Dystopian Idol

The ignored prophecies of Peter Watkins's Privilege
by Michael Atkinson  posted July 24, 2008
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It’s been eight years since Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) began marching around the globe, like a homeless army of dissidents in full cry, making it difficult to overlook the nearly forgotten Watkins as the singular, incorruptible, incendiary moviemaking force he is. Retros followed, Punishment Park (1971) and Edvard Munch (1974) saw screens again, and his 40-plus-year corpus started creeping onto home video after being unavailable in any form for decades. But the acceptance and celebration of Watkins as a living master—easily in his own way the peer of, say, Alexander Sokurov, Ken Loach, and David Cronenberg—has not been heard over the rooftops. He remains an outlander, a thorny cult interest, and if I’m a little surprised by this, Watkins himself certainly cannot be. No filmmaker has ever more thoroughly defined himself as a cultural pariah. Living in Lithuania the last we heard, Watkins pulled away from intercourse with the "mass audiovisual media" years ago, and has long envisioned his films as missiles sent flying into a human civilization otherwise ruled from the top down by voracious corporate entities.

Of course, we all know this characterization is largely true on the face of it, but Watkins saw the dark heart of the dynamic early and has walked the die-hard’s walk ever since. Thus, he’s never exploited his public role as auteur to keep his films in the marketplace, where their pedagogic irascibility, hardcore faux-documentary form, and uncompromising humanism are not easily appreciated, even among savvy critics. He may remain an exile, but he may also emerge, years hence, as the only major filmmaker since WWII who could not be bought, and who committed himself absolutely to telling a truth larger than himself.

Privilege (1967), new to DVD from New Yorker, is probably not where budding Watkinsians should begin—it’s his most orthodox and even commercial film, utilizing the filmmaker’s trademarked fake-nonfiction format (narration, interviews, etc.), but otherwise aswim with convincing diegetic creations, farcical characters, pop music set pieces, and dramatic realism. It was, after all, only Watkins’s third feature (after the BBC featurettes Culloden and The War Game, from 1964 and 1965 respectively), and his first and only large-budgeted Hollywood production (produced by Universal). Seen from this angle, Privilege is an astounding fireball, and could not have been mistaken for a normative movie even by 1967 standards. Like several Watkins films to come, it’s a frank portrait of a near-future dystopia, where the already pervasive forces that so terrified Watkins in the ‘Nam era have seized complete control of Western society, exploiting our mass desire to surrender autonomy and collectivize as an obedient throng.

Violent sports have often been the pop-media instrument at use in such scenarios, but in Privilege it’s music: rock stardom, teen idolatry, heartthrob messiah-hood. Callow Manfred Mann ex-singer Paul Jones is Steve Shorter, an unexceptional ‘60s frontman whose life and persona has been exploded out into a ubiquitous brand-name cataract—"Steve"—from massively attended concert performances featuring on-stage police brutality to hundreds of "Steve Shorter Discotheques," from television endorsements for whatever products the government wants to promote (we see a risible TV ad being shot to convince the British population to buy and eat that year’s excessive harvest of apples), to Steve malls whose announcements insist that busy customers will "be" Steve. At the outset, we’re simply told in Watkins’s meta-BBC narration that Steve’s defiant, pitiable act (witnessed by crowds of screaming, crying girls) siphons off the "nervous tension" in society, and that as a result he is "the most desperately loved entertainer in the world." Of course, at the woozy center of this militarized shill is Shorter himself, nearly comatose and only faintly bristling with restless rebellion once Steve Shorter Corp.’s board of directors decide for purely market-driven reasons that the public profile that props them all up and keeps England under control should be recast as a Christian model, humble and docile and respectful of authority.

Watkins has been no minor dystopian; here he trumps the essentially Stalinist boot-heel characterizations of Orwell and Huxley by insisting that Western consumerist societies like England and the U.S. will be—already are—manipulated and managed via acquiescence, convenience, and distraction, not by threat or the Thought Police. Was he the first to do so, to see even as the Cold War raged that the more effective and profitable mode of social puppeteering resided with entertainment media and capitalist comfort? One of the many ironies of Privilege is that as Watkins takes out the trash, he’s also producing pop entertainment, creating it semi-convincingly (Brit über-producer and Gary Glitter enabler Mike Leander wrote the song score) in the context of satire. But there’s no chance of the movie being mistaken for what it mocks; Watkins’s de-aestheticized, protest-holler approach dominates the story, the depiction of ‘60s rock, and the acting (only kewpie-doll love interest Jean Shrimpton’s thick, chocolatey voice lingers in the memory once the message is digested). The nonfiction-ality gives us no traditional wiggle room, just like Jones’s dazed protagonist—who at one point turns and looks at the camera in lost disgust.

Like Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Privilege is an ignored prophecy that’s been allowed to come true. It is a short enough leap from the everywhere-everything "Steve" brand to the "Buy N Large" empire of WALL-E (2008), and to the actual five-multinational-company media-world we live in, but it’s also deeply dismaying to consider the barbarities our governments and corporations have freely perpetrated in the years since Privilege, while we’ve been preoccupied with our football stats, home theater equipment, channel-surf safaris, first-person shooters, palm-held gadgets, American Idols, and celebrity shenanigans.

Watkins’s climactic concert sequence crash-lands a cherry atop the construct, a huge protofascist stadium rally robbed years later by Pink Floyd, complete with burning torches, black armbands, giant distorted banner-portraits of Shorter, a Hitlerian preacher delivering a fiery speech extolling conformity, and a band playing a lugubrious psychedelic cover of "Onward Christian Soldiers," all of it conceived and executed as an expression of a new, Anglican "nationalism." Likening reactionary conservatism to the Third Reich’s propaganda is deft: Watkins knew that as the Communists murdered and terrorized, the Nazis sang anthems to their people’s strength and greatness, and made them weep with pride. Can commercial pop culture do the same? Or is it already doing just enough? Watkins, of course, is a student of the structure and resourcefulness of power, not so much of the tools it may use and discard. If we were all careful students of Watkins, how would the world be different? 


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Courtesy Project X Distribution
Paul Jones' backing band, The Runner Beans, perform "Jerusalem" at the National Stadium in Peter Watkins' Privilege
Photo Gallery: Dystopian Idol


Peter Watkins  |  film review


Peter Watkins's website


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct