“Punishment Park” (1971)
Acts of provocation are certainly the prerogative of the artist- it is one of the essential nutrients fueling that elusive but ever evolving abstractive absolute known as Art -and most certainly are convenient tools for the socially conscious filmmaker. Even run-of-the-mill commercial directors make use of the provocative manipulation of hearts (emotion) and minds (psychology); it’s their stock in trade. However, in the instance of deliberate political provocation, the filmmaker might be expected to responsibly employ a reasonable level of informed clarity if their film is intended to result in a stimulative experience beyond that of base propaganda.
Such is a great part of the controversy clouding an objective assessment of Peter Watkins’ “Punishment Park”, a film that takes great pains to present a particularly negative view of America as a government controlled state succumbed to fascism. The fact that Watkins is a British filmmaker, has also been the source of intense consternation in what has been labelled an unwelcome (and, by that same measure, unknowing) criticism from across the pond. Skeptics of his method and message cry “foul”, which might be a sympathetic (if not arguable) stance were films made by foreigners speaking in glowing terms of the Fifty States met with an equal sense of an illegitimate violation of sovereign tranquility, and with an equally vehement energy. This, of course, is not the case.
In the matter of “Punishment Park”, an incendiary work to be sure, to preserve the integrity of the critical eye one must muster the capacity for a rational discussion as to its form, technique and substance in separate but equal measure from the more rash, emotionally volatile implications of the film’s theme (which, in themselves can be dissected, but not in a vacuum of nationalist self-pity) just like any other film. It is, after all, just a movie.
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