Privilege (UK, 1967)

Some targets hit

Some targets hit

Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late ‘560s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenges Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.

As to the film itself… Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.

I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point…

Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.

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The Pleasure Girls (UK, 1965)

Young, free and female

Young, free and female

Most ‘Swinging ’60s’ British cinema focuses on male experiences, usually chasing the ‘birds’. This is hardly surprising and Oedipal narratives are still the dominant form in mainstream cinema. I stumbled across The Pleasure Girls as part of the British Film Institute’s ‘Flipside’ series, releasing the ‘untold history of British film’. This is just the sort of project a publicly-funded body should be involved in, offering a great opportunity to see beyond the ‘headline’ films. I saw this on a rental Blu-ray which meant, unfortunately, I couldn’t benefit from the excellent essays that accompany the series.

The film focuses on Sally’s (Francesca Annis) first weekend in London, staying with friends before trying to launch a career as a model. The opening credits firmly root Sally in the upper middle classes, she’s from East Grinstead, thus contrasting the film with the marvelous Smashing Time (1967) which follows two northern lasses in London. Sally soon meets the apparently louche Keith (Ian McShane), a would-be photographer. Despite their social standing the ‘girls’ are all likeable and an upper-class twit differentiates them from the old upper class order.

The film was independently-made, no doubt raising money on the promise of sexy subject matter; googling ‘pleasure girls’ brings not just the film but women designed to ‘pleasure’ men. Unlike ‘google’, the film does focus on female pleasures and veers between representing ‘loose women’ negatively, one of the girls is in ‘trouble’, and the progressive representation of the gay Paddy (homosexuality for men was still illegal at the time). It celebrates Sally’s reluctance to jump into bed with Keith and their burgeoning relationship is convincingly portrayed; McShane was polishing his roguish charm and it’s not quite clear whether he simply wants to ‘get into her knickers’.

There’s an obscure sub plot concerning Klaus Kinski as an exploitative landlord who’s being chased by… outraged tenants I think. The film doesn’t have a strong narrative drive but presents itself as a slice of ‘swinging’ young people’s lives at the time.

 

Georgy Girl (UK, 1966)

Not Georgy

Not Georgy

I’m planning to teach ‘sixties UK cinema this year so took the opportunity of watching Georgy Girl for ‘free’, via a PS3, as part of my Lovefilm subscription. I ended up shoving another 19 items onto my ‘watchlist’ including a number of tasty ‘world cinema’ offerings. As in music, we live in a time that offers a cornucopia of films and finding time to watch them all, and listen to the music, almost makes me yearn for the days of ‘drought’. In the 1970s there were three terrestrial television channels in the UK which meant there were three channels available. The system of ‘barring’ meant it was five years before films could be shown on television after it was released. There was a decent library of 16mm films for hire but that required specialist equipment.

So, no I’m not yearning for the ’70s. During that decade videocassette started the revolution in home entertainment that is now moving online; there’s little point in buying DVDs unless you’re going to study the film. This dip into the past was partly instigated by watching Georgy Girl as I remembered The Seekers’ theme tune being a hit at the time (I was four!). According the wikipedia, the film was too.

It was funded by Columbia Pictures who, along with other Hollywood studios, assumed that because London was ‘swinging’ it was also ‘where it’s at’ and money could be made appealing to young people. Robert Murphy (in Sixties British Cinema) names Georgy Girl as one of the few genuinely ‘swinging’ films, and the last in black and white, but it also starred James Mason which, presumably, appealed to an older audience who might have looked askance at the antics of the young people.

Lynn Redgrave plays the titular character, who’s supposedly over-weight and so not attractive, with great verve and she does embody a character who is capable of breaking stultifying tradition. She’s contrasted with her friend, the definitely good-time girl Meredith (Charlotte Rampling – above), who the film does, I think, condemn for her selfishness but Murphy’s also correct when he states: ‘her defiance of conventions of marriage and motherhood gives the film a shocking frisson’ (p. 143).

The film remains engaging, 47 years later, though the (obligatory?) ‘swinging’ scene of a young person running through the streets shouting (and stripping in this film’s case) in defiance of convention does look dated. Alan Bates, looking startlingly like Mel Gibson in his prime, performs the role of Jos with great conviction even when he is stripping off when running through the underground walkways.

Today’s release of the annual Social Trends survey, in the UK, shows how much more tolerant we are, as a nation, of difference. That, I think, is certainly a positive legacy of the 1960s.