“Privilege” and “Lonely Boy”

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:

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Music, Performers, Philosophy and Religion, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to “Privilege” and “Lonely Boy”

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Lonely Boy is a great film.


  2. Faze says:

    So self-confident. But that prissy nose. I liked him better with his original Lebanese schlabonga Still, the kid had an incredible career — even if you ignore the performance and focus on the songwriting: “It Really Doesn’t Matter Any More” for Buddy Holly, Johnny Carson’s theme song, “Lonely Boy”, “Puppy Love”, and of course the masterful re-tailoring of “My Way” (originally a disillusioned French song about marriage) for Sinatra. But there was always something sleazy and organized crimey about him, which you can kind of pick up in the film. Also: “You’re Having My Baby”. I suppose that song isn’t so bad, but it rubbed people the wrong way when it came out. He was clobbered by the British invasion, just like other U.S. show-biz mortals, but hung on somehow by his nightclub fingernails

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cyrus says:

    Yeah, “Privilege” is a lousy film. Didactic and silly (an Anglican theocracy? Puh-leese).

    Watkins has always struck me as one of those directors who, given enough budgetary and artistic freedom, invariably hang themselves. Working with nothing he did make a few good films.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      The religion-Nazi-rock music mix is weird, isn’t it? Did Watkins really look at culture circa 1967 and see that as the direction we were headed in? One of the ironies: Watkins fears the government promoting a pop idol as a Christian propaganda tool, but in reality the British government was (and is) much more likely to promote and fund the work of guys like Watkins.

      I tried appreciating the movie as sci-fi and just going with the far-out premise. But I don’t think the narrative or performances are involving enough to support that. Or at least they weren’t for me.

      Which Watkins films have you enjoyed? I’ve seen four or five.


      • Cyrus says:

        The Nazi-Anglican dystopia is very strange. Interestingly, Alan Moore also used it in “V for Vendetta” (which was even more ludicrously unlikely by the time of the film adaptation). Wish fulfillment perhaps? Or maybe it seemed more feasible when Cliff Richard was at the height of his popularity?

        The disconnect between British films attacking the Establishment whilst being funded by it has always been striking — Ken Loach, Steve McQueen etc. Such are the perils of having such a small film industry that it gets colonised by the cultural elite (a few bad gangster films notwithstanding). Oh, for a film industry like France’s!

        Re: Watkins. The ones I’ve enjoyed most are “The War Game”, “Culloden” and “Punishment Park”. I’ve also seen “The Gladiators”, “The Commune”, “Privilege” and some of “The Journey” (I didn’t stick around for the whole ten hour plus running time though).


  4. peterike says:

    “Lonely Boy” was terrific. thanks for posting it. Some thoughts.

    One can make the by now cliche’ observation that among all those girls, there doesn’t seem to be a single fat one. And naturally, no tattoos, piercings, etc.

    The behind-the-scenes parts are great. From the classic Jewish handler to the gangster owner of the Copa, I wish there was more of that in the film. Though the poor agent, thinking that Anka would be the biggest star the world had ever seen, couldn’t know that off in Liverpool a few young men were banging away on their instruments and were about to sweep Anka and all his kind from the face of earth. The screaming girls would turn their backs on Anka and find their new, more vital, more Dionysian gods in The Beatles and the rest, and nothing would ever be the same.

    Our grandparents were right, you know. Elvis really did destroy the world.


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