Monday, November 14, 2005

Privilege (Watkins, 1967)

Peter Watkins’ Privilege, his follow-up to the Academy Award winning film, The War Game, notably shifts its target from those in charge of managing British government and defense to those in charge of managing British popular culture. Paul Jones (lead vocalist of Manfred Mann) plays the role of Steven Shorter, a manufactured media icon that is so incredibly huge that his latest hit can be heard on at least three different stations simultaneously. Indeed, his celebrity and influence have escalated to such enormous heights that he has caught the attention of powerful politicians and clergymen who wish to use his charisma to manipulate the will of Britain’s youth. Predating Ken Russell’s Tommy by nearly a decade, Privilege also draws a distinct connection between rock star and spiritual leader; however, it does not follow the traditional romantic view of rock and roll as a liberating force in the face of oppressive governmental and moralistic control. Instead, Watkins characterizes pop idols as tools used to distract young people away from issues that really matter. If your waking hours are spent obsessing over Steven Shorter and how good he looks in a swimsuit, then you’re not going to be out protesting your government’s involvement in wars overseas. Or so the logic goes.

Watkins’ tone fluctuates between silly -- such as a visit to the set of a commercial where the director’s training grossly exceeds the material -- and fiercely satiric, as when his off-screen voice informs viewers that the England of the near future will function under a one-party system, due to the fact that there was so little difference between the previous two parties anyway. As in his other films, Watkins employs a mixture of conventional fictional scenes and pseudo-documentary, not only to give his story a sense of immediacy, but to give him an opportunity to dissect the purpose and motivations of peripheral characters without having to construct an overly complicated plot. Steven’s stage show is an odd combination of pop balladeering and orchestrated pseudo-martyrdom. Led to the stage in handcuffs by police officers that bait the youthful crowd with oppressive glares, Steven inspires the same kind of reverential screams that met Elvis and the Beatles in their early years. What might serve as publicity grabbing offstage antics for other performers are here performed ritualistically as if there is some vicarious need being fulfilled in the hearts of his admirers as he goes through the motions of resisting arrest.

All of this may sound like a conventional parody of the rock and roll phenomenon fused with a healthy dose of Orwell, but even this description will not prepare the viewer for the brazen way that Watkins borrows fascistic imagery and uses it to indict the entertainment industry, the popular media and organized religion for their participation in manipulating the masses. Watkins’ film is at its best when it is at its most vicious, delivering the kind of unapologetic political scolding than is typical of his oeuvre. The more conventional dramatic scenes in which Steven expresses his inner angst are less effective, particularly since Jones, acting in his first film, is not nearly as engaging a presence outside of the concert scenes. Still, Privilege is well worth tracking down for its audacity and its prescience.



Post a Comment

<< Home