It was quite by accident that I first “discovered” filmmaker Peter Watkins several years ago, when his 1971 film Punishment Park was released on DVD. Punishment Park was an amazing film, the likes of which I had never quite seen, and served as a wonderful introduction to the work of Watkins. As a lover of film, Watkins’ work inspired me. As a critic of film, however, Watkins’ work intimidated me. He is one of those rare directors whose work is so finely crafted, deftly layered and intellectually profound that it is difficult to do the films justice. It would be easy to proclaim, “the films of Peter Watkins are cinematic genius,” but without elaboration such a statement seems hollow and hyperbolic.
The key to understanding the genius of Watkins as a filmmaker is understanding the nature of his films and then placing them within the context of the time in which they were made. Thought provoking and often incendiary, Watkins’s films were more often than not scathing commentaries on the media and politics. Part of what makes his work so incredible is how much ahead of his time Watkins was in the message he was crafting with his work. The other part of what makes Watkins films so incredible is how relevant they are decades later—often more so than when they were initially released. This is especially true of Privilege, Watkins’s controversial film from 1967, which is as profound and relevant now as it was when it was released over fifty years ago—perhaps even more so.
Set in the very near future, pop singer Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann) stars as Steven Shorter, the most popular celebrity in all of England. But Steven’s popularity is more than just a case the adoration and devotion from mobs of screaming fans. His popularity is the mark of something far more sinister, as Steven has become a tool used by powers that rule England to keep the youth in check. Through Steven’s music and his actions, the restless masses have found a vicarious means to express themselves, and no longer feel the need for individuality. As the film opens, Steven is performing a live concert that is equal parts rock show and performance art, in which he is beaten and caged by police officers, all of which leads to a riot. But this is what his corporate handlers and the controlling forces of the government want—something that placates and ultimately pacifies the masses into total conformity.
Things begin to change when artist Vanessa Ritchie (Jean Shrimpton) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Steven. Vanessa sees in Steven what is left of the humanity that has been drained after years of being used as an agenda of propaganda, and she reaches out to what is left of the real man buried deep inside of him. This only makes the confused Steven even more torn, as he is used by more and more parties to drive home whatever message is being delivered to the public. When it is decided that the public needs to eat more apples, it is Steven who is called upon to make a ridiculous commercial telling all good citizens to consume six apples a day. But things take a more sinister turn when the church employs Steven as a recruiting tool, leading to a concert that bares an uncanny resemblance to a Nazi rally.
Like the majority of Watkins’s best work, Privilege is a faux-documentary. This cinematic style has become a trademark of the director’s films, but more importantly serves as one of the recurring aspects of his work, which is an exploration of the media itself. In films such as Punishment Park, The War Game, The Gladiators and Privilege, the media is an integral character, and part of the story that Watkins is telling is how the media itself interprets what is going on and its level of complicity. As a filmmaker, Watkins does not simply tell a story, he interprets it through the “impartial” eyes of the media. The result is a filter that creates another layer of meaning within many of Watkins’s films. In the case of Privilege, the film is not only a scathing portrait of Steven Shorter as a mass media tool of corporate, government and religious forces looking to control the population, it is also an interpretation of that portrait as seen through the lens of a documentary film.
Audiences and critics didn’t know what to make of Privilege when it was first released. The first and only starring role for Jean Shrimpton—one of the first super models—and the debut acting role of Paul Jones, who was already popular as a rock star, it’s likely people were expecting something much different from this unique pairing of iconic celebrities. Whatever it was that audiences and critics were expecting, it was almost certainly not something as unglamorous as the tortured performance of Jones, who plays Steven Shorter as if he were a man who has lost his soul, and can feel the physical aftereffects. Jones gives an incredible, largely non-verbal performance, bringing a sense of raw emotion that doesn’t so much bring a sense of humanity to Privilege as it warns of its impending loss.
As a filmmaker, Watkins has never been one to pull his punches. Some of his films have moments of razor-sharp humor, but for the most part his work can be unsettling and even at times brutal—and everything is a metaphor. Many of his film, which take place in alternate realities that closely mirror our own—made all the more real by Watkins’s mockumentary approach—are clever cautionary tales. And while some of the evils Watkins warned of in his work have come to pass, none of his films have been more revelatory than Privilege; which was condemned in 1967 by critics for its presentation of organized religion as a neo-fascist movement taking control of the government, and the mass media as a tool used to numb the minds of the masses. In 1967, Privilege was a warning of how bad things could get, but in 2018 it is an I-told-you-so.
Some of Watkins’s films are fairly easy to find, but Privilege, which was released on DVD in 2008, has become one of those that are not-so-easy to find. All of his films are profound and worth watching, but none seem to ring as true as Privilege.