Punishment Park (1971)

Peter Watkins directs Katherine Quittner, Carmen Argenziano and Gladys Golden in the mockumentary about the US government sanctioned torture and murder of dissidents in a desert assault course.

Don’t ever choose Punishment Park! Yet that’s the choice for the draft dodgers, folk singers, social activists, drop outs, pacifists and Black Panthers in Peter Watkins’ gruelling but unsensational vision of American fascism. It is a fantasy, an alternative US, 1971 in a different reality. It could be the start of the timeline we follow in Alan Moore’s Watchmen where Watergate had no effect, Vietnam was a “success” and Nixon enjoyed a perpetual presidency. But is this Land of the Free under the thrall of background fascism so much more different than how the conservative majority dealt with the youth who didn’t play ball, spoke out and fought back? Is it too strong of an embellishment after the National Guard opened fired on student campuses indiscriminately, the kangaroo courts of Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman, and those hippies forced into having their buzz cuts by thugs outside Disneyworld? Punishment Park explores, references and recreates all these true life injustices finessing them into a nightmarish escalation. We follow two groups: one almost voiceless and nameless enduring the desert. The other – the next batch being processed and trialed before given their options. The accused enter a tent, are given a pointless chance to defend their politics (the improvised testimonies are sensitive and compelling) to a jeering, uncaring panel. And then they are given that choice… a life sentence in a penitentiary or a two day challenge to complete a punishment park. A futile trek through an arid desert, pursued by cops who will violently detain you. If you somehow outrun them, survive, reach the flag (the America they are seen as rejecting) then you no longer have to serve the prison sentence. But the cops and soldiers aren’t dehydrated, have vehicles, weapons, shelter… of course they are going to catch you. And with your one chance at freedom cruelly snatched from you, of course you are going to resist or run… allowing the pigs carte blanche to deal with you violently. A cunt’s trick. A cruel con. But isn’t that the American Dream summed up? You can get there if you strive hard enough, only those protected by the state stand between you and your freedoms… Freedom is always tantalisingly out of reach. Makes The Hunger Games and Battle Royale seem like juvenile cartoons in its grim, didactic and queerly mundane persuasiveness. The movie ends with the few survivors being carted off to the prison sentence they strove to avoid, and the next batch leaving the last vestiges of society to face the same dehumanisation. The international documentary crew stands helpless, like us, they feel complicit.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

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