Appellate Judge Tom Becker does not pretend to virtue, but he does fake the occasional vice.
We will conform.
"I see it all before me
Facts of the Case
Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) is, perhaps, England's most valuable commodity. The simple—and base—term for Steven is "pop star," but he is much more than that. Steven Shorter is adored and worshiped by (apparently) everyone in Great Britain. In his music, he is both a rebel and a victim. His popular stage show features him being beaten by the police while he sings of wanting to be free. His shows are deeply emotional and cathartic for the audience, who end up storming the stage and attacking the "officers" at the end of the song. He is the most desperately loved entertainer in the world.
But Steven Shorter is more than a mere entertainer. His company, Steven Shorter Enterprises, sells everything from pet food to appliances, but what they're really selling is happiness. Evidently, the key to happiness is the adoration of Steven Shorter, and the singular focus on this one man actually helps to preserve order in the country.
Vanessa Ritchie (Jean Shrimpton) is commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to paint a portrait of Steven. She becomes part of his retinue, and the more time she spends with him, the more convinced she becomes that he is unhappy and being manipulated by the people around him.
The government recognizes Steven's power and has already been using his influence. For instance, this year saw an overabundance of the apple crop, so Steven films a commercial for the Agricultural Commission encouraging people to eat more apples.
Now it's time for Steven to help bring British youth to hand. Steven will give up his violent act and start spreading a message of contrition and conformity. He will publicly repent any and all past indiscretions and pledge himself to God and Flag.
Presumably, all of Britain will follow.
In the arch and extremely clever Privilege, Director Peter Watkins gives us "Britain in the near future," a land on the brink of harmonious homogenization. The country is ruled by a coalition government (since the policies of the Conservative and Labour parties were basically the same anyway), and the Wal Mart-like presence of Steven Shorter Enterprises is helping keep the economy stable.
Steven is both a pawn and a treasure, a magical, media-invented relic. Steven has "caught on" in a big way, and whoever controls Steven controls the world.
The joke here is that, outside of his stage performance—which consists of an emotionally charged, riot-causing single song—Steven Shorter is so bland and disconnected that he barely registers as human. When Vanessa refers to him as having a "strange sort of emptiness," she isn't kidding. He seems to have little understanding of the world around him or the extent of his power over people, and since we don't see his rise, we don't fully understand it, either. We just accept that it is. It's more ironic than disturbing to watch others lead him around like a child, because there's the sense that if Steven weren't so phenomenally popular as an "idol," he wouldn't really be capable of doing anything else.
It's perversely funny to see the extent to which Steven has been commoditized and his every move planned for public consumption. He is the establishment's weapon against the "forces of communism and anarchy," and his "conversion" at a large stadium event kicking off Christian Crusade Week is a great satiric set piece.
Watkins (The War Game) presents his film as a pseudo-documentary. An off-screen narrator turns up periodically to comment on the action or interview the characters. It's a little disconcerting—since the film is taking place "in the near future" (most likely, the '70s), it means that the narrator is speaking contemporaneously about things that haven't happened yet—but it gives Watkins the opportunity to make some wry observations about politics and society.
Because Watkins knew little about the world of pop music and teen idols, he spent time studying Lonely Boy, a 26-minute, 1962 documentary about then-teen idol Paul Anka that is included as an extra on this disc. Many elements in Privilege are lifted whole cloth from Lonely Boy—it's almost creepy watching them one after the other—with one significant difference: Paul Anka is charismatic, engaged, and an architect of his own success. Steven Shorter is a detached and helpless cipher.
If Steven is less than fascinating, Watkins has surrounded him with some colorful and well-played characters, including Max Bacon as "Uncle" Julie Jordan, Steven's music publisher, and, especially, Mark London as Alvin Kirsch, Steven's press officer and the ultimate PR guy.
Paul Jones was more noted as a musician than an actor, and Privilege was his first (and most significant) film. Since Steven Shorter is not a fully realized individual, Jones' somewhat awkward performance actually works in the film's favor.
Jean Shrimpton is another matter. The "world's first supermodel" does what you would expect from a supermodel: she looks beautiful and acts badly. If, like Jones, she was merely supposed to be a pretty prop, that would be fine. But Vanessa is the soul of the film; the character's physical beauty should have been secondary to her ability to project humanity. Because she was a model and accustomed to posing, there are times that Shrimpton can carry a moment with a look. Unfortunately, when she delivers a line, the game is over. I wonder if this character wasn't actually named for an actress who could have done the part justice: Vanessa Redgrave, who had the presence and the chops to really bring this character to life.
New Yorker Films has given us a very nice disc for this almost forgotten cult classic. The film looks very good, with a clean transfer and a good rendering of the colors. The audio is the original mono track, and it's decent, though a more dynamic 5.1 upgrade would have been nice, considering how much of a part music plays in all this.
Lonely Boy is the most significant electronic extra (though the poster gallery and trailer were interesting). There is also a 40-page booklet that includes two wonderful and insightful text pieces: a "self-interview" by Watkins (he no longer gives interviews, for a number of reasons enumerated at the top of the self-interview) and a chapter on the film (and updated afterword) from a 1979 book about Watkins' films. A third essay, "Teen Idolatry," is an excerpt from a larger essay, "From Obscurity in Ottawa to Fame in Freedomland: Lonely Boy and the Cultural Meaning of Paul Anka," and it's a standard-issue, academic deconstruction of popular culture that says nothing new and adds little to the package.
A sharp, funny, and well-made satire, Privilege makes it a privilege to welcome it to DVD. Now, if MGM gave us a special edition of this film's American cousin, 1968's Wild in the Streets, and Sony gave us an upgraded release of Ken Russell's Tommy, we could all hunker down for Messianic Pop Idol Movie Night.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• "Lonely Boy"
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.