Posted by Whitmore, July 28, 2008 11:06pm | Post a Comment

I’ve often said coincidence does not exist, but I'll save that diatribe for another time. However, a couple of days ago, and for the first time, not one but two Paul Jones 45’s -- he’s the former lead singer for the 1960’s British invasion band Manfred Mann -- wandered into Amoeba from separate collections. Both of these singles are from the same soundtrack, Privilege, a film released in 1967 starring Paul Jones, who was making his big screen acting debut. Now, two days later, I find out that for the first time ever, Privilege will be released on DVD today. Coincidence or plot? I just don't know. Well, anyway...

The film was directed by Peter Watkins, whose highly controversial anti-nuclear drama The War Game won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (and was soon to be banned in Great Britain). Watkins once again doesn’t stray far from controversy in Privilege. Taking place in a totalitarian English State of the near future, specifically 1970, the dark comic vision of Privilege criticizes the media and its media manipulation, corporate culture and its corporate manipulation. It portrays a time where most everything seems to bounce off the absurd and neurotic teen pop-dom dominating the age and the happily tranquilized population is content with fluffy distractions. The main character, Steven Shorter, played by Paul Jones, is a rock god. His popularity and career have been meticulously engineered by a vast music corporation, reaching dizzying Beatlesque heights. But all this begins to crack when an artist, played by the original supermodel Jean Shrimpton, is hired to paint Steven Shorter’s portrait, and finds an unstable, empty shell of a man, lost in a lonely world, a puppet trapped by the demands of a music business out of control, and a simple singer victimized by all the excess, process, and success. Of course, the artist tries to rescue and prop up Steven Shorter before he becomes yet another statistic in the eternally doomed scenario of recyclable pop stars. But as can only happen in real life and/or rock melodramas, fortunes take a Machiavellian twist when rebellion is only a pop song away. Now that’s entertainment!

In its initial release, the reviews of Privilege attacked Peter Watkins for being “hysterical” and “ranting’ or showing a “sheer lack of professionalism.” Some even suggested the film was “immoral and un-Christian” and “encouraged youth in lewd practices.” Critics eagerly trashed Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton, both in their acting debuts (Shrimpton would never act again). Some reviews seem to both dismiss and praise simultaneously. For example, The Christian Science Monitor called Privilege “brutal and offensive” yet finished the review with “…but it is always brilliant.” The Washington Post wrote that it was “absorbing in its failure.” However, in the years since, Privilege has been re-thought as a genuinely unique film. And if not quite a masterpiece, at least it was an audacious attempt to witness the mangling of the hand that feeds. In a piece by Tom Sutpen, he writes: “Peter Watkins boldly advanced the proposition that, in the end, we exist as followers in a cult of commodity, creatures of the marketplace buying every manner of human phenomena (war, rage, dissent, revolution, love) the way we buy tube socks and teacups. But no one wanted to hear it; not from him , not from anybody. Then as now, everything has its price. The only thing you can't make a dime off of is the truth.”

Speaking of truth, there’s one more thing … I’ve never seen the entire film. I saw a portion of Privilege at a night club decades ago. Copies of the film seem to have been buried alongside Jimmy Hoffa in Jersey somewhere. I read an article several years back saying Peter Watkins couldn’t even track down a print of the film for his own use-- so I’m anxious to check it out. Will I be disappointed? Who knows, and it doesn’t matter! The truth is, I’m a simpleton. Most of what I recall about this film stems from one scene where Paul Jones performs the song “Set Me Free” (later covered by Patti Smith on her album Easter). I recently found that scene on YouTube and was glad to discover that my revisionist memory isn’t so off kilter after all. Here are eight minutes of some of the oddest, most truly absurd and delightfully paranoid, over the top crucifixions the Theater of the Cruel will ever rock and roll on celluloid, and yet at times it looks just like footage from a Beatles or a Monkees concert!

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