prelude: it's funny how events seem to unfold with a life of their own. yesterday, once again as a result of my procrastination, i missed out on something. this time it was a pair of movies: "monsieur verdoux" and "to the limit" both of which were no longer showing at their respective theatres! monsieur verdoux, an awesome - post charlie the tramp - chaplin movie - i've seen a few times, but never on the big screen. i didn't realize the one week run of the restored print ended on THURSDAY! arrgh! on the other hand, i had no idea "to the edge," a documentary about two brothers who speed climb extreme rock faces, would only be shown for one week! now i'll need to wait for it be released on dvd.
sundance channel: so last night i stumbled across a listing for a 1967 british film called "privilege." aside from the brief description which mentioned "rock star," i had never heard of this film. a big fan of 60's british mod scene, i had to give it a quick look - if only to take in the atmosphere. with little fanfare, and in mock documentary style, i was suddenly pulled into an orwellian britian set a few years in the future.
it opened with a ticker tape parade for steve shorter (paul jones), an immensely famous pop star. the narrator mentioned he was the first person so honored in the history of britain (the first glimpse of double speak). but what is riveting followed immediately: shorter's unique music "performance" and the violence it entailed. the narrator, in voice over documentary style, proceeded to explain the need for the violence (which included a cage, handcuffs, mock beatings, fans, hysterically lunging the stage, batteries of police officers... get the picture) as cathartic, intended to release the pent-up frustrations of the teenagers!
phew! after we witness the performance - by an almost detached, robotic shorter - the film moves quickly to detail the behind the scenes manipulation of the pop star's image. this evolves into grand plans to translate his messianic influence into areas well beyond music. we get comic relief in his handlers plan use shorter's influence to increase apple consumption in england. but the real nastiness, or should we say bitter political message, is the merged british government (which is no longer a two party system - since there are no longer different political view between the parties) and the catholic church! they plan, better word choice is conspire, to have shorter headline a huge national unity rally.
and what a rally it is - taken directly from the play book of nazi germany! huge expanse of land, lit by torchlight, armies (in this instant) of scouts (replacing soldiers) parading with flags, to the sounds of hysterically cheering fans, and - yes this is true - exchanges of the nazi salute! the high (or low) point it the fiery speech given, no by shorter (who just stands there), but by a priest who leads the chanting crowd in refrains of "WE WILL CONFORM!" it is every bit as over the top as described.
shorter's moment of self-awareness and predictable self loathing materializes shortly after the big rally. it takes place at a lavish awards dinner (in his honor) broadcast live across britian. the results are swift and, again, predictable - but no less shocking and powerful. his downfall and immediate disappearance is right out of orwell. his crime was upsetting the calm of society - and he lost his privilege of addressing the public!
post viewing: afterwards i went on-line to see what i could find. shocking, to say the VERY LEAST, the film was pulled from theaters and boycotted almost immediately after release. there was so much pressure from the government and church, no one wanted to show it! real life censorship in 1960's britian. wow! the strange thing, even though it's nominally about a rock star, it has its antecedent in "a face in the crowd" and has almost a direct parallel in the who's "tommy" and the cult like worship of the pinball wizard!
why was it aired now? one of the striking things most of the discussions mentioned was the unavailability of the film. even the director, peter watkins, complained as recently as 2000 he couldn't get a copy of his own film from the studio! but fast-forward to present day - now a new dvd of the film will be released next month. it explains the vibrancy of the print (and all those mod colors) on the sundance channel.
this is a must see for any serious film buff (or fan of anti-establishment pictures)!
here is a contemporary review by roger ebert!