Punishment Park

"Very Good"

Punishment Park Review


A political parable imagined as a horror film and made to look like a documentary, Peter Watkins' 1971 cult legend Punishment Park is not quite what it could be, but that makes it no less fascinating to watch today. Conceived in the hothouse of disillusionment that was America in 1970, the film takes the anti-anti-establishment fervor of the Nixon presidency one step further than reality; though one could easily argue the step is more of a leap.

In this faux documentary - imagined as the footage of a British news crew - the U.S. has created a network of internment centers called Punishment Parks to deal with prison overcrowding and help train law enforcement. At this particular one in the California desert, arrested dissidents are tried by an emergency tribunal and when found guilty (as all are) they're given the choice between lengthy imprisonment or three days in the park. Once released into the park, the dissidents - grouped in bunches as numbered "Corrective Groups" - are given three days to make it 50 miles through the scorching desert to an American flag. That is, if they can evade police capture; they have a two-hour head start. It's left somewhat up in the air as to what will happen whether they reach the flag or not.

If the premise sounds hokey, it absolutely is. This is the stuff of pulp fiction, and in fact a similar scenario was created by Stephen King in 1979 for his novel (under the Richard Bachman pen name) The Long Walk. What gives Punishment Park its quite substantial punch is the absolutely palpable air of paranoia that pervades every scene and the cinema-verite technique that bestows a chilling aura of possibility to even the most ludicrous elements.

Writer/director Watkins bases his premise in fact: Under the McCarran, or Internal Security Act of 1950 (passed against President Truman's veto and ultimately repealed in 1990), the U.S. government had broad rights to detain any citizen considered "disloyal" or "subversive." Given the neo-fascist rhetoric emanating from the White House at the peak of the Vietnam War and the one-upmanship of violence between protestors and law enforcement, it was not at all a stretch that Nixon would have invoked this Act to deal with the country's endemic civil unrest. Watkins then recruited a cast of mostly amateurs to play the dissidents and police, allowing them to mostly speak their minds to each other and the cameras, allowing for some thrilling verisimilitude in the heated tribunal sessions. The film flips back and forth between one Corrective Group's odyssey across the desert and the next Group's tribunal hearings. Although the former scenes are effective, especially when a deputy is killed by one band of dissidents and the rest of the chasers go on a rampage, it's the latter which prove the most informative.

One by one, the dissidents (ranging from black power extremists to bearded pacifists and draft dodgers) are brought into the tribunal room, an army tent set up in the desert, where they are grilled by the motley group of conservative civilians. On the soundtrack, jets shriek overhead and firearms constantly pop in the distance while the two sides hurl invectives and slogans at each other; the debating equivalent of a duel with flamethrowers. It's a fascinating time capsule from a time when average citizens on either side actually cared passionately about their country and were willing to go to extreme lengths for those beliefs. Elements in the dialogue here echo with memories of the trial of the Chicago Seven and the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, while Kent State shades the rest of the film.

Watkins means for his film to be agitprop of the most vicious kind, but is skilled and wise enough an artist to leave room for doubt here. Punishment Park aims not just to be a horror film about the potential for fascism in America, it tries to look at how opposing sides harden themselves against the other, how misunderstandings mixed with prejudice build to tragedy. The police and soldiers hunting the Corrective Group down are shown as a rough bunch, but even they are given the benefit of the doubt. After an unarmed prisoner is shot, the camera charges in on the Guardsman who did it, the filmmaker screaming bloody murder while the wide-eyed stammering 18-year-old kid in a too-big uniform looks not evil but just terrified and sick at what he's done.

Hampered only by its thinly-stretched premise, Punishment Park remains a troubling document from a time when the country seemed about to tip into chaos and the powers that be would have gone to unimaginable lengths to maintain their control.

The DVD contains a nice fullscreen transfer of the film, a short by Watkins, and the filmmaker's (exhaustive) introduction to Punishment Park, in which he discusses how it came about and the three-week shoot.

And no merry-go-round for you.



Punishment Park

Facts and Figures

Run time: 88 mins

Distributed by: Chartwell Films

Production compaines: Chartwell, Francoise

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 9

IMDB: 7.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Peter Watkins

Producer: Susan Martin

Starring: Carmen Argenziano as Jay Kaufman, Scott Turner as James Arthur Kohler, Patrick Boland as First Tribunal Defendant, Kent Foreman as Defendant in the tribunal, Luke Johnson as Defendant in the tribunal, Katherine Quittner as Nancy Smith

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