What’s So Radical About Punishment Park?

by |
05/14/2010 3:28 PM |

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Tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, Anthology Film Archives screens a (gorgeous) new print of Peter Wakins’s 1971 Punishment Park. Proudly didactic and shimmeringly arid, this mockumentary with live rounds crosses over from its own post-Chicago and —Kent State reality into a parallel near-future America (buttressed by radio reports of the war in Cambodia), where President Nixon has triggered the provisions of the McCarran Internal Security Act calling for preventive detention of seditious citizen agitators. Watkins cross-cuts between activists—drop-outs, students and simulacra of Joan Baez and Bobby Seale, the latter gagged again—shackled down and vociferously debating their silent-majority tribunal, while another lefty cross-section schisms over pacifism versus militancy during their sentence, which plays a bit like the most dangerous game: they’ve got three days to outrun the pigs to a stars and stripes planted deep within the seemingly post-apocalyptic Punishment Park (played by the Mojave).

Watkins’s editing favors the Left, but they don’t have all the answers, and the law-and-order and family-values conservatives are permitted to ask their own questions: just as fiercely political scenarist Watkins plays one of the documentarians following the chase through the Park, the nonprofessional actors were selected from across the opinion spectrum to embody their real political convictions in a controlled improv setting. Though loaded, this experiment now feels far more radical than Watkins’s “paranoid” vision of executive power—or, for that matter, of a rigged desert game of capture the flag.