The film for our moment, Punishment Park, was actually made 35 years ago by British filmmaker Peter Watkins (Privilege, The War Game). Watkins’ nightmare scenario of a nation sliding toward totalitarianism captures the divisive tone of our current public debate with a focus and clarity that few today would dare. A direct response to Chicago in 1968 and the Kent State shootings, Punishment Park harvests a chilling paranoid vision from a kernel of truth. Under the Internal Security Act of 1950 (better known as the McCarran Act), the president has the power, in cases of insurrection, to declare an “internal security emergency” and round up and detain anyone he deems a threat. Assuming his trademark mock-documentary style, Watkins plays out a “what if” scenario in which hippies, yippies, Panthers and pacifists are corralled before a secret government tribunal and presented with a fateful choice: a lengthy federal prison sentence or three days in Punishment Park, a no-holds-barred training ground for cops and National Guardsmen hidden away in the harsh, sun-baked scrublands of the California desert. Watkins then cuts from the scalding verbal clashes between Right and Left that break out during the tribunal to those radicals already sentenced to Punishment Park, fighting their way across an arid, unforgiving landscape while being pursued by armed and determined cops. At times, it’s difficult to tell if we’re watching a liberal persecution fantasy or a right winger’s wet dream. Indeed, Watkins has constructed less of a cautionary tale than a piercing exposé of the language of violence always at work beneath the niceties of American democracy. At the end of the line, our great experiment looks a lot like a sustained civil war that, every once in while, shows its true face.
Other recommended new releases:Lila Says (DVD); The Last of England (DVD). VHS/DVD: March of the Penguins. DVD: Confession; Crank Yankers: Season Two, Volume Two; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Complete Fifth Season; Death to the Supermodels; Diplomats & Friends; The English Girls Collection: What’s Good for the Goose, Intimate Games, Love is a Splendid Illusion; Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: Let’s Go; Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: Rock Forever; Loving Couples; Mission Hill: The Complete Series; Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Savage Harvest; Why Change Your Wife?/Miss Lulu Bell.