Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide: Peter Watkins’ Privilege

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“Smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” – The Youngbloods, “Get Together”

“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” – Steven Shorter, Privilege

In 1967, rock ‘n’ roll was the sound of a generation with the power to change the world. At least that’s how baby boomer nostalgia tells it, anyway, with its fabled Summer of Love, flower power and Sgt. Pepper — Altamont, May ’68, and Coldplay but a distant, unknowable nightmare. Whatever hash-scented winds were a-blowin’, however, they apparently failed to reach Peter Watkins’ door. Just as tie-dye bliss hit peak delusion, the British filmmaker unleashed Privilege, a scathing satire that set its sights squarely on the commodification of the counter-culture’s rock dream. It was the antithesis of “all you need is love”: bleak, sinister, disdainful of both the establishment and swinging ’60s youth — and a flop with critics and audiences before vanishing into relative obscurity.1 Placed in the context of the year it’s a fascinating, brutal anomaly; seen a half-century later, even the most casual observer would be hard-pressed to miss its grim cultural prescience.

That predictive gaze — the film can lay claim, by degrees, to anticipating reality TV, celebrity idol, and fascist pop stardom — has been the focus of much of Privilege’s reappraisal,23 all of it justified; on a formal level alone, Watkins’ work is years ahead of the curve. But within Privilege’s unforgiving takedown of state-sanctioned rock as cultural anesthetic lies an equally haunting vision of another of music’s soon-to-be-favourite narratives: the suddenly-awakened star who finds themselves a prisoner of the machine that created them.

Watkins lays down his gambit during the film’s electric opening sequences. In a near-future Britain, messianic pop star Steven Shorter writhes in a ghoulish tableau of cruelty on stage – figuratively and literally trapped, he’s handcuffed and caged, while police officers stalk and taunt him to cutaways of delirious teenage girls teary-eyed and screaming in rapture. “My spirit is broken, no will to live,” Shorter pleads, twitching like Jagger as played by Maria Falconetti, and as the song builds to its doomy crescendo the martyr is beaten into submission to the frenzied cries of the audience.4

It’s rock’s hoary cocktail of sex and violence invigorated via hysterical mise en scène, only this spectacle, it turns out, is part of the grand design of an oppressive coalition government — formed with a conspiratorial cabal of big business, clergy, and entertainment managers — to placate the populace using pop music. “Keep them entertained and off the streets and out of politics,” goes the party line on the nation’s youth, or, as one manager archly puts it later, keep “the stunted little creatures” labouring in “fruitful conformity.” The violence-as-state-weapon tactic arguably rubbed off on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange four years later 5, not to mention the thematic bluster of punk, rock ‘n’ roll dystopias and a thousand other black mirrors.

Played as lost-boy cipher by former Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones, Shorter is the Ministry of Culture’s golden boy, capable of bringing the world to its weakest knees. He’s also their prime puppet: despite being the planet’s biggest rock star, lending his name to everything from discotheques to dog food, he’s little more than a pawn for the leeches pulping him into products as ubiquitous as drugs in water. Commissioned to paint his portrait, artist Vanessa Richie (played by mod icon Jean Shrimpton) catches the desperation and loneliness in Steve’s eyes; pretty soon her painting begins to look like a certain decaying image, just as Jones’ soulless performance here is the Dorian Gray to his band’s eternally youthful “Do Wah Diddy.”

This isn’t a subtle movie;6 nor does it need to be. Watkins’ scabrous style stands in refreshing contrast to the peace-and-love slop of the time. The notion that manufactured entertainment would be used to distract the masses isn’t exactly revelatory — humans have been soothed by spectacle since at least Roman times, and The Monkees were huge — but the brilliance with which Privilege portrays celebrity worship is all in the savagery of its technique. Mixing staged confessionals, hand-held footage and baroquely constructed stadium sequences, the film takes the tropes of cinema verité’, TV, and advertising.7 and turns them on themselves, exposing the empty co-opting of cultural movements for nefarious purposes.8

Privilege’s precocious formal qualities came courtesy of then 32-year-old Watkins, whose faux-documentary nuclear provocation The War Game (1965) had stirred controversy at the BBC and later film Punishment Park (1971) would be even more frightening in its imagining of a future America. Watkins drew inspiration for Privilege from Lonely Boy, Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s pioneering 1962 documentary on teen idol Paul Anka, from which it borrows a casual style and regard for framing the singer and his fans.9 Watkins wasn’t short for other material to mine, either: Beatlemania was still a relatively recent and even more unprecedented phenomenon, and he opens the film by directly evoking Fab Four madness, while twisting Richard Lester’s exuberant work on A Hard Day’s Night toward darker ends. By the time Shorter is being repackaged with the full endorsement of a decaying clergy, the film has moved into full-blown sci-fi stadium rock tyranny, complete with burning crosses, Nazi visual iconography and supplicant fans yearning for their star’s mystical healing properties; the pop star as future Nietzschean figure, Ziggy Stardust beseeching his minions, “give me your hands!”

If Privilege’s warning against the corporate machine seems heavy-handed today, then Shorter’s existential spiral remains chilling — those same fan hands, depicted in silhouette on the movie’s one sheet, closer resemble zombies clawing at their hero from the grave. “You no longer belong to yourself,” beams Anka’s manager in Lonely Boy, “you belong to the world,” and Privilege repurposes this line near-verbatim for horrific effect. Shorter’s personal obliteration, given full dimension by Jones’ joyless performance, becomes so overwhelming that it swallows its audience whole. “Nowhere does the film admit any inherent social or cultural resilience in the human race,” complained The Financial Times on release, criticizing the film for its “dispirited view of us and our future.”10

And that’s entirely the point. At its darkest heart, Privilege explores the abyss of a man whose sense of self has been effaced completely; even his John Merrick-like protests — “I’m a person!” — feel like a construction, the learned motion of a trained circus act. “I am nothing… you made me nothing,” Shorter declares at the apex of his eventual unravelling, and at that moment he’s every star that the system ever created and chewed up and spat out and will do so ’til the end of time.11

Of course, Shorter pays the price for his rock ‘n’ roll suicide: he’s muzzled and ruined so that he “doesn’t use his position to disturb the public piece of mind again.” We last see him consigned to scratched-up, silent archival footage; another dead pop star, rotting in a film studio. In his desire to finally speak the truth and subsequent banishment into obscurity, Shorter’s unceremonious decline works as a built-in commentary on Privilege itself — consigned to the margins by a hostile contemporary reception, its vision drowned out in pot smoke and peace signs and “Itchycoo Park.” But long after hippies have come and gone and become a punchline, Watkins’ opus endures; whip smart, strange and sneering from somewhere in that not-too-distant future.

Originally published at Senses of Cinema, March 2017

  1. Privilege’s UK distributor, J. Arthur Rank, withdrew the film after it was deemed “immoral”, while Universal gave it a limited international run. According to Watkins, he was unable to obtain a copy of his own film, even on VHS. It was finally released to DVD in 2008. Peter Watkins, http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/privilege.htm
  2. Tom Sutpen, “Distribute This! Privilege”, Bright Lights Film Journal, 1 August 2005, http://brightlightsfilm.com/distribute-privilege-peter-watkins-1967-great-britain/#.WD80NZN940o
  3. Bill Weber, “Privilege”, Slant, 28 July 2008 http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/privilege
  4. Patti Smith covered this song, “Free Me”, as “Privilege (Set Me Free)” for her 1978 record, Easterhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-7fibt4DU8
  5. Watkins himself contends, “At least one scene from Privilege appears to have been directly copied and used in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.” Peter Watkins, http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/privilege.htm
  6. Privilege is rather like watching a man repeatedly labouring to raise a heavy hammer, whirling it round his head, and bringing it crashing down on his own hand.” Penelope Houston, “Pop goes the Watkins”, The Spectator, 4 May 1967, http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/5th-may-1967/18/pop-goes-the-watkins-arts
  7. The film’s formal slipperiness can’t have escaped Todd Haynes, whose Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There echo Watkins’ technique here.
  8. Watkins comments, “…it was…prescient of the way that Popular Culture and the media in the US commercialized the anti-war and counter-culture movement in that country as well.” Peter Watkins, http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/privilege.htm
  9. Koenig’s film contains imagery of screaming teen that are part expressionist horror movie, part Tiger Beat fever dream, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoN7WLZZx5E.
  10. Peter Watkins, http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/privilege.htm
  11. Speculation that at this precise moment, somewhere in Washington State, Kurt Cobain drew his first breath, is just that.
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