New Yorker Films // 1971 // 88 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // January 26th, 2006
One of the most controversial films ever made.
It's 1971. By order of the President, a National Park in California has been turned into a kind interment camp for dissidents and radicals. Students who've been found guilty of crimes against the state -- including bombings, protesting and violent resistance to the policy in Vietnam -- are brought to this dry lake bed in the middle of the desert to receive their sentence. A lay tribunal, made up of teachers, lawyers, senators, and other officials, gives the individuals their possible penalties. Either they can serve ridiculously long stays in the Federal Penitentiary system, or they can "compete" in a three-day hike into the mountains, looking for an outcropping of rocks upon which an American flag is flying. If they make it there without being caught by the pursuing police, they are...well, it's not quite sure what the reward is. If they resist or try to flee, the full force of the law -- including the violent and deadly variety -- will be on them. As one group heads out into the arid landscape, a new group arrives to plead their case. No matter what the outcome, the purpose is plain. After all, can you think of another reason why they'd call it Punishment Park?
An allegorical look at the great and grand divide that split this country during the late '60s and early '70s, Punishment Park is writer/director Peter Watkins manifesto on the United States and its so-called democratic ideals. It's an improvised docu-drama founded on a fantastic premise (the American government, fed up with all the protests and problems within the youth movement, would set up concentration camps to more or less "eradicate" the issue) that is wildly subversive. It was based on an actual law that could have been implemented, making the entire enterprise even more frightening. As a response to the police beatings outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the killings at Kent State, and the trial of those involved in the watershed Windy City event, Watkins (a Brit by birth) wanted to explore the notion of radicalism and how a supposedly enlightened society deals with it. He created the concept, hired the actors, and set up the staging parameters. But with no rehearsal, very little scripting, and complete confidence in his idea, he simply let matters play out the way they would normally. The result is a violent, disturbing, and often unbearable peek into the problematic, piercing conflicts that arise on both sides of the situation.
The contrast is set up clearly. The kids "participating" in Punishment Park's particular brand of "penalty" go from fighters to frightened in their three days, learning lessons about life and those they struggled against. Perspective is not the problem, though. Indeed, most of these radicals are college kids and intellectuals who've taken up a kind of vocal arms against a closed-minded and misguided Establishment. But they too suffer from a kind of myopic missive, unable to argue their point without resorting to inflammatory comments and curse words. Similarly, the people arriving for trial are all defiant in their "us vs. them" assurance of vindication. What they're met with is the brick wall of power, a personification of the concept that "might makes right." No one is talking to each other, just at them, and the result is a frustrating line of communication that scuttles ideas, mixes messages, and more or less guarantees that nothing good will come out of the exchange. Once we witness what is waiting for them at the end of Punishment Park's "trials" -- both figuratively and literally -- we see that our suspicions were not unwarranted.
Indeed, such an easy ability to see the belligerence beneath the bad guys is part of Punishment Park's main problem. As a narrative, the cards are already stacked in favor of the incoming inmates. Some are guilty of heinous crimes against society, but others are political in their imprisonment, culpable for nothing more than having a differing opinion than that of the government. When faced with a line of trigger-happy cops who can't wait to waste a little hippy humanity, how the Establishment looks remotely sympathetic is almost impossible to see. Sure, director Watkins wastes a lot of breath inside the tribunal, allowing the court a chance to argue in somewhat rationalized terms what radicalism and rebellion is doing to the nation. "You are eating away at it from the inside," one argues, pointing to problems made even worse by the non-stop anarchic grandstanding, but all those attempts at logic are lost when police are blowing the heads off of near-dead, dehydrated detainees. If Watkins's main argument is that the forces of security are the true madmen in the mix, he uses a sledgehammer full of subtlety to make said point. If he wants to spread the blame around, he is fighting not only his own plot parameters, but the march of time as well.
Looking back at the situations of something like Kent State 35 years later, it is impossible to argue for the actions of the National Guard. Watkins' imaginary instigators may have lost the battle back then, but they've long since won the war of public opinion. With the issue of the troops now a settled standard (we support them, just not the policy) and many a movie portraying Vietnam as a horrid Hell on earth, we see the point being made by the protesters loud and clear. So there is no need for endless scenes where they try and defend their position. Instead, we'd like to hear a clear and open debate in which the authorities stop towing the party line and actually engage in some manner of meaningful dialogue. But since this film is a product of its time and of a temperament that favored organized aggression and disorder, we feel like we're listening to a hopelessly one-sided shootout. The Government won't win -- they didn't in reality -- and the students would later shelve their beliefs to lead the Yuppie boom of gratuitous greed in the 1980s.
The result is a movie that just doesn't resonate with a modern audience. It has its moments (any confrontation between the cops and the kids is rife with electrifying edginess) and, as a piece of proselytizing history, you couldn't ask for a more innovative and intriguing conceit (this may be the first movie to utilize the POV camera as a mock-documentary device). But Punishment Park is not really entertaining. It's engrossing, but only in the most speculative, specious manner. We want to know what happens, though it's more or less telegraphed every step of the way. We listen to the speeches hoping we hear something new and yet it never comes. In the end, we see the carnage and the excuses, the haughtiness and the horror, but it ends up short in the insight department. Had this film found a way to make its arguments less heavy-handedly and with more narrative nuance, it would be a classic of late '60s/early '70s political propaganda. Instead, it's just a waning novelty, a brilliant idea unexceptionally executed.
Project X, through its distribution deal with New Yorker Video, has produced a wonderful DVD package. The film comes to us in a near pristine 1.33:1 full screen image that shows very little age or wear. Certain sites on the 'Net have complained that this is nothing more than an NSTC transfer of a PAL video, and as a result, a certain amount of "combing"' is present. This critic did not see it in his copy or perhaps his player somehow compensated for the argued-over digital difference. Whatever the case may be, the print still looks great. The Dolby Digital Mono is decent, and the wealth of extras makes for an excellent -- and historic -- presentation. There is a full-length audio commentary by Dr. Joseph A. Gomez, full of contextual information, pointing out the allusions and inferences in Watkins's work and providing the foundation for some of the film's finer points. For a discussion on the production itself, we have to go to a 28-minute on-screen introduction by the director. Watkins delivers a prepared speech, walking us through every step of the film's making, from the reason he was in America in the first place to his displeasure on the film's limited distribution. He has a lot to say and it's well worth a listen.
Additionally, there is an 18-minute film by Watkins entitled The Forgotten Faces. Made in 1961, it restages the 1956 Hungarian Revolution along the industrial backdrop of a cold Canterbury. We also get Punishment Park's original press kit, a text essay by media critic Scott MacDonald, a filmography for the director and an accompanying 24-page booklet covering the entire Punishment Park part of Watkins' life. All in all, it is a nice selection of supplements for a film that will leave many reeling while others reflect...and rejoice. We've come a long way since the dire days of government attempts at silencing civil disobedience -- for good and for bad. We will more than likely never see another era like the one depicted in Punishment Park, partly because we've matured beyond such petty solutions to our most difficult social problems. Also, we've become a far more complacent and placated populace. We would never create the need for an ideological internment camp nowadays. In our current climate, we don't have the emotion or energy to care.
Review content copyright © 2006 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* 28-Minute Video Introduction by Director Peter Watkins.
* Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Dr. Joseph A. Gomez
* "The Forgotten Faces" (1961) -- a Short Film by Peter Watkins.
* 24-Page Booklet with a Chapter on Punishment Park from Joseph Gomez's 1979 Book on Peter Watkins
* Text Essay by Media Critic Scott McDonald
* Peter Watkins Filmography
* Original 1971 Press Kit
* Peter Watkins Web Presence