Cinema: Pop Messiah

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Privilege. In The War Game, British Director Peter Watkins offered one possible direction for England in "the near future": a civilization getting on by animal instinct following an atomic war. Privilege proposes an equally bleak alternative: a society still outwardly human, groveling in stupor before a cheap messiah. This pseudo savior is a moronic pop singer who combines the sequinned splendor of an Elvis Presley with the sullen magnetism of a Bob Dylan, draining adoring audiences of emotion and common sense with his bathetic keening.

In Watkins' vision, the singer (Paul Jones) is a commodity to be leased to all takers, by hour, day or week for the purpose of manipulating a gullible public. When the country is burdened with an apple surplus, the Agriculture Ministry hires the singer to munch a choice pippin on the telly; soon, everybody's awash in applesauce. The clergy wants to push God? Jones, in a mod getup vaguely suggesting the Blood of the Lamb, sings Jesus songs to a screaming multitude. Eventually he gets a kind of religion himself. To a crowd of dignitaries assembled to pay him homage, he mumbles "I hate you," and vanishes into oblivion with the One Girl (Jean Shrimpton) Who Really Understands.

Using sound and images in a staccato, pseudodocumentary style, Watkins conjures up a brutal spectacle of a society blissfully hurtling toward the "fruitful conformity" of a fascist state. And up to a point, his sheer technical bravado almost saves the movie. But ultimately, Privilege is less a picture than a frame. One problem is that Jones, who is a real-life rock-'n'-roll performer but certainly no actor, offers no clue to the charismatic character who could exert such fatal appeal. And Jean Shrimpton, Britain's most celebrated model in the pre-Twiggy days, merely matches him mumble for mumble.

A more serious problem is that Director Watkins seems to break faith with his audience as the film moves along.

Early on, taut, angular editing and a brilliantly elliptical, soft-spoken narrative create some sense of frightening possibility. But, at the climactic revival scene, as Jones steps forward to shake hands with the Almightly and the band thunders out Deutschland iiber Alles, the message becomes childishly explicit—and essentially absurd.