When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
PUNISHMENT PARK (1971)

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You know how it goes:  you look for something on the Web and before you know it you’ve hypertexted yourself into a totally different realm of information.

That’s how it was for me one night when I found myself on the IMDB User Comments page for Peter Watkins’ PUNISHMENT PARK.  I was amazed at the comments articulated about this movie, decades after its virtual banishment from cinemas.  As I read on, my own relationship to the film returned.

The movie has a lengthy yet spotty history with me.  I hadn’t heard mention of the film for over 35 years, yet as a politically-rebellious teenager I was in the audience of its first U.S. screening during the summer of 1971 at the Atlanta Film Festival.  It had just screened at Cannes and was to open at the New York Film Festival that October, but the fledgling Atlanta Fest picked it up in between.  A few weeks before its Atlanta opening, the festival invited selected high-schoolers to a preview of the first half-hour of the film, hoping that we would generate word-of-mouth interest.  Before dimming the lights and switching on the 16mm projector, the honcho of the fest said this would be a rare opportunity because the film will probably be banned.  I thought, “Yeah, right.  This suit is just bullshitting us in order to sell tickets.”

But the man was right:  PUNISHMENT PARK was pulled from release after 4 days in New York; director Peter Watkins’ website says there were possible Federal threats against the theatre.  His website also states that 24 PBS stations “swore that they could never, and would never show a film like this on American TV.”

Now, however, the Sundance Channel has periodically shown the film and a DVD has been released.  I watched it on Sundance and thought it was a relic of a world gone by.  PUNISHMENT PARK is a pseudo-documentary filmed in the Southern California desert in 1970, one of the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War.  The President has invoked a law which authorizes Federal authorities to detain persons judged to be “a risk to internal security” without due legal process.  The film follows a group of War resisters who are placed before a tribunal who sentences them to a choice of incarceration in a penitentiary or “Punishment Park.”  The park is a 53-mile trek across the desert to an American flag with armed law enforcers in pursuit.  While responding to the film, I wondered whether current U.S. audiences no longer had concerns for oppression and censorship, and the desire to punish those who question the status quo. 

As with the spokesman in 1971 who said the film would be banned, I was again proven wrong in my reaction.

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The IMDB user comments were strong and persuasive as to the film’s relevance today:  Guantánamo, “enemy combatants”, the Patriot Act, etc.  It’s the most engaging and passionate reading of any page I’ve seen on IMDB.  At the Atlanta premiere, director Peter Watkins was asked to stand and take a bow after the screening.  Turns out he was sitting right behind me:  here was a thin man with delicate features who seemed rather uncomfortable being thrust in the spotlight.  Yet his eyes were piercing, as if he could observe more than the average guy.  I still remember that night.  For thirty-plus years I thought that film and its memory had dried into dust.  Yet it lives on, and I don’t know how I feel about that.  I wish that the issues in PUNISHMENT PARK were hopelessly dated by now, that the ideas of random unspecified imprisonment, the revoking of individual rights, and a society controlled by a privileged class were the concepts that had dried into dust instead.
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Doug / PoMo Joan

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1 Comment to “PUNISHMENT PARK (1971)”

  1. I think I know what to ask for for Christmas now! Thanks again for another excellent recommendation!!!

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