Thursday, January 29, 2015

Must-See Cinema: Punishment Park

Last night I watched Punishment Park from 1971. Because of its incendiary content, this film has been hiding in the shadows for the last 40+ years. Even I, with my vast reservoir of movie trivia and leftwing significa (the opposite of trivia), had never even heard of it before I read about it somebody's list of their favorite dystopian sci-fi films.

Here's the trailer:

It was directed by Peter Watkins, a pioneer of the docudrama genre, who also made another film I loved, Culloden. Given that I was familiar with Watkins already, it seems a cruel oversight by the fates that I hadn't seen this movie before.

The setup of Punishment Park is pretty simple. It's 1971 and the Nixon Administration, using the little-noted Section 2 of the McCarran Internal Security Act, arrests all dissenters, war protesters, civil rights activists, feminists and all others determined to be a "risk to internal security". They are rounded up, taken to a remote desert location and given a "hearing". Then they are faced with a choice: Do the prison time of ten years or more, or do three days in something called Punishment Park. There all they have to do is go through a barren and waterless wasteland in a desperate game of "capture the flag" -- in this case an actual American flag implanted at the top of a distant rocky outcropping. Distant as in over 50 miles away. Without water. In temperatures over 100 degrees...

Of course everyone chooses three days in the desert over the ten-plus years in prison. What they are not told initially is that they also have to dodge the cops and National Guardsmen who are doggedly pursuing them. With guns. And Jeeps...

Shot in a hand-held documentary fashion, this film intercuts between two groups, one that is already on the run through the desert, and one that has just arrived for the "hearing". The actors are all non-professionals, but it doesn't show except for maybe a couple of times. There was no scripted dialogue -- the actors were given their characters' back stories and it was up to them to come up with the appropriate responses.

Like Watkins' other work, the whole thing has the look and feel of a real documentary, and it was entertaining, gripping and disturbing. Most shockingly, what with all that is going on in the country now, it doesn't seem at all dated.

Highly recommended.

And, wonder of wonders, Netflix actually has it for rental. If you get the DVD, be sure to watch the intro by the director and the included short, "The Web", about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which Watkins apparently made as a student.

Further reading:
· Punishment Park on the IMDB
· Review on Slant
· Review on Rotten Tomatoes (100% on the Tomatometer)
· Culloden (full movie) on YouTube