Watching Punishment Park made me realize that I am a potential film scholar (I love calling myself that) and I should probably spend more time watching Peter Walkins films rather than reviewing Forgetting Sarah Marshall (a surprisingly funny and too harshly criticized romantic comedy, I think).
This is the cinema verite, psuedo-documentary style done right (for an example of this style done wrong, see Cloverfield). A film way ahead of its time, Punishment Park follows a fictional experiment in the early 70s in which political subversives become practice targets for military and law enforcement in training. Combining tribunal sequences and action footage from the arena (called “Punishment Park”) Watkins manages to make a terrifying and persuasive film without crossing to dogma.
There is an image I remember seeing in my youth of the protests at Kent State: a young man bent over his girlfriend, protecting her from the police baton that rails across his back. In a mindset of political protest myself (the attack on Afghanistan just commencing) his picture was so moving and telling that I had to put the book away. The anger an image like that can evoke in me is singular. I can’t seem to find that image now. Maybe it was obscure, maybe I made it up. The effect is the same.
So viewing Punishment Park was tough. It’s wrought with injustice, violence, and unfairness towards a demographic (the youth) the system is meant to protect. Merely by refusing the draft, boys are given the choice of prison or three days in the park without food, water, or shelter.
While the situation is contrived, the attitudes appear to me to be geniune. The tribunals detail the uselessness of conversation between the Right and the Left when hierarchies are so strictly in tact. The police anger at losing one of their own that causes them to retaliate in kind (against the unarmed) is also very much in tact.
And while a Punishment Park is a fantasy, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram are very much fact. As much as we like to believe the turmoil of the 60s is behind us, the same things that infuriated people then are still around, they are merely couched in apathy.
This film celebrates the opposite of apathy. The 60s and 70s spirit is alive as everyone involved in the film combines their talents for superb results that are sure to piss you the hell off.