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Punishment Park


I have discussed the 1971 New Left dystopian film Punishment Park here a bit before. I’ve mentioned that it is a great leftist film and that the wonderful Paul Motian did the soundtrack. And I think I’ve mentioned the plot–that post-Kent State, Nixon has ordered the rounding up of all the nation’s leftists and sent them to prison camps where they are tried by makeshift tribunals of squares and then forced into Punishment Park, a Mojave Desert training course for cops to kill hippies. This is great stuff. Great. And it is on YouTube. Watch it. Watch it now.

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  • Turkle

    This is one of my favorite films of all time. Unbelievable. I just… I can’t think of a film that leaves me more unsettled and raw than this one.

    I have not yet watched his 5-hour (I think) epic on the French Commune, but it’s on the list next time I’m not doing anything for 5 hours?????

    • He did a 5-hour film on the Paris Commune??? OMG, I need to watch that.

      • Hob

        IIRC, both Punishment Park and La Commune were made similarly in that he cast a lot of non-actors chosen partly for their political sympathies, i.e. the people shooting at the hippies were people who thought hippies ought to be shot at.

        I was very excited to finally find La Commune on DVD recently, but I still haven’t made time to watch it, dammit.

  • Kathleen

    Well, this evokes the most terrifying dream I ever had and it was 1970 when I was a college student in Oregon and Ronnie was governor of California.

    In my dream I saw a movie showing dense trees alongside a road. A narrator was was intoning a typical travelogue script(don’t remember what it was) and then a very sinister voice cut in and said, “But we know what they’re really for.” I woke up terrified and could not get back to sleep. I am not a vivid dreamer nor do I have nightmares, but I’ve never forgotten the fear and foreboding I felt when I woke up from that dream 45 years ago, because my thought was the dream referenced camps where people “dangerous” to the state would be put. And “the voice” was so menacing.

    I have never seen this film nor heard of it, but there must have been some heavy mojo in the ethers in 1970-71.

  • This is what Republicans are watching when normal people are watching porn.

    • One person’s dystopia is another’s utopia.

    • There was a Simpsons episode where the Granpa’s dying wish was to go out “listening to Glenn Miller and watching footage of cops beating up hippies”.

  • Buckeye623

    Did I see a cameo appearance by Joe Arpaio.. as himself, 40 years in the future?

    That’s an oddly specific casting choice.

  • MDrew

    Why is it great?

    It sounds like a lazy indulgence of one’s own (a political group’s own, even if it’s nominally our own group’s) received political assumptions and treasured paranoias. Fahrenheit 9/11-ish. (Which wasn’t a terrible film, but still was pretty much those things.) Doesn’t mean it’s not great, but on balance that raises the bar for me.

    So why is it great?

  • petemack

    MDrew: watch the movie. It is the Platonic Ideal of a Vietnam era left wing dystopia flick.

    • LeeEsq

      I’m going to side with MDrew on this. I can not figure out how this is any different from Red Dawn or even more appropriately Evangelical entertainment that presents them as a persecuted minority being terrorized by the liberal, LGBT Hollywood establishment. Even if it is the platonic ideal of leftist dystopian flick from the Vietnam Era, it seems really self-indulgent.

      • rea

        leftist dystopian flick from the Vietnam Era

        Were you around back then? Because they really did kill them some hippies, and were open about their desire to kill more. People hailed the Kent State Guardsmen as heroes.

        • LeeEsq

          Considering that I was born in 1980, no. Listen, I’m not doubting that there were lots of people in 1970 who didn’t like the hippies and some of them possessed malice towards hippies. In a democratic country of about 203 million people there are going to be lots of divergent opinions. Just because you think your on the side of light doesn’t mean that you are or that other people have to agree with you. There lots of people in the United States who hate the Evangelicals right now and Evangelicals believe themselves to be on the side of angels and under siege. This doesn’t make them right or their persecution porn legitimate.

        • LeeEsq

          If it was remotely as bad as the hippies thought it was, there was no way that Punishment Park could get made in the United States or premier at the New York Film Festival.

          • Malaclypse

            Also, Nixon was not actually as bad a Ferris F. Fremont, therefore it is silly to read Radio Free Albemuth.

            All I can say is that I’m disappointed in Loomis, who normally never uses hyperbole.

            • So wait, does this mean that racism during the 50s & 60s wasn’t as bad as people thought it was because news stations showed civil rights protestors being beaten, attacked by police dogs and firehosed, or does this only apply to fiction?

              • Barry_D

                It applies to whatever ‘sensible centrists’ want it to apply to.

                • Origami Isopod

                  Snork. Yep.

              • John F

                No it means that the US wasn’t actually a Fascist country as some claimed (still claim)

                which isn’t to say that thee are no fascists in the US…

          • Why can’t all our entertainments be properly liberal so I can feel good about myself and my nation. Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, that’s the ticket!

          • Thom

            Replying to LeeEsq, I think the point of films like this is to show the logical possibilities of current trends, not to suggest that things were actually that bad already. The state violence and erosion of civil liberties were real, and Nixon wanted to take these things further.

        • Warren Terra

          I’m also from after the era, lacking firsthand knowledge, and I’ll take a middle stance. Imagining organized death camps for hippies is going beyond the plausible, but some hippies were murdered, a lot of non-hippie activists whom the hippies admired were murdered, and a heck of a lot of hippies had the crap beaten out of them, by organized state violence. And those broken skulls and bloodied tie-dyes were in nice civilized places like Chicago and Berkeley, not just down in Mississippi and Louisiana.

          So: yes, hippie death camps is hyperbole. But unlike the Christians’ persecution fantasies, it’s exaggeration of a reality, rather than being pure fantasy by people who actually not only face no oppression but have tremendous power as an organized community. That’s a difference that matters quite a bit.

          • Linnaeus

            Any utopian or dystopian work is going to be exaggerated. That’s part of the formula, but as you say, it doesn’t make them all the same.

      • or even more appropriately Evangelical entertainment that presents them as a persecuted minority being terrorized by the liberal, LGBT Hollywood establishment.

        Mmmm, yes. Because historically big gay Hollywood has had much more power than big loud Christianity. I mean, who can forget how the queer community fought to keep Christianity in the DSM and the way they protested when the Supreme Court decided that church attendance wasn’t a crime? And of course, gay on fundy violence is still a serious problem.


      • joe from Lowell

        Even if it is the platonic ideal of leftist dystopian flick from the Vietnam Era, it seems really self-indulgent.

        Wouldn’t a leftist dystopian move have to be self-indulgent? Wouldn’t that be part of the point?

        Who would want to watch a restrained, responsible hippie dystopia movie?

        • Lee Rudolph

          Who would want to watch a restrained, responsible hippie dystopia movie?

          The Mild Rumblings in the Stomach Games!

          • joe from Lowell

            Logan’s Casual Stroll

            • Origami Isopod

              V for Vaguely Pissy Grudge

              • joe from Lowell

                Planet of the Guys With Kind of a Lot of Hair on Their Arms

                • Origami Isopod

                  Judge Mildly Apprehensive Feeling

        • I demand all my dystopias be restrained and moderate, offending no sensibilities. Also, all my utopias.

          • joe from Lowell

            You sound like you’re a lot of fun at parties.

      • advocatethis

        I think it goes beyond the platonic ideal of a leftist dystopian flick from that era; I think this wasn’t far from the daydreams of a lot of right wingers of the time. I know anecdote isn’t data, but I have a distinct memory of talking to a class mate in 4th or 5th grade (1979-71) where he told me he’d like to line up the hippies against the fence and mow them down. There’s no reason for a nine or ten year old to have such strong feelings, but there’s a better than strong chance that he was repeating dinner table talk from his father, a California Highway Patrol officer. I’d even bet that such talk was pretty common among the father and his coworkers.

      • John F

        I’m going to side with MDrew on this. I can not figure out how this is any different from Red Dawn

        What????? You mean Red Dawn (The original) is not great????

  • chris y

    Peter Watkins is a stone genius who recognised no constraints on his vision. His “docudrama”, Culloden (69 min.) was groundbreaking television 50 years ago and is still worth watching.

    • Barry Freed

      I heartily agree and I was just going to come here and plug Culloden. Also The War Game.

    • Warren Terra

      I’ve never seen his work, but last month BBC Radio 4 aired an hour-long documentary about the making of The War Game and the subsequent government interference that prevented its broadcast. it’s still available, and worth listening to. The part about the BBC bigwigs who’d prevented the film from being broadcast going to a banquet and picking up an award the film had won is priceless (although blocked from the airwaves in Britain, it was shown overseas).

      • The War Game and the subsequent government interference that prevented its broadcast

        The War Game shows policemen killing citizens to preserve law and order. Some things are just beyond the pale, just unthinkable.

        • celticdragonchick

          The recent movie How I Live Now also depicts British police/military atrocities and mass murder against British civilians during a hypothetical 3rd World War.

          Pretty good movie and utterly nightmarish in parts (seeing dead bodies, airplane parts and clothing hanging in trees from a jetliner that crashed after emp effects from a nuke. Amazing visuals)

    • Let me plug his Munch docudrama; also Privilege.

  • Turkle

    I feel obligated to state that contrary to the worries of some posters above, Peter Watkins is an extremely sensitive and nuanced filmmaker, and Punishment Park is not simply a paranoid “they’re killing the hippies” fantasy. I suspect that those criticizing the film on those grounds may not have actually seen it.

    Loomis, I wonder if you have an opinion on Chris Marker? There’s another similarly committed leftist filmmaker, but whose methods and politics remain necessarily more… obscure, I should say. Although rightly lauded for La Jetee, his films like Sans Soleil and Grin Without a Cat are extraordinary.

    • I definitely love Marker, although his work is not always for everyone. I know everyone adores La Jeteé–and for good reason because it’s astounding–but his more overtly political work is pretty amazing as well. Grin Without a Cat is a pretty great introduction into the French left of the 1968 generation, even if I didn’t quite get all the nuances of what was going on.

      And since we are on the topic, also a huge Agnes Varda fan.

      • Turkle

        Wow, just looked up Varda. I somehow completely missed her work, but she is fur sure bumped up to the top of the list. Thanks for the tip.

      • Barry Freed

        Yes, Agnes Varda. She’s been in NYC a lot lately giving talks at screenings of her films.

  • celticdragonchick

    I just finished watching the movie. Jesus. You could change the references on Vietnman to Iraq and update the uniforms and it would work just as well right now.

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