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Just Because You're Paranoid: Peter Watkins' "Punishment Park"

Glenn Kenny

Anthology Film Archives in New York City begins a three-day engagement of a new 35mm print of Peter Watkins' 1970 Punishment Park on Friday, May 14. It should be noted that the screen caps illustrating this post are not derived from that print but from the Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Region 2 U.KDVD of the film, which has excellent image quality and was no doubt transferred from a first-rate source. I did see the new print, and it's excellent. I wouldn't call it a staggering improvement over the version on the MOC DVD. But seeing the film in a more public/social environment than your home theater does present certain experiential advantages. For one thing, you're less coddled by your home environment, and thus less likely to try and talk yourself into the notion that Punishment Park can't, as it were, happen here. Although if you've got a lick of sense or history you might be aware that it's more or less already happening here, still happening here...

The premise of the film is so obvious and blunt as to be borderline crude. But post Chicago, post Kent State, post My Lai, who could blame British filmmaker Watkins for his concept? Which is: in the American West there is an "alternative" to prison offered to enemies of the state, advocates of violent overthrow of the government. It's Punishment Park, and your punishment consists of a game of sorts—you have to run up and around a mountain range and get to the point where there's an American flag planted in the ground. All the while you're chased by men in uniforms with guns. Your survival resources are severely limited. And of course in the end the whole thing turns out to be a...well, I don't want to give a spoiler.

So there's the premise. The film further depicts tribunals/interrogations, and places a British/German television crew at the site to record the proceedings; it's their ostensible footage that the viewer is watching. And it's within these complications that the film becomes a lot less crude than its premise, as the fictional film crew begins to affect the action not by merely observing it but by interacting with it as their conscience dictates. Further deepening things is Watkins' manipulation of the soundtrack, with radio and television feeds giving accounts of chaos in Washington as the specifically American idea of freedom is heard pretty much breathing its last.

A paranoid vision, or a heightened iteration of reality? That's the question one still grapples with almost 40 years after its pretty-much non-release. The picture really was more or less buried as far as theatrical distribution was concerned back in the day. It's one of the film's whose influence is all the more impressive given how infrequently it was actually seen, which is another reason this theatrical engagement is so crucial. Of course, the recent "controversial" video for M.I.A.'s "Born Free" is a direct lift from—its makers, I suppose, would say "homage to"—Punishment Park, given a rather pointless allegorical spin by having the authorities in the video rounding up and abusing redheads. This rather misses the point in a lot of ways, the most important of which is that Watkin's vision was neither conceived nor executed as any kind of damn metaphor.


Peter Watkins
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