Privilege Review

It might be my own cynicism talking, but much of the legwork for Privilege, director Peter Watkins' 1967 theatrical film debut, is now almost entirely complete, leaving the film to sort of meekly point out things its current audience already believes. The downside there is that the ideas Watkins presents aren't really palatable as a cohesive work. The controversial director sprinkles his diatribe with slightly underdone observations and warnings, all of which have been ignored in the forty-plus years since the film's unsuccessful release. From the perspective of entertainment value, Privilege misses more than hits, losing focus repeatedly. It's an imperfect film, to be sure, but the considerable and fascinating ideas Watkins conveys do still resonate to the choir in need of some sanity. As with any work of this sort, the problematic aspect is whether it's merely patronising a built-in audience or if the film actually has something worthy of discussion and contemplation.

After Watkins had made the BBC television films Culloden and The War Game, the latter being banned before air and ultimately winning an Academy Award, he amazingly joined forces with a Hollywood studio to make Privilege. Universal made and released the picture, but apparently quickly grew embarrassed upon its commercial nosedive and withdrew the movie for years from repertory screenings. It wasn't until 2000 that Privilege resurfaced, in a new print no less, for a Watkins retrospective at Harvard University. Only now, with this very DVD release organized by Oliver Groom at Project X, has it finally become available for home viewing. For any of the film's shortcomings, it still has the potential to be exhilarating in the same way bold, truthspeaking movies like Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, Wilder's Ace in the Hole and even Peter Weir's The Truman Show can briefly awaken us from our own apathy with the intention of full-on rebellion. An internal conflict with how many banners are desired and how wide each should be holds Watkins' film back from being truly revolutionary, in both idea and execution, but it nonetheless should be seen. Immediately.

The film opens as fictional documentary, a confusing proposition that it really cannot stick with, but one consistent in Watkins' work. A narrator, voiced by Watkins, explains the ins and outs of how Steven Shorter (played by Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones) became the world's preeminent celebrity. The British government essentially created him as a vehicle of distraction. Shorter's popularity ensures the nation's youth will pay no attention to politics. He's a one-man version of Ray Bradbury's television wall panels in Fahrenheit 451. If the season's apple crop is grossly abundant, the fix is to have Steven film a commercial advertising apples. His music emanates from seemingly every radio frequency. Discotheques exist in his honour across the country. He's a Messiah-like figure, able to sell nearly anything with a simple endorsement.

Upon the film's release, critics seemed to find fault with how Jones portrays Steven as a wooden, uncharismatic vessel. Admittedly, it can be distracting to see Jones, in his first and most significant film role, show virtually no emotion. Contrast this with the Canadian short "Lonely Boy," which intimately details Paul Anka's popularity with teenage girls and was used by Watkins, along with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, as inspiration for Privilege. Seeing Anka as confident and charismatic while he keeps his customers/fans in the palm of his hand, and then measuring that against Jones' Shorter can even further the imbalance of vitality. Surely this is intentional, though. Steven Shorter becomes a tragic figure in Privilege. He's not at ease dealing with the image created for him. It's become a robotic chore for Steven to continue. The violent prison break number he performs leaves a stigmata-like memento after every show. His psychological status treads near the level of breakdown. To keep the idea that this charade could continue, Steven must be seen as an innocent who eventually reaches a point where he can no longer accept his situation. The lack of ego he displays is key to his universal ability to rope in an entire nation, not simply a gaggle of little girls. Jones' angst, accomplished with little more than vacant stares, works for the character as both an identifying quality for the viewer and an easily moulded ideal for the character's flock of sheep.

You can imagine Watkins seething behind the camera throughout the entire picture. Not without reason, certainly, and it's nearly a given that the director is presently hopping around screaming how he tried to warn us all of the Britney Spears-Paris Hilton epidemic. His self-interview included in the booklet for this release is particularly enjoyable, and not just for the schizophrenic nature of the entire thing. He goes into some detail about how the British press lacerated his film, presumably out of complete ignorance and with only The Observer showing any real understanding of what Watkins was looking to accomplish. Jones was, of course, cited as a primary offender of the film's incompetence, though seemingly without a basic comprehension of Watkins' goal. Contempt was also reserved for Jean Shrimpton, the stunningly beautiful model here making her acting debut (never to return to the screen again) whose delivery mimics a dour version of a sleepwalker. It's much more difficult to defend Shrimpton's pouty performance, which is about as close to an automaton as possible from a living organism. When Jones and Shrimpton share the screen by themselves, the film takes on a distractingly amateur quality.

That's rare, however, and these performances are merely means to an end. The stiffness involved is either intentional or a byproduct of Watkins' deliberate casting. I do think that both instances must be shrugged off in order to appreciate what the film has to say. Trying to determine this motivation is yet another struggle within Watkins' panoply of colours and signals. He was pretty obviously interested in the relationship between media as enabler and a government-sponsored alternative to actual news. Setting aside nonetheless important questions of acting, narrative coherence, and primary focus, Privilege excels at demanding, loud and clear, that celebrity worship not overshadow more essential aspects of the news. The young persons in the film are portrayed as ignorant to their surroundings because of Steven Shorter's all-consuming idoldom. Though the public gets off with a slap on the wrist, I can't help but be disturbed on some pessimistic level with how willingly Privilege portrays the youth of society as accepting and, more damningly, conforming to this cloaked diversion. Watkins says people are too stupid to recognise when they're being conned.

I like it, undoubtedly, but I also hope that it's incorrect. George Carlin's "scratch a cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist" comes to mind. Sure I'm happy to have my suspicions confirmed that everyone is a total imbecile and that church and state are equally corrupt, but that's a devastating proposition. Watkins portrays Britain in the near future as a basic wasteland of gullibility. Legions of followers, surely not restricted just to the weeping teenage girls, hold Steven Shorter as their deity. The problem here is that Watkins applies universal stupidity as a majority theme when it's more likely to be a vocal minority. Those inclined to cheer along will get what they want, as they ever do with Watkins, but there's a distinct lack of fairness in this exploration. Pandering, playing down to, patronising - these are all favourite skills of Watkins and his pervasive assigning of moronic qualities among a society unable to recognise its own downfall should give even the most cynical of viewers reason to pause. While the director's concern is appreciated, and somewhat reinforced by time, the answer required of such devolution hardly seems present in Privilege. Reject manipulation and we'll all be fine? Easier said than done.

Privilege encourages the intelligentsia to revel in their own refined views, but it now plays like a sermon of masturbatory confirmation. If Watkins and screenwriter Norman Bognar recognised how superficial the popular, mainstream media was becoming in 1967 then kudos to their foresight. The years that've passed since, however, have not entirely corresponded with such a simplistic characterisation. The film gives us buffoon after buffoon, without anyone rising up to dissent (until the very end, of course). The cards are stacked and Watkins doesn't seem to care whether he's merely catering to a built-in liberal audience or trying to develop new opinions. It's not Jones or Shrimpton or the film's lack of narrative focus that most upsets me about Privilege, but the condescending, above-it-all nature of Watkins' dive into the mainstream. He's either letting the audience know how stupid they are or confirming their opinion that everyone else (obviously not the ones who "get it") lacks the basic sense to prevent total governmental control. The easy labeling of the public does become bothersome, but, again, none of these flaws should prevent Watkins' film from being seen. It's still relevant and disturbing to those of us who relish our volitional freedom, but I'm disappointed in how simplistic the audience is treated. Sure, let everyone know how ignorant the nonbelievers are, but, for Steven's sake, don't tell us doom is our prize for watching the film. Anyone taking the time to see Privilege will most likely be on the coveted team already, and the true believers aren't that likely to be persuaded anyway.

The Disc

As mentioned above, the path to bring Privilege to DVD has been an arduous one. This dual-layered disc, encoded for all regions, is part of Project X's "the cinema of Peter Watkins" series and is distributed in North America by New Yorker Video. For fans of the film, the entire package must seem like a dream finally realised. Its presentation is, aside from the transfer being interlaced, outstanding and the film is accompanied by relevant special features. Though the participation of Jones and/or Shrimpton would've been interesting, the supplements that are included help to illuminate Watkins' ideas and provide ample room for exploring the film in great detail.

Looking closer at the video quality, the 1.85:1 image is given anamorphic enhancement and advertised as being a "new high definition video transfer" on the back of the case. It does look quite good, with often brilliant colours and an appropriate level of grain. A few speckles, a quality I find almost comforting on DVD transfers of older films, are present in an otherwise clean-looking print. There's some softness in detail, but it still looks near or better than how one might expect a film from over forty years ago to appear. The mild combing from the apparently interlaced transfer is disappointing, though it's something most viewers will not notice.

Privilege rocks out (a little too much, considering one of its tenets seems to be the manipulative power of manufactured music) mono-style with an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The songs sound clear and full, and dialogue similarly presents no problems. Volume levels are consistent and strong, but the music understandably comes through louder than the spoken audio. English and French subtitles, available in a smallish white font, are also included for both the film and the "Lonely Boy" short.

In a 40-page booklet included with the release, Watkins touches on several aspects of the film, all of which are fascinating. His self-interview is a major addition to the supplements. Watkins scholar Joseph Gomez contributes a chapter from his 1979 book on the director, as well as a short postscript written this year. In the latter, Gomez discusses warming up to Privilege over the years and acknowledges that his original methodology may have been limited. A short essay by Barry Keith Grant about teen idolatry and "Lonely Boy," the 1962 short featuring Paul Anka, finishes up the booklet.

Having "Lonely Boy" (26:36), which was directed by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor, as a supplement on the disc is most welcome. Not only is it artfully entertaining by itself, but the obvious influence the short film had on Privilege gives an entirely different perspective on both works. In some ways, Lonely Boy seems actually to be superior, as it much more subtly and realistically documents the same territory while avoiding the pitfalls Privilege can't resist. The black and white short at least gives the appearance of being unbiased, leaving the viewer to recognise the potential lurking in having a popular, but empty figure also serve as a brand unto himself.

A trailer for Privilege (2:56) and a generous stills and poster gallery from the film are joined by a Peter Watkins filmography to close out the disc extras.

7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10


out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 22:31:24

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