15 August 2005

Punishment Park

I'm astounded that I've never heard of this 1970 (some sources say 1971) film, nor its director: Punishment Park, by Peter Watkins, sounds like a product of the explosive U.S. political situation of the Vietnam War era, and it is, but it also sounds like a scarily prescient fable about the present day, as well.

Apparently the film takes the form of a documentary from a time "in the near future," where political dissidents are arrested by order of the president. They are given a choice of sentences: a lengthy prison term, or a three-day stay in Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, a stretch of desert where, if they can outrun the well-armed cops and military figures who chase them, they'll be allowed to go free.

The film caused such an uproar, and got such vicious reviews, on its initial release that it was withdrawn from theaters in less than a week. Loosely scripted, with lots of improvisation by the director and his cast, the film was shot under extremely uncomfortable conditions (both physical and emotional), leading to what is described as some very intense, hard-to-watch cinema.

Having been very depressed about the politcal climate in this country and in my home state (our state GOP is already tarring many potential Democratic candidates in Georgia with the label of being "too gay-friendly"), I think this movie will very likely make me crazy, but I've got to see it anyway. Apparently it's the only one of Watkins' films available on Region 1 DVD.

Here's a page with a lot of great images from the film.


Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

The Criterion Forum's been abuzz over this one for a while, too, since (I think?) Masters of Cinema is releasing this in a UK/R0 edition. From what I understand, it's not actually available in the US, but it IS in Canada. Which is kinda funny but weird. (Though I've got a few like that, like my Raccoons DVDs -- a cartoon series made in Canada that I actually adore and wish they'd get around to releasing the rest of them) and my copy of Belle Du Jour which appeared to be out of print for at least some time in the US, and I got a canadian copy (which is cool, because the artwork is reversible English/French; also, the packaging makes it look like a Skinemax flick... which basically makes me think some horndogs are going to be severely disappointed...)

Anyway, though, I've been kinda thinkin' about checking this one out; it sounds interesting -- gonna read the links now, thanks!

(Speaking of which, I'm kind of excited because I just rented from Scarecrow a VHS of God's Angry Man, Werner Herzog's documentary on Dr. Gene Scott...)

12:14 AM, August 16, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

Maybe this DVD I found is the Canadian one... hmm. I'll let you know once it arrives. I have a Canadian DVD copy of Lynch's "Lost Highway," since it's never gotten a U.S. release, which is cool except that it's fullscreen instead of widescreen.

And TOO COOL about "God's Angry Man"! You'll have to post a review once you've seen it- I'd really like to see that. (Maybe you can make it a Herzog double feature and see Exit, Pursued By A Bear too! Also really want to see that one, even though it seems like a really depressing film.)

8:08 AM, August 16, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

Er, I meant Grizzly Man... "Exit, Pursued By A Bear" is the name of David Edelstein's review of the movie. D'oh! This is what I get for commenting after just waking up... :D

8:10 AM, August 16, 2005  
Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

Actually did see that this weekend (Grizzly Man, I mean) -- it's excellent. I mean, it is Herzog, but it's basically made me and pretty much all my friends put "seeing all of Herzog's other stuff" higher on the list of things to do (as my best friend and I had only seen Even Dwarfs Started Small previously. Which was awesome.). And, well, you know my interest in Christian Media; and one of my best friends loved Dr. Gene Scott, the subject, and so I figured that was something to track down. (By tracking down, I basically mean "Go to scarecrow".)

And, I don't know -- Grizzly Man is sad, but it's not TOO depressing. There's enough lightness in the movie to make it not too much of a bringdown -- but there are a lot of serious, sad bits, mainly focusing on his death. But it's really well-done and I loved it.

12:09 PM, August 16, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

That's good about Grizzly Man... I'll probably check it out since you say it's not too much of a bummer.

And I'm serious, you DO have to post about God's Angry Man- I may pick that up if it's good.

6:44 PM, August 16, 2005  
Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

I might do a post about it in a little while, but God's Angry Man is pretty good; I'd say it's worth picking up HOWEVER: The copy I watched was a VHS from 5 Minutes To Live, and it was (for reals) a video recording of a projection. And, well, the picture quality is kinda ass, and there's loads of projector noise throughout it. It's watchable but not great. I just checked, and however, 5 Minutes does say that their "video source quality = A" for this release, so perhaps they found a new master (perhaps the PAL VHS that Herzog's selling himself?), but I'm not sure if it's the same or not. So, well, if you wanna risk it, I'd say, film quality, it probably -is- worth it (even though it's only ~44 minutes long, so 20 bucks is a little steep), but I'd be a little leery. Anyway, though, my point here is that if you wanna Risk The Unknown and Tempt the Fates and maybe get a good copy or maybe get the copy I watched (only on a DVD), go for it. HOWEVER: If you don't want to risk it/the 20 bucks, and are happy with a shitty copy, I've made a DVD and I'd be happy to burn you a copy. (I've also thrown on the Young Fresh Fellows videos on there, too, to round them out, since I encoded those for the Universal Trendsetter today and since I'm mainly burning this for my close friends who want those videos too... anyway, the Fellows are one of the best things out of Seattle anyway, so...) So, yeah -- totally yer call on that one, just let me know.

1:29 AM, August 17, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

Wow, I just got my Punishment Park DVD today from Diabolik DVD, 4 days after I ordered it. It is the Canadian edition (as Matt predicted), and very handsomely presented: nice slipcover, and a fairly thick booklet that includes a long excerpt from a book about the director. I'm going to try to watch this tomorrow, and I'll give y'all a review after I do.

10:08 PM, August 19, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

MAN. I just finished watching Punishment Park, and my head feels like I've had a Brillo pad scrubbing it for the last hour and a half.

The short review: Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Longer review: I am absolutely amazed at this movie... the acting (mostly by non-actors) was terrific. The editing was AMAZING, and the sound editing was really awesome as well- a carpet of gunshots, sirens, jet engines, etc. weaves through the whole movie and keeps your nerves jangling. Sometimes its almost hard to hear what the characters are saying for all the gunfire in the background, and the effect is just electric.

There are several amazing quotes from characters in the movie, both good and bad, that sound like they were improvised on the spot. Had this movie ever gotten a proper release in the U.S., I promise you these quotes would be part of the political landscape today.

The movie is only 88 minutes long, and that's good, because the last 25 minutes or so are so gruelling that I had to stop the movie twice just to take a breather. I can't IMAGINE what it would have been like to see this in a theater... no wonder the reviews back in '71 were so explosive. This is the kind of movie that could cause fistfights in the audience. Just watching it at home alone in the middle of the night, I found myself wanting to throw things at the TV, to make some of these heinous characters just SHUT UP. Ugh.

To the film's credit, though, there is some complexity in the characters... a few of the prisoners (the "good guys") come across as kinda shallow and confused, while there are a couple of the members of the tribunal (the "bad guys") who are genuinely sympathetic. I liked that the movie doesn't try to portray people as good or bad, only as right or wrong... the "bad" ones are mostly shown as misguided, but wow, are they misguided.

The fake-documentary style of the movie is absolutely flawless, BTW. My partner wandered through the living room on his way to bed while I was watching the movie, and stopped to watch it for about 15 minutes before asking, "What the hell IS this??" He thought it was something on TV, and was shocked to find out A) how old it is, and B) that it was fiction.

12:45 AM, August 21, 2005  

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