Punishment Park Review

For an alternative look at this film please read Mark Boydell's review of the French Region 0 release.

Punishment Park opens with the voice-over narration of a filmmaker, and a documentary filmmaker at that. The voice also happed to be that of the director proper, Peter Watkins, and those familiar with his work – specifically the two BBC commissions which have been on DVD for some time now, Culloden and The War Game - will also no doubt be familiar with the stylistic approaches used here. Much like those two films (and the pair of amateur shorts which accompanied them on disc, The Forgotten Faces and The Diary of an Unknown Soldier) Punishment Park takes us through a situation in fake documentary terms. In this case it is the park of the title, a place where those who have “conspir[ed] to undermine the national security” are sent in lieu of prison sentencing. Those convicted are given three days in which to travel a course of approximately 60 miles, one which concludes with the American flag. Without food or water for the duration, the participants in this “game” must hazard not only an inhospitable desert landscape, but also pursuit from the police and National Guard. Needless to say, Punishment Park is set in an alternative future, albeit one which explicitly references the Vietnam War, the late sixties/early seventies counterculture movement and the Kent State massacre. Political allegory, therefore, is never far behind.

In contrast with the BBC films, the documentary element here is more greatly ensconced within the narrative. At one point a German sound technician is taken hostage, whilst there’s also a far greater sense of interaction between the two sides of the camera than had previously been the case. Yet whilst this may result in a certain novelty, the documentary syntax is more effectively utilised in other areas. Its key function, perhaps, is in diminishing the science-fiction associations. Certainly, this aspect is minimal to begin with (interestingly, Watkins notes in his introduction that when screened on Danish television one newspaper journalist actually believed it to be the genuine article), but through these means it becomes effectively concealed. Rather the science-fiction is translated into social realism and, as such, becomes all the more powerful for it. Indeed, the horror of this realism (which is always far more palpable; consider Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home and its terrible, almost unbearable sense of logic) is therefore similarly pronounced.

The other major function in dramatic terms is its ability to enhance the bleakness of the central concept. Shot handheld and on 16mm film stock, Punishment Park’s vision of the future is far removed from the slick, techno-fetishistic visions of innumerable offerings and incredibly unforgiving. Whilst the film may not – intentionally, of course – present any kind of aesthetic pleasures, it does have an innate ability of capturing the incessant desert heat and the sheer wretchedness of these peoples’ surroundings. Indeed, in executing the concept of the park, Watkins’ efforts clearly prove far superior to many a generic example.

Those more familiar with genre cinema than they are the likes of Watkins may perhaps also recognise certain familiarities with The Running Man (the Schwarzenegger one, not Carol Reed’s), Wedlock and their video rental hit ilk. Yet Punishment Park, though sharing certain superficial similarities, is coming from a completely different mindset. Whereas those moderately engaging works would offer muted or half-assed satire, Watkins is striving for deeper political resonances. After all, do any of these genre quickies operate today on a post-9/11 wavelength or offer clear resonances with Camp X-Ray and the like?

Again, such aspects come down to the documentary framework as much as anything else. At which point it is perhaps worthwhile to draw attention to the fact that Watkins employed only a moderate crew, but one drawn from those who had experience in the non-fiction form and youth on their side. (Joan Churchill, who photographed the film, is the key figure having just prior to Punishment Park worked on Gimme Shelter with Maysles brothers and later going on to a number of noteworthy collaborations with Nick Broomfield.)

But of course, Punishment Park is not a documentary and therefore should not be addressed as such. For all its use of improvisation and casting of non-professionals, some of whom shared the experiences and viewpoints of their characters, this is still a heavily constructed work of fiction and should be seen solely in this light. From certain perspectives this allows us a greater appreciation as Watkins’ editing techniques thereby become all the more pronounced, especially for their dramatic weight. Likewise such additions as the snatched radio reports, which provide an alternative, often ironic commentary, also demonstrate the director’s technical sense, as does his remarkable ability to crank up the film’s intensity through the continual threat of violence, something which has been present since Culloden and back even further to the amateur works.

Yet these earlier films also had much clearer – and ultimately less contentious – targets in their sights. When attacking the nuclear program or the futility of war it was far easier for Watkins to get the audience on his side even before the various documentary stylings had begun to take their effect. In the case of Punishment Park, however, he’s offering a less concentrated political argument and as such gets bogged down in a certain simplicity. Despite being afforded a certain outsider status as a Brit looking in at an American situation (an element explicitly referenced time and again, though of course the film’s remit isn’t entirely US-centric), we feel Watkins presence – and therefore motives – throughout. The documentary crew within Punishment Park may be introduced as taking “coverage [that] will be impartial”, but this clearly isn’t the case from the very start.

Indeed, we are presented with a basic good and bad divide – extreme left-wing versus extreme right - from which Watkins rarely strays and as such there is very little in-between. Our counterculture element, for example, refer to the police only as “pigs” and, moreover, this is the only light in which we see them – killing their victims in cold blood and having, in their own words, “no feeling at all”. Of course, this isn’t to say that such people do not exist, but it’s a shame that Watkins has to be so reductive in his outlook. Furthermore, this results in two major failings: firstly, the film therefore becomes too highly pitched for its political discussion to have any great effect; and secondly, in purely narrative terms, it renders the film more than a little predictable. Certainly, you could argue that this is the point, but does it help matters that we realise this so early on? Ultimately we’re left with a troubling but nonetheless interesting work from the perspective Watkins’ oeuvre. The problem is that much of what makes it so troubling is not so much the subject matter, but rather his handling of it.

The Disc

Number 21 is Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection, Punishment Park continues their extremely high standards. The presentation, in particular, is absolutely superb, especially given the materials from which they are working. Shot on 16mm and blown up for 35mm theatrical distribution, the film does not have the most promising of origins, yet the disc does nothing but delight. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, Punishment Park looks clean, sharp and remarkably free of damage. Especially impressive is the richness of the image; the colours in particular have a stunning clarity, whilst the disc handles the stark location filming without difficulty. Likewise, the soundtrack is similarly fine. Here we are offered the original mono recording in superb condition. Of course, the documentary stylings mean that we shouldn’t expect utter perfection, but we do get a remarkable clarity and an assured handling of the layers of dialogue, music and radio excerpts.

Though the disc only houses two extras, both are of equal interest. The commentary by Dr. Joseph A. Gomez, author of the 1979 academic study Peter Watkins, offers a fine piece of analysis. Cogently argued, detailed and most important enthusiastic, this makes for a fine listen even if you don’t agree with every word he says. Admittedly, there are points at which he dries up, but given the consideration which has gone into this piece (and as a teacher who uses the film for his classes, it has clearly been honed over the years) any misgivings over this would no doubt be churlish.

The second piece is a 27-minute introduction by Watkins himself. As the director no longer gives interviews, here he talks directly to camera (though he is reading from prepared notes) and attempts to cover as much ground as possible. Yet for all the depth of his discussion, it is the easily detectable bitter edge which remains most prominent. Even after all these years it appears that he has an axe to grind as he reads out less than favourable from the time and bemoans the fact – whilst asserting its significance – that his films struggle to find distribution.

Given that the accompanying booklet is also made up solely from the contributions of Gomez and Watkins, it understandably covers a lot of similar ground, though this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a bad thing. Indeed, those without the time to sample the commentary or lengthy introduction will no doubt be impressed by the great detail contained within its 32 pages and gain as clear a grasp of the film’s arguments and its history as they would from those pieces.

As with the main feature, both the commentary and introduction come with optional English subtitles.

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