Sunday, 4 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Privilege (dir. Peter Watkins, 1967)

In the near future, the UK is under a tyrannical coalition government. To curb the non-conformist impulses of its youth, the state has created a pop star, Steve Shorter (Paul Jones), to control and modify their behaviour.

His every move controlled and monitored by the Government, Steve finds himself unable to lead a normal life. In a last-ditch attempt to assert his own individuality, Steve stages a public rebellion.

But will it work?

Constructed as a 'fly on the wall' documentary, Privilege presents a dark reading of fandom, the construction of star personas, the 'accessibility'/'reliability' of said personas, a satire of the ways old institutions attempt to use  contemporary pop culture to maintain relevance, AND an indictment of the way religion can be manipulated to stoke nationalist sentiment.

This is highlighted during one of the most disturbing sequences: Shorter forsakes his 'badboy' image during a religious event at a stadium featuring a lot of people marching, martial music and red flags. An overt callback to Nazism (complete with a ranting priest reminiscent of Adolf Hitler), the iconography and staging of this sequence looks forward to the fictional fascist dictatorship of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and the (sadly real) cocktail of Christian Evangelism and White Nationalism on display at Donald Trump's rallies.

Peter Watkins is famous for pioneering docudrama, with his news-style recreation of the battle of Culloden (Culloden, 1964); the Oscar-winning The War Game (1965), about the dangers of nuclear armageddon; and Punishment Park (1971), a savage indictment of the mindset of American police that will be a future review on this blog.  

Occasionally evoking the Direct Cinema popularised by documentaries like the Bob Dylan-based Don't Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967), Watkins uses the documentary form to isolate his protagonist and damn the machinations around him. In one sequence, we watch Steve's awkward attempts to express his attraction to Jean Shrimpton's Vanessa. Before he succeeds, Watkins intercuts this subplot with a to-camera interview from one of his minders who casually reveals that he scuppered this relationship before it could get too serious.

Purely as a de-construction of form, Privilege is often fascinating, and occasionally bleakly hilarious. Overall however, I found the movie is more interesting than engrossing. 

While I liked the premise, and the style, the story was not really that interesting. Watkins' meta-style is rather distancing, and while that is interesting, it is never that involving. It does not help that Paul Jones is a blank slate. 

To an extent, this works for the role - Steve Shorter is meant to be a mannequin onto which his minders and sycophants can superimpose their own feelings and desires. But when the movie requires him to show Steve's crumbling psyche, Jones fails. When Steve has his final breakdown in front of a room full of press, it lacks the emotional impact that Watkins was probably aiming for.

An interesting experiment more than a successful film, Privilege's focus on the merging of politics, celebrity and the media is still worth a look.

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