This column is an experiment in writing about film: what if, instead of freely choosing which parts of the film to address, I select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case and for future columns, the 10-minute, 40-minute, and 70-minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as a guide to writing about the film, keeping the commentary as close to possible to the frames themselves? No compromise: the film must be stopped at these time codes. Constraint as a form of freedom. Feel free to pick apart the frames even further in the comments.
Punishment Park (1971, dir. Peter Watkins)
Who is this man? He is in a movie about a dystopian 1970 United States of America, where protesters, hippies, and other undesirables are sent to a California desert tribunal with the choice of either going to jail or playing a sort of war-game escape fantasy that serves as fodder for police training. In other words: make it to the American flag nearly 40 miles away, on foot and unarmed and with no food and water, and you’re free. Provided they escape being hunted down by police in cars, with rifles, with guns. The movie is a fake documentary. The director, Peter Watkins, provides the voice of the BBC interviewer.
What does this man (Sheriff Edwards, played by Jim Bohan), the leader of the law enforcement officers, say? He says this, to the prisoners who have opted for the desert chase:
You will head past this point and immediately turn west, that is, to your left, and proceed 13 to 17 miles along the line of the mountains until you reach the . . . indicated by the second row of flags. There you will turn due north across the intervening plain and pass directly through the following range of hills. A further distance of 19 miles and proceed directly to the United States flag.
He is a believable man. His sunglasses protect him from the exposed gazes of the political prisoners. He can see their eyes. His are hidden. He looks like a young father, balding a little. To its credit, the film does not demonize him. He sweats. He does his job. His instructions seem reasonable enough.
Shot on 16mm, Punishment Park is pre-Dogme 95, and faster and more violently-edited than the cinema vérité fashionable at the time. Points of view shift, as if by earthquake, from the militant hippies to the police in pursuit, to the tribunal. We are with the police in this frame, joining in the thrill of pursuit, and as they catch up with and begin to assault and apprehend the “defendants” — you know what? It feels good. Frames like this, which accumulate into scenes, helped doom Punishment Park to obscurity for nearly 30 years. For the Left, the film failed to offer solutions to the cultural crisis at the time and occasionally identified too closely with the agents of the Establishment. For the Right, the film was an irresponsible, exploitive, alarmist dystopian vision of the Homeland. Where Easy Rider had cloaked its contradictions in music and flashes of humor, Punishment Park not only does not disguise its contradictions, it sharpens them.
Moments before this frame, one of the pursued defendants looks directly at the camera and, in a calm voice, says: “At another time, the honorable thing or the right thing to do might be to be a policeman or to be president. Right now, I think the honorable thing to do is to be a criminal.”
One of the defendants is silenced because the tribunal judges do not want to hear her. Their bare skin against her mouth. Complete subjugation. The hippie’s complaints against the government, the war in Vietnam, racism, etc., are largely coherent, but so are several of the responses from the Establishment tribunal, who ask for alternatives to the present system, and who receive no good answers from the defendants. In this sense, the editing of Punishment Park confirms the incoherence of the era. Here, for instance, there is a cut from peaceful talk amongst the hunted defendants in the desert to the in-process action of this defendant being restrained with violence. There is a microphone in front of her, yet periodically she is not permitted to speak into it.
And we, as spectators, find ourselves on both sides of the microphone, sometimes adopting the viewpoints of the more-rational tribunal members, sometimes adopting the viewpoints of the defendants. When I showed Punishment Park to my film class at the University of Detroit Mercy last year, many students admired the film’s openness to these multiple points of view (though let it be said that, all in all, the film asks us to throw our sympathies with the defendants, especially as they are hunted down and shot in the desert). But for nearly thirty years, the film disappeared: it seemed too dangerous, too “closed.”
It is perhaps a tragic sign of our times that political and cultural “balance” remains the greatest obstacle to the sort of revolution advocated by the militants in Punishment Park.