It is my very great privilege to announce that Privilege an early masterpiece by the great Peter Watkins is coming out on DVD. Made in 1967 on the heels of the success du scandale politque of The War Game, Privilege was the first — and last — film by Watkins to be released by a major American studio, Universal. According to Watkins biographer Joseph A. Gomez —
“The idea for Privilege is said to have come fome a conversation between Terence Stamp and John Heyman, a former agent turned producer. Stamp suggested ‘making a film aof a pop singer who thought he was Jesus Christ.’ Heyman replied ‘I thought they all do.’ From these casual remarks grew the idea for a story which would ‘expose the rotten world of pop.’ “
There’s plenty of rot exposed in Privilege, but it has less to do with pop than the interface between show business and politics necessary for the functioning of a fascist state. Charting the rise and fall of a pop singer named “Stephen Shorter”( played by pop singer Paul Jones) whose act is a kind of PG-rated sado-masochistic spectacle in which he is mock beaten and chained by mock policeman as he please with his fans to “Free me!” Privilege was a very cold shower bath for a public enthralled by the bubbly cheer of the Beatles.
(You can find excerpts Here,
Stamp’s Christ reference was clearly inspired by the brouhaha created when John Lennon opined that he and the other moptops were “Bigger than Jesus.” What, Privilege asks, would happen if rather than oppose pop, church and state climbed on board? Watkins answers this question in much his usual style via a drama presented in the form of a psuedo-documentary. With a greater budget at his disposal than ever before (or since) he created a film that a then-emerging singer named David Bowie quite obviously ripped off for his own act . At the same time it predicgts both the rise of Thatcherism and the Christian “Fundamentalist” right — which while having run its course with the Republican party, now threatens to sink its fangs into the Democrats.
Born in 1935, Peter Watkins is the most important political filmmaker of all time.
Yes, you read that right. After setting the BBC on its ear with his anti-war featurette The War Game (it was banned from boradcast but released theatrically and went on to win a “Best Documentary” Oscar) Watkins has led a cinematically nomadic existence managing to make works chiefly in the scnadanavian countreis, the best known being Edvard Munch. He did come stateside in 1971 to make Punishment Park an examination of what the U.S. government may well have in store for those who object to its policies (forget Gitmo, the incarceration facilities the film deals with were created decades ago and are still ready for operation if “necessary.”) Then there’s his epic anti-nuclear film The Journey. But to my mind what Watkins should best be remembered for (at this point) is La Commune (de Paris, 1871), a film so profoundly thorough as to make Jean-Luc Godard appear nothing more than a petty dilletante.
Watkins has said that when he made Privilege most of what he knew of pop music was as a result of seeing Lonely Boy, a National Film Board of Canada documentary on Paul Anka. But its less Koenig and Kroeter than Leni Riefenstahl that’s evoked in the many performance scenes in Privilege — with “Stephen Shorter’s” appearances producting mass hysteria in which sexuality gets re-rigged to fealty to the state — in a style Ken Russell and Derek Jarman would explicate further a few years later in The Devils. Clearly they would make a great double feature.
In Privilege we hear from “Stephen Shorter” a very catchy rendition of
“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
forward into battle see his banners go!
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.”
Keep in mind the rest of the lyrics —
” At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
on then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.
Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
but the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.
Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ the King,
this through countless ages men and angels sing.”
But recall as well a Berlin named Irving —
I got a message from below
‘Twas from a man I used to know
About a year or so ago
Before he departed
Is just as happy as can be
I’ll tell you what he said to me
He said, “If ever you get heavy-hearted
Pack up your sins and go to the devil in Hades
You’ll meet the finest of gentlemen and the finest of ladies
They’d rather be down below than up above
Hades is full of thousands of
Joneses and Browns, O’Hoolihans, Cohens and Bradys
You’ll hear a heavenly tune that went to the devil
Because the jazz bands
They started pickin’ it
Then put a trick in it
A jazzy kick in it
They’ve got a couple of old reformers in Heaven
Making them go to bed at eleven
Pack up your sins and go to the devil
And you’ll never have to go to bed at all
If you care to dwell where the weather is hot
H-E-double-L is a wonderful spot
If you need a rest and you’re all out of sorts
Hades is the best of the winter resorts
Paradise doesn’t compare
All the nice people are there
They come there from ev’rywhere
Just to revel with Mister Devil
Nothing on his mind but a couple of horns
Satan is waitin’ with his jazz band
And his band came from Alabam’ with a melody hot
No one gives a damn if it’s music or not
Satan’s melody makes you want to dance forever
And you never have to go to bed at all!”