A dusty Californian desert, patrolled by mirrored shaded guards. Group 637 and Group 638, comprised of draft evaders, free thinkers and anti-war demonstrators are detained here because “there is reasonable ground to believe that they probably will engage in possible acts of sabotage in the future.” Faced with a tribunal’s choice of immediate imprisonment or the challenge of reaching their country’s flag in a savage three day cross-desert pursuit from armed police and the National Guard, all detainees opt for Punishment Park.
The above scenario isn’t a dystopian future setting, rather a quasi-documentary satire and savage commentary from 1971, by english film-maker provocateur Peter Watkins (Culloden, The War Game). The scenario resonates with the seething anger of the then recent Kent State massacre and trial of The Chicago Seven. Even including a young black defendant, bound and gagged during proceedings to prevent him speaking for himself. Initially taking the form of an observing impartial TV crew from Britain (and also West Germany), the documentarians later rage at the treatment of the defendants and runners, who face a loaded deck.
In the fictional scenario outlined by the opening narration, President Nixon has declared a state of national emergency and activated the (very real) 1950 Internal Security Act (the McCarran Act), which authorizes Federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons judged to be “a risk to internal security”. The film intercuts the fates of Group 637, already out in Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, introduced to the “rules” and given a derisory head start, and the members of Group 638 who follow. Each of the subsequent group are individually grilled by a tribunal, made up of their real life occupations; teacher, shop-steward, housewife (member of an organisation called “The Silent Majority”), etc. The mostly non-professional actors are put into roles they are sympathetic to, and encouraged to improvise. “My responsibilities as a citizen in this country do not include killing for it,” says one defendant. Another, out in the Park, tells the camera crew “At another time, the honourable thing or the right thing to do might be to be a policeman or to be President. Right now, I think the honourable thing to do is to be a criminal.” During a break for refreshments, one tribunal member tells the camera, “America needs more spank, and less (Doctor) Spock.”
The atmosphere in the tent where the tribunal takes place becomes very heated. There is no meeting of minds, it really is “them and us”. Judged guilty before they are tried, and sentenced to lengthy jail terms for evading the draft, or “seditious” or unproductive behaviour, their only alternative is Punishment Park, yet it is never clear if they will, on reaching the flag, be sentenced to lighter terms, or indeed even freed.
Watkins’ narration over the group’s progress through the park calmly at first relays the fierce temperature, and the effect of lack of water on the human body in such exposure. When guardsmen clash with them and kill a runner, impartiality goes out the window. “You bastards! he screams. Wait until this goes on television!” The Deputy replies “It’ll happen again as long as we’ve got this element to deal with.”
I found Punishment Park to be a challenging, thought provoking film. Its heavy handed polemic certainly still touches raw nerves. The film was withdrawn from a screening in Manhattan after only four days, and has rarely been screened in America since, and never on television. It received a more mixed response in Europe, though it has barely been seen. Yet, even as it reaches out from the past to touch on the rise of the fundamentalist right in America, the Patriot Act, the “war on women”, I couldn’t help but laugh at the housewife’s bluster against the protest singer here. It reminded me of the trial of Fielding Mellish in Woody Allen’s Bananas, where, again in a stacked trial, Miss America is called to the stand to testify sweetly against Mellish: “I think Mr. Mellish is a traitor to this country because his views are different from the views of the President and others of his kind. Differences of opinion should be tolerated, but not when they’re too different. Then he becomes a subversive mother.”
It seems even satire isn’t immune from having its bubble burst. I leave it to you to judge which weapon is best against “the man”, again referring to an Allen character – Satire, or “a large, polo mallet”?
Originally posted 2013-02-03 09:26:23. Republished by Blog Post Promoter