Saturday, August 20, 2005

Punishment Park (Watkins, 1971)

The premise is golden: Under President Nixon, the United States has become so concerned about civil unrest in response to the Vietnam War that it has created 'Punishment Park', a grueling game of cat-and-mouse in the California desert in which police and members of the National Guard play the role of 'cat' and dissidents, hippies and other 'subversives' play the role of 'mouse'. The participants are rounded up without warning (all in the name of national security), interrogated, and then given a choice between extended jail-time and Punishment Park.

If they choose the latter, they will have to race 53 miles across the desert and over the mountains in the scorching heat in pursuit of an American flag. Arrive at the flag within 3 days and freedom is theirs. However, during this time, they will be pursued by the aforementioned police and National Guard. Though it is not explicitly stated in the rules, all participants who are apprehended by the police eventually seem to get involved in a violent struggle resulting in their death. Watkins intercuts the game being played by one group with the interrogation session of another. The central conceit is that we are watching a documentary made by a BBC-like news team covering the event. This group goes so far as to interview participants in the desert as they are being chased down and later questions the policemen for their violent tactics.

However, all of this is merely a central metaphor on which to hang a lengthy discussion about a citizen's responsibility to his or her country during war-time. What role is there for those who oppose the actions being taken by their government in their name? Is there a way to effectively oppose violence without resorting to violence? What makes Punishment Park special is the way Watkins employs a cast of both professional and non-professional actors and guides them through his scenario, working without a script, and trusts them to articulate the issues at stake. Each of these participants are 'acting', but it seems clear that many are also speaking directly from the heart. When a young woman bemoans the fact that she does not see an end to the cycle of violence in America, it is not a piece of dialogue written by a screenwriter -- it carries the force of true fear and despair. These are not performers reflecting back on past events. These are citizens experiencing the tumult first-hand. By placing the participants in a simulated life-or-death situation, Watkins gives the political tensions an added intensity. There is true anger and disgust on display here, as both sides try futility to make the other see things from their perspective. Punishment Park is not only an unsettling look at the political outrage of a former generation, it is a potent metaphor for our own.

As can often be the case with absurd premises like this one, Punishment Park rides a fine line between black comedy and ludicrousness. There are moments that some viewers will probably find to be real eye-rollers. Perhaps I was being a generous viewer, but most of these seemed to me to be moments of intentional humor designed to allow the more serious political discussion to be more palatable. Either way, Watkins plays it straight. If indeed it is deadpan humor as I suspect, it does not distract from the power of a perhaps predictable, but nonetheless haunting finale. For those who don't mind a raw, unpolished political film that occasionally borders on the strident, I'd definitely recommend giving it a go.



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