Thursday, April 17, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 107):"O LUCKY MAN!" (1973) Alan Price

Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell

Today is the birthday of British filmmaker Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994), who made two movies I’ve long regarded as favorites: if... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973). Neither film shows up much when film buffs and critics cite the great films of the past and that may be because both films are, in their way, dated, best understood as situated in the time they were made. And if you weren’t around for that, it can be hard to get across their particular attractions.

Today’s song is the theme song for O Lucky Man! sung by Alan Price, formerly of The Animals, who wrote all the songs for the film. Here he sings the title song over the opening credits (Anderson is the silver-haired gent listening who puts something atop Price's piano at one point). Price is shown throughout the film singing the songs, as a kind of rock-band Greek chorus that, to me, adds a considerable charm to the film. At one point, Travis, the film’s hero, played by Malcolm McDowell, gets picked up by Price and his bandmates as they head to London in a van. The film has a wonderful way of jumping in and out of different genres with the quizzical lightness of touch of Buñuel or Monty Python. More like Buñuel, as Anderson has a point to make about the nature of the modern world, he’s not simply spoofing on the ways we try to bury chaos with our silly posturing, the way Python does, but, because this is Brit humor and setting, Anderson’s film has a more contemporary feel than Buñuel does, if only because of the effects of British youth culture and music of the kind that The Animals represented, along with so many British bands. O Lucky Man! is a bit like Buñuel crossed with rock’n’roll, and that made it quite the film for its time.

It’s also a film that more or less seems to presuppose an audience familiar with smoking pot and hash and even dropping acid. Without being in any sense “psychedelic,” the film has a kind of allegorical style that—while that’s a mainstay of certain kinds of literature—sits well with your basic drug odyssey. In other words, if you used drugs to go “on a journey” in any sense, then the journey of O Lucky Man! could feel extremely relevant to whatever journey you might be on. And that’s because Travis, the hero, moves through four geographic areas and encounters people (often played by the same actors, as in Python and in stage plays) who seem emblematic of certain kinds of temptation or trial or, perhaps, reward. From work in a factory to salesman to political prisoner to a traveler in an idyllic Eden to scientific guinea pig to hanger-on of a band to right-hand man of a business big wig to near suicidal detritus of the system to apotheosis as the on-screen hero of his own life. It’s quite a trek, and Price’s clever and bouncy tunes keep right along with the tale, offering their musical comments.

Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell
“If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely you are a lucky man” are the first words in the film, and are, indeed, words to live by. Does Travis? Perhaps not, but he is a lucky man, seemingly, if only because he escapes the really terrible fates that befall others. And, maybe, that’s as good as it gets. “If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains” has always been a key line for me in assessing whether or not one is “lucky.” We might say that real knowledge can enhance misery, in the sense this film means it, as in: if you don’t trust the big boondoggle that is the capitalist system, if you, in fact, know it is a boondoggle, than that knowledge—and all you base it on—may seem as chains you can’t break—any more than those prisoners in Plato’s cave could break theirs. But if such knowledge provides “pearls”—well, then, you might at least, now and again, jump clean of the clockwork, as Henry Miller might say.  “Preachers and poets and scholars don’t know it / Temples and statues and steeples won’t show it / If you’ve got the secret just try not to blow it / Stay a lucky man!”

And—in case we’re wondering about this “lucky man” and what his luck is likely to do for us—there’s that great line: “When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell, you’ll be a lucky man.” Which always puts me in mind—fittingly enough on Holy Thursday—of Christ and the temptations leveled at him by Satan in the desert. Satan, we might say, tempts him with “heaven”—a heaven he can’t deliver, which is therefore “hell,” because accepting the temptation is the surest way to fall from the intrinsic and self-sustaining “luck” that comes with being what any of us might be, potentially, “a child of God” (with a nod to Joni Mitchell’s great line, “well, I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road”—the intro to her paean to Woodstock and all it was supposed to mean—“we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”). We might, in 1973 and after, be “lucky” enough not to trust that temptation as well. But, if so, the temptation that the film seems to put in its place is Hollywood (in the sense of “the silver screen”—highly profitable and commercial make-believe, in other words).

The key to the luck the film wants us to have, seemingly, is: “If you’ve found a reason to live on and not to die.” We could say that anyone is lucky who actually has something to live for, as opposed to, y’know, just life. Maybe. Which is a way of saying that intentionality and self-knowledge are necessary. Otherwise, we’re pretty much vermin. We eat, shit, and sleep and do whatever we have to do to maintain that existential condition round the clock, year round. Until, at some point, we can’t. Alleluia.

Do this in memory of me.

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