Peter Watkins reimagines 1984 as a mock rockumentary in the media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed era of the late 1960s for Privilege, his debut feature. Long unavailable in any form, it was recently released on DVD by New Yorker as part of their “Cinema of Peter Watkins” collection, and I review it for Turner Classic Movies.
This is no bouncy little rock and roll romp through Swinging London, but a film of joyless (though often intense and mesmerizing) music in a Britain of the near future where one party (formed because there are no longer any substantive differences between the conservative and liberal parties) rules in perpetuity. Shorter is not an artist as much as he’s a tool, a commodity built by the establishment and used to encourage “a fruitful conformity.” Becoming the poster boy for the hip new church is just another assignment for him. The huge Catholic rally is a combination of a sports halftime show and the Nuremburg Rally, dominated be a flaming cross that can’t help but evoke a KKK gathering. Shorter makes his entrance in a mod-looking suit drenched a cardinal red, launching into his own rock and roll take on gospel music while the faithful gathered to worship at his feet chant, “We will conform.” “We need no longer have any disturbing political differences when we are all of one faith and believe in one God and one flag,” drones the matter-of-fact commentary. That removed, unemotional, anonymous yet authoritative voice so familiar to the British TV documentary becomes self parody as it brazenly and unapologetically explains the social engineering on display.
[The performances by Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton] were roundly criticized when the film was released in 1967, but they had little to do with the indignant, even angry reception. Privilege was all but dismissed by the critics as “hysterical” and “juvenile” and roundly denounced in the press (grand old critic Alexander Walker called it “an immoral and un-Christian picture which mocked the Church, defied authority and encouraged youth in lewd practices” – as if that’s a bad thing!). It was rebuked by the church and withdrawn from general circulation by its British distributor, the Rank Organization. In Watkins’ own words, “The fact that everything shown or implied in the film has come about in Britain subsequent years – especially during Margaret Thatcher’s nationalistic period – has not changed its status as a completely marginalized film in that country.” Its stateside reception was, at least in part, more critically responsive – Roger Ebert wrote: “This is a bitter, uncompromising movie, and although it isn’t quite successful it is fascinating and important” – but it was a flop for Universal.
Read the complete essay here.