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Privilege
New Yorker Video

"We want the world and we want it now," cries Jim Morrison at the climax of "When the Music's Over." The dude wasn't kiddin' around. The '60s were winding down and they were strange days indeed; the kids were revolting (in every sense of the word), struggles that made for fine film fodder. Privilege was one of five "risky" films Universal Pictures bankrolled in the late '60s out of their London branch.

The most lavish project director Peter Watkins has tackled, Privilege tells the story of Steven Shorter (Manfred Mann frontman Paul Jones), whose stage act enjoys national prominence in Britain; it's a cathartic experience that placates and manipulates the youth (keeping them out of politics). Set in "the near future," the film's narrator (Watkins) describes Shorter as the "most popular entertainer in the world." Along with his music career, he's the front for a chain of "dream stores" where consumers always leave happy. He's also a figurehead whose career has been carefully crafted by Britain's coalition government and the church. The film documents the culmination of Shorter's career and the scheme that would have him repent for being a "bad boy" during a government-sponsored Christian Crusade.

With the power of Hitler and the popularity of Paul Anka, Steven Shorter's origins stem from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Wills and Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor's Lonely Boy. These elements were skillfully blended by Watkins, who employs his signature doc style with a primarily nonprofessional cast. Hot off the Academy Award and controversy of his The War Game, Privilege spoke to the political climate of the day, the elevated position of puppet-stringed pop stars in our vacuous culture, and to the critics of Watkins's previous film.

While not the strongest of Watkins's works (he admits the ending fails), it's a compelling treatise on fame, media manipulation and the fleeting nature of public "taste." So Privilege was a prophecy of sorts, foreshadowing much of the dismal paparazzi and trivia-fueled entertainment industry of now.

With the rights held tightly by Universal Pictures for more than four decades, Privilege just made its DVD debut courtesy of Oliver Groom's Project X distribution and New Yorker films. The DVD includes Koenig and Kroitor's Lonely Boy for comparison. This fascinating short doc must be viewed with the hindsight that its star would be usurped two years hence by a little group known as "The Beatles." —Mike White


Brand Upon the Brain!
Criterion

Perhaps more than any working director, Guy Maddin treats film like Silly Putty, manipulating celluloid with the delirious freedom of the medium's earliest innovators. It's no surprise, then, that his trademark is the modern-day silent movie, and 2006's Brand Upon the Brain! may be his most staggering expression of silent-film reinvention. Rather than just aping cinema's forefathers in a winking tribute of imitative nostalgia, Maddin's film feels as fresh as anything on the big screen today. Brand is a grim sci-fi yarn involving an orphanage in a lighthouse, a dictatorial mother, brain harvesting and a cross-dressing paperback-novel detective, and it's loaded with infantile regression and Freudian psychosexual undertones. It's also a convoluted trip through the director's own childhood, which was racked with the same emotional turmoil with which its young protagonist suffers on screen. The Criterion disc offers a comprehensive, if overlong, featurette on the making of the film, as well as two Maddin shorts, including the wonderful tribute to his Foley sound effects team, Footsteps. Guy Maddin's cinema is an acquired, but essential, taste. Check out Brand Upon the Brain! and start acquiring.
John Thomason


The Life Before Her Eyes
Magnolia

This latest overwrought slog from Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) follows two time-jumping plots: Promiscuous high schooler Diana (Evan Rachel Wood), who faces a killer's machine gun in a horrific school shooting and, 15 years later, 32-year-old Diana (Uma Thurman), whose emotional scars from the tragedy still color her relationships with her husband and daughter. When screenwriter Emil Stern (based on the Laura Kasischke novel) isn't force-feeding us expository dialogue and portentous metaphors ("Maybe we're just like the rain when it evaporates," muses the young Diana), Perelman is clobbering us over the head with shallow symbols, his visual palette awash with empty impressionistic montages of flowers and insects. He even tries to cull poetry from the Columbine-like school massacre, his execution of the execution all crassly dramatic slow-motion camerawork and predictable Howard Shore orchestra swells. Amid all the seeming abstraction, there's nothing to decode here, as Perelman's intergenerational editing scheme creates obvious parallels, laying every point bare. How can a film that tries to pass itself off as deep demand so little of its audience? A twist at the end makes the entire thing slightly more dramatically potent while at the same time increasing the amount of god-fearing mumbo jumbo. —John Thomason

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