Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (Oct 2006)
An Optimist on Two Fronts
The little-seen, oft-suppressed work of dissident filmmaker Peter Watkins challenged not just the political status quo but the form itself
By John Patterson
In the late 1960s, a series of British filmmakers arrived in the United States who all offered new and vivid ways of looking at America with freshly peeled eyeballs. John Boorman turned Los Angeles into a Pop-Art, Technicolor Alphaville in 1967’s Point Blank; Dick Lester (the expatriate American director who hadn’t been home in 17 years) and his cameraman Nicolas Roeg fell to earth in acid-laced San Francisco, whose discontents they depicted (in 1968’s Petulia) far more bleakly than did the habitués of Haight-Ashbury; “Swinging London” chronicler and beat-documentarian Peter Whitehead captured exploding America between the Tet Offensive and the early ‘68 Primaries in his poetic but hardly-seen The Fall; Peter Yates transformed the look of the urban crime thriller a year later in Bullitt; and John Schlesinger offered a sleazy, misanthropic look at America’s urban flotsam in Midnight Cowboy.
None however, produced so searing and angry a denunciation of the New World as Peter Watkins did with 1971’s faux documentary Punishment Park [pictured above], with its invocations of political concentration camps on American soil, police death-squads executing activists and dissidents, and the media’s inextricable complicity in both. Whereas most of the other newcomers’ visions were welcomed, Watkins’ was rejected out of hand. Punishment Park played for four days in Manhattan. PBS said outright that they would never show it. And so it vanished into a twilight world of occasional campus screenings—usually with Watkins in attendance—before vanishing utterly for 35 years. Apparently 1971 was the wrong time for an Englishman to diagnose, however sagely, the discontents of Vietnam-era America.
Time has either been very kind to his films or very cruel to us, by making the world so ugly and violent that Punishment Park‘s recent re-release on DVD has occurred in the most propitious environment imaginable. Abu Grahib and Guantanamo are fresh; the Patriot Act and the NSA wiretapping program hang menacingly over us all; war is back with a vengeance, and dissent against said war has metastasized, along with a profound disgust for the complicity of the corporate media in all the doings of Dubya. Where critics roundly abused the film—when they were not ignoring it—back in 1971, many are now roused to feel that Peter Watkins’ vindication may be at hand. And with the gradual release by New Yorker Films of nearly all his major works over the last year, Watkins can finally be reassessed—or assessed for the first time—on his own terms.
Watkins seems to have been born fully-formed as an artist. He studied at Oxford and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, becoming interested in radical politics and cinema. His second short film, a full-scale reenactment of the Budapest uprising of 1956, was shot entirely on the placid streets of his hometown of Canterbury. It won him a place at the BBC where his first commission, in 1964, was an adaptation of historian John Prebble’s revisionist account of the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Culloden, which saw the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invading army by King George II’s brother—known ever after as “Butcher Cumberland”—was the last battle fought on British soil, between two armies composed of aristocratic officers and feudally indentured English troops and Scottish clansmen. Watkins twisted the material by allowing his collective cast of performers to address the camera directly, to tell their own bitter stories and even, on occasion, to reach out and tell the crew to get the fuck out of the way. Watkins is narrator, providing context, facts and figures, and the future destinies of the participants, outlining class relations between Generals and cannon-fodder. In the brutal aftermath of the rout, the British regulars are seen hacking women and children down on country roads and beheading the dead. Culloden is a no-budget masterpiece of mocked-up war footage that puts Saving Private Ryan’s opening half-hour to shame (in addition to his other talents, Watkins is a world-class director of kinetic action footage). Culloden was also made in full awareness of what was beginning to unfold in Vietnam. It pulled no political punches, but its ecstatic critical reception was offset by angry complaints from right-wing MPs and military figures.
The fact that Culloden, with its heavy emphasis on political revisionism, was made for the documentary department of the famously “objective” BBC is indicative of certain tensions inherent in Watkins’ approach to drama. His next film, The War Game, was a fake documentary, albeit using realistic scenarios and public information about the likely effects of a nuclear attack on southern England, but was made within the Plays Department of the BBC, a cauldron of radical productivity that David Thompson, with little exaggeration, has dubbed “the Last Studio” (it also produced pioneering ’60s and ’70s work by Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, Steven Frears and Mike Leigh, among dozens of other filmmakers).
At 48 minutes, The War Game was too hot for the BBC, and even more so for the politicians of the time. Using available statistics and government documents, Watkins showed that Britain, faced with the possibility of atomic warfare, had settled for the illusion of security in its aftermath. Watkins illustrated the effects of nuclear firestorms, mocked duck-and-cover safety drills (a child’s eyeballs melt down his face), and finished his highly unnerving polemic with the nightmarish image of British bobbies interning political protesters and mercy-killing the victims of radiation sickness with a bullet. The corporation pulled it before broadcast, claiming it was too disturbing for the public. Although it won that year’s Best Documentary Oscar (the closest Watkins ever came to mainstream success) The War Game was not shown on British TV for another quarter-century, during which period it was established that it had in fact been suppressed for political reasons, not matters of taste—just as Watkins had always claimed. In addition Watkins had stood athwart the line separating fiction from documentary—it is the necessary place to be for an artist denouncing the latter as merely a variation on the former—and this only added to the discomfort of the powers that be.
A brief and unhappy flirtation with Paramount Pictures produced Privilege (1967), an intermittently successful satire on rock-n-roll as a means of codifying dissent (it features the GI rock band The Monks playing “Onward Christian Soldiers”!) before Watkins left England for Scandinavia, his base for most of the next decade. There he put together The Gladiators (a/k/a The Peace Game, 1969), perhaps his weakest film, in which wars between nations are settled by small bands of warriors on an internationally broadcast TV show. Privilege never really found an audience, and The Gladiators was not widely shown, though both received some respectful reviews.
After failing to put together a project about the Little Big Horn in Los Angeles, Watkins found the backing for Punishment Park. Filmed in the Mojave Desert in 1970, under the wide, black shadow cast by Kent State, the Chicago 7 Conspiracy Trial, the illegal bombing of Cambodia, and the insidious process by which the Nixon White House sought to arrogate ever more power unto itself, the movie showcases as well as any of Watkins’ films the essential method which has served him so well over his career.
Unfolding in a half-speculative, half-satirical timeframe that one might call “the recent future,” Punishment Park takes elements from the contemporary political ether, stretches them to their plausible limits and then builds a searing, sun-scorched drama within that context. It is 1973. The Clampdown on political dissent has already occurred, under the draconian terms of the anti-communist 1950 McCarran Security Act. Interned dissidents are transported to the Bare Mountain National Punishment Park. When guilt is established, defendants have a choice: a lengthy prison term or Punishment Park. The latter requires a group of prisoners to cross 50 miles of desert without food or water. Survivors can go free; more likely they will die of dehydration or be shot by organized bands of police, highway patrolmen and National Guardsmen.
Watkins cuts between the grueling desert ordeal—think: Survivor with real guns and bloodshed—of the condemned prisoners, and the show-trial of the next batch, which is consciously modeled on the proceedings against the Chicago Seven. As always, the cast is collective, not focused on individuals. All the actors are amateurs, cast for the proximity of their political views to those of their characters: words and opinions are their own. Antiwar activists, feminists and union organizers play the prisoners. Right-wingers, cops, and political “moderates” play the judging panel and the murderous enforcers of the last shreds of the law.
With this 360-degree environment in place and the figures within it all set to run and play and suffer and die, Watkins adds his distinctive pseudo-documentary overlay. All the major media companies are here to film all proceedings in Punishment Park. Watkins, as in all his films, acts as narrator and interviewer, and is always behind the (usually handheld) camera, eliciting raw anger from the prisoners and blithe and arrogant fuck-you-so-whats from their uniformed oppressors (the camera was operated by Joan Churchill, who has since worked extensively with Watkins’ fellow BBC alumni Nick Broomfield. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler says he lit the tent scenes for Churchill.) As the ordeal in the sun becomes ever more blood-soaked and viciously punitive, Watkins’ “objectivity” steadily dissolves and he is finally reduced to screaming, “Stop it, you fucking bastards!” as, within sight of the prisoners’ objective—an American flag—troops methodically beat and massacre the last few remaining prisoners.
No one makes it. (This is A Peter Watkins movie.)
Watkins’ films always fight on two fronts: against the political status quo, obviously, but also, and perhaps more importantly, against the media itself, its owners, its place in the political economy, and its formal and cultural shortcomings. In his early work, he merely made the process of filmmaking evident to the viewer, but after his experience with The War Game, the craven nature of conventional media coverage and broadcast institutions became one of his overarching themes. He has since worked to overthrow conventional ideas about running times—his antinuclear epic The Journey (1987) lasted 14 hours—and notions of who is qualified to make movies—his Strindberg biopic The Freethinker was written, performed, photographed and edited by a Swedish high school class Watkins was teaching in 1994. Subsequent experiences have only deepened his antipathy toward the institutional media, which has sometimes hobbled his career in TV. After all, if one of the cornerstones of your aesthetic and political method is an abiding distrust of, and contempt for, the very mechanisms by which your work will be made available for public examination, you may soon find that the phone stops ringing. It’s a testament to Watkins’ stubbornness and determination that he ever made another film again.
Watkins addressed the issue in his most personal and lyrical film, Edvard Munch, a polemical biography of the pioneering Norwegian Expressionist, made for Oslo television in 1973 and released to international acclaim in 1975 (naturally, its backers hated the film and did whatever they could to stymie its success). Here was an artist identifying totally with his subject: like Watkins, Munch refused to countenance any limit or compromise to his bleak vision, no matter how much insult and false recrimination he endured from the artistic establishment of his time. This intense sympathy between biographer and subject may also explain why Edvard Munch is among the greatest portraits ever created of an artist’s life and work
In the lean years between such projects, Watkins has established a parallel persona as a media theorist at his website (http://www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins/), decrying the prevailing hierarchical media approach he has dubbed the Monoform. He condemns the topdown imposition of political conclusions, the absence of any entry-point for the passive, excluded spectator, and the reliance on optimistic, hero-centric narrative forms, as well as the institutional corruption and dishonesty of most state-backed or corporate media outlets. It is a coherent, compelling and highly persuasive diagnosis, but one feels it would require a revolution to bring it all down.
Which brings us to La Commune (Paris 1871) which alongside Edvard Munch is probably Watkins’ masterpiece. Six hours long, filmed entirely in swooping SteadiCam takes lasting up to 15 minutes, it attempts nothing less than a recreation of the revolutionary Commune that ruled Paris in the aftermath of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This story is still so incendiary that most French schools simply do not address it in history lessons, and Watkins is anxious to show how those in poverty and deprivation were able, with no outside help, to articulate and put into practice many of the revolutionary ideals—feminism, equal pay, popular democracy, free state (i.e., non-religious) education for all, collectivism, etc.—that would sustain the political Left throughout the century to come.
The result is perhaps the purest embodiment of Brecht’s theories of Epic Theater ever committed to film (Brecht himself once wrote a play called Les Jours de la Commune for his Berliner Ensemble). Deliberately adding the creative anachronism of two TV news teams—one right-wing (and disconcertingly like Fox-News) and another that’s politically engaged with the communards—Watkins puts the innards of the filmmaking and newsgathering machinery on full display, and while we are never allowed to forget that we’re watching a manufactured, albeit committed polemic, he also enables us to feel great anguish when these flawed, but optimistic utopian idealists are finally massacred, in their tens of thousands, by Monarchist troops in a Parisian park—another Punishment Park.
Before this happens however, Watkins has also made us feel—through endless discussion, argument, violence and peacability—the sense that it is possible and desirable to tear the old world down and rebuild it anew, according to fresh and equitable precepts that encompass the dignity and worth of every man and woman. Such radical ideals have been eroded and scorned into meaninglessness of late, and Watkins’ great achievement is to make them intoxicating once again. And, to answer Watkins’ critics, that is not what pessimists do. It is what optimists strive for.
Somewhere deep in his despair, Peter Watkins, a man who truly has no home but the struggle, is an indefatigable optimist. His work awaits you. Seize it with both hands, because it will change you, and it will make you want to change everything else.