There is a period in American cinema history commonly referred to as the ‘New Hollywood’ era, in which filmmakers sought to undermine the prevailing conservative ideology of Nixon’s America from within the studio system itself. American directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Dennis Hopper and Robert Altman are usually linked to such films. While they remain interesting films today, their power – or perceived radicalism – is arguably diminished through the sands of time. One film from this period, which is largely unseen, has refused to allow the corrosive passing of time liquidate its message. Punishment Park was stubbornly ignored by the Hollywood studio system, was written and directed by an Oscar-winning Englishman – Peter Watkins – and is undoubtedly one of the most persuasive and revolutionary films from the Vietnam period of American history. The film is as hauntingly relevant and prescient today as it was then.
Set in an indeterminate near-feature, the film approaches the prevailing social concerns of a country on the brink of self-destruction with a faux-documentary style. The story concerns one of America’s imagined ‘Punishment Parks’. These ‘Parks’ are offered as an alternative to a custodial sentence for the large swathes of protesting liberals who would eventually find political vindication through the Watergate scandal. Rather than spend 10 or more years in a correctional facility, the convicted are instead challenged to reach an American flag some 50 miles or so from their starting destination. Their starting (and finishing) destination is the searing heat of a Californian desert. They will not be furnished with water. They must reach the flag before they are apprehended by the National Guard and Los Angeles police forces, otherwise they will serve the full duration of the sentence previously handed to them.
The film opens on the image of the stars and stripes that constitute the American flag – the one which would appear to offer salvation to the accused. It is flying backwards. Watkins’ narrates the film himself from behind the camera, which roams hand-held across the unforgiving desert landscape. We view the progress of two different groups of detainees. One group has already been ‘convicted’ and is beginning their desert assault; another is in the process of their tribunal hearings. It’s a simple but clever strategy, allowing us an insight into the injustice of the judicial process and the even more unlawful ‘game’ played in the Punishment Park itself.
The film pulls no punches and has lost none of its anger and intelligence. Watkins cast activists in the roles of the convicts, and tried as best he could to fill the law enforcement roles with ex-officers and the tribunal panel with concerned conservatives. What results is a volatile cocktail, one in which the anger and passion emanating from the young activists on trial is genuine and convincing. While the film remains a ‘fiction’ – let’s use that term loosely – it works so believably as a documentary that the rage and hopelessness on show soon seeps into the viewer, making this an intense, yet unmistakably important, watch.
The film’s re-release could not possibly have been more appropriate. With social media and the unstoppable (well, perhaps not…) freedoms afforded by the internet, enabling greater social mobility in terms of political activism, the film’s message remains terrifyingly clear: the establishment will not stand for it. With the Occupy Movement still refusing to disintegrate, and last year’s London riots burned indelibly into our collective recent memories, Punishment Park’s vision acts as both a warning and an impassioned call to arms for the restless masses.
A newly restored high-definition transfer ensures that the terror and anger in the faces of the young accused is sharper than ever before. This pristine restoration results in a renewed appreciation of just how well constructed the film is, having been shot on such unforgiving terrain.
As ever with a Masters of Cinema release, the extras afforded to us are a treat. The 30 minute introduction by Watkins himself is certainly recommended viewing. Filmed in 2004, Watkins reveals himself to be as fervent a believer in the ideas raised in Punishment Park as ever. He’s intelligent, articulate and persuasive in his defence of the film. He also gives us inside information on the film’s neglect at the time of release: it played in one small independent theatre in Manhattan for a matter of days before being pulled. In addition to Watkins’ personal introduction, there is a full audio commentary provided by Dr. Joseph A. Gomez who has been one of Watkins’ greatest allies in defending the film and promoting its relevance. As ever with these releases, there is also a lovingly put together booklet featuring two essays to accompany the film.
Film: 5 out of 5
An important film which works on so many different levels.
Visuals: 4 out of 5
While not a visual masterpiece, and very much a case of substance over style, the starkness of the Californian desert provides ample metaphorical imagery for its hunted inhabitants. Every drop is wrung out of the location by Joan Churchill’s camera work, and is given the treatment it deserves by this new transfer.
Audio: 4 out of 5
Has stood up well these past 40 years, and Watkins’ increasingly frustrated and angry narration towards the end of the film is received loud and clear.
Extras: 5 out of 5
See above for more detail – excellent as ever.
Presentation: 4 out of 5
Again, presentation is something which Masters of Cinema excel in.
Overall: 5 out of 5
A very welcome and important release of a truly revolutionary film. Required viewing.
Punishment Park is available now on Blu-ray.
This article was first posted on January 24, 2012