Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I spent some time with the DVD of Peter Watkins’ 1967 “Privilege” the other day. Confession: I didn’t get much out of the movie, which features Watkins’ usual combo of showy modernist stratagems and semi-hysterical point-making. I found it to be terribly paced and pretty blah looking, and I thought the lead performance by Paul Jones was painfully obtuse.
But what do I know? “Privilege” is celebrated by some for the way in which it highlights the propaganda potential of popular performers. I’ll admit that the movie makes some valid points (who would deny that pop icons often command a creepy sort of sway?), though none of them, it seems to me, warrant the apocalyptic emphasis that Watkins gives them. (Though I suspect we can all recognize similarities in the mass appeal of the Beatles and that of Hitler, allow me to suggest that comparing the two might be a little . . . tone deaf.) And I found the filmmaker’s scolding, leftist-professor gaze to be wearying. I kept asking myself: Isn’t it rather ungenerous to condemn pop culture without even trying to appreciate what there is in it that people might respond to? Watkins takes what might have been fodder for a lively travesty — the intersection of mass media, consumerism, religion, and democracy — and uses it to mount a barking denunciation. Where this sort of thing goes I’d much rather spend time with “Wild In the Streets,” “The President’s Analyst,” “Nashville,” or “Smile” — satires that are alive to the appealing aspects of the things they’re skewering.
Fortunately, the DVD that Netflix sent me also included a 1962 documentary on Paul Anka called, with more than a touch of irony, “Lonely Boy.” Directed by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor, it’s believed to have inspired Watkins to make “Privilege.” Frankly, I think “Lonely Boy” puts the later film to shame. In around 20 minutes it gives you the Anka phenomenon in all its layered grotesqueness. There are the screaming girls, both ecstatic and disturbed; the slightly homoerotic coterie of male handlers; the weird spectacle of a pre-fab image made to take the stage and enact itself. The film is very knowing — Koenig and Kroitor are anything but naive — yet it reveals a lot of humanity. You get a sense of Anka’s talent, ambition, and charisma. (He suggests a cross between a Caravaggio model and Mickey Mouse.) And the girls who worship him are, in their intensity and vulnerability, touching and unnerving in ways that only young girls are capable of being. Koenig and Kroitor are open to the human aspects of fandom. Watkins, by contrast, surveys the pop landscape and sees only automatons waiting for the jackboot.
In summary, I found the unassuming “Lonely Boy” to be strange and provocative, the archly radical “Privilege” a snooze.
Here’s “Lonely Boy” in its entirety: