Offering an outsiders’ view on the sociopolitical problems causing friction in America during the counterculture era, this film by British experimentalist Peter Watkins mashes together references to the antiwar movement, the trial of the Chicago 7, and widespread paranoia about the growth of a police state, among other hot topics. Holding everything together is a pair of bold contrivances. On a narrative level, writer-director Watkins invents the notion of American concentration camps for rebellious youth. And on a stylistic level, as he did in many other films, Watkins uses a documentary aesthetic even though the events depicted onscreen are wholly fictional. Punishment Park is ultimately a bit too obvious and scruffy to generate much excitement—this is sledgehammer satire delivered by way of undisciplined improvisation from nonactors. Nonetheless, Punishment Park is very much a product of its time, meaning that it possesses more historical interest than it does dramatic interest.
Set in the California desert, the movie imagines a place where members of the Establishment put “seditious” young people on trial for political activism. Those found guilty are given a choice between long prison terms and entrance to something called Punishment Park. The park comprises 50 miles of brutal desert terrain, and the participants are told that if they can successfully traverse the distance without being given food or water, they will be released. Throughout the movie, Watkins intercuts the trial of a new set of antiwar protestors with the ordeal of the previous set, now struggling for survival in Punishment Park. Borrowing a trope from the nihilistic sci-fi movies of the same era, Watkins soon reveals the dark secret of Punishment Park: National Guardsmen patrol the terrain, contriving excuses to murder the participants. In other words, Punishment Park is a death sentence. Had Watkins made the movie in a straightforward dramatic fashion, with proper characterizations and real actors, Punishment Park could have become one of the definitive pieces in the youth-culture canon. As is, the movie suffers from the awkwardness and stridency of a student film. It also recalls the shambolic agitprop of Medium Cool (1969), only without that seminal film’s close tethers to reality.
At its worst, Punishment Park simply mimics important historical moments—when a black activist in Punishment Park gets bound and gagged in a courtroom, it’s a tacky nod to a real-life incident involving black-power activist Bobby Seale. At its best, the movie allows the spirited young people playing activists to speak their truth through the prism of the movie’s story. For example, the “goal” of participants in Punishment Park is to reach an American flag at the end of the terrain, symbolizing their return to proper U.S. society. But, as one participant crows, “I wouldn’t walk around the goddamned fucking corner for the American flag, let alone the desert.” Watkins captured something here, though he didn’t capture it with quite enough artistry.
Punishment Park: FUNKY