Judging by the two films of his I’ve seen, I’d have to guess that Peter Watkins would be a dead duck in a formal debate, for his natural tendency seems to be carrying ideas not just to, but far, far beyond, their logical conclusion. Watkins’ 1971 political Disneyland ride, Punishment Park, hammers out the fatalism and paranoia of Easy Rider’s final scene until it’s flat enough and wide enough that he can pin it on the American body politic like the tail on a jackass. An elegy for dissent and an indictment of those who’d stifle it in the name of national (read: “personal”) security, his film is most effective as a very exacting snapshot of what two politically charged forces looked like and sounded like when they got in each other’s faces 40 years ago—that is, less as a cautionary fable than as a time-capsule.
Those two foes—Nixon’s Silent Majority and the protesters against the Vietnam War—were in their absolute inability to understand each other the Custer and Crazy Horse of their day. In Watkins’ doomsday scenario the U.S. government is busy rounding up all of America’s supposed Benedict Arnolds, even the ones whose only crime is being too directionless to join the Army, and subjecting them to down-and-dirty trials by civilian tribunals ending, inevitably, in long prison terms. But when the prisons grow overloaded and the system breaks down, the dissidents are offered a choice: they can do their time or else they can partake in a forced endurance contest, crossing 50 miles of California desert to where an American flag (seen only in long shot to reinforce the remoteness of its ideals) is waiting for them. If they do that, then they can walk, but doing that means that for three scorching, waterless days they must evade the cops and National Guardsmen swarming the desert floor, and who approach the “training exercise” as something approaching a blood sport. This doesn’t make a lick of sense, of course: the number of prisoners thinned out by the process wouldn’t even dent the prison population. More importantly, it’s crucial to the credibility of Watkins’ fantasy that his dissidents include no clergy, no celebrities, and not even a single representative of the myriad middle-aged or senior moderates and liberals who also opposed the war—that is, no one that anyone in power might be moved to speak up for.
While half of the movie trails a squadron of dissidents picking their futile way across “Bear Mountain National Punishment Park” the other half documents one of the civilian tribunals, a hermetically-sealed affair so rigged it makes the panel of wart-nosed priests in The Passion of Joan of Arc look like the Warren Court. The nine or ten drugstore Torquemadas who make up the court are so gaudy in their ordinariness they wouldn’t look out of place at a PTA cake-swap, and in fact very closely resemble my mental picture of the MPAA ratings board. To convince the accused, but mainly themselves, of their own impartiality, they make a big show of asking the defendants—who, having been kidnapped, now sit stripped of their rights, shackled to a chair, and intimidated by a constantly hovering cadre of guards—to “explain” themselves, but these invitations are delivered in patronizing, often threatening tones that mentally kneecap the accused before they can even open their mouths. One judge, a brilliantly conceived creation—identified in subtitle as a “union steward,” he looks like a Chicano who’s struggled up the first three or four rungs of the economic ladder and is hell-bent on making sure he doesn’t slide back down again—bemoans the fact that the defendants “just don’t seem to appreciate” this wonderful chance to present their side of the story. The charade is only a step removed from the vice-principal in Frederick Wiseman’s High School who calmly weathers the protests of a troublesome teen before coming out with what he was going to say all along, that the lad must go back and grovel before the teacher who’s plainly responsible for the mess. (Whereas the actors playing the defendants offer what are more or less their own opinions in the tribunal scenes, only some of the authority figures were played by real-world right-wingers.)
The confrontations in Punishment Park make it clear, as if an ounce more clarity were needed on the subject, what a colossal blight “Vietnam” was on the American landscape: beyond the mortal polarities represented by the Mailers and Buckleys of the era, we’ve since seen a host of post-Boomers who, hacked off at being hemmed in by another generation’s political baggage for so long, roundly conclude that the period’s revolutionaries were either world-class knuckleheads or deputies from the Devil. A couple of friends who are a little less rickety than I am, and who in most contexts root eagerly for the rebel and underdog, came away from Punishment Park primarily put off by the defendants because the stridency of their last-gasp outbursts seemed somehow more obnoxious than the gym coaches and hausfraus playing infantile mind-games and doling out dime sentences like cotton-candy. I suspect my friends were mainly vexed by the pair of women who spackle some Marxist-tinted cant into the movie’s running time, and who, truth to tell, are pretty grating (though I feel compelled to point out that one of them is so cute Cheney himself might give her a pass). In actuality, though, Watkins’ actors—some five or six of them in all—invest the defendants with a fairly wide range of motives, militancy and levels of eloquence. The leftist writer who conjures up H. Rap Brown faces his accusers with a molten blend of despair and contemptuous sarcasm; in any other setting a couple of his comebacks would serve as big laugh-lines, but you just can’t laugh at them here. Elsewhere there’s the lumpy, shut-down twenty-something who doesn’t care a whit about politics per se; busted for skipping his induction, he’s less like Che Guevara than Ferdinand the Bull—he just wants the world to leave him alone. If people 40 years after the fact still take away such variant readings from the period, Watkins comes close to showing the genesis of a systemic inability to comprehend alternative viewpoints that the war engendered.
This isn’t to say that Peter Watkins is a political genius—boy, is he not that—but in places he makes up as a filmmaker for what he lacks as a thinker. The horror of his basic conceit is at its purest not in any of the trial scenes but in an extreme telephoto lens shot of a police car descending like a cruise-missile upon a band of hapless, panicking longhairs. The highest compliment I can pay Punishment Park is that the authenticity of its detail made me occasionally forget when it was made, something close to an Olympian achievement for such an intensely topical work. Its raw and occasionally beautiful naturalism places it closer to the handheld, DV spirit of The Blair Witch Project or United 93 than to Patton or Hearts and Minds, and in places—as when a paunchy grand inquisitor stands up to yawn and stretch a little in between two of his wearying “cases”—it rivals Pontecorvo’s talent for convincing us that we’re witnessing a very nasty reality.