PRINT March 2006


Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park

AT LONG LAST it may be Peter Watkins’s moment. The most prescient, innovative, and accomplished of overlooked English-language movie masters, Watkins has directed twelve feature films of various running times, from the imploded forty-seven minutes of The War Game (1965) to the alternatively discursive and meditative fourteen-hour The Journey (1983–85)—both, not incidentally, antinuke films. Although Privilege (1966), his fake rockumentary starring Swinging London supermodel Jean Shrimpton, had a limited art-cinema release, television is Watkins’s battleground. His explicit contestation of televisual forms, standards, and practices and his implicit condemnation of their effects on society have more often than not resulted in his films being rejected by the very networks that commissioned them. The War Game, which depicts London in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, was banned by the BBC for twenty years. Norwegian and Swedish TV were reportedly nearly as dismayed by Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1973) as the Norwegian cultural establishment had been by Munch’s paintings. But last summer, Edvard Munch—one of Watkins’s greatest films, the other being La Commune (Paris, 1871) (1999)—played at the tiny Cinema Village in New York for weeks, and retrospectives of Watkins’s films have cropped up on the museum and university circuit worldwide over the past several years. Now, New Yorker Films has issued Edvard Munch on DVD (see page 74), a follow-up to its recently released disc of Punishment Park (1970), the only film Watkins made in the United States. (Readers may recall that the jerry-built television station Rirkrit Tiravanija installed in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York last spring—Untitled 2005 [the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel]—broadcast grainy images from a long-suppressed film: Punishment Park.)

The discomforting notion that American society has caught up with Watkins’s dystopic vision is evidenced by the complete turnaround of critical response to Punishment Park. When the film played at the New York Film Festival in 1971, critics responded with irritation and contempt. The New York Times’s Vincent Canby dismissed Punishment Park as a movie that “projects present realities into a vision of the future that is more fascinated by the effects of horror than concerned with the causes.” Nearly thirty-five years later, however, as critics who heaped unqualified praise on the DVD release noted, Watkins’s projections are with us in the form of Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, the power grab by the executive branch through the War Powers Act, and, of course, Survivor.

Hybrids of documentary and fictional strategies, Watkins’s films involve either the re-creation of historical events and personages (La Commune, Edvard Munch) or the projection of possible futures (The War Game, Punishment Park). Set in the mid-’70s, Punishment Park imagines a situation in which Richard Nixon is at the end of his second term and the war in Vietnam has escalated into an imminent military confrontation with China. Protests against the war have resulted in the activation of Title II of the 1950 McCarran Act, under which the president is authorized to round up and detain indefinitely, without trial, persons suspected of being or becoming a threat to national security. The film segues back and forth between two groups of detainees. One group is brought before a tribunal for a “hearing” that has the same Lewis Carroll quality as the real trial of the Chicago Seven (on which it is plainly modeled). Found guilty, the captives are given a choice between lengthy prison sentences or seventy-two hours in “Punishment Park.” The other group, having already been condemned, has chosen Punishment Park, and the film follows these student radicals, black militants, pacifists, and draft resisters as they quickly learn that the rules of the game are rigged against them. Punishment Park is a hunting “preserve” in a vast southwestern desert, where fully armed cops and National Guard troops, riding in cars and trucks, chase their prey: the condemned subversives, who have seventy-two hours to cross fifty-three miles on foot without food or water. Their goal is to reach the American flag at the end of the course. But most are shot to death by their pursuers or die of dehydration along the way. The lucky ones are captured alive and sent to federal prison for their failure.

Punishment Park is framed as a television documentary made by one of the many domestic and foreign news crews who, we are told, have been invited by the US government to cover the entire proceedings in the belief that the resulting TV spectacle (i.e., the film we are seeing) will act as a deterrent. This reflexive use of the movie camera is central to almost all of Watkins’s films and, of course, dates back to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterwork, Man with a Movie Camera. But in this case it is a woman, the remarkable Joan Churchill, best known for her collaborations with Nick Broomfield (another undervalued British maverick), who handholds the 16-mm camera throughout, following the improvised action and dialogue of the nonprofessional actors Watkins chose because their political beliefs for the most part corresponded to those of the “characters” they were assigned and because, in some cases, they resembled iconic figures like Bobby Seale, Joan Baez, and the infamous judge Julius Hoffman of the Chicago Seven trial. While the camera work is intentionally rough and immediate, the multilayered sound track, with its crescendo of offscreen gunfire and explosions, is the cinematography’s perfect counterpoint and has a great deal to do with the feeling of free-floating anxiety that the viewer is left with long after the film is over.

The timing of the initial US release of Punishment Park couldn’t have been more inopportune. The dreaded McCarran Act had in fact been repealed a few weeks earlier, thanks to a four-year campaign by the liberals in Congress. By 1968 the television networks, which at first had cooperated with the Pentagon by suppressing images of American dead and wounded in Vietnam, were pumping bloody images into every household. The effect was to gradually marshal what Canby, in his justifiably negative review, described as “the short-haired opposition to the government’s policies”—huge numbers of Americans who were nowhere to be found in Watkins’s schema. And, most important, there was still, at that moment, despite the horrors, a belief among leftists and liberals in the romance of American democracy, which meant that a British filmmaker who presented himself as the only person capable of mounting a critique of “Amerika” would be sent pack- ing. In the long run, however, it seems that Watkins had the clearer vision of the future. McCarran is back in the form of a web of covert policies openly supported by the White House. The inability of the Americans on the extreme left and the extreme right to engage in political discourse (which makes Punishment Park so enervating to sit through) has been writ large across blue states and red states. No one can make a convincing case for the promise of America. And television, as an all-consuming spectacle in which facts and fictions, truths and deceits are indistinguishable, is our Punishment Park.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.