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Punishment Park

More than once in the DVD supplements for Punishment Park (1971), director Peter Watkins is referred to as a "marginalized" filmmaker. This disc's release — a collaboration between New Yorker Video and an outfit called Project X — aims to amend this perceived decades-long slight. By making this incendiary film accessible to today's audiences, it should help to restore Watkins' reputation as an impassioned, intelligent, and literally revolutionary artist. Punishment Park is set in a dystopian near-future, in which the U.S. government has set up "punishment parks" to deal with the various subversives in its midst. Under the auspices of the 1950 McCarran Act (an actual piece of legislation), anti-government radicals are given the option of serving an extended prison sentence or participating in a grueling cross-country game of capture the flag, all the while pursued by police, National Guardsmen, and soldiers. The idea is to punish the enemies of the state while providing training for the enforcers of order. Shot in a convincing, 16mm verité style, Punishment Park intercuts between one group of prisoners who have embarked on the 50-plus mile trek through Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, and another in the process of being sentenced before a tribunal in a stifling tent. Clearly inspired by the trial of the Chicago Seven, Watkins presents several characters based on the defendants in that trial, such as Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, and Abbie Hoffman, as well as other notable radicals of the period like Joan Baez. As the defendants attempt to make their case (with the paltry insistence of an outraged but impotent liberal lawyer), the group already in Punishment Park divides into three groups, ranging from outright pacifists to violent revolutionaries. Since the film was largely improvised, and many of the actors were representing their own beliefs, the arguments and confrontations sometimes become frighteningly intense. As the "violence inherent in the system" (to quote Monty Python) becomes more and more apparent, the BBC television crew ostensibly shooting the footage we're seeing gets more and more outraged. This aspect of Punishment Park makes some pertinent points about the limits of journalistic objectivity and non-interference. According to Watkins, the film's initial theatrical release consisted of four days in New York City, with many viewers dismissing it as lacking in subtlety. It's true that Punishment Park is an angry, one-sided film, but it has as much to say in the winter of 2005 as it did in 1971, and it's sure to provoke worthwhile discussions among audiences. New Yorker's DVD release of Punishment Park presents the film in its original Academy aspect ratio (1.33:1). The picture and audio accurately represent the technically limited production. Watkins appears in an overlong introduction, in which he reads from a statement basically consisting of a history lesson which sets the film in the context of its time (28 min.). An audio commentary provided by Professor Joe Gomez has some insights into the film's production and politics, but engages in too much boosterism of Watkins to be taken entirely seriously. A more fascinating inclusion is Watkins' 1960 short film "Forgotten Faces," (18 min.), which convincingly recreates the 1956 Hungarian uprising on British streets in grainy newsreel style. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan



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