Anderson, Lindsay


Lindsay Anderson 1923–

Indian-born British director, film critic, and author.

Anderson is probably best known as a proponent of the British "Free Cinema" movement. Conceived at the National Film Theatre in 1956, this theory emphasized the artist's responsibility toward society and the individual. Anderson outlined the precepts of "Free Cinema" in his manifesto article, "Stand Up! Stand Up!" Britain's cinematic approach had formerly been literary; Anderson lashed out at critics and filmmakers and asked that they emphasize "the significance of the everyday" in their work. The tenets of "Free Cinema" are apparent in Anderson's documentary and feature work.

Anderson introduced subjectivity into contemporary British cinema with This Sporting Life. The film chronicles Frank Machin's fervent rebellion against a nouveau riche society. Like other Anderson characters, he attacks the petty standards that signify success.

If … is Anderson's most controversial film. The film is a condemnation of the British public school system, but Anderson did not intend it to be a 1960s view of student unrest. If … studies the relationship between authority and the search for individualism and is viewed as his most successful juxtaposition of fantasy and reality.

O Lucky Man! also fuses real and imaginary worlds, creating a dreamlike existence where disasters are reduced to media messages. This quality provides a less solid basis for his attack on the British public school system. Although the film is Anderson's broadest satire, it is considered to be his least successful.

Anderson's cinematic output is purposely limited due to his desire to portray his convictions through other art forms. Though the "Free Cinema" movement has faded, Anderson continues to create works for the theater which reflect the dreams of "everyman." According to Anderson, realism must be aesthetically pleasing as well as sociologically accurate. Anderson states that his aim is "not to interpret, nor to propagandize, but to create."

Gavin Lambert

The first time [that one sees O Dreamland], it is like a blow in the face; the second, one approaches it with a kind of eager dread. For ten minutes it assaults eye and ear with a rough-edged but sharp-centred impression of this South Coast amusement park, in which the ugliness and degradation of most of the distractions offered are symbolised by the mocking mechanical laughter of a dummy sailor. There is a working model of the execution of the "atom spies", the Rosenbergs, which reconstructs the ritual for sixpence at the door…. [Whether] the rendezvous is with violent death or a smutty peepshow, with a fire-eater or a gambling machine, a listless caged animal or an old mug of tea, reactions appear the same. People stare…. Signs of real vitality are produced by greed…. (pp. 175-76)

Everything is ugly. A papier-maché facade with a swollen, grimacing gargoyle, an immense "artistic" statue representing a coyly nude pseudo-classical figure, a "Swiss beer garden" in which local music and yodelling emanate from twitching, squeaking puppets, the steaming, slippery, greasy trays of food labelled SAUSAGES and ONIONS in the Happy Family Restaurant; feet shuffle clumsily across ground fouled with all kinds of litter, buttocks encased in grey, shapeless material spread and crease over stools at counters; and all the time the sleek charabancs pour in. It is almost too much. The nightmare is redeemed by the point of view, which, for all the unsparing candid camerawork and the harsh, inelegant photography, is emphatically humane. Pity, sadness, even poetry is infused into this drearily tawdry, aimlessly hungry world. It is infused by imaginative comment … but even more by the director's absolute fidelity to his subject….

All these people, one realises, are seeking something they will probably never find. The Rosenbergs die again and they bleakly, willingly stare—but there is nothing perverse about it, only a kind of uncertain passivity, an oppressive, sometimes intolerable sense of loss and deprivation. The pleasures are sad not because they are ugly but because there is nothing else. Where else should they go? At the end, the camera moves swiftly, vertiginously up to a panoramic view of Dreamland twinkling and blaring in the night—and it is like a plea for release. (p. 176)

Gavin Lambert, "Free Cinema," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1956 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 25, No. 4, Spring, 1956, pp. 173-77.∗

John Berger

There is an indication of Anderson's attitude right at the beginning of Every Day Except Christmas; it is affectionately dedicated to several of the Covent Garden porters whose twelve hours of work from midnight to mid-day are the subject of the film. The key word is affectionately. Personally I would never have used such a word; for me it has too many avuncular, dutiful associations. But Anderson gives it new associations and justifies his use of it by the film that follows. He approaches his heroes (there are no villains) and so also makes us approach them, on a basis of natural equality. He neither idealises them—nor does he "study" them…. What he does is to muck in with them…. Having dissolved the problem of his relationship to his subject, and having decided to leave in abeyance the question of what the single purpose, the concluding argument of the film is going to be, he is intensely open-minded, open-eared, open-eyed to the ironies, the contrasts, the undertones, the warm, momentary, human revelations in the scenes through which he takes his cameraman….

[The] imaginative connecting power of the [opening] sequence is remarkable. It connects numerous ideas. It suggests the middle class nature of the monarchy, the present "safeness" of English life, and in contrast to that, somewhere, a memory of what a London broadcast could mean to clandestine listeners during the war, the way those who work at night begin working rather silently, the apparent vulnerability of a sleeping city that leaves its lights on as a kind of bluff. Anderson does not of course expound these points. He simply acknowledges them as associations, as ingredients on...

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Peter Baker

[This Sporting Life] is more about life than sport, less about kitchen sinks than the people who live near them. It is also unique: which in Britain means it risks being misunderstood by the public, torn to shreds by the critics and ridiculed by the Wardour-street hucksters.

I had expected a simple film about simple people. What Anderson has done is to make as complicated a film as Welles' Citizen Kane about people as complicated as … you or me. It is the intensity of thought that has gone into This Sporting Life that compels attention and, finally, admiration. Whether in the final analysis it achieves communication, I am not so sure….

Anderson's film is almost a perfect example of the British temperament to compromise. It has no excesses: its very balance of style and content is as disarming in its conventionality as Burton beer and Cheddar cheese. Yet the one provides as substantial a meal for the mind as the other does for the belly. In a period in world cinema when one can only be square like Hitchcock or Hawks provided the hep youngsters like Truffaut or Godard applaud you, when almost any experiment is praised by almost every critic just because it is an experiment, when even the Italian renaissance is in danger of losing communication with its audiences through sheer intellectualism, it is good to find a new director who believes that art of its very nature owes some allegiance to...

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Robert Vas

[In This Sporting Life] Lindsay Anderson is the first to free himself from what seven years ago he was the first to aim at: the direct attack, the deliberate harnessing of poetry to propaganda, which came then as a shot in the arm but which has gradually been left behind by the complexity of life itself, so that it now seems a constricting rather than a liberating attitude. Here Anderson demonstrates that his social consciousness is not, and never really was, a programme: it is the sine qua non of the existence of his world. He doesn't need to pull out and dwell on all those now fashionable aspects of English life—the North, the rainy Sunday, the tired face of the Establishment. His world simply exists within this context. Freed from the anxious guidance of a reporter/sociologist director, the characters are encouraged to discover their own feelings as they go along…. It is, simply and naturally, a film of the senses. (pp. 56-7)

[The] sudden, subjective glimpses at the beginning, counter-pointed by the tough realism of the setting, stir up our interest in the character and encourage us to look out for his interior drama. Our continuity will obviously be a loose one, drawing the "molecules" of the hero's thoughts and emotions into a slowly thickening texture. Everything that happens is going to be seen from his point of view.

Just how consistently this interior quality is present throughout the film (although in different forms) emerges clearly from one scene—in fact the weakest in the entire work—when it is not present. This is the evening out at the restaurant, where Machin behaves as he never really would—at least, not at that stage of the story…. Here the subjective view is abandoned, and the film takes the standpoint of a detached onlooker. (p. 57)

At its best, however, the "portrait of a man" blends with the "story of a man": interior and at the same time narrative cinema…. We approach the story through the interior drama, and soon realise that in fact the interior drama is the story. The result is a thick texture, carrying the complexity of life itself, defying us to give a straight answer to the question of what the film is finally about.

We may approach This Sporting Life as a study in human behaviour or, as its creators prefer to call it, in temperament…. [Frank Machin's] is the typical fate of tragic heroes who strive to achieve something worthwhile but go about it the wrong way, and cannot help getting into a mess which they are then unable to explain. His real purpose is a frantic search for his own identity. His...

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Gavin Millar

Lindsay Anderson thinks "If … is really a vision, something like the Writing on the Wall." We should therefore look for something prophetic, cryptic, poetic, transforming. Anderson and his skilful screenwriter David Sherwin have certainly written something on the wall, but a good deal of rubbing out's been going on and, in some really crucial places, parts of the wall seem to be missing.

No one in the cinema has ever done such an effective hatchet-job on the English Public School. In If…. Anderson and Sherwin expose its horrors wittily and savagely: the brutality, the exploitation of slave labour, the tyranny of petty restrictions, the sexual confusion and hypocrisy, the...

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John Simon

[If … is a] film of considerable distinction though missed excellence…. If … is much more effective while it chronicles the faintly surreal realities of English public-school life than when it enters the domain of the surreal whole hog. The story of three musketeers of nonconformity in a tradition-sodden English school functions admirably on the level of smug authoritarianism crossed by petty defiance; but the final holocaust would have required both more imaginative writing and, in the director, the unlikely combination of a Jean Vigo and a Luis Buñuel. (p. 109)

The infiltration of the surreal is not uncleverly managed…. [Strange] strands crop up in the fabric of things, but...

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Albert Johnson

If … is one of the most extraordinary studies of adolescence and education in the history of motion pictures…. This film is both a commentary upon and indirect indictment of the traditions of private education in England. The elements of satire and anarchy, of poetic fantasy and melodrama, are allegorically mingled into something rare and timeless. Each of the film's eight episodes is a challenging immersion into that mysterious world of youth-in-formation, a milieu that piques the curiosity of older generations beyond measure. If … opens the doors to this private domain, explaining or intimating at will, with seeming indiscretion, the limitless angers, passions, and flights of imagination that...

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Michael Dempsey

If … is so full of patchy, obscure, muddled elements that we often cannot be sure if our view of the rebels matches Anderson's. The film reeks of material insufficiently absorbed and attitudes not fully formulated. Nevertheless, too much in the movie fails to jibe with the "revolution" that the twin media of reviews and publicity condition us to expect. The film questions and undermines the values and tactics of the rebels too thoroughly to function as a pamphlet, and this is fortunate. In the end, the interest complexity of If … attacks society all the more trenchantly for being so impervious to change that it forces many would-be reformers to become as evil as it is. (p. 20)


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Stephen Farber

[If …'s] first problem for an American audience is its provincial English public-school setting. Director Lindsay Anderson wants us to see the school as a microcosm of English society—an institution dominated by the same hypocritical religion, military brutality and upper class privilege that flourish even more viciously on the outside. But he lingers so long and so intensely on scenes that cannot be considered representative, that take place only in a boys' school … that the connections between school and society become more and more tenuous. The virtue of the film is its specificity. It would be easy to say that the school equals the System, but that is such a bland equation that it is quite...

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Elizabeth Sussex

Anderson's work is based on the assumption that art is real', and that cinematic art is 'poetry'…. What is meant by 'poetry' … is a fusion between style and content, between the thing said and the way of saying it, that makes the two inseparable and at the same time creates something new. His poetry begins with realism, with images drawn from the everyday, that are also so charged with the artist's particular vision that they acquire a deeper meaning, intensifying reality and becoming in themselves an experience. (p. 12)

But if Anderson always wanted art to show a belief in humanity, a mistake that people make is to regard this as a simple notion. On the contrary a belief in humanity,...

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Vincent Canby

"O Lucky Man!" clearly has a number of things on its mind, but as a movie, it is a very mixed bag.

Because Mr. Anderson is much more bold and free as a director than [David] Sherwin is inventive as a social satirist, "O Lucky Man!" always promises to be much more stimulating and funny than it ever is. Staying with it through its almost three-hour running time becomes increasingly nerve-racking, like watching superimposed images that never synchronize. The result does not match the ambition of the intention. The wit is too small, too perfunctory, for the grand plan of the film and the quality of the production itself….

The score exhibits real irony about the ghastly indecencies...

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Stanley Kauffmann

O Lucky Man! is so much the worst of [Anderson's three features] that it seems twisted by rancor—pickled in Anderson's bile because he wasn't called a genius for the first two. The film exudes conceit and pigheadedness, and is steeped in self-display and self-reference, a three-hour effort at self-canonization….

There is no single moment that is not well directed, some moments much better than that. But what is supposed to be a work of radical daring, in method and matter, is only a laborious sophomoric dud. (p. 204)

When the film isn't being excruciatingly banal in its "exposure" of the ills of our time, it's being equally painful in its opposing glimpses of purity and...

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William S. Pechter

[If] O Lucky Man! is a celebration of success, it is of success in a bad world, a world in which, as the sophomoric cynicism of the song lyrics has it, "only wealth will buy you justice" and "Someone's got to win the human race/If it isn't you, then it has to be me." And, in being a kind of apologia provita sua for the director, it seems to me very much a work of bad faith and guilty conscience. To be sure, Anderson doesn't exempt himself from the film's indictment of the world's corruption: he in fact portrays himself much less indulgently than he does his hero, and without the defense of the hero's innocence…. And yet for all the self-criticism that the film implies, for all its bitter knowledge...

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

So many things seem to me wrong about [the killing of the hapless spider at the end of This Sporting Life], it is hard to know where to begin to criticize—or better still, exorcise—such an image. On the simplest and most literal level, unless one is trying to document lapses of sanitation under the National Health, one doesn't find spiders in hospital rooms. The spider is out of place there. It doesn't belong. It's an intrusion, an imposition, an importation.

Perhaps a more serious breach of art, however, is the fact that this spider isn't even an accurate image for the dilemma in which Anderson's rugby player finds himself. Where is the capricious hand of fate that crushes him? It doesn't...

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Judith Crist

Anderson has shown such sensitivity and perception in the filming of [In Celebration], in barely opening the sets but doing so with an intensity of atmosphere that is overwhelming, that the work offers the best of film and of filmed theater….

This is the stuff of true drama, the little murders and petty mayhem of family dealings from memory and guilt and the weapons we dredge from past and present to use. Anderson and a superb cast have made it a harrowing and satisfying suspense drama. Each face becomes as familiar as the small talk; Storey's mastery of minor moments is underlined by the camera, which delineates the blood bonds that hold us all. (p. 77)


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John Russell Taylor

It might be possible on the basis of Wakefield Express to imagine Anderson as a soft-hearted liberal, a sentimental kind of humanist who rather uncritically loves people, the quainter the better. But the humanity of Thursday's Children is something altogether tougher, harder won…. Though the information conveyed by the film is by no means uncomplicatedly optimistic—only a third of the children, we learn, can ever hope to achieve true speech—Thursday's Children comes across as a hymn to man's potential, a study not so much of suffering as of triumph over suffering. (p. 74)

If Thursday's Children showed a new tough-mindedness in Anderson's work, O Dreamland...

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Gordon Gow

The social and the psychological elements of David Storey's In Celebration build rather slowly but nevertheless very strongly to an emotional peak which is tremendously moving…. The result is a love-hate drama, risking sentimentality in its determination to be honest, and succeeding in Lindsay Anderson's skilled marshalling of the … cast…. (p. 29)

Once, during the slow stuff early on, Anderson cuts well away to a short sequence when Colin picks up Andrew in his car on their way north, and this abrupt intrusion of familiar action-type cinema, as opposed to the cinema-of-words that prevails, is arguably a mistake. It increases my surprise at the omission of some short visual...

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