Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Punishment Park (1971)

Peter Watkins' caustic chunk of speculative fiction takes as its jumping-off point a provision deep in the McCarran Internal Security Act that allowed the president or attorney general to detain "each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe that such person probably will engage in, or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or of sabotage" during times of perceived insurrection. Out of this passage, troublingly open to interpretation as it is, Watkins spins a near-future (circa 1971) America wherein political dissenters are rounded up by the dozen, subjected to one-sided secret tribunals and forced into the desert, ostensibly to participate in an endurance race that means their freedom if they complete the course. Sewn from equal parts rage and terror, Punishment Park can't be said to be fair or balanced in any way, but I imagine it was difficult to feel even-handed in the wake of Kent State and Vietnam anyway, and Watkins's lapel-grabbing tactics get his points and fears across far more forcefully than a more measured response would have. The end product is something as angry and almost as tense as his astonishing The War Game; if the deck feels stacked from the beginning, I'd argue that more or less is Watkins's point -- at the rate things were going, we might have ended up with a political future without room for argument. Battle Royale seems a spiritual cousin to this film, right down to the structural flaws (though here, they're even more glaring, since the convicted have the ability to choose between the Park or a jail sentence); while I can't say I think this among the best I've seen from Watkins, the aggression and despair for man at his least civil make this a vital watch.

Grade: B


Blogger Paul C. said...

While I agree with you that this isn't Watkins' best, I'm not sure that giving people the choice between jail and P.P. is a structural flaw. After all, to those judged as guilty, it sounds like a no-brainer (4 days of anything > years of prison, in their eyes).

10:49 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

See, I assumed that, given the media presence, the true nature of PP would have at least leaked out to a few radicals. I can see how the theoretical tribunal here would prefer the convicts to take PP, and I can see how it could function as an American version of 'desaparecidos,' but then why let the media on site? (I know, because then there'd be no movie.)

2:39 PM  

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