Tuesday 28 January 2020

The future now, then… Privilege (1967)

‘The Government is Coalition and the slogan is “We Will Conform.” No, we won’t, and you should know that by now, Mr. Watkins.’ The Sun… er, yes, “we” will and you have been complicit.

Directed by Peter Watkins after The War Games, Privilege proved another controversial and challenging film from the director and one that resonates ever louder today in societies controlled by manufactured distractions, in the arts, society and politics. It’s not just pop that’s confected but outrage and dissatisfaction with other parts of society, political and trading alliances and even specific members of the royal family.

The American philosopher Neil Postman wrote a book called Amused to Death long before Roger Water wrote an album based on its arguments. The bottom line is that our culture is endangered when “… a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk...”

Mr Jones
In Walker’s film set in the then near future of the seventies, pop star Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) is the most popular figure in the country who is being used to help control the mood of his fans. Shorter’s stage act is dangerous and drawn from his own experience of being incarcerated for a minor crime. He is brutalised by burly stunt men dressed as prison warders and policemen and his fans are driven to a frenzy.

This seemingly anti-establishment narrative is a double bluff by the powers that be who only want to generate a certain amount of anger; enough to amuse the masses and prevent them from more focused thoughts and action with respect to the actual state of the country.

This double bluff fantasy leaves Steven numb and it’s no slight on Paul Jones’ acting ability to say he plays it well. Watkins knew what he was doing in casting a pop star in this role as well as a famous fashion model, Jean Shrimpton as an artist, Vanessa Ritchie who is hired to paint his portrait. The limitations of both work perfectly well in the film as life begins to swim uncomfortably fast for both – the public would also have identified with them and potentially felt more identification with their alienation and abuse.

Jean Shrimpton
As it is the doe-eyed super model is perfect as another intentional thought experiment; giving Stephen someone to identify with, someone who will take the edge of his experience and his free will; a cold and deliberate act offering his someone warm and caring. But surely, he’ll see through it? Stephen’s problem that his life is under control and he is being moved around too fast to think let alone mount a response.

This is no doubt similar to the way The Beatles and The Stones felt at the peak of their mad fame and even Paul Anka who was the focus of Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s 1962 documentary, Lonely Boy, which Watkins studied extensively.

Privilege is cast as a documentary and has the stripped-down aesthetics of cinema verité making us as much the audience as the screaming fans. We too are shocked by the violence of Stephen’s stage show as he is handcuffed and bloodied by the fake prison screws. Jones’ unease is exceptionally well captured by Watkins and the film is by no means a quaint period piece. Quite the contrary, as he is totally controlled by manager Martin Crossley (Jeremy Child), PR Alvin Kirsch (Mark London), record company exec Julie Jordan (Max Bacon), and money man Andrew Butler (William Job).

Uncredited bit part from Lucy Fleming on the left, later to star in Survivors...
Steven adds his brand to anything from apples to nightclubs, shopping centres and grocery brands; he’s very much a commodity himself.

The music was composed by Mike Leander who would have success with his own product, Gary Glitter, in the seventies and his key song here, Set Free becoming a hit for Pattie Smith in the late 70s as Privilege (Set Me Free). It’s also hard to watch the film without thinking of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange – an individual the state wants to brainwash and use for their own ends.

Privilege is one of the key films that show the dissatisfactions of the swinging sixties through all the flowers and an ostensibly successful underground movement that may have produced some great art but which was firmly back in its box by the time Glitter took over. Still, Steven is ultimately defiant and so was the country’s alternative culture with Punk, new wave and the ongoing battle to sidestep the powers that be.

Buy British apples!
Dusty Verdict: Privilege is proto punk but also representative of the culture of resistance always present in Britain; we need it now as much as then even if it may only be illusory and temporary you have to keep believing in the freedom Steven really wanted. Reviews at the time were universally defensive – see The S*n’s comment at the top – but also proven quite wrong. Watkins was as usual, ahead of the game.

The film is available on the BFI’s brilliant Flipside series as a DVD/Blu-ray with lashings of extras. One of the best films about pop and pop cultural appropriation. Go on, set yourself free…

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