In 1967 Peter Watkins released Privilege, an over-the-top vision of the future that was panned, shunned, and shelved for several decades. It must have been odd for Watkins to watch, as during this period his vision came closer and closer to reality.
Steven Shorter (Paul Jones from Manfred Mann) is a British pop star returning from a successful American tour. He’s given a ticker-tape parade to welcome him home and it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary teen idol. Shorter has been constructed specifically to control the youth of the country. His stage act is a violent performance of a song called “Set Me Free” where he is handcuffed and imprisoned. This is designed to act as a sort of catharsis for teenagers. We’re told there is now a coalition government (because both main parties realised their policies were near identical), and that they’ve asked the entertainment industry to help keep the youth “happy, off the street, and out of politics.”
Shorter is also used by corporations: when a bumper crop means that a lot will go to waste, the Apple Marketing Board hire him to promote their product with the hopes they can get every man, woman and child “to eat six apples a day for the whole of the summer.” This leads to Shorter shooting a hilarious commercial with a self-described ‘existentialist’ director. “Today the actors must all think apples, be apples, and ultimately become apples,” he says as we watch a man in a giant apple suit stumble around, struggling to see where he’s going.
Eventually the Church gets involved, with plans to use Shorter to help fight their dwindling attendance numbers. They plan to use him to launch Christian Crusade Week and encourage the youth to accept Christ. If Steven Shorter repents all his sins and gives himself to the Church, so will his fans. What follows needs to be seen to be believed: an exaggerated, down-right terrifying rock concert/nationalist rally straight out of Triumph of the Will (a heavy stylistic influence on this film), where the youth chant “we will conform!” when instructed to.
With American Idol currently in its tenth season and constructed boy bands and teen sensations now commonplace, it’s hard to believe that this film was made over forty years ago. Watkins’ commentary on pop-star worship, product endorsement and the manufacturing of fame is still unbelievably apt.
Watkins uses the same style he employed for The War Game and Culloden and would continue to use for Punishment Park: hand-held cameras, talking-head interviews, dry voice-over narration and awareness by the characters that they are constantly being filmed. This gives the impression of a fake documentary (or mockumentary) ala This is Spinal Tap, but just as Culloden was set in 1746, we’re told that this film is set “in the near future”. Privilege doesn’t want you to think that these moments actually happened and were recorded. It wants you to remember that this is still a constructed piece of fiction; these events aren’t a reality…yet. Some might interpret “the near future” as the 1970s, but a better way to think about it as that these events are always just about to happen – that this extreme level of teen idol worship is always just around the corner.
Some scenes in Privilege are truly memorable with such a terrific sense of black humour. I’ve already mentioned the apple commercial and the concert/nationalist rally but the film also features one the greatest performance of the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” ever conceived. A group of monks (or rather youths dressed as monks) perform it in a studio as an up-beat rock song complete with electric guitar solo as a group of reverends look on. Shorter’s handler asks them what they think of the track: “a trifle noisy but, ah, I think it will serve our purpose excellently.” In another scene, the interviewer asks Shorter’s “administrator” how he would describe his function and the man gives the example of the time Shorter was threatened with a paternity suit: he arranged for an abortion and paid the woman off. When asked how he accounted for that expenditure, the administrator replies with a straight face, “I put it down to petty cash…”
Watkins studied the 1962 film Lonely Boy before making Privilege and the similarities are both very apparent and a little scary. Lonely Boy is a genuine documentary about teen idol Paul Anka that was filmed largely with hand-held cameras. We see Anka and his handlers interact in similar ways to Shorter and his, and the way his fans scream and cry and try rush the stage reminds you that a lot of Privilege was already quite close to reality even before the 1990s pop-renaissance.
There is one striking difference between Anka and Shorter though: Anka appears happy. He still enjoys singing and performing to his fans. Shorter, however, is sick of it. He’s sick of being used and abused by his puppet-masters and worshipped by the public. His only way out is to use his position of privilege to try and turn things around.
A biting satire that was dismissed on release, Privilege stands as a prophetic vision of a nightmare future we may already be living.