‘Privilege’ a Virtuoso Failure

‘I’m annoyed with myself for vaguely enjoying “Privilege” (at the Granada). It’s the kind of movie that intimidates. It’s audacious, bizarre, ridiculous. I’d like everyone to see it, because it’s worth seeing. But I would like also to pan the hell out of it, because it deserves criticism; it begs to be put in its place.’

Gene Youngblood, legendary reviewer and cultural theorist who died in April 2021, began a series of film reviews in the in the LA Free Press in 1967. Many of these reviews formed the basis of parts of his book ‘Expanded Cinema‘ which is now seen widely as a foundational document of post-psychedelic cinema. Blackmass Movies is proud to begin the process of collecting Youngblood’s reviews in one place for the first time. Youngblood’s TV interview with a young George Lucas is here.


Peter Watkins’ “Privilege” is “Triumph of the Will” by Andy Warhol, “Story of 0” by Mick Jagger, “Hard Day’s Night” by Elmer Gantry.

The point is that “Privilege” has no identity nor direction of its own, though an awesome amount of energy is expended in trying to make us think so. Its strength is in the things it reminds you of, and that’s plenty. But it’s not equal to the sum of its parts. This is one of those movies so full of ideas and “virtuoso” sequences that its ultimate failure is exasperating.

England, 1970, under a Labor-Conservative Coalition Government. A ticker-tape parade welcomes pop singer Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) returning from an American tour with his sado-masochistic rock revue. Staged in cathedrals, and set to a neo-baroque fugue-rock, the show features Shorter being savagely beaten, caged and clubbed by a phalanx of bullnecked paramilitary “police” who start things off by hurling him blindfolded and handcuffed from the proscenium onto the stage floor.

A narrator explains that the brutality is intended as sublimation for rebellious youth, an out-let for adolescent emotions, a sort of keep-them-off-the-streets pop psychodrama. Young girls sob and scream with each thwack of the cops’ clubs; when Shorter reaches out to them with his manacle-bloodied wrists and sing-sobs “set me free … set me free,” they explode in a collective multidecibel orgasm-scream and storm the auditorium.

But the government decides that since Shorter is the most popular entertainer in history (“bigger than the Beatles”), his “position of privilege” must be used to unite Britain in a resurgence of church-state piety: his image must change.

He is featured in monster open-air rallies, proselytizing to the massed multitudes against big-beat arrangements of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Jerusalem,” socked-to-them by a tambourine-rattling combo in Friar Tuck monk habits. Instead of “set me free” the liturgy is “we will conform.”

But an attack of soul-searching, and the prodding of his girl-friend (Jean Shrimpton) causes Shorter to repudiate his image before a nationwide TV audience. Idol worship turns to hate; Short-er is banished from public life. His promoter explains: “Steve expressed a desire to be an individual. That creates problems in a society of conformity.”

I’m annoyed with myself for vaguely enjoying “Privilege” (at the Granada). It’s the kind of movie that intimidates. It’s audacious, bizarre, ridiculous. I’d like everyone to see it, because it’s worth seeing. But I would like also to pan the hell out of it, because it deserves criticism; it begs to be put in its place.

When an artist is as ambitious as Watkins, when he attempts so much and proclaims himself capable, he must face far more rigorous standards of judgment than ordinarily would be applied, Thus I have absolutely no respect for Watkins or his film. There is not one original frame in this movie, though Watkins films his heart out to make us think so. There is a precedent—somehow, some-where—for every cute idea, every bold cinematic technique.

To adopt a bit of McLuhanism, electronic media has made all of us artists-in-proxy. A year of concentrated TV-watching is equal to a course in the history of cinema, a comprehensive lesson in dramatics, script-writing, gag-telling and sly selling. We live in an age of hyper-awareness because electronic media has ex-tended our perceptivity. But the result is emptiness: we are glib, we are attuned to the temper of the times, but we can’t see inside. We know effect, not cause.

This is the general malaise of the arts today, from “Virginia Woolf” to “Accident” to “Two For the Road” to “A Man and A Woman.” Expert craftsmanship without inspiration. It’s too bad, because these semi-artists really believe that their technical acumen is more than just that. Like Watkins, they are astute observers, collectors of social phenomena which they amalgamate into a unified whole. But the impetus does not come from within; it is garnered from the outside. Watkins is to filmmaking what The Monkees are to rock music: he has no inherent originality. He is a charlatan whose concepts are sophomoric but he has an uncanny facility for couching them in “bravura” cinematics, and with “The War Game” and now” Priv-ilege” he has managed to hood-wink some usually. perceptive critics (like Kenneth Tynan) who ought to know better.

Cinema-verite and the news-reel style of filmmaking are a direct result of the profound influence of television newsreels. Because of TV all contemporary social activity, including the arts, has turned toward “realism” as life-style and mode of expression. (Of course there is interior and exterior realism, the psychedelic arts as opposed to the “pop” arts.)

Before television we saw little of the “realism” of events that occur constantly all over the world. Now we see and hear it daily on TV. We see men, women and children fighting for their lives in riots; we see war and holocaust; we see the expressions of persons in shock, horror, elation: we learn that the movies have deceived us; we know the look of reality. And since we are familiar with the visual aspect of uncommon realities chiefly through the TV newsreel, we are convinced we are seeing the real thing, or its approximation, only if presented newsreel style. So fiction filmmakers, con-fronted with a widening credibility gap, simply (or not so simply) adopted the cinematic techniques of newsreels.

In “Privilege,” for example, the wobbling hand-held camera constantly follows persons trying to walk away from it. Much use is made of telephoto, with the frame repeatedly blurred by per-sons passing “accidentally” across the field of vision. Subjects. frequently look directly at the camera, common in telephoto.

Extraneous or “white° sound often eradicates dialogue, common in direct-sound documentaries. All this would have been unthinkable in pre-TV days of movie-making, but it is authentic and persuasive now because it is directly opposite to polished studio “fiction” fiilmmaking.

But the fact is that this kind of bogus cinema-verite is even more fictional than traditional story-telling, because there are two fictions instead of one: the story and the style.

In Pontecorio’s “The Battle of Algiers” or Pasolini’s “The Gospel According To St. Matthew,” or RosPsaSalvatore Guiliano” the neo-newsreel technique works because there is no at-tempt to blend styles: “Algiers” and “Matthew” are presented as straight fiction; Guiliano” is full fictionalized documentary.

“Privilege,” however, is split down the middle: now narrated documentary, now candid subjectivity. Just when some semblance of character is being developed we are jerked back into distanced documentary. There is nothing wrong with either, but they are not compatible in the same film.

But the chief flaw in” Privilege’ is Watkins’ own naivete. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Watkins is overly impressed with certain philosophical truths and concepts, But unlike Godard, he hasn’t the artistic originality to transcend his unbridled enthusiasm: his zeal outstrips his reason. What were intended to be incisive satirical coups come out instead as embarrassing, half-formed dialectics. Watkins is shouting in the dark because he is not perceptive enough to illuminate his canvas. And all the fancy cinematics in the world will not conceal his weakness.

For instance, the religious crusade slogan “We Will Conform,” is just too blatant to be believed. Hitler himself would never have used so obvious and self-defeat-ng a gimmick as that. Any second-rate propagandist will tell you that the social manipulator’s true aim always is disguised as something else.

“Privilege” was intended as an indictment of conformity, and in case we should miss the point somehow, Watkins hands it to us on several silver platters inscribed SIGNIFICANT. There are at least two monologues that border on the pathetic, so inane and simplistic are their mes-sages, yet so ornate and portentous their delivery. “God has given Steve Shorter what he hasn’t given anyone in 500 years,” ob-serves the singer’s press agent. “He doesn’t belong to himself, he belongs to the world.

The film’s myriad allusions to persons or things are much too obvious, as are the influences and outright plagiarisms Watkins at-tempts to conceal. There is a cheek-kissing scene between Shorter and his Irving Lazar-type manager in a restaurant, lifted bodily out of Al Maysles’ “Lonely Boy.” The entire religious rally sequence is almost a verbatim quote from Lent ReifenStahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” even down to tracking movements and crane shots. There are sequences from “Hard Day’s Night” and a Elmer Gantry.” Even one of the film’s “original” songs is a variation on “Eleanor Rigby.”

There are some funny bits: Mark London, who portrays Shorter’s press agent, is a sly caricature of the Marquis de Sade and Brian Epstein. There’s a satire on TV commercials, in which the director admits his apple commercial was influenced by Moscow Art Theater. A discotheque, “The Steve Shorter Dream Palace,” is a “Story of 0” variation on Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. “Ave Maria” is played behind a press conference announcing Shorter’s allegiance with the church.