Peter Watkins puts American bloodlust on trial

Peter Watkins puts American bloodlust on trial

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has us thinking back on other movies about dangerous games, deadly competitions, and blood sports.

Punishment Park (1971)

Overtly political films of a particular time and place often disappear with the historical circumstances that bred them. If Vietnam movies like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket endure, it’s probably because they inadvertently glorify the era, making doom look cool through Wagner or The Rolling Stones. They are, in spite of themselves, fun to watch—hardly the goal of something purporting to be anti-war.

It took an Englishman living in Canada named Peter Watkins to intervene in real time (this was 1971, after all). His Punishment Park, a pseudo documentary shot in the California desert, leaves out virtually every cinematic “pleasure” imaginable. Its premise: President Nixon has acted on the powers of the (very real) McCarran Internal Security Act to round up the usual gang of anti-war ne’er-do-wells and protest singers, giving them a false choice. After listening to the charges held against them, pleading their innocence, and inevitably being convicted, the accused can choose to serve a roughly 10-year prison sentence or opt instead to play a perverse life-or-death game of capture the flag in the 110-degree desert heat, pursued by the armed National Guard, for three days.

Of course the game is as rigged as the trial, and the film is mostly a loud, angry shouting match between the “silent majority” representatives of Nixon’s kangaroo court and the shackled hippies calling them all a bunch of fucking pigs. Some of the more compelling bits come toward the end, when the documentary premise paints Watkins into a corner and his film crew has to come out firmly on the side of the convicted. (You can hear Watkins himself yelling, “Cut the camera! Cut the camera! We’ve seen this! You murdering bastards!”)

Punishment Park has plenty of political relevance for an era of murder-by-satellite, drones, and the elimination of “threats”—both domestic and abroad—without any of the mess and delay of actual trials. But what’s most interesting about Watkins’ film is the way it makes audiences rethink what political cinema is supposed to look, feel, and sound like. There are no slow-motion helicopter blades set to the music of the Doors. There is only dirt, blood, heat, guns, and the shouting of untrained, unknown actors playing out a fantasy Watkins is daring viewers to enjoy as entertainment. When one of the accused says at his hearing, “America is as psychotic as it is powerful, and violence is the only goddamn thing that will command your attention,” it’s as if Watkins himself is shouting this at the long line of filmgoers wrapped around the multiplex on any given weekend.

Availability: Punishment Park is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.

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