A key film in the unimpeachable cry-in-the-wilderness corpus of Peter Watkins—a major filmography long marginalized and only now being prepped and released on any form of video— Punishment Park (1971) is an act of howling political righteousness, a dystopian critique intended for the peace-movement years but possibly even more relevant today. The premise is so simple it leaves singe marks: Watkins begins with the very real McCarran Act (just as he had based The War Game on Britain’s own nuclear-warfare cost analysis and contingency plans), which grants Ashcroftian summary-judgment powers to the president in times of potential “insurrection.” The Nixon-‘Nam years were those times, and so the film follows two groups of arrested protesters as they’re led to the Western desert, interrogated by a tribunal and then sent running, with national guardsmen and riot police following on the hunt.
Shot like most of Watkins’s films as a fake documentary, the movie might be the most radioactive portrait of American divisiveness and oppression ever made. The impassioned cast was largely unprofessional and, in fact, largely conformed to their radical-victim/reactionary- monocrat roles; often, it’s less a narrative than a democracy-in-crisis street fight. The on-the-fly shoot became so fraught with conviction that at one point Watkins worried that real bullets were being surreptitiously used. Of course PP, like most of Watkins’s other work, was barely given a commercial run in this country and has been effectively suppressed ever since. The DVD extras are awesome: a new half-hour direct-address rant by Watkins himself (measured and civil but eventually boiling with rage, and up-to-date on the Bush administration’s sins), multiple texts and commentaries by Watkins scholars, the original ’71 press kit, and Watkins’s very first film, The Forgotten Faces (1961), in which he established his lifelong idiom (at the age of 26) by faking a perfectly believable document of the ’56 Hungarian revolution in the streets of Canterbury. Alongside it, New Yorker is releasing Emile de Antonio’s seminal McCarthy doc Point of Order (1964), an astounding piece of history theater that at the same time stands as a functional sequel to Good Night, and Good Luck.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 29, 2005