Some directors don’t need a long filmography to secure their status as a perfect director. In fact, as it’s been demonstrated from the filmographies of Jacques Tati and Terrence Malick, respectively, sometimes the fewer films a director makes the better their overall reputation survives. After all, Terrence Malick made 5 perfect films in a row over a 40-year period, only to mar his perfect record within 6 years in the 21st century across a handful of mediocre films. Meanwhile, Tati only made 9 full-length films in his career but remains a genius because of what he accomplished across his time as a feature film director.
Such is the difficulty of the auteur: either you die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Lindsay Anderson never really had the chance of either, however, instead obsessing with his own off-beat predilections and never becoming the British Robert Altman that he once seemed destined. His directorial career burned brightly for a moment before fizzling into nearly nothing, leaving only a handful of films for future cinephiles to devour and hail in his wake.
But Anderson’s career in itself seemed one of hardscrabble determination fraught with paradoxical bouts of indetermination and strong resolve. Although his sexuality shouldn’t play a part in his larger narrative it now seems impossible to separate this fact from his professional biography: being a closeted homosexual his entire life, Anderson wove his love of the male form and figure into his films, often weaving the potent sexuality of the male figure and what he interpreted as its predominant overlay that defined the overall archetype and configuration of all of society. Meanwhile, his protagonists were but helpless figures to the shifting tides that shaped their reality and whose best attributes were their ability to bend with these tidal shifts.
In this, Anderson was a Foucauldian lens: one that could aptly penetrate and disseminate deeper truths inherent in the configurations of the world around us and somehow make sense of them. He was a director whose gaze was not only indifferent from the popular understanding and view of the world around him but one that could articulate more substantive views of this world and reality we find ourselves in.
Further, Anderson could say something important and prescient about these configurations and why exactly we are beholden to them. In short, Anderson was attempting to penetrate the very institutions that largely constitute our reality, much like Foucault’s project, and is possibly the only director that had attempted to take on such a difficult project in the visual medium. Anderson was a philosopher first and a director second; that he found greater purchase in the commercial world made him maybe smarter than most contemporary philosophers to begin with.
Lindsay Anderson – A Perfect Director
Anderson’s biography is as complex and interesting as the films he completed in life: born in South India to a British Army officer, Anderson found academic success through his childhood, finding himself graduating from Oxford. From there, Anderson worked as cryptographer in the last year of World War II for the Intelligence Corps in Delhi, and afterwards became a film critic for the influential Sequence magazine, and then moved onto documentary filmmaking.
Working as a documentarian and TV director, Anderson found his breakthrough with his first feature film. This Sporting Life. Ostensibly a “kitchen sink” drama that depicted a lower-class rugby player’s life, this film is a bracing look at the crushing effects of classism and machismo on the male psyche as its protagonist, played by Richard Harris, and the hardscrabble life that accompanies such a tenuous existence.
Although a financial disaster, it was well-received–particularly in the United States, where Anderson would find perhaps his most appreciative audience. Anderson was securely on the side of the individual in his films and their desires, whether or not they ended in success in failure, and for this perspective found an audience among US viewers, if not Continental ones.
His next full-length feature was the masterful If…, a deconstruction of the all-boys schools of Great Britain that eventually produces a revolutionary that kicks off a violent altercation between the students and the establishment. A brilliant film on many levels, If…was an artful film that brought the avant garde to mainstream audiences and introduced the world to Malcolm McDowell’s talents, a frequent collaborator of Anderson’s. Shot and edited with alternating color sequences and black-and-white scenes that heavily contrast what’s present and an idyllic past, If… was a controversial look at how an institution built on repressing the individual may produce dangerous revolutionaries, this film begins Anderson’s most famous body of work, his “Mick Travers Trilogy,” which follows the character (played by McDowell) as he matures and experiences the world–and its pitfalls and advantages–over the course of three films.
But If… is just an entree to arguably Anderson’s best film: O Lucky Man! Released five years after If…, O Lucky Man! follows the further adventures of once-revolutionary Mick Travers as he enters adulthood and the business world. Trying to distinguish himself from being just a coffee salesman, Travers engenders the boundless optimism and ambition that a true capitalist would display to get himself into a position that could potentially pay off in dividends if he follows the path to success.
Of course, as O Lucky Man! depicts, the path to success is a crooked one that veers wildly and is difficult to follow, much less anticipate or make peace with when opportunity arises. As Mick Travers travels through his territory, where he meets one surreal adventure and disaster after another, the viewer begins to realize that Anderson is making a grand statement about the nature of capitalism and life inside of its machinations. Detailing the film any more would spoil the fun of actually watching it, but O Lucky Man! is a spectacular piece of cinema that features an outstanding–even potentially life-changing–soundtrack by Alan Price, whose music plays as a Greek chorus against the narrative, and with outrageous sequences and plotting that makes it one of the most incisive satires on capitalism ever committed to film, O Lucky Man! is a masterpiece.
His next film, In Celebration, was an adaptation of playwright David Storey’s play that centers on the 40th wedding anniversary of a couple, centering on a family led by a longtime coal miner, and three sons that have moved upward in class status and work but are haunted by their own inadequacies and familial traumas which are exposed and unravel during the evening. Hampered by a complicated (for 1975) pre-sale ticket scheme and funded by the American Film Theatre, In Celebration is an underseen classic made by a filmmaker at the height of his powers.
Undeterred, Anderson made another play adaptation, Look Back In Anger, again starring Malcolm McDowell and based on John Osborne’s play. Detailing a love triangle gone wrong between a husband, his wife, and his wife’s best friend, with a Welsh lodger playing mediator, Look Back In Anger is yet another small masterpiece by Anderson, a patient filmmaker that never shied away from long takes or dramatic focus. Now obscure, like much of Anderson’s work, it’s worth seeking out because of its dramatic appeal and Anderson’s ability to stage a play in cinematic form.
We finally get to the conclusion of the Mick Travers Trilogy in Britannia Hospital, a criminally underseen masterpiece from the director and perhaps his most ambitious film. Taking place at the titular hospital, Britannia Hospital satirizes nearly everything about English society and culture: from its stiff upper lip repression to its adherence to classicism to its health care system to the absurdity of human behavior itself, Britannia Hospital uncovers the ridiculous nature of being alive and trying to negotiate the various complex social relationships that spring up between each other–either by nature, job title, or hierarchy. It’s also riotously funny at times, often displaying with a pitch-black sense of humor how ridiculous submitting one’s self to any institutional power really is.
After Britannia Hospital, Anderson only made two more films: The Whales of August, starring classic film stars Lillian Gish and Bette Davis on their final roles as two sisters vacationing one summer along the ocean that reflect on their past with a mixture of bitterness and misunderstandings that have warped their relationship. Receiving mixed reviews, The Whales of August is maybe only of interest to the most dedicated of cinephiles to view.
Anderson’s final film was Glory! Glory!, a satire on televangelism that centers on a preacher who finds wild popular success but leaves his unwanted son behind in the process. However, the son meets a female rock and roll singer that he quickly revamps into a televangelist figure that can rival his father. Released by HBO, this comedy is perhaps the most obscure Anderson film made before his passing in 1994.
Who Was Lindsay Anderson?
Institutions play heavily in Anderson’s overall project: the nature of celebrity; education, systems of economics, medicine, and relationships both personal and otherwise: they are all major foundations to his work and his work explores the codependent relationship between the individual with these social institutions. Mick Travers is his most memorable character because he’s the center of a trilogy of films that follows a strong-willed young man’s life trapped in these confinements and how he either kicks against or works within them.
But Anderson has a wandering eye, as well: he depicts both sides of the argument more often than not, neither damning nor condoning behaviors on both sides but merely depicting the complex situations an individual finds themselves when trying to secure their place in the world.
With this, the question remains: who was Lindsay Anderson? By all accounts from his closest associates–including Malcolm McDowell, who created the documentary Never Apologize in 2007 about the filmmaker through the eyes of McDowell, who was one of Anderson’s closest collaborators, he was a decent man who was conflicted–if not devastated–man whose homosexuality destroyed his confidence and sent him further into the closet with each step. And this is very sad since Anderson could have been a truly revolutionary figure in cinema had he been comfortable with his own sexuality. But instead Anderson spent his life self-imposed in the closet, never to step out his entire life. While his work reflected an energetic revolution against social norms, Anderson himself was left adrift and too afraid of the invisible boundary that he consistently fought against secondarily to his work.
Either his work is filled with subtle images and clues that represent Anderson’s repressed homosexuality or one can read his films as a product of a staunchly conservative capitalist; or perhaps his films sit in criticism of such a character, even though many of his films are directly critical of this economic system. The most obvious answer is that Anderson avoided these subtexts in his work, instead focusing on heteronormative vices and attractions. Anderson even avoided this throat-sung innocence in his films because he was avoiding any symbols that may betray his orientation.
Overall, however, Anderson’s films are about all of us, male or female. The ruthlessness of his satires on capitalism, class, and life itself are somewhat humbling to watch, as no matter how successful his victims seem, he’s still a loser that can stop it all by killing them off one by one.
But who was Lindsay Anderson? A man that produced just a few feature films but worked extensively in television as a journeyman director; a theatrical director who helmed no less than 30+ productions; a closeted homosexual whose orientation doomed him to a lifetime of loneliness because of social mores of the time; an iconoclast whose work has largely become forgotten and lost in the sands of time. Which is unfortunate, since he was a gifted director whose work was against the grain and tried to raise a splinter for the filmgoer to prick their delicate sensibilities upon. Maybe only then would they start to think about the splinter and why it wounded instead of the drop of blood it drew from their finger.