Thursday, October 30, 2008

Privilege (1967)

In 1967, Peter Watkins made his first fiction film, Privilege, which was basically a long form version of the type of faux documentaries he had become famous for. First came Culloden (1964), a stunning recreation of the 1746 battle in which the British resoundingly defeated the Scottish forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Here, though, Watkins employs a shockingly effective device: the battle’s 18th century participants speak directly to the camera, as though they are contemporary soldiers being interviewed in-country in Vietnam. From their points of view, we feel that we are watching raw footage of the defeat of the Scottish clans at the hands of the better-organized British and the utter brutality of the victorious British in dealing with the captured Highland Army, whose soldiers were callously abandoned by the cowardly Bonnie Prince Charlie. Next came the highly controversial The War Game (1965), a depiction of what would happen if the British Isles were struck by a Russian nuclear attack. But the mock-doc was so ghastly and unflinching in its details of the effects of thermonuclear war on the populace that the BBC, afraid of offending the delicate sensibilities of its viewers, chose not to broadcast it.

Later in his career, Watkins continued to mine the mock-doc formula. The Gladiators (1969) is a near-future look at a world in which disagreements between nations are worked out by small bands of soldiers representing the countries involved in the dispute. In this way, small-scale combat takes the place of and obviates the need for full-scale war. Punishment Park (1971) also takes place in the near future, one in which American political dissidents are rounded up and sent to Punishment Park, a fenced-off slice of desert, where they are hunted down by National Guard units. The dissidents are told that if they can safely reach an American flag perched atop a hill inside the park, they will be absolved of their crimes and sent home. But Watkins has a sadistic surprise in store for the survivors, proving that when it comes to games of chance, the odds are always with the state. Both movies are extrapolations of late sixties social phenomena taken to their logical extremes.

Sandwiched between these movies is Privilege, which also takes place in the near future, in this case a Great Britain beset with violence generated by its unhappy and restless youth. After years of newspaper accounts of violent Teddy Boy gangs (dramatized by Colin MacInnes in his classic novel about the birth of teen empowerment, Absolute Beginners), and the wars between the Mods and the Rockers, English literature was filled with science fictional cautionary tales about teenagers run amuck. Examples of this sub-genre include Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive, John Christopher’s Pendulum and, especially, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. (Interestingly, there is no similar trend to be found in American literature of the same period.) In fact, Privilege is thematically similar to A Clockwork Orange in the way in which the state develops a controversial manner to subjugate its violence-prone youth.

In A Clockwork Orange, it is the Ludovico Technique, an experimental process in which teenagers are conditioned to become sick at the thought of committing even the slightest act of violence. But Privilege takes a different tack altogether. It is the story of the rise and fall of Steven Shorter, a rock star who is secretly controlled by the government to act as a safe outlet for teenage rebellion and to influence their youthful consumerist habits. When we first meet Steven Shorter, he is at the height of his fame. He is onstage, reenacting his own personal passion play of imprisonment and release, “Set Me Free,” in front of an audience made up of shouting, weeping young women who, when he is beaten by his prison guards (or actors impersonating prison guards; it is never made clear which is the case), storm the stage and begin attacking them. But because this is still the prim, relatively repressed part of the 1960s, the girls who rush the stage in a fury all wear sweater sets and penny loafers. Watkins perfectly captures in a series of close-ups the near religious hysteria of Shorter’s teenybopper acolytes.

Steven Shorter is not just a rock star; he is also a corporation. In scene after scene, we see how Shorter is used by the corporation board of directors and government ministers, with the tacit complicity of the Church, to manipulate the youth of Great Britain, allowing them to blow off steam by listening to his songs, partying the night away at his clubs, watching his TV specials and commercials, and generally obeying his message of peace, happiness and conformity. Things begin to fall apart when Steven Shorter grows tired of his success and having his every whim catered to by his entourage of sycophants. He enacts a personal form of rebellion against the corporation and state handlers who control him. In this he is aided by the beautiful artist who has been commissioned to paint his portrait. She is played by Jean Shrimpton, who was probably the top model of her time. She is beautiful to behold, but, like so many other models (apologizes to the late, sublime Suzy Parker), incapable of projecting even the tiniest hint of human emotion. (But she does look nifty in those mod outfits!)

The same criticism also applies to Paul Jones, the wooden actor who plays Steven Shorter as a combination of Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon of the Animals and Jesus Christ (before he became a superstar and before his popularity was eclipsed by a certain band from Liverpool, as one of those band members once claimed). He is pale and long-faced and long-suffering. And the closer the camera gets to him, the less youthful he looks. Despite his wealth and fame, he never seems happy. And even though he is surrounded at all times by a crush of humanity, the only person he can truly unburden himself to is the painter, who goes on to become his lover as well as his confidante.

In the movie’s climactic scene, Shorter gives a speech in which he admits to hating everyone. The corporation is dissolved and Shorter, the most photographed man in the world, ceases to exist, either in reality or in media. In the end, all that is left to show his passage through this world is a scratched piece of black and white film, minus its soundtrack. It is a haunting ending as the movie soundtrack plays Steven Shorter’s rock rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem” (the same music that is used to underscore Borstal Boy Tom Courtney’s act of youthful rebellion in Karel Reisz’ film adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s short novel, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) with some "Eve of Destruction" guitar licks added for ominous effect.

Peter Watkins makes thesis movies. They are driven not by plot or character, but by didactic point-making. And after a while, once you understand the message, Watkins’ movies have nowhere dramatically to go. That’s why his short films, such as Culloden and The War Game, are his best. Privilege is far more interesting as an idea than it is a fully fleshed-out motion picture. Watkins makes the same points over and over again about the schizophrenic and hypocritical differences between Shorter’s outer and inner lives. The scenes become attenuated long past the point of our “getting” them. The result is a movie that invokes the violence of youth, the hysteria of teen fans and the rise of the rock star culture without ever forming them into a dramatically and emotionally cohesive whole.

One year later, in 1968, American International would release Wild in the Streets, the studio’s first serious attempt at movie-making while still catering to its teen audience, raised on beach blanket movies, biker movies and more experimental fare such as The Trip. Wild in the Streets tells the story of Max Frost (Christopher Jones, then inamorata of Richard Burton's disco-owning ex, Sybil), a rock star who is elected president after the voting age is lowered to fourteen. When he becomes president, he passes a law that consigns all adults, including his mother (played by a blowsy Shelley Winters as a guilt-inducing monster), to concentration camps. His campaign theme song, “Nothing Can Change the Shape of Things to Come,” became a top forty radio hit the summer the movie was released. The songs from Privilege were not hits in their time. But “Set Me Free” was recorded in 1978 by Patti Smith on her Easter album, though you could never picture the poet of punkdom performing the song in a sweater set and penny loafers.

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