The cinema of Peter Watkins has been constant and vital in exploring the abuse of political power, especially when such power forces populations into acts of conflict. Watkins has also always attempted to reinstate the identity of the individual into those forced to take part in such wars. This can be seen in any number of his films, from his early short, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), to his controversial BBC films, Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965).
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In the late 1960s, Watkins turned his attention to smaller groups of pressured individuals up against various odds due to such political power-plays, from The Gladiators (1969) to Punishment Park (1971). Yet the questioning of how power exerts control has no better or more poignant example than in one of his least war-orientated films: Privilege, which was was first released on 28 February 1967.
Fifty years on, and in the political climate of 2017, Privilege comes as a startling warning of how the influence of popular media can be exploited for the needs of a powerful, malevolent few. Its prescience is stark half a century after its release because of its uncanny prediction of how mass media could be used as such effective propaganda.
The film follows the fate of pop star Steven Shorter (played by Paul Jones from the band Manfred Mann) whose career (and the Beatlemania-like power he wields over a multitude of young fans) is used by shady characters behind the scenes to quietly breed political and religious obedience in his young followers. By gradually turning Shorter into a sort of messianic figure, his managers and the economic establishment who fund his career seek to maintain power over the country, channelling the effect of his performance into social conformity and a consumer religion.
From this description, the film clearly still has things to say about the political mechanisms of today. While rewatching the film recently, the news broke that Kanye West had controversially met Donald Trump at Trump Tower. Such a meeting was deemed to be shocking given Trump’s various political positions. Yet Privilege tells of such alignments 50 years before the sort of fame that stars like Kanye experience became truly possible. Watkins’ film shows that this type of manipulation of popularity, accelerated in the era of the internet, germinated in the postwar years.
Through this abuse of fame, Shorter himself is no longer a person but a cipher of power, an influential piece of propaganda reaching wide numbers of young people. Fame destroys his individual identity in spite of being falsely built upon it. Culture is hijacked by market, capital and political personas, almost dissolving the human at the heart of the celebrity. All that is left is a husk, puppeteered out for whatever use is deemed necessary by his funders.
Watkins plays this idea to the extreme, portraying Shorter as both a prisoner of his managers (his early performances have him genuinely and physically abused on stage to get the best performance from him) and his own success. He’s desperately trying to escape back to some semblance of self. This reasserts itself through a friendship and relationship with a photographer, Vanessa, played by Jean Shrimpton.
The fact that Shrimpton herself rose to fame through being a different type of cipher – a projection of the beauty industry through advertisement modelling – plays further into the overall irony of Watkins’ documentary style. His outraged, Oliver Postgate-like voice comments on the proceedings, rather like Adam Curtis’s voiceovers. Such a technique frames the drama in a way that has had a clear influence on many documentary films in spite of Watkins working in fiction.
This blurring is again apt for our times, in the era of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and the very destabilising of factual perception. Watkins, however, is aiming such a displacement back upon the establishment in the same way as several other filmmakers did from this era, finding a more powerful and uncomfortable truth behind a fictional retelling. It’s the same technique Ken Loach would use in the Wednesday Play episode Cathy Come Home (1966), and that Alan Clarke would use a decade later to much controversy in his banned Play for Today episode, Scum (1977).
Privilege’s most unsettling moment, especially in the context of today, comes in Shorter’s performance at a televised evangelical rally. When his managers coerce him into ultimately representing the opinion and desires of the state church, he performs at a spectacular event with music, fireworks and lights. In an age where the recently elected president of the USA arguably came to power with the help of this same type of propaganda rally, Privilege gives such occasions (and the subsequent inauguration) a disturbing sense of déjà vu.
Unnervingly, Watkins also shows the end point of this power-play in his later 1971 film, Punishment Park. Here all political dissent and questioning is banned and now punished through a violent survival challenge. It is for this reason, this highlighting of the method in Privilege and the eventual result in Punishment Park, that Watkins is the most disturbingly prescient filmmaker of the 1960s.
As the reverend at the heart of Privilege’s political rally proudly declares to the adoring crowd: “National cohesion has become unimportant to us. We must fight this. We must… We will conform!” For Watkins, this was a terrifying “What if…” For the world of 2017, it is merely a dazed “What happened?”