2014 Film Reviews

Review: Scared Hippies and Blood-Thirsty Soldiers Meet Up in ‘Punishment Park’ (1971)

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MUBI, one of my new best friends, once again brought the goods last week with Peter Watkins’ controversial (and hard to find) 1971 pseudo-documentary, Punishment Park. Those under 40 years of age, like myself, may instantly associate the human hunting with Ernest Dickerson’s 1994 classic (?) Surviving the Game, which seemingly aired on TNT every day through the mid-2000s, however a significantly larger message embodies the 1971 film.

An eclectic group of hippies and draft-dodgers are detained by “the man,” with the option to face the legal system or spend three days being hunted by soldiers in Punishment Park. It’s not clear whether the subjects committed actual crimes, but their ideals seem dangerous enough for a group lockdown (and the cops need training). You might say that Punishment Park is a cinéma vérité, desert version of Minority Report. “You don’t wanna hear my message, man!”

If the long-haired hippies can endure 53 miles through the southern California desert (Joshua Tree?) and capture an American flag, they may walk away and continue on with their anti-establishment lives. Of course, things don’t go as planned and the soldiers “in training” become somewhat anxious and trigger happy. The temperature reaches almost 100 degrees and the subjects must reach the halfway point for their first taste of water. Don’t piss off the hippies!

While certain aspects of Punishment Park may seem hilarious today, the film was undoubtedly frightening upon first release in 1971. After all, the footage looks genuine and cast members were apparently bickering throughout the shoot. The intercutting of political diatribes offers the lingo that one might expect from hippies, but their dialogue while trekking through the desert transforms Punishment Park into an acute dissection of what a combination of fear, paranoia and violence can do. One young woman says, “I don’t think they’re trying to kill us, really,” which is followed by an soldier’s detailed message of how to properly shoot the subjects.The increasing hostility of the soldiers eventually leads a British cameraman to speak up with, “This is going on NBC!,” although nobody really seems to care. Absolute power. The subjects are disposable.

Punishment Park initially comes across as merely a low budget, 16mm fake documentary, but the film has inherent Sci-Fi qualities. Remember, Sci-Fi doesn’t always equal monsters and aliens (see Spike Jonze’s Her). Director Peter Watkins offers an alternate America, in which voices are muffled by weapons and uncompromising power. Oh, that actually happened? What I meant to say is that Watkins has individuals that “overrule” the United States Constitution as a form of legal action.

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