Privilege (1967)

11 08 2008

A vast improvement for Peter Watkins from The Gladiators, but still not some amazing masterpiece, or anything. It does take many of the same stylistic techniques from that film, which is a positive, and transplants them into a rather uneven narrative spanning topics from dystopia to commercialism to the religious right. The cynical humor with which Watkins handles all these topics is brilliant, sharp, and thankfully, never too obvious. For as charming and quirky as the film is, it never seems to maintain a focus on its protagonist, Steven Shorter. He is moved around somewhat like a chess piece by Watkins, which is fairly ironic considering that is also what Steven’s advisers do.

In the not too distant future, Britain has become overrun by the popularity of Steven Shorter. As the film’s narrator mentions, he is not a politician but rather, a pop musician. The whole country listens to him, and because of such popularity, his “staff” encourages (and forces) him to participate in projects that deal with key issues gripping society. He appears in an apple commercial, which is meant to inform the public that they need to eat six apples a day for the apple industry to stay afloat. He also becomes a promotional tool for the church, which results in a rock version of “Onward Christian Soldiers” as well as Nazi-esque stadium performance. This all begins to get under his skin, though as artist and love interest, Vanessa Ritchie begins to make him more aware of how much people are manipulating him.

Many of the stylistic devices from The Gladiators are carried over, of course to correspond with Watkin’s faux-documentary aesthetic. The employment of freeze-frame, voiceover, and interviews creates a unique “scrap-book” sensibility. Easily, the single most astonishing aspect of the film is the confidence Watkins displays in his cinematic craftsmanship. The same can be said about The Gladiators as well, but the actual content here is much more accessible. The most obvious reason being the fact that there is plenty of witty satire. For all its possible downfalls, I certainly have to give Watkins credit for making one of more outrightly comedic films I’ve seen in quite some time.

With the comedy comes plenty of problems, unfortunately. For as personal and insightful as Watkins’ cinematic technique is meant to be, the film itself is rather impersonal and remains cold and distant in the most captivating moments of Mr. Shorter’s life. Perhaps this was the intention, to merely observe the mental and emotional crumbling of a major public figure, but the way in which Watkins does so is not like Tati, Tsai, Ozu, or whoever else you want to throw in. While the distant portraits that those artists offer actually enhance the emotional resonance, it is lessened here. Maybe the problem is the greater interest in being wacky and funny, than in the subject matter. There seems to be something profound going through Steven Shorter, but such stuff takes a back seat to the satire. Sure, it is funny and relevant, especially in modern times, but the manner seems too cynical, or maybe not cynical enough.



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