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Media and Violence in PUNISHMENT PARK (1971)

December 4, 2014
 The following is hastily excerpted from a longer unpublished paper I wrote a few years ago on Peter Watkins. While is true that, as Walter Benjamin teaches us, the state of emergency in our world is the norm, not the exception, these United States of America feel very much as of late to be ripping themselves apart at the seams. So it must have felt to Watkins, a British visitor, in 1971. Some of the concerns in his film have proved startlingly prescient, which is why I wish to share this with you now. A regrettable caveat: the single largest factor in our current unrest is quite inarguably race, something that this particular analysis fails to treat. It is however a clear element in the film itself, which I hope my meager writing convinces you to view. Special thanks to media theorist Marc Steinberg.


Media and Violence in Punishment Park

Peripatetic British film director Peter Watkins is known, if at all, for his withering attacks, both on celluloid and (very earnestly) in print, upon the affirmative culture advanced and upheld by what he calls the MAVM (Mass Audio-visual Media). Yet the cinema of Watkins and his collaborators also represents a more subtle negotiation of communication, in several senses of the term. This I would like to explore in what follows, utilizing a cinematic turning point in his oeuvre – his lone American film Punishment Park, from 1971. First, more about the object of Watkins’s ire: “Monoform” (again his term) of the MAVM is a standardized, market-driven blend of form (linearity; bite-sized programming blocks; extremely rapid, “invisible” editing) and content (easily digestible material; criticism of localizable practices at most but nothing critical of underlying capitalist structures). Effects on viewers are effectively predetermined, and by calculating them ahead of time the Monoform forecloses utterly on true audience response – on the possibility of their bringing their own experience to the table. (This critique is what we might call dollar-book Frankfurt School; Watkins’s cinema departs greatly from the Culture Industry model, however). In essence, the Monoform is a one-way street, precluding real communication.


(Fig.1 – Watkins illustrates the Monoform at a lecture, punctuating it with an arrow going one direction.[1])

How to change this situation? The problem calls to mind the 1970s back-and-forth polemics between German poet/media theorist Hans-Magnus Enzensberger and French philosopher Jean Baudrillard regarding the capacity of electronic media for dissent and even insurrection.[2] Enzensberger felt electronic media had an inherent equalizing potential and a “reversibility of circuits”; that is, the “one-way street” of communication was only upheld through artificial means, (re)inforced by the ruling classes through economics (i.e. the base, in Marxist terms). Baudrillard, on the other hand, saw electronic media as corrupt in their very design, neutralizing of real world action and brooking no real response to power and its “messages.” In fact, the very model of sender-message-receiver denied the possibility of true exchange, which should always allow for ambivalence of meaning. Graffiti was Baudrillard’s example of a transgressive challenge to this model: “What is strategic in this sense is only what radically checkmates the dominant form,” i.e., smashes the code.[3]

Punishment Park


(Fig. 2. New detainees being driven to the Tribunal in the desert. Following the film’s completion, the actor in this frame was indicted for conspiracy to bomb and sentenced to three years in prison for assaulting a police officer.)

Watkins’s critical angle at this stage in his career, in Privilege (1967) and Gladiators (1969), had been to somewhat contentiously use the master’s tools, i.e. the “monoform,” against him – fire with fire, as it were. But while continuing to do so in his next film he increasingly foregrounds the material (im)possibility of a response to this situation through the media. Punishment Park (1971) envisions a shockingly contemporary America in which all human communication – listening and sharing – has broken down. Made in 1970, in the wake of the most recent actions of an increasingly repressive Nixon administration that carried out targeted political assassinations of African-American radicals and had just escalated the Vietnam War to include Laos and Cambodia (the protest against which provoked the Kent State shootings), Watkins’s first objective in this film was to portray the utter polarization and onset of political psychosis in America. He takes as his starting point a McCarthy-era U.S. law still on the books today known as the McCarran Act, which allowed the Executive to order persons suspected of future subversion to be indefinitely detained. The film creates a place in the bleak Arizona desert known as ‘Punishment Park,’ which serves the two-fold function of excluding radicals and undesirables from society while training a police force in methods for handling (repressing) future organized expressions of popular dissent. In the film Watkins adopts an elaborate cross-cutting strategy (with a clearly labor-intensive post-production) between the “show trial”-like summary sentencing of new detainees before a civilian tribunal and the futile attempt of a sentenced group of detainees to run a fifty-three mile gauntlet, pursued by armed law enforcement, to reach an American flag and their freedom.

In the film’s desire to repel it exposes, and effectively, the lie that spectators truly contribute anything to the film text in its currently dominant mode. In this challenge it is not unlike Fassbinder’s more vicious melodramas such as Martha (1972) (about an abused, doomed housewife), which used the ‘grammar’ and lushness of Hollywood film to highlight systemic, invisible cruelty and its implication in formal elements. Punishment Park deploys not only the 1960’s editing tropes and naturalistic photography of 1960’s fiction film (part of Watkins’s “Monoform”), but also borrows from the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ “Direct cinema” of Robert Drew and the late Richard Leacock, which suggested the hopeful, participatory potential of representative democracy in such trailblazing films as Primary (1960).

Yet while making use of verité filmmaking techniques – the talented crew was asked to capture the improvised dialogue literally on the run – Watkins effectively stands such cinema on its head. He introduces Direct cinema into the diegesis, as a third party to the mayhem of the “criminals” vs. law and order. In Punishment Park, camera crews from Britain and West Germany have been asked by the tribunal to document the proceedings to demonstrate the “fairness and lack of bias on display.” Watkins had often encouraged his actors to look into the camera, but in this film especially, through the meticulous post-production editing work and the photography of cinematographer Joan Churchill, the film tacitly conveys whose side the camera crews are inevitably on, constructing with the ‘kino-eye’ the reality we cannot see on our own.

(Fig.3a A Senator/Tribunal member listens to detainee testimony. Fig. 3b For a half second, he looks directly into the camera the Tribunal has commissioned.)


Watkins had toyed with this device of diegetic journalists before: he added an interviewer in Culloden (1964) for Brechtian purposes, and in The War Game (1965) he had actors as soldiers restricting the ‘real’ camera from seeing beyond certain points, implicating likewise the spectators.[4] But media personnel had never been dramatis personae as here, where they are used here to illustrate the ambivalent relationship of the camera to reality. With one brief, notable exception they inhabit off-screen space exclusively, and we feel them largely through a sound design which stretches across the history of documentary cinema.

(Fig. 4a. Police and guards react with hostility to the camera crew late in the film when the latter has come out in favor of the detainees)
(Fig. 4b. The most avowedly non-violent detainee looks accusingly at the camera crew following them through Punishment Park)

Foremost is an ever-present BBC interviewer played by Watkins himself. He is at first imperious and declamatory in faux-objectivity, introducing the dramatic situation and its ‘cast.’ Later, as he begins interviewing detainees who are running through the Park, his position vis-à-vis the implacable man-hunt becomes more ambivalent, alternating between callous ‘voice-of-God’ descriptions of the situation (“When the human body has suffered a dehydration of between 6-10 percent, it experiences dizziness, difficulty in breathing, decreased blood volume, indistinct speech, and finally, an inability to walk.” Fig.4b), and interviews of both guards and detainees. The tone of the interviews slowly shifts from contemplative to outright hectoring. Finally, the full horror is revealed – in the film’s climax almost everyone is beaten and/or killed by the guards in cold blood, while no one is permitted to reach the flag, and their liberty. At this point the crew makes a desperate attempt to intervene through testifying, shaming and ultimately impotent appeals to the power of the camera (Fig.4a).

BBC: “We’ve seen this! We’ve seen this! …YOU FUCKING MURDERING BASTARDS!”
Sgt: “As soon as you get through with your little hysterics we can go ahead with the procedure.”
BBC: “Hysterics, mate, you wait ‘til you see yourself on television!”
Sgt: “I’ve been on TV before – I’m not worried about it.”

I must add only somewhat parenthetically that this is moment was especially chilling for me as an inhabitant of a city coming to be known for its extreme police brutality; that in fact one of my Concordia colleagues was recently beaten bloody and unconscious by several members of the SPVM (Montreal police) – and on video camera (for taking photographs, ironically enough). But on a grander level it deflates the liberalism of a generation that believed in reportage as a fail-safe way to influence events (e.g. the war in Vietnam). We can successfully bear witness, Watkins seems to be saying, but using media (and the media) in this way – as a substitute for real action – finally does little to check power. And, as one cop snidely and even bitterly indicates, they are getting good television.

The power of this uncompromising film is ultimately a destructive power, but I mean this in an entirely positive way, something like what Benjamin meant when speaking about destruction: “Some people pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them; others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called the destructive.”[5] Thus, before one can hope to construct something different with media, certain “situations” must be articulated and cleared away in that way unique to that which is technologically reproducible. Yet here too in destruction the seeds for something different are planted by the cinematic form itself if used to its fullest potential and not merely to seek profit through productivity. Philosopher Nakai Masakazu, a Japanese contemporary of Benjamin, speaks of the “historical continuity” of cinema:

“What connects one shot to another is the spirit of the masses who watch. Their sighs, their rage—these are what directly link various shots. Of course, filmmakers are aware of this when joining shots. That is to say, when a film is being produced, it is made entrusting the continuity of one shot with another to the mass quality that is present in history. It is truly important that an art is being produced by entrusting its copula to the movement of history. What is projected there is not a mere schematic figure. Rather, the copula is cut off and liberated from such schema—and thus formed—by the practical negativity of history. This gives a truly new task to aesthetics. The myth of Moses calling upon the Red Sea to part is the broad line of force that permeates every moment of historical continuity. The sense of lack or the desire amongst the masses connecting cinematic shots is far from unrelated to Moses’ cry.”

This “practical negativity” of history liberates through cinematographic technology (e.g. destruction of tradition and the auratic, in Benjaminian terms). But the “common labor” that allows an audience to enter a film text cannot be achieved through form alone (especially given the triumph of the edited-for-speed Monoform, which neither Nakai or Benjamin lived long enough to see). The only way to rescue cinema from the “pursuit of cheap profits” is to connect form to process – at the level of mobilization. How does Watkins begin to achieve this technologically-administered common labor with a prospective audience? In part by making a film not about them so much as with them. Cast members were recruited from non-actor young people living in and around Los Angeles and its suburbs. These people were allowed to base their own improvised dialogue on their personal feelings and experiences[6], all of which dialectically take on an air of poignant unreality when exposed to the diegetic tribunal that has judged them guilty before they have begun to speak.

Because of this new collaborative emphasis, Watkins abandons the Dreyer-like close-ups that hauntingly populated Culloden and The War Game. Such naked appeals to individual emotion are deemed unnecessary if true collectivity has been engaged. It is here that we see the hopeful element in an allegedly “pessimistic” film. The clearing-away of its destructive energy enables preparations for a new creational space – extra-diegetic, as it were. …

[1] Peter Watkins’s articulation of these ideas can be found on excellent website,, which was published as a book in France as The Media Crisis, 2003, and this particular still is taken from a documentary about Watkins, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (dir. Geoff Bowie, 2001, NFB)

[2] See Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, “Constituents of a Theory of the Media,” and Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Media,” The New Media Reader, eds. Wardrip-Fruin and Monfort, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003)

[3] ibid, p.287
[4] Bill Nichols interestingly refers to these moments as showing the camera’s “helpless gaze,” in The War Game, in which it testifies to the camera’s inability to do anything but bear witness, and indeed this tendency becomes very acute in Punishment Park. Nicholds, Representing Reality. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p.83

[5] Walter Benjamin, 1931, “The Destructive Character,” Selected writings: 1931-1934, Volume 2, Part 2. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), p.541

[6] Joseph Gomez, Peter Watkins, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), p.103


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