Wednesday, November 19, 2008
[This was originally posted at the online journal Bagatellen, where I write about both film and experimental music. This review is also archived there.]
In 1967, Peter Watkins was best known as a political provocateur who had been more or less banned from the BBC after stirring up a storm of controversy over his brutally honest semi-documentary, The War Game. The film was a savage, relentless demonstration of Britain's frightfully low level of preparedness for a nuclear assault, and more broadly a denouncement of the whole ludicrous idea that a country ever could prepare adequately for the horrors of nuclear weapons. Watkins lost his TV platform as a result, but he had established a reputation as an uncompromising maker of political and historical documentaries. Few could have expected that his first non-BBC film would be a bizarre, visually lavish piece of pop science fiction about a near-future rock star whose image is manipulated by the government, organized religion, and various powerful businesses to control the youth of Britain. Privilege follows the story of the singer and teen idol Steve Shorter (Paul Jones), who rises to fame on the strength of a violent, masochistic stage show in which he is beaten and abused by police officers, locked in a cage, and handcuffed so tightly that his wrists become raw and bloody. Somewhere in there he sings a bit, the obviously overdubbed and flatly unmusical voice perfectly matching this uncharismatic star's blank eyes and hopeless expression.
This image is perfectly calibrated by Steve's handlers to turn him into a "safe" outlet for teenage rebellion. Watkins' film predates the mass-media packaging of the punk movement by over a decade, but already he recognized the potential for music and celebrity to be exploited as a means of control. When the film opens, Steve is being used to channel destructive and rebellious impulses into venues where it will be harmless to the status quo. This is already a potent social critique, but Watkins soon goes further, imagining an elaborate conspiracy that manipulates and manages Steve to such a degree that he is used to establish a megalithic Christian/nationalist conversion of the British youth, indoctrinating them into the worship of God and country through the celebration of a pop star. The film's imaginings become increasingly absurd and wild as it progresses, but Watkins presents each new wrinkle in the plot with a disarming matter-of-factness that puts the audience in Steve's position: unable to effectively protest or react, simply sputtering at the absurdity of what's going on. The people around Steve are all heavily caricatured manipulators, none more so than his manager Alvin (Mark London), who hilariously tries to demonstrate his charity by saying that, when Steve gets a haircut, they do not sell the clippings but donate them.
Even funnier is a ridiculous scene where Steve is enlisted to do a commercial for apples, as a public service to help over-producing apple-growers unload their excess fruit on the populace. Watkins employs his signature mockumentary style throughout the film, directly addressing characters via an off-screen interlocutor. When the commercial's director answers one of these interview questions by expressing a desire to make an "existentialist" TV ad, Watkins cuts away immediately from the director's face to a surreal shot of a man in an apple costume walking through a field. This fruit with legs gradually joins up with two more, one of whom is carrying an umbrella, and Watkins holds this uncomfortably funny shot while the director's pretentious musings continue on the soundtrack. The film's style, including its habit of employing interviews that break the fourth wall of the fiction, is typical of Watkins' color films, with a bleached-out palette and a tendency to over-saturate the scene with light. Throughout, Watkins frequently populates his sets with bright spots directed head-on into the camera, an effect that contributes to the film's fuzzed-out aesthetics. The rambling, discursive form of the narrative is also typical of Watkins, though it is more tightly and traditionally plotted than later masterpieces like Edvard Munch, with its disjunctive time-shifts and fragmented editing.
In other ways, though, Watkins is in unfamiliar territory here, and his satire of popular culture is not always as sharp as when he takes on subjects he's more comfortable with. In particular, he makes some basic misunderstandings of the nature of celebrity that soften the blows he's trying to deliver. At one point in the film, the egotistical investor Andrew Butler (William Job) delivers a soliloquy about the stupidity of the mass public, their susceptibility to manipulation and their inability to think for themselves. To some extent, Watkins is guilty of holding the same point of view: he drastically overestimates the sway that popular figures can have over their audiences, believing that the screaming idol worship of rock concerts can be easily transferred into deeper socio-political realms. Watkins apparently drew much of his insight into celebrity from watching and re-watching the Paul Anka documentary Lonely Boy (included on New Yorker's DVD of Privilege), and his surface-level understanding of the phenomenon unfortunately shows through. When a conglomerate of government officials, business interests, and religious leaders conspire to transform Steve from a counterculture rebel into a God-fearing, flag-loving good boy, Watkins depicts Steve's audience as going along en masse. Watkins seems to miss the basic fragility of celebrity, not getting that the teen girls crying and screaming over a rebellious outcast wouldn't accept his abrupt one-eighty so uncritically.
Despite the imprecision of some of the satire, for the most part Privilege holds up as a remarkable, and remarkably odd, send-up of pop culture and its sometimes messianic marketing. Watkins' love of confrontational cinema leads him to stage the film's climax, the performance where Steve unveils his new religious faith and "repents" for his crimes, as a Wagnerian combination of the Olympic ceremonies, a rock concert, a Nazi rally, and an overblown religious celebration, in an era before megachurches even existed. He's most obviously inspired by Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will, here translated into the neon brightness of a pop culture happening. Watkins stages this event as a dazzling and horrifying sensory overload, with burning and lit-up crosses, a hilariously out-of-time marching band, flag-bearers with disturbingly fascist symbols held aloft, and a giant blown-up photo of Steve looking like he's about to throw up. The film is an exercise in absurdity that asks its audience to see themselves in sheep-like people, and in their ridiculous situations. At the time, this was too much to bear, and the film was widely panned and has been nearly forgotten ever since. New Yorker's DVD resurrects the film from this undeserved obscurity, allowing for its re-evaluation both as part of Watkins' now critically praised oeuvre and as a document of its period. In retrospect, looked back on from a time of ubiquitous celebrity, with powerful commercial interests pulling the strings, Watkins' lurid, overblown satire unfortunately doesn't seem nearly as implausible as it once did.