Monday, 15 August 2016

Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967)

(published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems; also a podcast for MovieMail in 2009)

‘A film so bizarre, so controversial, it shall crucify your mind to the tree of conscience’. Nope, I don’t know what it means either, but these words – written to the right of the disjointed puppet figure of Paul Jones, wearing Jean Shrimpton’s face for his breast-plate on the US release of Privilege’s soundtrack album – alert you to a number of things about the film: it eludes easy reduction, it’s seriously absurd, it may well be vaguely offensive to those of a religious bent, and lastly, even though its intent is entirely serious – showing how the entertainment industry can serve as an officially-sanctioned outlet for energies that might otherwise be directed into political disruption – you watch it too seriously at your own peril; i.e. it’s ok to laugh. After all, this is a film that starts with the acne-pocked pop singer Steven Shorter, ‘the most desperately loved entertainer in the world’, complete with SS initialled lapels, raising his hand in a half-hearted Nazi salute as he is paraded in an open-top vehicle through the ticker-taped streets of Birmingham.

Watkins partially based his film on Lonely Boy, a 1962 film from the National Film Board of Canada about Paul Anka and the new phenomenon of ‘the astonishing transformation of an entertainer into an idol, worshipped by millions of fans around the world’. ‘Paul, you no longer belong to yourself, you belong to the world’ says Anka’s manager at one point in the film. It’s a viewpoint taken to extremes in Privilege where Steven Shorter belongs to Steven Shorter Enterprises Ltd (‘he is, in every sense of the word, a gilt-edged investment’, says his Press Officer, Alvin Kirsch). 300 Steven Shorter discotheques throughout the land, built ‘to spread happiness throughout Britain’, are abutted by Steve Dream Palaces – ‘designed to keep people happy and buying British’.

Privilege is a brave and disconcerting oddity of a film. Its lead is, deliberately, a character-free zombie, leached of drive by the parasitic life – agents, managers, photographers, fans – that feed on him from all sides (‘There will soon be 61 people in this room, 54 of whom will have nothing to do with Steven Shorter,’ says Watkins early on, as the bleeding musician quivers on the floor of his dressing room, recovering from his masochistic stage act.)

Unsurprisingly, the one woman who tries to get close to him, Jean Shrimpton’s painter Vanessa Ritchie, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to paint his portrait, sees ‘a strange sort of emptiness’ in him. Both Jones and Shrimpton received pitiless reviews for their performances, but in fact their scenes together, in which they are as  uncertain in expression as we can all be at such times, have a ring of halting authenticity that contrasts with the cynical product and presentation that Shorter represents. As for Manfred Mann singer and mouth harp player Paul Jones, his portrayal of Steven Shorter is a thankless one. Anyone going to the film based on seeing him rocking out on some of the promotional posters (‘The raw, shocking movie of a pop singer who makes it big’ they screamed) would have surely wondered what on earth they had come to see. His wearied, flat and flu-ey delivery of such lines as ‘quite a phenomenon, aren’t I’ seems like exactly what was required of the role, but it was never going to win him many plaudits.

Jones was chosen for the role ahead of Eric Burdon and Marc Bolan, both of whom filmed screen tests, but it’s hard to imagine either of them hitting the stranded, strained, nervy, frightened and desperate look that Jones gets from the very opening shot when he announces how happy he apparently is to be back in Britain after his American tour. Witness too the scene at the promotional party when he turns and looks over his shoulder directly out of the camera and at us, with a ‘get me out of here look’, a moment that anticipates the many looks to camera in Watkins’ 1974 film, Edvard Munch.

After a while, Steven Shorter Enterprises Ltd., backed by the coalition government, which up to that point had ‘asked all entertainment agencies to usefully divert the violence of youth’ by keeping them happy, off the streets and out of politics, decides that a change of tack is needed ‘for the sake of national cohesion and survival’ and ‘to subdue the critical elements in the country’s youth’ (and also because Shorter’s current image has reached commercial saturation). Thus commences ‘Christian Crusade week’ – a ‘great drive for God’, to promote ‘one faith, one God, one flag’.

So, the cathartic violence of Shorter’s stage show which provided the public with a necessary release from the state of the world outside changes to an opportunity for him, and them, to repent. The ‘He is Coming’ posters have already been printed, and his band, now dressed in Franciscan sandals and tonsure toupees, are rehearsing an excruciating version of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, at which their assembled reverend holinesses smile sourly and admit that it might help their cause. Shorter is newly clad in cardinal’s vermillion.

The climactic concert for Christian week, at the National Stadium in London, is really quite a sight, resembling a mixture of Nazi rally, Klu Klux Klan meeting, Bonfire Night, a cacophonous battle of the brass bands, pop concert and cut-price Olympic opening ceremony all in one. After a Hitleresque Reverend takes the podium to promote the message ‘We Will Conform’ with Shorter’s Big Brother eye looking on from the giant background banner behind him, the blackshirted Hitler-saluting band play – what else? – England’s de facto alternative national anthem, ‘Jerusalem’, before Shorter takes the stage, inspires the lame to rise from their wheelchairs, and, so we learn later, persuades 49,000 people in the stadium to pledge themselves to God there and then. (Ironically, given his role as a vessel for wholesale conversion in the film, Paul Jones himself devoted his life to Christ’s ministry after Cliff Richard took him and his wife to see evangelist Luis Palau at White City in 1984.)

(And it should be said that if the link between Nazism and entertainment seems a step too far, then it’s worth noting that Privilege finds a cousin four decades later in JG Ballard’s 2006 novel, Kingdom Come, in which he imagines a proto-fascist republic borne of consumerist anomie which takes a shopping mall as its spiritual home.)

Meanwhile, Steven Shorter is cracking up. Concerns about his physical and mental well-being had already been raised at the board meeting after a US tour consisting of 64 appearances, 14 TV appearances and 9 charity events in 25 days. One song of his has the words ‘I’m on my knees, forgive me please, I’ve been a bad, bad boy’. Well, at an industry beano, or rather, ‘The Federated Records Award Giving Dinner’, at which he is guest of honour, he really is a bad, bad boy. As the guests wait in excruciating silence for his words, he holds the absurd, tawdry statuette with which he has just been presented, a platinum statute  of a singer complete with rotating microphone that earlier had taken the position of a large erection, glinting in the light, flicks the switch and listens to his song wind down. ‘You’ve made me nothing … I hate you, I hate you’ he says to the assembled guests. Steven Shorter, through his wish to become an individual, has suddenly become ‘a bad investment’, misusing his position of privilege ‘to disturb the public’s peace of mind’.

Disturbing the public’s peace of mind is a theme Watkins raises in a self-interview from 2008 about the film, in which he relates the ideas in Privilege to the present-day crisis brought about by the mass audio-visual media’s monolithic, and largely uncontested power. He says: ‘Given today’s frenzied dependency on the instant gratification of the popular culture – with its fragmented images and unparalleled broadcasting not only on TV and in the cinema, but also via the internet and mobile phones – one can well imagine the reaction of at least some of the public to a celebrity who suddenly used his/her position of privilege, in order to denounce its use.’

Privilege ends with Watkin’s ironic, foreboding narration: ‘It’s going to be a happy year, in Britain, this year, in the near future’. Well, that’s now. Made 43 years ago, Privilege was Watkin’s last British film, after which he went into self-imposed exile. It is a measure of the film’s originality and success that it is utterly resistant to being assimilated into anyone else’s filmic vision and continues to raise important questions regarding the relationships between celebrity, influence, media and politics.

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