Tonight at 8, RedChannels presents a rare screening of Peter Watkins’s Evening Land at 92YTribeca. In their program notes, RedChannels says that Watkins was often accused of being paranoid. And he was—deeply and ingeniously paranoid, in the way of George Orwell or Thomas Pynchon. And like many paranoids, Watkins’s vision was prophetic.
Formally, Watkins gave definite shape to the style of fiction that functions by passing itself off as documentary. This form reaches at least as far back as Orson Welles’s radiobroadcast of War of the Worlds, through Christopher Guest’s “mockumentaries,” up to The Office and on, it would seem, to ubiquity. (A closer look shows that it probably has its roots in early epistolary novels, which similarly displaced narrative voice onto the arrangement of faux-documents.)
Politically, Watkins evinces a belief that all governments tend towards fascism, and the media towards sensationalist, and right wing, distortions. The vision of America he offers in Punishment Park—with its “no knock laws,” “stop and frisk laws,” and “preventative detention”—has a disturbing resonance in the post-Bush II era.
Evening Land concerns itself with two interrelated media events: a worker’s strike and the kidnapping of a political official by a guerilla organization. Both stories are told in two ways: through the media’s coverage of the events, and through the self-documentation of the parties involved. The film can be trying: Watkins was a genuinely political animal, and in the film he shows himself to be concerned with the nitty-gritty of politics, particularly the protracted inner workings of a labor union. But the film is also rewarding. Watkins convincingly lets play out a nightmarish scenario in which the striking workers are brutally attacked by the police and one of the kidnappers needlessly killed (also by the police).
On his website, Watkins notes that the film received bad reviews from both the left and the right. The right disliked it for obvious reasons, while the left thought the film “sympathized more with the ‘terrorists’ than with the workers.” Today, one can actually see the film garnering similar reactions—Watkins certainly romanticizes the kidnappers to a degree, something that hasn’t necessarily aged well. But the meat of the film lies in Watkins’s precise renderings of political spin, his illustrations of the way politicians deform language around their ideology, and the often futile (though beautiful in Watkins’s view) attempts of progressives, be they workers or guerrillas to hijack the media for their own ends.