O Lucky Man Lindsay Anderson; UK 1973; Malcolm McDowell; from an idea by Malcolm McDowell
Side Cinema Newcastle 23 April 2005 Price £3-50
A Shaggy Dog Story
I think that Lucky Man points directly to Anderson’s limitations as a director/auteur. Giving himself three hours to develop his theme - the something rotten in the state of England - he creates a film that comprises of an episodically structured closed system, a looped circuit that ends up by resorting to and feeding off cumbersome plotting rather than ideas as a source of image and film movement.
What happens in Lucky Man is that the film closes down on and around itself unable to move beyond the core reactive idea of: ‘the young man on the make’ who is repeatedly thrown back by the forces of social corruption. For about an hour before the film ‘closes down’ around plot, the film works stylistically to probe and play with its central theme, but as it progresses Lucky Man does no more than excavate the same idea in a number of closed settings. There is no feeling that the film progresses and as it degenerates into increasingly theatrical mode, it feels like Anderson has a tick box list of big targets for his critique: the police, local politics, the military/industrial complex, religion, alternative life styles, the medical business, business, the penal system and charity. O Lucky Man becomes a vehicle for Anderson systematically to get through this list in a series of discrete episodic cameos.
The intellectual political insights cohering the film are not matched by any actual film vision, and Anderson is exposed as a director who does not use film. He takes stylistic flourishes from obvious sources such as Bunuel and Goddard, but they feel no more than borrowings that he fails to make him own. The devices Anderson uses: the fade to black, the structured intercutting of the Alan Price music, initially promise that a filmic sensibility and a film, rather than a theatrical experience, are in store. In fact these two devices are simply relegated to the status of periodic film markers used lamely to partition sequences. By the end of the film these two devices seem as if from another movie; as do the use of the inserted graphics and text that are never assimilated or made the movie’s own.
Unable to articulate the richness of film possibilities to develop political social ideas Anderson is forced to use theatrical conventions and to play out a plot rather than play with ideas. The problem seems to be that locked into repetitious utterance of one idea( an episodic script idea always has the problem of either exploiting the obvious course of its logic or twisting the logic or otherwise being stuck with the nature of the logic) Stuck with the nature of the logic Anderson is forced increasingly into melodramatic acting out of sequences to maintain interest and dynamic in the images. The movement to melodrama( as in This Sporting Life) is disastrous for the film as it shifts mode from parody to burlesque caricature, from discipline to camp overdrive, from heightened insight to indifference.
One question seems to be what happened to O Lucky Man ? Possibly Anderson’s ambition overreached his resources as a film director The opening hour has qualities that mark it out as film of potential. The caliber of Malcolm McDowell’s winsome shaggy innocence mark him as a natural for the Candide type role of Travis. The young men on the make all are coded by the shaggy haircuts of the era which oppose the smooth gents barber look of the establishment. The hairy men and the smooth men. The film opens with a spoof Ministry of Information/ Colonial Office propaganda film about coffee. Instead of the soothing and reassuring tones of the narrator informing us of the benefits that British rule and commerce bring, we see the reality of the system of oppression based on a crude administration of a vicious penal code with disproportionate sanctions. The coffee bean thief (Malcolm Macdowell), has his hands cut off. However even in this wonderful opening there lurks the seed of the film’s lurch into an undisciplined theatricality. By ending the sequence on a full close up facial shot of Malcolm Macdowell’s ‘scream’ as his hands are amputated by the sadistic military policeman, Anderson intimates and signs an early preference for theatric solutions rather than film movement. Spoof preferred to the discipline of parody. Moving out of this sequence to a opening set by Alan Price playing the title theme the scenario goes straight to the interior of the coffee factory in West London where Travis’ career with Imperial Coffee(we know where that comes from) takes off as a salesman. The episodes on the road accompanied by the sound world of the little transistor radio, the theme of the women left behind and encounters with police local politics and the military industrial all have pace certainty of touch and movement. But as it progresses the film loses its coherence. O Lucky Man stops letting the audience put the pieces together and starts to underline and explain. It becomes patronising. It loses its thread of intelligence and starts to preach. It becomes more overtly theatric (starts looking like a Carry On movie) and crude wanting to do the thinking for its audience.
Perhaps the failure of O Lucky Man represents the failure of a certain type of left wing political thinking which is founded ultimately on a distrust of audiences abilities to think things through for themselves. The consequence of this is an indulgence in gross simplifications of situations and a willingness to distort any message to cohere and fit the line of left wing political argument.