Privilege seems like an unlikely project for Universal to fund during its brief fling with the British film industry during the late sixties, but even when it evolved from a possible project for Terence Stamp and became a topical film starring a rock icon (Manfred Mann's Paul Jones in his film debut) and a fashion icon (supermodel Jean Shrimpton in her only film), and was directed by a filmmaker (Peter Watkins) whose controversial Oscar-winning work, The War Game (1965) was banned by the BBC, Privilege had enough elements to convince Universal that they might have, at the very least, a local hit that rebellious youth and political activists might enjoy; a counterculture picture with music, and a satirical edge that was already present and popular on British TV.
And yet, when many critics panned the film during its brief theatrical release, Privilege, much like its' hero Steve Shorter, was dropped from broad public viewing because it failed to live up to expectations and make the kind of money the studio had hoped it would earn.
When Britain's film industry went from busy in the sixties to struggling in the seventies, one could also surmise Privilege, already out of distribution, simply sat forgotten in storage, and like several unique films of the late sixties, is only now being rescued and preserved after evolving into a ‘lost' film, with a mounting reputation as a brilliant political and pop culture satire.
For the most part, Watkins' film lives up to its reputation as a daring allegory, if not a straight critique, of governments manufacturing diversions so the populace at large remain oblivious or disinterested towards despicable governmental behaviour, and there's probably a dozen essays that have been written arguing the same point about contemporary pop culture icons – the sadly inextinguishable fixation on American Idol and its massive international franchises and imitators – and other puffery littering the airwaves and print mediums that distract viewers from the current War on Terror.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that the most vicious media satires – going back even to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) – were written off during their original release and similarly fell into a kind of cultural oubliette, but it is shocking when a 50 or 40 year-old film ends up being a statement on current problems, rather than a satire made by extremely paranoid filmmakers.
Paul Jones, fresh from Manfred Mann, is perfectly cast as Steve Shorter, a rebel with a talent for song who has been shaped into a massive international sensation so as to distract multiple generations from government malaise and abuse. Jones' own experience with screaming fans, long tours, and being exhausted by an exploitive industry bleeds through his sullen visage, and his own singing (some loose lip-synching excepted) makes him believable as an phenomenon – although Watkins and the film's writers really push the adulation and exploitation of Shorter to deliciously ridiculous extremes: radio stations only play his music, TV stations are named after him, fashion is patterned after his current attitudinal trend, and ‘leisure stations' with ludicrous memorabilia exist for patrons to chill out and spend.
Vanessa (Shrimpton), the artist hired to paint Shorter's portrait, pretty much exists to help Shorter verbalize his torment as he wrestles with the loss of personal identity, privacy, and personality. While Watkins builds the menacing personas of Shorter's corporate entourage, Shorter remains a distanced character, and that, sadly, is the film's biggest weakness, because Watkins repeatedly disallows any emotions beyond Inner Torment; even when he breaks down in Vanessa's arms after a pivotal tirade, we are denied the face and tears she's privileged to see, and therefore continue to care less about a sullen leading character increasingly presented in long takes.
The film's coldness and loss of verve settles in when the verbal jabs from the fake documentary interviews and vignettes make room for the elaborate spectacle in the film's impressive but overlong stadium sequence. Here the film changes gears: it's no longer a balance of satirical pokes at politics and pop culture, but a heavy fixation on subjecting an already deadened Shorter to giant events that rob him of his soul.
The stadium rally, with Watkins staging events after Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda epic Triumph of the Will (1935), celebrates the Church's entry into mass control through pop culture to ensure the only people attending Mass in 20 years won't be just the priests.
Watkins was criticized by some for making an anti-religious film, but that stance is nonsense. A quartet of the Church's bigwigs is first seen reluctantly attending a recording session of pop-styled liturgical classics. The only two bishops with any conscience ultimately bow to peer pressure and the economic realities of tackling an already dwindling flock. The Church may have similar demands for conformity, but it's firstly shown bowing to government pressure, and following a stylized indoctrination rally designed, if not inspired by, Shorter's corporate puppet masters.
So while the stadium sequence is beautifully executed and quite powerful, it's also the point where Watkins' harshest critics probably gave up; where one side rightfully lauded the director for boosting the satire by patterning a rally after Riefenstahl's film (then a novel concept for a contemporary film) and having the lead bishop's oration mimic Adolph Hitler's physical gesticulations and verbal dynamics, one could see critics used to more humorous or absurdist pokes getting bored if not tired by the pageantry, as well as two music numbers and more footage of screaming fans wanting a pound of Shorter's flesh.
The film's finale isn't really a surprise nor a twist; it's expected and logical because Shorter had to finally release all that torment, and since Watkins' portrait of Britain is a kind of sixties Orwellian fascist state, the nihilistic coda is appropriate. One just wishes he'd given us a meaty scene at some point where Shorter would resonate as a person to us, so that his downfall had some impact.
The lack of a compelling lead character makes Privilege a tough film to categorize. It's a satirical snapshot of its time, it's occasionally darkly comedic, but it's also a straight-faced, technically arresting cinematic essay on the kind of manipulation and abuses that could further blossom if people don't wake up – at least that seems to be Watkins' message, which he laments (in the DVD's booklet) as having been ignored.
Manufacturing topical eye candy and using extreme arguments to inflame viewers and drag their attention towards marginal news items instead of genuine problems isn't any different than crafting a media sensation to distract the populace, so Watkins' 1968 cautionary essay is still very much relevant, and not just applicable to the music industry.
Project X and New Yorker Video's DVD is first-rate, and includes a luminous high definition transfer that shows off the Peter Suschitzky's colours and compositions; the design, wardrobe, and colour schemes haven't dated severely, and in spite of the integration of black and white stills, jump cuts, hand-held and smooth camera shots, Privilege still feels like a documentary rather than a fiction film.
To make sure there's some stylistic continuity for the audience, characters occasionally glance at the documentarian's camera, and Watkins (who also provides the film's periodic narration and commentary) used actors and amateurs; the payoff is seeing the actors feel a bit tense around the amateurs' loose and natural behaviour and bits of improv. That discord enhances Shorter's mental ruin, as his scripted and rehearsed media appearances and stage performances are repeated overwhelmed by manically screaming fans.
Watkins also doesn't bother with a stereo mix, nor a traditional music score; instrumental cues are minimalist and mono-thematic, songs are seemingly played on set, and even camera noise is allowed to whir in the background when it's supposed to be an intimate scene between Shorter and his painter/lover.
To preserve his words and avoid being quoted out of context, Watkins opted to write a lengthy self-interview for the booklet in place of a DVD commentary track, and it's quite concise and allows him to quote some of the film's detractors at length, as well as the few positive reviews who recognized Privilege as a daring, genre-bending work.
There's also a reprint of Joseph A. Gomez' essay, plus Barry Keith Grant's essay on Lonely Boy, the 1962 NFB documentary on Paul Anka from which Watkins drew heavily to craft the film's vicious (and often hysterically funny) satire of a pop sensation and his screaming fans.
A wonderful surprise is the inclusion of Lonely Boy, which does get regular play on the CBC as well as Bravo, but has probably been seen by few outside of Canada. Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter's black & white film is a staple in film school and media studies because it's such a raw, brilliantly constructed portrait of a teen sensation as a commodity.
Anka may have been a local Ottawa boy, but he's also a savvy nineteen year old who knew his impact, his fan base, and how to curry his persona of a lonely kid yearning for some love. He's charming, articulate, and knew at an early age he had to progress into the mainstream adult market to avoid being branded a teen sensation, and be written off after a peaking on the charts.
Gomez' print essay also cites a lot of the film's aspects Watkins mirrored and mimicked in Privilege, and seeing the short after the feature film is more rewarding because one sees what elements were glaringly expanded in the feature film - namely the hysterical cutaways to tearing girls, fashioning Shorter's American manager after Anka's (including a verbal reference to a ‘500 year sensation' comment), and copying a scene where Anka presents a portrait to ‘Julie,' the owner of the Copacabana Club; Watkins not only cast actors who resembled Anka's adult business contacts, but copied the second kiss between ‘Julie' and Anka for the teasing cameraman.
The beauty of Watkins' canon is that while it may not impress a broad audience, certainly for daring cineastes and filmmakers searching for fresh technical effects and applied theoretical concepts, his early work remains very rewarding.
Privilege is notable because it's Watkins' feature film debut in the commercial arena, and one can see what experimental and documentary ideas were incorporated into what began as a linear youth satire by the film's first screenwriter, Johnny Speight. But what also becomes clear, as we're halfway through the stadium rally, is that Privilege had no chance of success with a mainstream audience. It's too smart, coldly vicious, and perhaps indulgent in its second half.
That's painfully obvious in the trailers, which verbally and visually cite all the film's hot elements, but convey absolutely nothing as why to this film is unique, let alone what the hell it's about. The print campaign used some beautiful graphics, but while the caption reads “The Raw, Shocking Movie of a Pop Singer Who Makes It Big,” Watkins' decision to go beyond subversion meant Privilege would not be the film youth audiences were being sold.
And yet, as the passing 40 years have revealed, going ‘radical' means Watkins' film remains a prescient statement on the media, pop culture, and levels of abuse to which we've become inured.
Films by Peter Watkins available on DVD from Project X / New Yorker Video include Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), The Forgotten Faces (1961), Culloden (1964), The War Game (1965), Privilege (1967), T he Gladiators (1969), Punishment Park (1971), Edvard Munch (1974), and The Freethinker (1994), and La Commune (2000) from First Run Features.
Paul Jones' subsequent film appearances include Peter Sykes' The Committee (1968), and the director's Hammer thriller Demons of the Mind (1972).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan