Sunday, December 28, 2014
Punishment Park (1971)
Written and directed by Peter Watkins
Starring a cast of amateurs, improvising or following a script on a case-by-case basis
My politics have always been reflexively on the side of the underdog. I can't make myself cheer for the powerful or the ones on top of the socioeconomic pyramid. This has, on occasion, led me to wish the orcs would win in the Lord of the Rings movies and things like that--give the choice between the army of shampoo commercial models with shiny teeth and bright white clothing or the legion of sullen fuckups with rusty meathooks, I'm Team Fuckup all the way. If there's one side with guns and one side running for its life, I'm infinitely more sympathetic to the terrified victims than whoever has their finger on the trigger. When there's a two-sided dispute and one side has to bury a murdered child, and one side faces no consequences for killing a kid? I'm absolutely not rooting for the murderer.
Which brings us to this movie. It's a scream of fury and rage at a system where the people holding the whip are planning to use it more often, and on more people, so that they can protect their own interests. After all, what good is it being in charge if you can't stay in charge? There's a lot of eggs that have to get broken in order to make that omelette, after all. And other cliches that people use in lieu of substantive thought or cogent arguments when they want to make sure the right people are being hurt or killed.
The film starts with a square frame showing hilly, sparsely-covered desert while wind snaps in the boom mike and an unseen narrator explains what's up (and the camera zooms in on an American flag surrounded by nothing). The President of the United States (Richard M. Nixon, at the time the movie was filmed) can use one of the powers granted under the McCarren Act to detain and imprison people that might well commit sabotage or treason at some point in the future, maybe. That's a real law, incidentally. It was passed in 1950 at the start of the national paranoid breakdown known as the Cold War, and when President Truman vetoed it, Congress re-passed it in a supermajority to make sure that future political leaders had the power to set up an American gulag for dissenters. I think it's probably an accident of history that there weren't concentration camps for civil rights demonstrators in the early 60s, or perhaps the existing conservative power structure in America was happy to essentially subcontract the kidnapping, torture and murder of demonstrators to the county level and keep their hands clean. Think about the 1971 model of Richard M. Nixon, brain marinating in paranoia, mistrust and hate, given the chance to lock up all those "troublemakers" in the South without a trial. If you feel revolted about the Southern strategy he used in real life, just think about what could have been done to the Birmingham protesters under Tricky Dick or someone like George Wallace, Bull Connor or Strom Thurmond in the early 1960s if there was a President that thought lunch counter sit-ins were a threat to national security.
Under the film's depiction of the terms of the McCarren Act, there's certain formalities that have to be observed. Before they can be imprisoned for decades, the accused are allowed a trial--after all, this is America. The prosecutor at this trial does not need to submit any evidence and there's no way for the accused to post bail so they can return to their life in between their arrest and their stay in the kangaroo court. After the stage is set, the camera shows us a truck between a pair of jeeps making their way down a dusty road while heat shimmer distorts the view. Inside the truck, eight or ten longhairs are handcuffed and chained to each other in a line, guarded by armed soldiers and cops. A news bulletin on the radio declares that 100,000 reservists have been called up to serve in the military, with their eventual deployment planned for America to round up political subversives and domestic protesters rather than bolster the fighting efforts in Vietnam. Because the national priorities--at least in the film--were more devoted to punishing longhairs and anti-war activists at home than trying to win the proxy war between the US and USSR all the way over in southeast Asia. I can kind of see the point--with "enemies" so close, why not put them into prisons and camps? It's got to be cheaper than flying grunts all the way out to Vietnam and just as effective a handout to the military-industrial complex. Plus, upper-middle-class college students are probably a lot easier to beat than the NVA. Of course, you'd have to intentionally overlook the irony in setting up an American gulag as a way to fight totalitarian states elsewhere, but I'm sure Nixon would have been up to the task.
A group of silent young men and woman are shown in the back of an Army truck, bouncing along a dirt road in the California desert. They're eventually brought to some desolate spot and unshackled by police; the soundtrack doesn't feature any voices here. Rather, it's got jets streaking overhead (presumably from a nearby military base; it seems too empty and remote to have a commercial airport nearby) and news reports about social unrest in the United States providing background and exposition for the viewer--including a Senator who resigned to protest the passage of laws that strip away Fifth Amendment protection from accused criminals and other fascistic ordinances. The prisoners are in street clothes and are mixed along gender lines as well as ethnicity; the cops, of course, are uniformly white males. A flashback or flashforward to a court case in a tent in the desert shows different protestors being given the choice between half a century in federal prison or four days at Punishment Park; the court officials are all white as well, with a woman typing up the transcript of everything happening. And it appears that it's a complete farce, with a protestor being gaveled into silence for trying to address the court with anything other than his choice of prison or a four-day-long Running Man game in the desert. After the longhair chooses to make a run through the desert, the scene shifts to the outside and the narrator dispassionately sets the scene, saying that it's 9 AM at the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park--which implies the existence of many, many, many other Parks of this type in other parts of the country, and also implies that the United States is proud enough to have them that they've been added into the register of national parks. It comes across a little like having a photo booth, snack bar and a gift shop at a concentration camp.
The movie is filmed with handheld cameras, making it look like a subversive document captured without the full knowledge or consent of the government (although there's also room for an opinion that the forces of law and order would like a cheap, grainy film released that looks to be more sympathetic to the dissidents, because that way it serves as a warning and a threat to anyone who sees it--the squares of the nation would be likely to cheer on everything that happens to those lousy no-good protesters, and any potential troublemakers who watch the movie would probably try to stay on the government's good side as much as possible). Judging by uniform colors and styles, there's four different groups being trained in Punishment Park during this go-around; there's police in black uniforms and white helmets, police in tan and brown uniforms, soldiers in Army green and another group of cops in light grey. I'm guessing they're meant to be California state police, county sheriffs and perhaps L.A. city cops, but I don't know for sure. It might even just be a happy coincidence if the costume budget for the film was stretched farther by getting multiple types of uniforms; instead of it looking like only one group is out toting guns and processing dissidents in the desert, this appears to be a gigantic cooperative effort.
The police also block some of the cameramen during the opening scenes, which adds a great deal of verisimilitude to the fiction--it's incredibly rare to have characters acknowledge the presence of the camera in narrative films, but quite common in documentaries. The bailiff of the tribunal calling it the 47th session (of the day? of the week? Ever?) and the use of radio news bulletins do much the same; the impression given to the viewer is that these events have happened, are happening and will happen in the future. It's a system efficiently at work, not an ad hoc arrangement put into effect a single time. The American spirit of know-how and can-do entrepreneurial spirit managed to make Stalinist show trials into an assembly-line procedure, complete with bored employees churning units through the process.
The fractured eternal-now timeline of the film splits at this point; the 48th session of the tribunal takes place while the film crosscuts to the people who chose to run through Punishment Park from the previous show trial. Thus Watkins shows the viewer two sets of victims in the process and fills in the background on his system in two different ways. The bored and hostile functionaries of the court system are undoubtedly meant to represent Nixon's "silent majority"; they're a scathing attack on complacent middle-class authoritarians and Peter Watkins' sympathies clearly don't lie with them in the least. A lawyer (identified via subtitle as the chairman of the Constitutional Law department at UC Glendale) makes an attempt to get the charges dismissed using half the Bill of Rights as his argument; the judge denies this effort in a single sentence and things move along. The defense lawyer has shown up in a three-piece suit while the protesters are in street clothes and the show trial officials are either in cop uniforms or their shirtsleeves. There's plenty of social class exposition being shown in this sequence, with the subtitle necessary because none of the people in this scene identify the lawyer; it's assumed that everyone already knows who he is or that the cops outside blocked the cameraman during the defense's introduction.
The judge denies everything piece by piece--bail, a list of the charges for the accused, and even the chance to go over the charges one by one rather than putting half a dozen "dissidents" on trial at the same time. More than one of the accused makes reference to months of jail time without knowing what their charges are; this is another thing I can see happening pretty easily in a hypothetical American gulag. While the show trial proceeds for group 48, the judge mentions that there are camera crews from West Germany (remember when that was a country?), Britain and America documenting the trial procedure and showing that it's the fair and balanced system that the Nixon government claims that it is. Oh, and the judge also says that every time a prisoner speaks without first being spoken to, they will automatically be charged with contempt, found guilty, and sentenced to a year in federal prison in addition to whatever other sentences they get.
When the group making the run through Punishment Park gets to their starting point, a sheriff's deputy explains the rules. They will have four days to make a 53 mile hike through the California desert with no food, water, transportation or assistance. During that time they will be pursued by law enforcement officers from various different agencies, using them as live pursuit bait as they practice their techniques that are needed to round up dissidents and pacify them. The deputy explaining their travel route makes sure to remind everyone that's about to be chased down like dogs that they chose the Punishment Park run of their own free will. Because you can't be coerced into doing four days of hell when the alternative is half a century behind bars as a political prisoner. They're also informed that if they don't make it to the objective (an American flag), they'll have to serve their original sentences. No pressure.
Meanwhile / later, the talks break down at the kangaroo court, with one defendant taking a police beating while he's shackled to a chair and not allowed to use the Fifth Amendment to protect himself from self-incrimination. And one of the officials there tells the man that too many black people own cars and color TVs in America for Communism to work. I didn't understand it either, but put cell phones in that list as well and you have a Sean Hannity talking point from 2014.
The Battle Royale Information Officer at the start of the course also assures the completely willing participants that the police following them are under strict orders not to interfere with them or to hamper them in their attempts to walk over a mountain range without supplies and find a flagpole in the desert wasteland. And back at the courtroom the defendant who previously caught a beating for talking out of turn is described by a tribunal member as unpatriotic, and a man who stirs up trouble in the black community by complaining about things. Out in the desert at the start of the course, one of the dissidents tries to make a run for it and doesn't make it far before getting dogpiled by an inter-organization cooperative effort of four or five various law enforcement officers. This sequence is intercut with the defendant on the stand saying that America presents itself as a peaceful place but it is not, and that protesters needed to use violence to get the attention of the mass audience they were trying to reach. Watkins might not be subtle, but that's a great sequence.
The guilty parties are let go at the start of the Punishment Park run, with the narrator telling the audience they've got two hours to run before the pursuing cops will be sent after them. The rest of their part of the narrative is simple--they're running for their lives while armed police chase them (the cops, for their part, say lots of platitudes to each other while waiting to be released; mostly things about how if the people running for their lives hadn't broken the law, they wouldn't be in the position they're in). Another voiceover from an instructional officer says that anyone who gets captured by the pursuing officers (apparently getting caught doesn't count as impeding the runners according to these laws) has the choice to go down easy or go down hard, and that the rest of their time in Punishment Park will be exactly as violent as they want it to be. It's chilling and amazing to me to realize how little the establishment party line has changed since 1971--like much of the dialogue in the movie coming out of the mouths of the law and order characters, it could be spoken now and sound exactly as authentic as it did four and a half decades ago. By way of contrast, the protesters seem to be relics of a different time (mostly due to hairstyles and facial hair, but also through the use of terms like "chicano", which I don't recall coming across in the last twenty years or so).
The protesters become tired, haggard, exhausted and beaten down as they run through the hundred-degree wasteland, reaching landmarks and splitting into factions (one of which tries to get weapons and fight the police chasing them; it goes extremely badly).
Back at the tribunal, people are allowed to say their piece--or not--as the judges decide, and everyone is found guilty. As every viewer knew they would. But the final image of the film is the scarecrow figures of the show-trial victims staggering to the flag and finding out that the American system wasn't broken, like they thought it was. It's fixed.
Peter Watkins is a filmmaker at his best when he's expressing a sense of furious betrayal by his political leadership (his War Game was both banned by the BBC--which commissioned him to make it, and presumably knew what kind of filmmaker he was--for being too horrifying to show and also the only fiction film to win the Academy Award for best documentary). His Gladiators was another look at dangerous games, but it tried for a tone of congenial social satire and I like him so much better when he's screaming at the top of his lungs, cinematically speaking. He's got a real knack for viscerally disturbing scenes and getting the absolute most out of his budgets as well as his performers and he's a genuinely left-wing filmmaker. There really aren't that many out there and certainly they don't get huge budgets or get to write their own tickets in Hollywood when there's jingoistic action films to be made. But if you want to see a state-sponsored Most Dangerous Game in progress with the techniques of cinema verite brought out to their utmost, Punishment Park has got to be your best bet.