Punishment Park

Dir: Peter Watkins, 1971. Cult.
Punishment Park

The ability to suspend disbelief is easiest to do when you're watching films about global conspiracies, justice systems, and especially politics. Having movies like this be shot in a documentary style only aids this experience. After seeing this movie, I can honestly say that I haven't been this motivated to discuss politics and justice in a long time, and I'm glad that a film could have the power to stir the pot. Punishment Park is set in 1970, a year before the film's release. Nixon is president and we are currently occupying Vietnam. Due to the war, America is going through a brutish and frightening phase where even a handful of politicians are resigning from office over their disgust with the nation's actions towards its outspoken citizens and the overall progress of mankind. With new laws and the proposed threat of Russia, there has been a complete re-working of the justice system in which American citizens have lost basic freedoms that were once seen as the staple of American life. These new laws include the "cancellation of immunity," stop and frisk laws, activation of detention camps, the ability to overrule basic amendments of the Constitution during trial, and the McCarran Act—a real law developed in the '50s that called for the ability to investigate Americans who posed a threat to national security, and was later dismissed and "revised."

Individuals seen as a threat to national security include those who start riots or do any sort of activism that carries a violent message; those evading or refusing the draft; those charged with Communism; and even a privileged 19-year old whose pop music is accused of having harmful messages and promoting violence. As a particular group of people are being given a ludicrous trial by a bonkers committee of trustees, a batch of people who have already received their own trials are being transported to Punishment Park—the alternative option to a prison sentence after being found guilty.

Punishment Park was made due to all of the new "civil" and "social" crimes that were committed by various individuals and their inability to build prisons fast enough for all the criminals who would soon fill them. So in court, once found guilty, groups are given the choice to serve their sentence, varying from 7 years to life, or have a three day session in Punishment Park. The park is really the desert training ground for corrections and military officers, in which you are given three days to complete a 50-mile trek through the desert and reach the American flag over the hills, without food or water. Two hours after beginning the hike, you will be pursued by officers as shooting targets.

The most criticized aspect of the film is the argument that it isn’t realistic, especially since the point-of-view of the film is from a British reporter who is filming the entire process for the UN and interviewing both sides. Another complaint is that the movie is nothing more than a very black and white piece of left-wing propaganda. What some might not realize is that in 1970, people hadn't forgotten the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor. They are currently infuriated and demand peace and love in response to a new war and a draft. The degree of radicalism and protest along with the mannerisms and language of these characters is actually a part of the times. It inflicts a sort of paranoia in a modern audience, but the park is a metaphor, just like the prison sentence is. Something like this must have caused an uproar in theaters, if it even made it to mainstream. I absolutely love this film. It had some of the most impressive and partially improvisational dialogue and acting that I have ever seen, regardless of the genre. A great mimicry of the personality and political energy of the '70s, and now officially on my Top Ten list.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 15, 2010 4:42pm
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