Privilege, an early masterpiece by celebrated auteur Peter Watkins, invites us to consider the possible implications of a fully co-opted popular culture. What if what we like, what we enjoy, is no longer our own prerogative, but rather is imposed upon us from above? What if we no longer have any choice about what we enjoy? And what if, when we are asked to conform to this standard, we respond in wholehearted agreement?
In considering these questions, back in the early days of the cultural revolutions of the mid-1960s, this odd film examines the potential repercussions of a mechanical, top-down approach to culture. As the popular becomes ever more closely associated with profit, and as this profit becomes more attractive to the powers that be (whether in government, in industry, or, as Privilegea goes so far as to consider, the church), pop artistry is fused to the designs of the controlling minority in power. And so, pop star Steven Shorter (played by Herman’s Hermits lead singer Paul Jones) finds himself the most popular performer in history, loved by all, and controlled (his every move and gesture prescribed) by a cabal of stuffed shirts representing the hegemonic classes.
Italian Marxist and cultural theorist avant le mot Antonio Gramsci famously opined that for a ruling class to maintain dominance over its people, it needed to maintain their consent. This process relies on a constant remaking of this consent, a persistent currying of favour from the public at large, and even from subordinate and otherwise hostile fractions of society. At least some consent is necessary for hegemony to operate properly. Coercion, Gramsci reminded us, is much less effective as a means of maintaining hegemony. Better to have the people agree with the terms you have laid out for them; better for them to operate under the illusion of freedom than for them to recognize their bondage.
Peter Watkins’ Privilege is a pushy vehicle for the examination of these kinds of ideas about the dangers of social control, of a pervasive false consciousness that blinds the people to the reality of their situation. Hugely cynical, and not a little dismissive of the people at large (who are at every turn demonstrated to be little more than sheep, than pawns, than unquestioning followers of the dictates sent down from above), Watkins’ allegory looks to a Britain “of the near future” in which pop music (in the person of Steven Shorter) is relied upon by the coalition government to keep the people from revolt. This pacification of the populace is entirely effective – Britain is experiencing an unparalleled period of sustained peace and happiness – but is exacting a terrible toll on the artist at the centre of it all (and, presumably, on the spiritual life of the public).
Shorter is a man coming unglued, ill at ease in his own skin, and prone to self-flagellation both physical and emotional. It is only in the brief connections he shares with a painter (played by a miscast and glassy-eyed Jean Shrimpton) that he seems to find any solace. When the boardroom of executives who run his career merge with the Anglican Church in an effort to bring young people back to the pews, he has become a Christ in the employ of the state. Shorter finally snaps, turning on his fans and backers, and bringing his world crashing down around him.
There are flashes of brilliance throughout this film, presented in a pseudo-documentary style, replete with voice-over narration (by the director himself), and mock interviews with chief players at various intervals. This conceit mostly works, even if it is not fully borne out – there are many scenes which don’t quite fit the documentary-crew-is-watching scenario. But, since there is almost no plot here to follow, this format allows us to get caught up in a character study, of sorts, like a Behind the Music from hell.
Watkins has here borrowed heavily from other filmmakers in his effort to find a sweet spot between satirical allegory and verisimilutde. On the first score, he has looked closely at Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film detailing the Third Reich and the spectre of a mass movement based on allegiance to corporatist fascism. There is a lengthy scene in which the Anglican Church holds a rally that is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the stadium scene in Riefenstahl’s famous picture.
On the second score, Watkins has turned to the 1962 short film Lonely Boy, the classic Canadian cinema vérité study of stardom in the form of teen sensation Paul Anka. (This fascinating film is included on this very well-packaged DVD.) Many characters in Watkins’ film are modeled on those real life impresarios that surrounded the young Anka; his overwhelming feelings of isolation amid all of the celebration and attention are surely the model for the emotional life of Steven Shorter.
Most interestingly, the film’s darkest scene (apart from the religious celebration cum Nazi rally) closely recalls the chilling Ferris Wheel scene in The Third Man, when the protagonist is asked to look at the tiny people and imagine how insignificant they are, how little it will matter if they were to simply disappear. In Privilege, the emphasis shifts from literal to spiritual death, as the pop star’s handler explains to him while they look down from a rooftop: “You … you’re our chance Steven. They identify with you. They love you, Steven. You can lead them into a better way of life. A fruitful conformity.”
Ultimately, while much of the film is successful, at least in its attempt to address the very real fears of corporate takeover of art and taste (even more relevant, one might say, in this age of the artless format of reality TV, a similacrum of an indolent and intellectually dormant society) its loathing for the public is a major misstep. For, in Watkins’ estimation, the public is hopelessly bought off, and is thus past the point of no return.
There is no tension here, as a result – when Shorter tries to wake them from their slumber, they simply turn on him, eat him up, and spit him back out. Indeed, Watkins himself has publicly stated that he wishes he could fix this unfortunate mistake. As Gramsci had argued, the people are always involved in the hegemonic process – there is no such thing as total domination with no resistance. Nothing so inhuman can ever last.