You can’t be a prophet in your own village. At least, that’s the way the Hungarian proverb goes. But what if your village is the world stage and your words are more pronouncements on contemporary society than dire warnings for a future that may or may not happen? You might want to ask Peter Watkins about that.
When his film Privilege was released in 1967, it was almost universally savaged by British critics. They called it “hysterical,” “flailing”, “juvenile,” “a hopscotch of film and television”—and those were some of the more reserved comments. Critics in America, by and large were a bit kinder in their assessments of the film, hailing it as “uncompromising,” “crisp,” and even “brilliant.” Looking back at it over forty years later, critics on both sides of the Atlantic all were right. And they all were wrong.
What makes Privilege fascinating after all this time is how eerily close its scenario has become to the everyday workings of media manipulation in our contemporary culture. Released in 1967, and postulating a near future of 1970, Privilege was more a symbolic representation of what Watkins saw as the current state of society than anything resembling social science fiction. At its most simplistic, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Steven Shorter, the most successful pop star in Britain’s history. Shorter (Paul Jones, former lead singer of Manfred Mann), caught up in his own PR, is more puppet to the combined forces of the media, government and church, than he is an actual personality. He’s devoid of any independent thought, shifting his persona according to the whims of his handlers, transforming from cathartic victim of society to pitchman for the benefits of apple consumption to an advocate of utter conformity. It’s only when his government-hired portraitist Vanessa Richie (Jean Shrimpton) gradually becomes his lover that he begins to question his complicity in media manipulation.
Privilege was one of the earliest “mockumentaries,” and its distributor, Universal, as well as the press, both in the UK and the US, really didn’t know what to make of it. Watkins’ previous work, The War Game, had already been banned by the BBC, and on this, his feature film debut, the British press of the time marched in lockstep with the conservative government, ridiculing the film in the most minute detail. American marketing, not surprisingly, capitalized on its youth appeal, and sensationalized the film’s more subtle commentary.
In actuality, Privilege was neither sensationalistic or naïve. Nor was it Orwellian, as some have claimed. It’s really about sacrificing one’s individuality at any cost for that proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, and the consequences of such a choice. In the process, it turned out to be prophetic. In our contemporary society, fame is fleeting, manufactured largely by gossip and scandal. That’s our cathartic release. We live vociferously through the travails and transformations of our Star of the Moment. In that regard, Privilege emerges as profoundly prophetic. With Privilege, Watkins foresaw the self-mutilation of acts like Iggy and the Stooges, and the anarchic posturings of the Sex Pistols. Shorter’s handlers can easily be viewed as a prototype for Malcolm McClaren, or for that matter, any number of contemporary political campaign managers.
Perhaps because it was so spot on in its observations about the collusion of media and government, Privilege languished for decades as a cult oddity, turning up here and there on late night TV movies, with not a pristine print available anywhere, even to Watkins himself. Finally, with New Yorker Films digitally restored DVD release of the film, Privilege is available to a new, more savvy audience. It’s not a splashy package, presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio an delivererd in mono sound. Besides a bio of Watkins, the only bonus feature on the disc is the 1961 CBC documentary short “Lonely Boy,” about then 19-year old pop sensation Paul Anka. Besides being an award-winning film in its own right, “Lonely Boy” served as something of a blueprint in the making of Privilege, and illustrates how even in 1961, stars were molded, not born. The real bonus feature of the Privilege DVD is the accompanying booklet that offers commentary from Watkins and others about the controversy and the significance of the film.
Granted, Privilege is far from a perfect film. Watkins’ cinema verite style approach sometimes overshadows his storytelling. But its significance lies in the fact that it puts all the ballyhoo surrounding stardom in its proper place, and forces the viewer to realize we’re all co-conspirators in media manipulation.