četvrtak, 1. kolovoza 2013.

Peter Watkins - Culloden (1964) + Punishment Park (1970) + The War Game (1965) + Edward Munch (1973)

Genijalni klasični (antiratni) pseudodokumentarci. U svoje doba zabranjivani na BBC-u.


Culloden (1964) 

cijeli film: 

The pseudo-documentary (docudrama) The Battle of Culloden––made for BBC Television––was the first feature film by the soon to be famous (in somewhat esoteric circles) radical pacifist Peter Watkins (best known for his films Punishment Park and The War Game).  I was so horrifically blown away by his well-known pseudo-documentary, Punishment Park (1971) that I had extremely high hopes when I picked up this earlier effort.
I was not disappointed – The Battle of Culloden is a wonderful experience despite the small number of amateur actors.  This is entirely due to the bizarre decision to place the camera crew in the thick of the action interviewing the participants.  Yes, strange as this anachronistic experience (the battle took place in 1745) might seem, the result is intense, disturbed, brutal, and harrowing.  An unusual feeling creeps up slowly — the camera feels perfectly normal moving among the ranks the Scottish and British armies and into the homes of the massacred victims after the Scottish defeat
Brief Plot Summary (historical background)
The Battle of Culloden was the last pitched battle fought on British soil which ended in a decisive governmental victory over the rag-tag/disorganized Jacobite forces of The Young Pretender (Charles Edward Stuart) in 1746.  Fresh off a series of victories (of an army not under his command) over the governmental forces of George II, The Young Pretender believed that God would give him victory (he also believed that the people will rise up an help him despite the fact that there are more Scotts fighting on king George’s side than his).  Ignoring the advice of one of his generals, The Young Pretender chose an ill-suited battlefield devoid of protection from the superior cavalry of the enemy.  Similarly, he refused to tear down a series of stone walls which eventually hide a British flanking force.  The battle unfolds and the smoke from the cannons obscures much of what is happening.   Charles Edward Stuart––paralyzed with fear since his only previous military experience occurred when he was a teenage during a siege–– hides behind his battle line.
Much of the battle is described by a historian for the British army relaying information to the camera crew as the battle progresses.  Occasionally the camera crew asks various participants questions and soldiers position the dead and dying near them for the camera to see.  The casualties increase and increase….
Final Thoughts
The most powerful moments in this unusual docudrama occur before and after the battle.  Before the battle the camera crews interviews the various simple Scottish and British soldiers, some who have been drafted into the army the previous day, others fighting to revenge their dead brothers in various clan wars and cattle raids, others obeying the command of their lord as they have for hundreds and hundreds of years, others seized from their tenant farms and forced to fight with their young sons…  After the battle, the carnage doesn’t stop — we see the British soldiers massacring civilians.  Peter Watkins maintains an impartial lens throughout.  But, this is not an anti-British Scottish apology piece.  We see war as war was.
If anything, Peter Watkins is de-mystifying one of the great British victories…  We see both the Scottish and British soldiers as humans, as monsters, imprisoned by the greater whims of their leaders both intelligent and imbecilic, men possessed by revenge and misguided patriotism…
Peter Watkin’s trademark cinematic techniques create this unique experience — the voice-overs, the interviews, the grainy images, the black and white hand held cinematography…  This is a remarkable achievement.  His future films hone the technique in creating an even more horrific experience in The War Game, a docudrama on the aftereffects of a nuclear war so disturbingly realistic that it was banned from showing on British (won an Oscar for best documentary).  This is definitely worth watching.  Highly recommended….  Not for the squeamish.

- by Joachim Boaz

Culloden (BBC, tx. 15/12/1964) marked the professional debut of writer/director Peter Watkins, who developed a ground-breaking alliance of documentary technique and vivid dramatic reconstruction.
A detailed study of the 1746 Battle of Culloden and the ensuing brutal suppression of the Highland Scots, Culloden drew much of its analysis and voice-over narration from the history book of the same name by John Prebble, who was credited as historical adviser. Culloden's early section introduced the audience to the battle's famous leaders and forgotten victims alike, documenting the failures of the Highlanders' leadership and poor preparation, before graphically dramatising the battle itself.
Drawing on his portrayals of organised violence and media myth in his earlier amateur short films, Watkins honed his distinctive techniques. He brought the reality of the conflict to a modern audience by using hand-held camerawork and interviews to-camera to record the reactions of non-professional actors, who were instructed to look at and acknowledge the camera, and whose convincing suffering provoked rumours - as with Watkins' later banned The War Game (1965) - of real cruelty. Despite its low budget, Culloden achieved convincing battle scenes by appealing to the imagination of the viewer, cutting quickly between confused events and holding on tight close-ups while sound detailed unseen horrors. The effect was occasionally heightened by devices like juddering the camera as if the cameraman was responding in shock, and freeze-frames of violence which capture the style of photo-reportage.
With these techniques, Watkins challenged documentary conventions, paralleled the filmmaker's view with the presence within the action of a biased observing historian, and showed the deficiencies of mainstream historical drama. He also provocatively questioned national and historical myth - unpicking the romantic picture of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' - and of the British military. However, Culloden was also politically radical on levels beyond its historical setting. It questioned the brutal means by which the British establishment preserved itself and, as an allegorical piece on war and state genocide, had a timeless relevance; indeed, reviewers of Culloden's American debut in 1969 drew from its portrayal of 'pacification' a comment on the Vietnam War.

Watkins' only success in challenging a mass television audience in Britain, Culloden was successful enough to enable him to make The War Game, the project he had first suggested on the nuclear deterrent - with dramatic results. - Dave Rolinson

Not in our name

The War Game had no budget, no hero and was banned by the BBC. Yet it remains a landmark anti-war film. Alex Cox traces the career of its fearless director

The Observer,

I saw Peter Watkins' documentary film Culloden when it was first broadcast on December 15 1964. It was on the new, third channel, BBC2. I watched it with my parents; they didn't let on to being impressed by it, but it disturbed me. After a diet of second world war newsreels recycled into documentaries, and old war features like Reach for the Sky (Douglas Bader loses both legs yet still pilots a Spitfire!), it was the first thing I'd ever seen on television that could be called anti-war. Thanks to the documentary style, the parallels between what the Americans were doing in Vietnam and what the English had done to the Scots were very clear. The Scotswoman telling the camera how the English troops had killed her child stuck in my head and haunted me. I resolved to be a pacifist. It was my 10th birthday.
Culloden was such a brilliant film, such a great and tragic work of art, that it should have got its 28-year-old director immediately fired from the BBC. Somehow, this did not occur. Maybe the BBC didn't know what directors were - Watkins was credited only as writer and producer. More likely he was fortunate, and the head of documentaries, Huw Weldon, stuck up for him. We're lucky Weldon did, because in the space of 18 months Watkins shot a pair of films that changed the nature of what a documentary could be, and that profoundly affected filmed drama. The other film was The War Game
What makes these two films particularly great is the director's perfect use of minimal resources. Culloden and The War Game were only possible, are only conceivable, in black and white - where blood and earth and mud are all the same colour, and the viewer isn't always sure what they've just seen. But Watkins' inventive resourcefulness went way beyond film stock. These were the days before CGI and dinosaur-documentary budgets; there was no possibility of a wide shot or a panorama in either film. So Watkins did the reverse of what one expected: he concentrated on the faces of the people in his story - the clansman, the English soldier, the civil defence official, the relocatee.
Doing this, and filling in the background with a few more extras in costumes, got around the budget issue. But it also did something democratic, even revolutionary: it made the clansmen and the English prison conscripts protagonists. In a traditional war film, heroic individuals (William Holden, Alec Guinness, Peter O'Toole) received the lion's share of close-ups; in Culloden, a landless man had as large a closeup as Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Watkins wanted to draw parallels between Culloden and Vietnam, of course, and to warn of the consequences of nuclear war. But, going far beyond that, he also wanted to oppose the western-heroic-drama structure, with its sole, strong protagonist, and its obvious moral line. In neither film did he try to score points against an obvious antagonist, or to rely on the tedious weight of a conventional villain. As the narrator points out in Culloden, there are thousands of Scottish soldiers in the English ranks, and Prince Charlie is an idiot. As order breaks down in The War Game, the police end up hoarding the last rations of food: how could they keep order, otherwise?
The nearest thing to a villain in either film is the actor playing an Anglican bishop in The War Game, who says (quoting the bishop's words): "I still believe in the war of the just." Watkins cuts straight from this close-up to blurred images of a vehicle, ablaze. "In this car, a family is burning alive," the narrator says. The juxtaposition isn't about nuclear war, any more. It could be a cut straight out of Culloden - or from an anti-war documentary about Iraq.
But there won't be any bold anti-war documentary coming from the BBC; for the same reason, The War Game was banned, and remained unscreenable, for many years. In the past decade, a debate has arisen as to whether this great, passionate, genial film was banned as an act of self-censorship, or on direct orders from Whitehall. Patrick Murphy, Watkins' biographer, writes that the BBC organised "secret screenings ... for senior government representatives" in September 1965, prior to the official ban. He also reports that formerly classified documents relating to the genesis of the ban have been destroyed, so we may never know whether the BBC was leaned on, or whether they leaned on themselves. But these debates don't really matter. The miracle was that Culloden, with its graphic anti-war message ("This is grapeshot. This is what it does") had slipped through the net, and with it, Watkins' original and radical style.
Inevitably, The War Game is technically more proficient and more interesting than Culloden. In less than a year, the young film-maker had got better at his craft, and wanted to try new things. In addition to the extraordinary editing, and the brilliantly choreographed action (both films' action coordinator was Derek Ware), Watkins tried a new technique: the long, hand-held take, in which he followed a motorcycle dispatch rider from his pillion, into a building and up a flight of stairs; or a doctor, in his car, then out of it, without a cut. In a medium endangered by repetitive editing and storytelling, Watkins was pushing down barriers more effectively than any other film-maker.
But, if the jig with the BBC was up, where was he to go from there? Conventionally, a film-maker is supposed to make a work-for-hire feature at this point, then go off to Hollywood. This is more or less what Watkins did. But, equally predictably, it didn't turn out as planned.
Privilege was a rock'n'roll messiah story, originally written by Johnny Speight, which Watkins adapted into his preferred quasi-documentary style. Punishment Park was a more personal project, which Watkins developed for himself and shot in the US in 1970. Like Culloden and The War Game it posited societal breakdown followed by reprisals and police actions, with the war-torn US in the grip of mass arrests and show trials. Again, Watkins filmed his stressed-out characters addressing the camera directly.
In this way, as in the hand-held style of his action sequences, the director Watkins most resembles is Stanley Kubrick, whose war-related films Fear and Desire and Full Metal Jacket also lack a single protagonist, and feature characters speaking directly to the camera. Kubrick and Watkins were alike in other ways, perhaps: both famously resisted the trappings of Hollywood and film festivals; both have a reputation for reclusivity and intelligence. But Kubrick's intelligence led him to daily conversations with studio heads and to a 10-picture deal with Warner Bros. Watkins, more radical, more humanistic, far less politic, now lives in Lithuania, and publishes manifestos via the internet.
Watkins has made 14 films in all, ranging from a 17-minute amateur short to an anti-nuclear documentary, Resan (The Journey), which runs for 14 and a half hours. Of these, only two are "mainstream" features, in the sense of English-language dramas intended to be shown in the cinema; his recent work has been diverse in the extreme, and has received little distribution.
Right now, the British film industry is in a right mess. I'm sure Watkins has been having a great time, making films about Munch and Strindberg with enthusiastic amateurs, and tweaking his website. But, damn it, there's a war on! We need Watkins here. The peace movement needs him, because it's one of the largest national movements in the world, and one of the most ignored. And the nation needs him. Even reactionaries can agree with this, because Britain needs great, fearless film-makers who can see both sides of the question, no matter whom it incenses, and who can make radical, revolutionary films for little money. There are still great film technicians here, dying to work on great films - and I suspect that never since making The War Game has Watkins had the same combination of autonomy and economy that he achieved during that one momentous year.

Maybe the BBC in 1964 was a bureaucratic nightmare, but it also hired bright young men, set them up as full-time, salaried directors, and gave them some of the best technical staff in the world to work with: cameramen like Dick Bush and Peter Bartlett, editors like Michael Bradsell, stunt coordinators like Derek Ware. Their successors sit behind computers now, not just in Soho, but in Bradford, Liverpool, Nottingham, dutifully assembling promos and corporates and stupid reality TV. They hate the formulaic trash that they are paid to deliver. And they would love to work on films like the ones Watkins, Ware, Bradsell and company made. Peter, come home.

THIS WAS the first of my two films made for the BBC. Late in 1962 I was engaged as an assistant producer for its newly established Channel 2, and some eighteen months later, after I had worked as an assistant to the producer Stephen Hearst on several of his documentaries, Huw Wheldon, then Head of the Documentary Film Department, gave me the opportunity and a small budget to produce a film on the Battle of Culloden. The idea for this project had its genesis with friends from ‘Playcraft’ suggesting that I read the excellent study by John Prebble, entitled Culloden - which was to become the main foundation for my film.
The Battle of Culloden, which took place on April 16, 1746, was the last battle fought on British soil. Some months earlier Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonne Prince Charlie’), son of James Edward, the Catholic Pretender to the British throne, had landed in Scotland, raised a ragged but tough-spirited Jacobite army from amongst the Gaelic-speaking Highland clans, and marched as far south as Derby before having to retreat back to the Highlands. He was pursued into Scotland by a powerful force of 9,000 redcoats under the command of William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, strengthened by Protestant Scot Lowlanders and several Highland clans loyal to King George II. Outside Inverness, on the bleak, rain-swept Culloden Moor, nearly 1,000 of Charlie’s army, made up of 5,000 weak and starving Highlanders, were slaughtered by the Royal Army, who lost 50 men. The Highlanders finally broke and fled. Approximately 1,000 more of them were killed in subsequent weeks of hounding by British troops, during what became known as the “rape” of the Highlands, and which led to the destruction of the Gaelic clan culture and to the deportations, known as the ‘Highland Clearances’, during the following century.


This was the 1960s, and the US army was ‘pacifying’ the Vietnam highlands. I wanted to draw a parallel between these events and what had happened in our own UK Highlands two centuries earlier, including because our knowledge of what took place after ‘Culloden’ was basically limited to an exotic image of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ on the label of a Drambuie whiskey bottle. Secondly, I wanted to break through the conventional use of professional actors in historical melodramas, with the comfortable avoidance of reality that these provide, and to use amateurs - ordinary people - in a reconstruction of their own history. Many of the people portraying the Highland army in our film were direct descendants of those who had been killed on the Culloden Moor.


‘Culloden’ was filmed in August 1964, near Inverness, with an all-amateur cast from London and the Scottish Lowlands playing the royalist forces, and people from Inverness in the clan army. With photographer Dick Bush, recordists John Gatland and Hou Hanks, make-up artist Ann Brodie, battle co-ordinator Derek Ware, film editor Michael Bradsell, and with the help of friends and actors from ‘Playcraft’ in Canterbury, we made and edited our film as though it was happening in front of news cameras, and deliberately reminiscent of scenes from Vietnam which were appearing on TV at that time.


‘Culloden’ was first screened by the BBC on December 15, 1964, and - with the possible exception of ‘Edvard Munch’ - remains the only film I have produced which has been broadly accepted in the UK. Its use of amateurs, mobile camera, “you-are-there” style, were seen as a breakthrough for TV documentary, paralleling advances being made at the BBC by Ken Loach, and by Ken Russell and other filmmakers.

‘... an artistic triumph for its maker’ (The Scotsman)
‘One of the bravest documentaries I can remember’ (The Sun)
‘An unforgettable experiment ... new and adventurous in technique’ (The Guardian)
‘... a breakthrough ...’ (The Observer)
‘Almost compulsively viewable’ (The Times)
‘... it worked brilliantly ...’ (Daily Mail)
‘... a sadistic and revolting programme’ (Birmingham Evening Mail)
‘The result was so unexpectedly convincing it gave me quite a shock. I have no hesitation in raving about it, even to the extent of muttering: breakthrough.’ (Observer Weekend Review) 

The War Game [1965]


BY LATE 1964 Harold Wilson’s newly elected Labour Government had already broken its election manifesto to unilaterally disarm Britain, and was in fact developing a full-scale nuclear weapons programme, in spite of wide-spread public protest. There was a marked reluctance by the British TV at the time to discuss the arms race, and there was especially silence on the effects of nuclear weapons - about which the large majority of the public had absolutely no information. I therefore proposed to the BBC that - using one small corner of Kent in southeastern England to represent a microcosm - I make a film showing the possible effects, during an outbreak of war between NATO and the USSR, of a nuclear strike on Britain.
At that precise moment the BBC was undergoing a power struggle, a ‘night of the long knives’ - someone very senior had been fired, someone else had quit in support, and Huw Wheldon was pushed two notches up the Corporation’s hierarchical ladder to the position of Controller of BBC 2. He was no longer the Head of the Documentary Film Department, and, at the worst possible time, his personal backing was suddenly gone. The BBC read the script of ‘The War Game’, reluctantly agreed to give me a budget, but warned that the film might not be completed. This warning was a result of the British Home Office (in charge of Civil Defence, into which the government was pouring great amounts of money and propaganda) having telephoned the BBC to inquire why I was making a film on this subject. As part of my research, I had sent a letter to the Home Office inquiring how many hospital beds, etc. the Civil Defence would be able to provide following an all-out nuclear strike on the UK, and this had naturally prompted their query to the BBC.


The filming took place in early 1965, in the Kent towns of Tonsbridge, Gravesend, Chatham and Dover. Once again the cast was almost entirely made up of amateurs, found via a series of public meetings throughout Kent some months earlier. Much of the filming, including the scenes of the firestorm, was done in a disused military barracks in Dover. The crew included cinematographer Peter Bartlett, sound recordist Derek Williams, make-up artist Lilian Munro, action co-ordinator Derek Ware, set designers Tony Cornell and Anne Davey, costumer Vanessa Clarke, and editor Michael Bradsell. I repeated the “you-are-there” style of newsreel immediacy. My purpose, as in ‘Culloden’, was to involve ‘ordinary people’ in an extended study of their own history - only this time the subject involved potentially imminent events, for the threat of full-scale nuclear war was a very real one at that time. There was, however, an important stylistic difference in this film. Interwoven among scenes of ‘reality’ were stylized interviews with a series of ‘establishment figures’ - an Anglican Bishop, a nuclear strategist, etc. The outrageous statements by some of these people (including the Bishop) - in favour of nuclear weapons, even nuclear war - were actually based on genuine quotations. Other interviews with a doctor, a psychiatrist, etc. were more sobre, and gave details of the effects of nuclear weapons on the human body and mind. In this film I was interested in breaking the illusion of media-produced ‘reality’. My question was - “Where is ‘reality’? ... in the madness of statements by these artificially-lit establishment figures quoting the official doctrine of the day, or in the madness of the staged and fictional scenes from the rest of my film, which presented the consequences of their utterances?”- and to that end I consistently inter-cut said interviews. Obviously beyond and above the question of form was my concern to use the film to help people break the silence in the media on the nuclear arms race.


The BBC panicked when they first saw the film, and sought government consultation re showing it. They subsequently denied this, but the sad fact remains that the BBC violated their own Charter of Independence, and on September 24, 1965, secretly showed ‘The War Game’ to senior members of the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Post Office (in charge of telecommunications), a representative of the Military Chiefs of Staff, and Sir Burke Trend, Secretary to Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. Approximately six weeks later, the BBC announced that they were not going to broadcast the film on TV - and denied that their decision had anything to do with the secret screening to the government. To this day, the BBC formally deny that the banning of ‘The War Game’ was due to pressure by the government, but a review of now available documents reveals that there was (is) much more to this affair than was admitted publicly.


What is even less known publicly, are the measures the BBC then took to marginalize me as a filmmaker, both within and outside my profession. At the height of the scandal, with questions being asked in Parliament re whether the Government had in fact pressured the independent TV company, many of the public wrote to the BBC asking them to show the film. In December 1965, two days before Christmas, the BBC took the unprecedented step of publishing an open letter to the public, the first paragraph of which implied that ‘The War Game’ had been banned as an artistic failure! Their exact - and very sneaky words - were as follows: “There was an element of experiment in this project, as in much broadcast production. Such programme experiments sometimes fail and have to be put on one side at some stage in production, even though money has been spent on them. They are, nevertheless, a necessary part of the development of broadcasting, and such failures as may occur are the price we must expect to pay if new forms and subjects are to be brought within the compass of television.” (The startling hypocrisy of this statement was highlighted by the BBC’s eagerness a few months later to collect the Academy Award for Best Documentary - for ‘The War Game’.)
At about the same time, the BBC further attempted to deliberately blacken my name: the BBC evening news announced that I had deliberately used trip wires hidden in the heather to make my actors fall during the filming of ‘Culloden’ [!!] I believe that the context was that of an accusation by ‘Equity’, the British actors’ union (who were angry that I had used non-professional actors). This accusation was stated in solemn tones by the BBC news reader, in the midst of other world-news items. There was no attempt by the BBC itself to refute this accusation. I immediately called the newsroom, and asked if they had verified these facts by checking with the cast in Scotland? There was dead silence. I then told the senior news producer that if the BBC did not immediately retract this lie, I would come down the following day and dismantle the TV Centre, brick by brick. The BBC announced a retraction the following evening.
These episodes expose the primitive and almost desperate extent to which TV organizations will go to defend their hierarchical power regarding what the public sees. Specifically - including in respect to what later happened with ‘Edvard Munch’ and ‘La Commune’ - the usage of the rationale of ‘artistic failure’, which TV organizations are fully prepared to use in order to suppress or marginalize films which they do not want the public to see. This has been a recurring motif in the suppression of my own work. In the words of one senior official who was explaining to me in the autumn of 1965 how difficult it was for the BBC to show ‘The War Game’: “Let’s face it, Peter, your film is less than a masterpiece ...” - the identical ‘logic’ used by La Sept ARTE in France, to suppress ‘La Commune’ in 2000.
Following their decision to ban ‘The War Game’, and despite - or perhaps because of - growing public outcry, the BBC organized a series of private screenings at the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre during a week in February, 1966. Invited to see the film were carefully selected representatives of the British Establishment, members of the armed forces and Civil Defence, parliamentarians, and defence and military affairs correspondents; film journalists were not allowed into the cinema. Also not allowed were the public, who were denied entry by a phalanx of BBC security guards standing elbow to elbow in a long line in front of the cinema. The BBC undoubtedly hoped to use these unabashedly elitist screenings in order to consolidate its decision to ban ‘The War Game’, by gaining the approval of its colleagues in the Establishment. Evidently this they did - even among sufficient numbers of the press. Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, Director General of the BBC, subsequently rejected a request by Mrs. Renee Short (Labour Member of Parliament), that the BBC should arrange a public screening of the film, on the grounds that the weight of press opinion was against the public showing of ‘The War Game’. I also read a letter from Hugh Greene (which I presumably should not have seen) confirming that their intention was to banish the film to a vault after the screenings at the NFT; I recall a phrase to the effect that, “we will have fulfilled our obligation to show the film”.


The role of the British press in this affair was very mixed, with military and defence journalists condemning ‘The War Game’ for its ‘ban-the-Bomb propaganda’, and a number of film and TV journalists stating that the film should be shown. Some journalists wrote that the film should be seen as widely as possible, others that it should be seen only in controlled circumstances such as private film societies, and others that it should be suppressed altogether. Overall, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene was right about the weight of press opinion: The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Sketch, Sun and London evening papers all supported the ban, and although the Sunday papers brought the percentage in favour of the BBC down, the clear majority of the mainstream press were for suppressing ‘The War Game’.
‘YES, THE BBC ARE RIGHT TO BAN THIS .... the only possible effect of showing it to the British public at large would be ... to raise more unilateral disarmament recruits.’ (Defence Correspondent, Evening News)
‘BRILLIANT. BUT IT MUST STAY BANNED. It is a brilliant film, a brutal film. But I would never let any son of mine see it ... I object to this film because it is propagandistic and negative in its approach, politically calculated in its effect. What producer Peter Watkins has made here is not a film about The Bomb, but a plea to ban it ... It excluded hope. In that I judge it to be irresponsible. It excluded any reasoned argument on why we must have The Bomb. The powers-that-be have the right to censor ‘The War Game’, for it is a game to be played seriously and responsibly. It is better left to the powers-that-be than to Mr. Peter Watkins.’ (Daily Sketch)
‘WHAT DOES IT REALLY ACHIEVE? It is hard to argue with Mr. Watkins’ appalling predictions. Nobody can accuse him of exaggerating the effects of nuclear war. Nuclear war cannot be exaggerated. Perhaps he cannot even be accused of hysteria. Nuclear war may entitle him to hysteria. But throughout ‘The War Game’ there is not a glimmer of human resilience. And humans are incredibly, wonderfully resilient ... All ‘The War Game’ has to offer is a screen of protest and blame. Not an opportunity is missed for a sneer at the Civil Defence or the Church.’ (The Sun)
‘MUDDLE-MINDED MR. WATKINS. This monstrous misrepresentation so accurately mirrors the claims of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that it is a mystery how the BBC was induced to put up 10,000 pounds to make the film, which could more accurately be called ‘The C.N.D. Game.’ (Daily Express)
‘ONE BAN THE BBC NEED NOT HAVE DEFENDED ... the real horror is the stark documentary quality of the film. It reproduces with sickening realism charred limbs, crushed faces and eyes melting in their sockets. This, as the BBC rightly decided, could not have been borne by the millions of viewers sitting at home.’ (Daily Mirror)
‘The film is the most sickening in the world today and one the public should never see.’ (Manchester Evening News)
‘The BBC is failing in its duty in keeping it from the public ... packed with things people have forgotten or not bothered to read.’ (Leicester Mercury)
‘Shocking ... leaves the impression of sadness and madness.’ (Oxford Mail)
‘Horrifying, but so also would be a nuclear war.’ (Evening Mail, Birmingham)
‘THIS FILM MUST BE SHOWN ... No wonder the Establishment wants to stop the film being widely shown. If several million people saw it, the campaign for the banning of nuclear weapons would receive an enormous impetus.’ (The Daily Worker)
‘A WARNING MASTERPIECE. It may be the most important film ever made. We are always being told that works of art cannot change the course of history. Given wide enough discrimination, I believe this one might ...‘The War Game’ stirred me at a level deeper than panic or grief ... It precisely communicates one man’s vision of disaster, and I cannot think that it is diminished as art because the vision happens to correspond with the facts. Like Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’, it proposes itself as an authentic documentary image of the wrath to come - though Michelangelo was working from data less capable of verification.’ (Film and theatre critic, The Observer) - http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/warGame.htm


Punishment park (1971) 


Punishment Park

Punishment Park
One of the benefits of the so-called DVD revolution is the chance it gives obscure films like Punishment Park to be seen. When it was initially released in 1971, this reactionary powder keg of a movie was completely marginalized by timid distributors, never given an opportunity to screen on television, and forced into the underground. The only way to hear of it was through scholarly texts by academics who were able to track down the few circulating film prints, and if director Peter Watkins hadn't already gained some level of acclaim and notoriety for The War Game, his pseudo-documentary depiction of nuclear war, it's quite likely Punishment Park would have been buried so deep by an indifferent distribution system that it would have been altogether forgotten.
Thankfully, New Yorker Video in conjunction with Project X Distribution has found a way to make this and other Watkins films available. What's curious is how a 1970s allegorical fable about authority and dissent that plays against the backdrop of the Nixon administration's escalation of the Vietnam War still feels strong, provocative, and necessary. The federal authorities in Punishment Park have detained certain individuals deemed to be a threat to internal security. These anti-establishment hippies and draft-dodgers are put before a tribunal that passes out their lengthy prison sentences, with the option of a full pardon if they participate in a law enforcement training exercise called Punishment Park.
The dissidents are required to cross a desert terrain under brutal conditions, with rising temperatures and military and police teams aggressively pursuing them. Those that make it through the course without being captured by the authority figures will arrive at an American flag and receive their pardon. However, the soldiers and police, which are purportedly not to interfere with the progress of the dissidents, use unnecessary brutality and force to take down the hippie contingent. The rising temperatures and so-called righteousness of law and order lead to a savage violence that's familiar from the history books: Kent State comes immediately to mind. But so does Rodney King, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and Homeland Security. One of the members of the tribunal judging Punishment Park candidates is part of a housewife organization called The Silent Majority for a Unified America. Anyone who thinks this is a fanciful science fiction trope must not be paying attention.
I had read about Punishment Park in various film magazines over the years, and always wondered whether its old-fashioned lefty politics would hold up. But in watching the film, the left is represented by hippies standing in front of the tribunal getting pissed off at the unfair line of questions being thrown at them by the powers that be. None of the characters are particularly articulate about their political beliefs. Placed in a situation of extreme stress, surrounded by armed guards who have no qualms cuffing and gagging undesirables, its unlikely anyone would be able to muster up much in the way of debate. But the audience isn't given a good mouthpiece even if they're left-wingers. Charles Robbins, the character based on Chicago Seven radical Bobby Seale, shouts at the tribunal, "You are a lying sucker! You're lying to the camera! You're lying to your mama! You're lying to everybody! Every time I hear you open up your mouth, all I hear is oink, you pig!" Hardly a cogent political view, but the scene has power not because Watkins uses Robbins as a mouthpiece for his ideals, but because Robbins is immediately detained and gagged like an animal.
Nobody deserves cruelty, and these characters are getting it because they believe in a different way of life for themselves. They are unable to say what they want, or really come up with any practical suggestions for their utopian ideals. This creates discomfort for any viewer hoping to have their idealism purged through left-wing wisdom. There is none at hand. Instead, the clearer voice articulated is that of force: police attack dogs, billy clubs, and an above-the-law sense of propriety. If order is to be preserved at all costs, that means a few skulls might get cracked along the way.
Punishment Park is told in the pseudo-documentary style that defines most of the British Watkins's obscure body of work. This particular film is told as if a spare BBC crew was following the action of the corrective group enduring Punishment Park, the tribunal evaluation of a separate corrective group, and the police and National Guard that follow the pacifists and militants and occasionally swoop down on them with violence. It is shot using handheld 16mm cameras, with a narrator (Watkins himself) at first relaying just the facts: the weather conditions, the names of various individuals the camera focuses on, and a rudimentary, bare-bones backstory.
But as tension increases and the action becomes more and more hostile, leading to beatings and eventually senseless killing, the off-screen narrator drops any pretense of journalistic objectivity. "We've seen this! We've seen this!" he screams hysterically after witnessing a killing and getting it all on tape. What's more chilling is the indifferent reaction of Sheriff Edwards (Jim Bohan), the main figure of police authority during the film. "I've been on film before, that doesn't make a bit of difference to me," he drawls. One might think this is a stretch for the movie, but as journalist Joseph Gomez points out in his Punishment Park essay from his 1979 book on Watkins, the crowd chanted, "The whole world is watching!" during the brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The police didn't seem to care that the cameras were filming their "clubbing of young and old alike" then either.
That hasn't stopped perverse U.S. troops from videotaping acts of torture to detainees. What might have seemed a little outrageous in 1971 seems old hat now, but hopefully is no less horrifying to DVD watchers. We've been bombarded by so many horrifying real-life images that one wonders if a recreation of it in a pseudo-documentary will have any effect on our now-hardened, cynical sensibilities. Even so, Punishment Park has a bleak optimism to it; the BBC journalist played by Watkins does have a reaction to what's happening before him, much the same way journalists actually went out of their way to show the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the ineptitude of the Bush Administration. (This only lasted a day or two before caving in to the usual toadyism of the corporate-owned networks.) In that sense, Punishment Park remains a breath of chilling fresh air. Looking back on history reminds us of the differences and similarities between then and now, and Watkins serves up a time capsule from 1971 that, in a historical context, shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is not a documentary serving up fact (and some could argue it shows the falseness of documentary filmmaking); it is an extreme, incendiary allegory stirring up deeper truths.

1970. THE WAR in Vietnam is escalating. President Nixon has decided on a secret bombing campaign of Cambodia. There is massive public protest in the United States and elsewhere. Nixon declares a state of national emergency, and - we presuppose in the film - activates the 1950 Internal Security Act (the McCarran Act), which authorizes Federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons judged to be “a risk to internal security”.
In a desert zone in southwestern California, not far from the tents where a civilian tribunal are passing sentence on Group 638, Group 637 (mostly university students) find themselves in the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, and discover the rules of the ‘game’ they are forced to undergo as part of the alternative they have chosen in lieu of confinement in a penitentiary. Group 637 have been promised liberty if they evade pursuing law enforcement officers and reach the American flag posted 53 miles away across the mountains, within three days. Meanwhile, in the tribunal tent, Group 638 - assumed guilty before tried - endeavour in vain to argue their case for resisting the war in Vietnam. While they argue, amidst harassment by the members of the tribunal, the exhausted Group 637 - dehydrated by exposure to temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit - have voted to split into three subgroups: those for a forced escape out of the Park, those who have given up, and those who are determined to reach the flag ...


‘Punishment Park’ was filmed in August 1970, in the San Bernadino desert, about 100 kms from Los Angeles. The cast, as usual, was a mix of mainly non-professional and young professional actors, mostly from Los Angeles and environs. The members of the tribunal were all portrayed by citizens of Los Angeles - a trade union officer, a dentist, a housewife ... Producer - Susan Martin; principal camera operator - Joan Churchill; sound recordist - Mike Moore; set director - David Hancock; editors - Peter Watkins and Terry Hodel; percussion music by Paul Motian.


After a screening at the Cannes Film Festival, May 1971, from a review by a French critic for the American journal The Village Voice : ‘The rigorous way in which Watkins has worked this out is extraordinarily believable, and it is impossible to emerge from his 90 minutes of psychodrama unbruised. The considerable gut reactions Watkins’ films provoke may partially explain the extent to which they are despised and ignored ... But if the hopelessness of Watkins’ vision increases with each film, his technical brilliance has been sharpening to contain this rage, and the distance he has traveled since ‘Privilege’ is a phenomenon that American audiences deserve to see.’
After the New York Film Festival, October, 1971 : ‘Peter Watkins’ ‘Punishment Park’ is a movie of such blunt, wrong-headed sincerity that you’re likely to sit through the first 10 hysterical minutes of it before realizing that it is, essentially, the wish-fulfilling dream of a masochist.’ (The New York Times)
From a review by the same critic in a later issue of The New York Times:
‘... an extravagantly paranoid view of what might happen in America within the next five years ... Because all literature, including futuristic nonsense like this, represents someone’s wish-fulfilling dream, I can’t help but suspect that Watkins’ cautionary fable is really a wildly sincere desire to find his own ultimate punishment.’
‘Peter Watkins’ film is a cinema verite masterpiece of technique. Utilizing non-professional actors, only one camera, and an almost totally improvised script, he’s come up with one of the finest films about dissension in America that’s been made in a long time. It’s not perfect, though. The characters have a nasty habit of becoming caricatures of people we know. Shadows of Judge Julius Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Pat Nixon, Spiro (Agnew), Dick Gregory - all can be found in the film.’ (Rolling Stone - which voted ‘Punishment Park’ one of the 10 Best Films of 1971)
‘Haters can have a field day with ‘Punishment Park’, the most offensive of the recent festival films I have seen to date ... The British director ... undoubtedly doesn’t realize ... that he is permitted to make and show here (a film) that declares the United States a totally fascist state ... His achievement, of course, is in making a 90-minute film in the course of which no one voices an original or positive thought.’ (New York Magazine)
‘Peter Watkins ... seems to have permanent “controversial” status ... Many critics dismiss him as a paranoid, which is rather irresponsible; a glance at any newspaper is enough to make anyone paranoid, and Watkins may in fact be our greatest realist. It is not his perception of dangers but his way of presenting them that is objectionable ... His films work as hysterical exploitation instead of serious exploration ...
Interestingly, this critic goes on to end his review thus:
... Among many terrifying confrontations, I remember especially the one between a 19-year-old female folksinger and a woman who represents a silent majority group ... During their moment of intense anger, as they shout at each across the room, the film expresses exactly what is happening in this country.’ (The Village Voice)
‘It is a devastating indictment, a paralyzing drama and a chilling prognosis. It is unquestionably a polemic but I’m not at all sure that it is loaded ... Through the sounds ... the cutting, the photography, the acting ... Watkins has created a profoundly disturbing motion picture.’ (San Francisco Chronicle)
‘... a political fantasy that reduces complex problems to clichés ... Seldom has the cause of peace and freedom been served so mindlessly.’ (Playboy)
‘It is not only bad cinema and bad group encounter, it is evil, if that word has any meaning left at all. It is the pornography of hate ... I wonder how much violence and bad fucking the screening generated that night ... as an American I found the film hugely depressing, not merely because it rather accurately reflects some of the worst aspects of life in this country, but because it exaggerates those aspects, not simply on the screen, but in the psyches of those Americans who see it. As such, it becomes part of the problem.’ (The Staff)

Aftermath: USA

‘Punishment Park’ was released in the Murray Hill Cinema in an out-of-the-way part of Manhattan, New York City, and already it was clear that the US distributor was not going to properly handle the film. It remains unclear whether the cinema owner (or the distributor) was affected by the hostile critics, or whether the Federal authorities issued threats. In any case, ‘Punishment Park’ was withdrawn from the cinema after only four days. Since then, ‘Punishment Park’ has rarely been shown in the US, and never on TV. A representative of a main Hollywood studio which could have released ‘Punishment Park’ was quoted as saying something to the effect that, “We could never show this film, we would have the Sheriff’s office [or perhaps ‘the Federal authorities’ - PW] on our necks in five minutes.” Participants at a seminar for TV producers from 24 Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations across the US all swore that they could never, and would never show a film like this on American TV. And so they haven’t.

Aftermath: Britain

Reviews after ‘Punishment Park’ opened in London in February 1972 were somewhat more mixed :
‘One recognises his sincerity on the theme of contemporary society; it would be absurd to expect him to stifle his anger ... He is a real film-maker. I just think he ought to keep a cooler head, that’s all.’ (The Sunday Times)
‘This is a thoughtful and sincere film and any thinking person should go and see it. Its faults are exactly those which Watkins, in an open letter to the Press, denies. It is hysterical and obsessed, but faced with the way things are going, it would be odd, given his concerned and committed temperament, if it were not.’ (The Observer)
‘The exact reasons for its strength are hard to pin down, but I think it works even for people quite out of sympathy with what it is saying or implying ... What is so good here is that the filmmakers are strongly against the tribunal, but its characters are not caricatured ... In short, as I say, hypnotically gripping. Not even the most disapproving Establishment people could fail to find it so.’ (Punch)
‘Peter Watkins ... has gone to Southern California for his fierce and frightening new film ... A few years ago we might have dismissed the film as the figment of a crazed imagination. Today its documentary overtones are all too horribly real.’ (Daily Mail)
‘Peter Watkins, a sincere, honest and talented filmmaker who wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve that one almost weeps for him, since there are so few romantics left.’ (The Guardian)
A review of ‘Punishment Park’ and ‘Fortune and Men’s Eyes’ : ‘... is sincerity a virtue when the eyes of both directors are hooded inthe blinkers of their own extreme sickness? ... Propagandist Peter Watkins is left hopelessly adrift in his own hopeless mind.’ (The Sun)
‘Mr. Watkins is a clever filmmaker. The events he describes are more than likely within our lifetime. But he is his own worst enemy. There is a hysterical stridency of tone that somehow, bafflingly, destroys all conviction.’ (The Listener)
‘Punishment Park’ is an angry allegory whose passion is too hot for its own good. Directed by Peter Watkins, a man of great talent who is exhausting himself by continually imagining there exists a Media Mafia which is out to spite him and suppress his films, it exemplifies how the artist’s own sense of persecution sometimes rubs off fatally on his subject ... The film ends with the voice of the camera director ... screaming shrilly: “You wait till you see yourselves on television.” It is too like the petulance of the small boy who screams out: “You wait till I put my Big Brother on you.” (Evening Standard)
‘... I welcome unreservedly Peter Watkins’ bold and imaginative determination to present the most burning and far-reaching issues of today in dynamic screen form. It’s timely to remind those who sneered at his brilliant film ‘Privilege’ that, in view of the new situation (Cliff Richard and the Festival of Light), his prophecies have turned out to be accurate in detail as well as in spirit.’ (Morning Star)
‘It’s a stark, uncompromising, brilliant film. Watkins has discovered in present-day America an extreme situation which can carry on the paranoid, hysterical nature of his vision, where ‘Privilege’ was merely preposterous in its British setting ... an important cinematic statement which ought to be widely shown. It will not be; see it now.” (The Scotsman)
‘Punishment Park’ is a film guaranteed to induce paranoia. Which is not to imply that Watkins’ film is itself paranoid - a charge that has been unjustly levelled at most of his work. ‘The War Game’ completely freaked the BBC, but was generally praised by the critics (perhaps too much so) and reached a wide audience. In ‘Privilege’ and ‘The Gladiators’, Watkins further refined his own peculiar band of ‘speculative documentary’, to be attacked by the press and ignored by the public. ‘Punishment Park’ comes close to perfection as a piece of filmmaking, it is Watkins’ most convincing (and therefore most frightening) film to date ... Yet ‘Punishment Park’ has already been attacked by both the Left and Right, while even those sympathetic to the film have denounced Watkins for his claim that he is not concerned with politics. Peter Watkins is becoming the nearest thing in cinema to Bob Dylan. If Watkins claims that his work is neither of the Left nor of the Right, it is because he is more concerned with the insanity of the games we are playing than with the side we wish to play on.’ (Frendz)
‘Watkins, carried away hopelessly by his own bigotry, will find this film, like his others, kept from the public’s gaze in most countries, including the States and Britain, and this is a bit of repression I am for. It shouldn’t be allowed to encourage impressionable adolescents - who are convinced they are God’s gift to an ailing society.’ (Edinburgh Evening News)
‘The film refuses to allow itself to function as a political safety valve, as so many superficially concerned fiction films do, depicting wrongs and their righting simply to ease our collective consciences ... It is crucially important for the viability of any kind of filmmaking that has its base outside of mass consensus communications that films like this one survive financially in sufficient numbers to keep the door open for others. And when you look around at the kind of propaganda decorating your local (cinema), you can’t help believe that Watkins’ film can be effective and that it is easily the most subversive film to show for a long time. It is important that we think about it.’(Time Out)
[Given the sympathetic direction of this last review, it is sad to note that the same magazine had a major publication, The Time Out Film Guide, in British bookstores for 10-15 years (perhaps still does) which included the following passage from a review of ‘Culloden’: ‘... his oeuvre may be characterised as a progression from a polemical hysteria towards formal paranoia ...’]
‘The artful documentary form [of ‘Punishment Park’] works against itself: it is impossible to forget that it is not strictly true, and the camera’s supposed impartiality not only has the familiar distancing effect of television but the doubly dissociating one of being faked. Watkins’ brand of documentary fiction seem to be quite the wrong medium for its message: intention, form and content are perpetually at odds with one another, so that - as so frequently happens in television - events and emotions appear to be not real but created and synthetic; which is, of course, what they are, but not, presumably, what they were intended to be ... There can be no doubting Peter Watkins’ energy, skill and sincerity, but because the problems that arise from his television-oriented method are never resolved, the product of his talents looks disturbingly like bread and circuses for the left.’ (BFI Monthly Film Bulletin)

Aftermath: France

‘Punishment Park’ was released in France at the same time as in England, at the beginning of the 1970s. And I seem to recall that the critics were generally very positive. Later, in 1997, ‘Punishment Park’ was acquired by Loch Ness (see below) who re-released the film in March in France the following year, following the striking of new copies and a revised English subtitling. Here is a brief selection of articles which appeared in the French press on this occasion:
'To find tracks of Peter Watkins in a dictionary or an history of cinema you might as well hire a private detective. His works remain hidden, or forbidden, in most cases… ‘Punishment Park’, which is now available for the audience, more than twenty years after its first screening …reveals what was -and still is - carefully hidden behind Mickey mouse’s big smile … A tale in which Walt Disney would have put his anti-Communist and anti-Semitic opinions into practice, and turned his gigantic leisure parks into concentration camps … ‘Punishment Park’ is also a great lesson of cinematography, excluding any kind of didactic attempt. Presumably, the only park that is worth a detour '. (Le Monde)
'Peter Watkins’ ‘Punishment Park’ (1971) is a very powerful and impressive political documentary-fiction …the radicals as well as their judges, being non-professionnal actors, were asked by Watkins to express their own political views … The TV-like filming process being very effective to capture this unpredictable verbal experience, especially in the tribunal scenes, where everybody is trying to convince the other. And this exploration of rhetorical polarization reveals the contradictions of an America in confrontation '. (Les Cahiers du Cinema)
'Peter Watkins is the last of ‘the angry young men’ to have preserved his furious insolence '. (Télérama)
'A rebel and a filmmaker whose brilliance and original vision guarantee him to remain unique in the history of film, Watkins is catching everybody. In 1971, it was frightening. Today it still is '. (Le Nouvel Observateur)

Article by Scott MacDonald

In 1979 an important article on ‘Punishment Park’ appeared in the American film press - in ‘Film Criticism’, Edinboro, Pa, USA, spring 1979. Scott MacDonald, an American film teacher and historian, who has specialized in documenting the work of major alternative American filmmakers, and has a number of important books to his credit, wrote about ‘Punishment Park’, Larry Gottheim's ‘Horizons’, J. J. Murphy's ‘Print Generation’, and Anthony McCall's ‘Line Describing a Cone’ :-

‘A careful examination of many recent films, in fact, makes clear that there is even a danger in our traditional attempts to force viewers to respond in a single fashion, for a number of important filmmakers have taken the potential variety of audience response into account and have created films which cannot be fully understood or appreciated without the alteration or elimination of "ideal" audience habits. Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park, Larry Gottheim's Horizons, J. J. Murphy's Print Generation, Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone, and other films require new audiences made up of individuals who cannot be satisfied simply to sit quietly, who must develop and activate themselves before any meaningful response to the filmmakers' efforts is possible.
I have seen a great many audiences respond to Watkins' Punishment Park, and few films of my acquaintance have provoked such emotional reactions in viewers with such consistency. Made in 1970, Punishment Park attempted to dramatize the essential polarities underlying American political and social life which had been revealed by the events of the late sixties. The film takes place in the future in a hypothetical camp for radical political activists where the federal government is attempting to kill two birds with one stone: to eliminate political opposition to governmental policies and to train police and national guardsmen to handle future active resistance to these policies. During the film Watkins develops a complex strategy of intercutting in order to reveal events taking place in a tribunal where one group of radicals is "tried", found guilty, and given the "option" of several years in a federal penitentiary or a few days in Punishment Park, and events taking place out in Punishment Park itself, where those radicals sentenced during a previous trial are given three days to reach an American flag set up on a hill some fifty miles across the California desert. Throughout the film Watkins is unrelenting in his revelation of the hysterical charges and counter-charges being made in the tribunal (some of them directly inspired by the trial of the Chicago Seven) and of the brutality with which the police track down those in Punishment Park in order to kill them or return them to federal prison.
Despite the obvious power and effectiveness of Punishment Park, nearly every audience I have been in has felt extremely uncomfortable during and after the film, and many individuals have expressed considerable hostility. When questioned about their objections, those who are hostile to the film generally contend that Watkins' characters are "shallow," his plot "simplistic," and his reading of the American political situation "hysterical" and "paranoid." In part these charges result from the film's obvious failure to conform to what most audiences expect of a film-viewing experience. Not only is Punishment Park a political film - a genre generally unpopular with Americans - but unlike more popular political films such as All the President's Men and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Punishment Park fails to provide handsome heroes and heroines with whom members of the audience can comfortably identify. Further, Watkins refuses to resolve the painful events taking place so as to restore order before the audience leaves the theater. Nothing is solved by the characters' stay in Punishment Park or by the trial. When a few trusting souls actually do get across the desert to the hill with the American flag, they are brutally beaten by national guardsmen; and all those found guilty at the tribunal choose to go to Punishment Park where the same events seem sure to occur all over again. The film, in other words, almost inevitably leaves the audience dissatisfied. The most fundamental contributor to the widespread audience dissatisfaction with Punishment Park, however, is the fact that, like so many of Watkins' films, Punishment Park loses a great deal of its effectiveness when it is presented in a standard theater situation where the audience arrives for the screening and leaves as soon as it is over. As far as Watkins is concerned, Punishment Park is first and foremost an attempt to create an on-going discussion of the issues raised in the film. It is only when viewed in this context that Punishment Park can be recognized as the fine film it is, for when a screening is followed by a discussion, a fascinating thing frequently happens. Certain specific questions are usually asked, and a certain kind of interaction begins to take place as a result of the questions. Probably the most frequent question is, "Are there really such places as punishment parks?". Generally, the questioner is fairly sure there are not, but needs to be reassured. Almost inevitably, someone else will say something like, "No, of course, there aren't", a third person - sometimes a member of a minority group - will jump in to say, "What the hell do you mean by ‘of course'?", and a heated argument about whether America is or is not a good place to live, and why, will be underway. In other words, when the film is followed by a discussion, the audience tends to break down into exactly the polarized divisions presented in the film; if the discussion is allowed to continue, one begins to hear the arguments enacted in Punishment Park all over again. It doesn't take long to recognize that if the people in Watkins' film are shallow, that's because Americans are, in fact, rather shallow in their political thinking.
Once group discussion has validated the film's presentation of an essential polarity of political thinking in America and of the inability of Americans to effectively resolve their basic differences, Watkins' film can be recognized as a good deal more successful than we might like to believe. True, not all of us are at all times as openly and violently polarized as the people in the film, but that's because we are not generally faced with direct attacks on our thinking or with situations of tension and danger. During those periods when we are under attack, most of us tend to respond just like the characters in the film, all of whom, it's worth remembering, were enacted by non-professionals placed in situations of stress by Watkins, who knew that by confronting average people with ideological attacks he could reveal their true feelings. That the interplay of these characters and viewpoints produces no effective results reflects the fact that we have not resolved our conflicts as to how we should function as citizens in our complex society.
Perhaps the most frequent American objection to Punishment Park involves the feeling that Watkins is not optimistic enough. Ironically, however, Watkins' solution to the problems he reveals is implicit in his handling of those in the film and those who watch it. He clearly feels that we must begin to talk out our problems and face the inadequacy of the kinds of thinking we tend to bring to them. If we cannot do this during periods when we are not directly pressured by events, as for example during our film-going experiences, we will be in sorry shape, indeed, when we come face to face with the results of our evasions.
While Punishment Park can be fully appreciated only when people change the activities they engage in after the screening, several recent films can, and in my opinion should, cause changes in audience activity during screenings. In two instances in particular - Larry Gottheim's Horizons and J. J. Murphy's Print Generation - I have found that people in an audience come to understand and appreciate what they see to the exact extent that they feel free to work together as the film is being shown. Horizons is Gottheim's magnificent feature-length exploration of the upstate New York countryside over the period of one year. The film is so full of subtle beauties of color and composition that to an extent it is easy to sit back and allow the film to flow past. Anything more than the most cursory, passive glance at Horizons, however, tends to involve the viewer with the intricacies of Gottheim's structure. Horizons is divided into four seasonal sections, each of which is made up of numerous shots grouped and separated at intervals by one-second strips of colored leader. Summer is made up of forty-seven pairs of shots, each pair separated from the next by green leader. Fall is composed of twenty-seven groups of four shots, each group separated from the next by an interval of red leader, and so on. This structure is further complicated by the fact that during each season the individual shots within each group are organized so that they "rhyme" visually. In Fall, for example, each group rhymes a, b, b, a, that is, shots 1 and 4 and 2 and 3 have a visual factor (or factors) in common. In some instances these rhymes are quite obvious; in others they are extremely subtle, so subtle, in fact, that once the viewer is engaged in recognizing the rhymes, he feels compelled to search each image carefully in order to see and remember each detail. Other complicating factors offer the viewer further challenges. Within each season the groups of shots are arranged in a careful and suggestive order, and throughout all four seasons specific images or kinds of shots are repeated until they become motifs which are meaningful on several levels. Horizons can be fascinating to watch, even if one is alone in a theater. When an audience is present, however, the film can be an exhilarating experience, at least to the extent that individuals feel free to share their observations and insights while the film is in progress. When I have shown Horizons to groups in the normal way, assuming that silence should reign during the screening, I have found that most members of even a relatively sophisticated audience are exhausted long before the film is over. Since Horizons is silent, the silence itself becomes very oppressive. On the other hand, when I have suggested that the members of the audience feel free to exchange observations and reactions, I've found that most individuals have a very exciting time. More important, I've found that more of what is in Horizons is revealed and experienced this way. No one can see all the rhymes or the many other visual relationships created during the film in a single screening, and unless one has enough money to buy a print and screen it over and over and over, full awareness of Horizons' complexity and brilliance is an impossibility. While audience interaction does not guarantee that all details or implications of Gottheim's imagery become apparent, a good deal more of the film is seen by a good many more viewers. Thus, since nothing is gained by silence, other than the satisfaction of conforming to the pressure of a long-held cultural assumption, it seems obvious that audiences should be encouraged to participate and interact with one another. J. J. Murphy's Print Generation poses different problems for an audience, though, like Horizons, the film gains when viewers are urged to feel free to interact. Print Generation uses an exploration of the process of contact printing as a basis for forging a vision of the simple beauty and fragility of life. To make the film, Murphy made a one-minute film of sixty one-second images he had photographed during the summer of 1973. He made a contact print of the film, then a print of the print, then a print of the print of the print, and so forth. Since each generation of printing subtracted from the photographic quality of the imagery, it was inevitable that when Murphy had printed prints of prints long enough, the images would decompose altogether. Having made fifty print generations, Murphy constructed the film so that we first see the sixty images in an extremely disintegrated state, and then follow every second print generation until, halfway through the film, we see the images fully developed. During the second half of the film we move through the other generations back to the point where the film began. The sound track, though less complex than the constantly changing visuals, corroborates this basic structure, though it moves in reverse order. At the start of the film we hear a tape recording of ocean waves, then we hear a tape of that tape, and so on until the sound is in an extremely disintegrated state halfway through the film. During the second half, the process is reversed. More fully than Horizons, Print Generation tends to create activity in the audience. During early repetitions of the sixty images the viewer sees only faint dots of light, but he quickly becomes accustomed to the pace created by the repetition of one-second images and begins to realize that a limited number of images are being repeated over and over. Before long many people in the audience feel compelled to count the images in order to determine for sure exactly how many there are, and many count out loud so as to be better able to concentrate. If viewers have been encouraged to respond freely to the film, they soon become engaged in another process: that of trying to define, image by image, what the final content of each one-second shot will be. It is here that interaction can add to Print Generation, for the ambiguity of the imagery during early generations suggests a wide variety of possibilities, and the audience has a good deal of enjoyment sharing widely differing guesses. Not only does audience interaction add to the pleasure of viewing Print Generation, it helps to emphasize fundamental thematic concerns. One of the themes of Murphy's film is that many of the most important realities of our existence are simple, natural things. We may assume that the future promises exotic mysteries of many kinds, but when the time comes, we are likely to find that the best parts of our experience are the simple pleasures provided by the cycles of nature and by our friends, lovers, and family. When viewers exchange guesses about what the imagery will ultimately be, they dramatize that process of anticipation which the final appearance of the sixty images of flowers, birds, children, landscapes, and so forth undercuts. During the second half of the film, as the sixty images degenerate, Murphy demonstrates how fragile memory is. After a dozen generations or so, it becomes very difficult to recall what the long-awaited images actually were. If viewers interact and attempt to remind each other about what they remember, they dramatize Murphy's belief that memory is often as inaccurate as anticipation, that the beauties and pleasures of life can be fully apprehended, if at all, only at the moment when they are present to us. When they were making their films, Gottheim and Murphy did not consciously assume that viewers might talk during screenings. At the same time, when I have described what has happened when audiences have felt free to interact, both have expressed guarded approval, guarded necessarily, because they would want to be very sure that what I am calling audience interaction is not simply lack of attention. Unlike Gottheim and Murphy, Anthony McCall has expressed enthusiasm for the idea of audience interaction during screenings. Further, he has consciously designed films which have as their goal the creation of this interaction. In order to activate his audiences, McCall presents his films in an unusual way. Line Describing a Cone, for example, and the other films in McCall's "cone series", are not presented in a theater, and no screen is used. Instead, viewers sit or stand in an empty, pitch-dark room, where their attention is directed to the projected beam of light, not, as in standard screenings, at the imagery this beam carries. Usually, a bowl of incense has been placed on the floor prior to the running of the film so that the smoke created by the incense will make the beam of light easier to see. At the start of Line Describing a Cone a single ray of light is thrown across the room. As the minutes pass, this ray enlarges to become the curved side of a hollow cone which has the projector lens as its apex and the far wall as its base. By the end of the film this curved side has grown until a hollow cone has been completed. That the audience is meant to participate in McCall's film is evident from the beginning, for the original ray of light is only visible at extremely close range, and those sitting or standing at any distance from the ray must move in order to see it. Once begun, such participation almost automatically continues. As McCall himself says in his program notes for Line Describing a Cone:
‘No longer is one viewing position as good as any other. For this film, every viewing position presents a different aspect. The viewer, therefore, has a participatory role in apprehending the event: he or she can, indeed needs, to move around relative to the slowly emerging light-form. This is radically different from the traditional film situation, which has as its props, row upon row of seats, a giant screen and a hidden projection booth: here the viewer sits passively in one position whilst the images of the film are "brought" to them; these people can only participate vicariously.’
Given McCall's goals for Line Describing a Cone, he must be regarded as an extremely successful filmmaker. While viewers tend to be suspicious at the beginning of the film, within relatively few minutes they grow enthusiastic about the idea of the film, and many individuals become extremely active, moving from position to position to avoid missing anything. Thirty minutes is a long time for a film so simple, but this very duration can cause a further development in the audience, one which goes beyond simple appreciation of McCall's ingenuity. Often, once the original enthusiasm has worn off, individuals begin to relate more fully to one another. To a large extent this group development is necessitated by the movement of the viewers in a limited space in a largely dark room. People walking around quickly learn to be careful of those sitting and lying on the floor. Those exploring the growing cone with their hands become aware of the effects of their activities on people further from the projector. By the time the circle on the opposite wall is complete and the cone in its finished state, the viewers themselves have been drawn together into a more intimate circle. While McCall's films are abstract, their effect on an audience reflects a fundamentally political intent. For him the normal screening situation, with its rigid rows of seats and "hidden projection booth," is an implicitly totalitarian situation:
‘in film, all analytical, critical and creative attention is [usually] devoted exclusively to this thing, this product, this event, this temporal moment of the film's life, up there on the screen. We say, look there, don't look anywhere else, that's where it's all happening, that's where the struggle is; the dialectic is in your relation to that. But suppose that we see all audienceship as a special kind of passivity? "Look there" is a call to your consciousness to perceive my problems, not yours, my view of the world. In granting me an audience, the spectators surrender their personal cognizance of their world, and in granting the audience over and over again, under all kinds of circumstances inside and outside art, in schools, work, civic, and political life, they become captives to the habit of listening to others. In art, this is important precisely because the form is made exemplary, because this servitude of always being in a passive relation to action, is publicly reinforced. And almost without exception, film art maintains this unilateral broadcasting format.’
Line Describing a Cone and McCall's other films reflect a continuing attempt to draw attention to the dangerous political and social implications of our standard viewing habits. Further, by creating a context in which individual viewers can act on their own initiative and relate to one another in practical and sympathetic ways, his films function as models for effective community action which may have the potential to effect change. The four films discussed here are certainly not the only ones which profit from, or require, a change in audience activities. Many of the other films of each of the filmmakers discussed, for example, could be included in the present discussion, and other filmmakers and films -Tony Conrad (The Flicker), Hollis Frampton (Zorns Lemma), Taka Iimura (24 Frames Per Second, 1 to 60 Seconds), Robert Huot (Rolls: 1971) among them - could have been included. What is central is the realization that if we are to understand and appreciate some of our filmmakers' most impressive achievements, we must begin to develop our flexibility as viewers. Doubtless we will always search for good screening conditions and from time to time will feel compelled to silence someone who is distracting us. At the same time, to assume that silence and stillness are automatically virtues for a film viewer is to run the danger of missing the accomplishments of many fine films. We must become more aware that as film continues to evolve there will be times when we need to do more than sit silently and alone in the darkness and force others to do so. If our filmmakers are not to leave us behind, we must evolve with them.’ - pwatkins.mnsi.net/punishment.htm

Edward Munch (1973)

‘EDVARD MUNCH’ is the most personal film I have ever made. Its genesis lies in a visit to the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, in 1968, during the time of a screening of several of my films by the Oslo University. I was awestruck by the strength of Munch’s canvases, especially those depicting the sad life of his family, and was very moved by the artist’s directness - with the people in his canvases looking straight at us. I also felt a personal affinity with his linking of past and present, e.g., in the large painting showing the anguish of his family as his sister Sophie is dying: the artist and his brothers and sisters are depicted as adults -as they were in the 1890s when he painted this scene - even though the event had taken place ca. 20 years earlier. On another occasion, I was also very moved by Munch’s masterpiece ‘Death of a Child’, hanging in the National Gallery in Oslo; in this painting the artist is broken, and has, in an almost desperate frenzy, blurred the form of his earlier depiction of Sophie’s death. This painting, in its time, was attacked as being “incomplete” - a charge which branded certain of his other works as well.
It took me three years to persuade Norwegian TV (NRK) to fund this film, and in the end it only happened because Swedish TV convinced them to participate in a co-production.


‘Edvard Munch’ was filmed during two separate periods in 1973: February-March for the winter scenes, and May-June for the spring and summer scenes. Once again I worked with an entirely amateur cast - this time it was Norwegians from our filming locations in Oslo and the small town of Åsgårdstrand on the Oslo fjord. Geir Westby played Edvard Munch; Gro Fraas - Mrs. Heiberg; Johan Halsbog - Munch’s father, Dr. Christian Munch; Berit Rytter Halse - Munch’s younger sister Laura Munch; Gro Jarto - Munch’s mother Laura Cathrine Munch; Lotte Teig - Aunt Karen Bjolstad; Rachel Pedersen - Munch’s sister Inger; Gunnar Skjetne - Munch’s brother Peter Andreas; Eli Ryg - Oda Lasson; Morten Eid - Sigbjørn Obstfelder; Kåre Stormark - Hans Jaeger. The film crew - cameraman Odd Geir Saether, art director Grethe Hejer, costume director Ada Skolmen, make-up artist Karin Saether, sound recordists Kenneth Storm-Hansen and Bjorn Hansen, researcher Anne Veflingstad, dialogue advisor Ase Vikene - came from NRK, and was one of the very best working groups I have ever had. This was truly one of the ‘magical’ creative experiences of my life - and I sadly regret not having been allowed, in all those years since, to continue developing this method of working.


One could probably find hundreds of reviews of ‘Edvard Munch’ from the time of its extensive broadcasts on European and Scandinavian TV in the mid-1970s, and subsequent cinema screenings in the US, France, Australia and elsewhere. Most reviews tended to be positive, though there were some critics who found the film repetitive and exaggerated. The extracts of ones included here happen to be the reviews which I still have at hand, and appeared in Britain after ‘Edvard Munch’ was first shown on BBC-TV in March 1976.
‘TRIP ON THE BORDERS OF GENIUS AND INSANITY ... I cannot remember a more haunting film about an artist. The silent, wide-eyed and lonely melancholy of Munch (Geir Westby) and the changing expressiveness of his “Mrs. Heiberg” (Gro Fraas) set the contrasted styles. Watkins managed to be still and restless, clear-cut and disordered, without any contradiction.’ (The Daily Telegraph)
‘MESMERIC MUNCH. The terrific intensity with which Peter Watkins began his dramatic documentary about the painter Munch was such that no spectator could have supported it for three hours and a half without smashing something near at hand or passing into a form of psychiatric care ... Grave and eloquent faces of all ages stared into the camera, and whether they were calling for help, asking us to go away or merely to remember carefully the terrible things we had seen was not important. Whichever it was, we were mesmerized, dragged into the film and the year 1884 ... But for three hours and a half? That Edvard Munch was sometimes repetitive but never became tedious, was due partly to the suggestive handling of the Expressionist process itself - a trembling brush, a haemorrhage of scarlet paint, Munch also hacking the canvas away in “the struggle to remember, the struggle to forget” - but still more to Watkins’ superbly confident direction and editing of a largely amateur Norwegian cast ...’ (The Times)
‘PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST. Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch is a remarkable piece of work. It is the most effective transposition to the screen of the mentality and environment of the “artist” (or anyone of heightened sensibility and complex intelligence) that I have seen. It is original in its narrative devices: sumptuous in its visual effects (cameraman Odd Geir Saether) and unerring in its selection of faces (all amateurs) to suggest peasant or metropolitan stock - sickly Norwegian petite bourgeoisie, radiant young bohemian girls, or artists and intellectuals crowding together, plotting to change Norwegian society until bad living puts an untimely end to their hoped for victory ... Watkins’ initial task was to establish firmly the elements in the Norwegian painter’s early life which were to haunt him continually and dictate the nature of his artistic preoccupations ... There is a steady overlapping of action, or simply conversation, and intrusive memory. A moment of love provokes images of bloody illness: the fever of work recalls incidents of domestic repression or the torment of rejected love ... This overlapping is carried further in that, within the narrative, characters seem to be listening passively to conversations taking place off-screen. And in a marvellous device, disconcerting at first, characters in the film silently regard us as they are talked about ... One of the most impressive films made for television in a decade.’ (Peter Lennon, The Sunday Times)


In the years that followed, I made several further attempts to work at portraying the lives of other artists (including the Italian Futurist poet Marinetti, and the Russian pianist and composer Scriabin), but each of these projects collapsed in the early stages. In several cases, it became clear that TV producers wanted something different - and yet didn’t (- exactly the same contradiction at the root of so many difficulties in France for ‘La Commune’). TV organizations appear to want the caché of creating something unique and different - without it in fact being really genuinely different at all. A further and crucial part of the problem lies in the fact that in recent years TV productions have become very much afraid of working with ‘ordinary people’. Which is why films like ‘Culloden’ and ‘Edvard Munch’ will never be made again. The direct involvement of the public in the creative process of TV - which has always been at the essence of my work - is seen as a threat, for it represents a change in the usual hierarchical relationship between producer and passive spectator. In a word - it represents a loss of control. Of course it is never stated in this way; TV executives usually resort to attacking the ‘standard’, the ‘creative level’ of the work instead.
In the case of ‘Edvard Munch’, a group of NRK producers met the day after the film was shown to denounce its use of ‘amateurs’and the fact that the cast employed idiomatic modern expressions in their dialogue, as opposed to the style of Norwegian language spoken at the turn of the century. From that moment on (and in marked contrast to the growing acclaim for ‘Edvard Munch’ from abroad), NRK demonstrated a high level of antipathy towards the film. They - and the Swedish TV - tried to prevent ‘Edvard Munch’ from representing Norway at the Cannes Film Festival, and NRK subsequently destroyed all of the original quarter-inch sound recordings (including the final sound mix) at the time when these were needed to produce a cinema version of the film. All that was left were battered and worn 16mm magnetic working copies, and it was only thanks to the ingenuity of Kjell Westmann, a sound mixer in Stockholm, that we were able to filter out the hiss and background noise on these copies, and to reproduce something approximating the original sound for the cinema version of ‘Edvard Munch’.

Thanks also to the efforts of Florence Bodin, a member of the TV Sales Department of Swedish TV in Stockholm, ‘Edvard Munch’ was very widely screened on European TV in 1977, as well as in several cinemas in America. But after that, for many years, especially after the film returned to the care of NRK in Oslo, it sat on the shelves completely neglected. From all available evidence, NRK did very little for almost 20 years to get ‘Edvard Munch’ shown, and made it very difficult for people to rent the film (often obstructing inquiries altogether). NRK also refused to make new prints of ‘Edvard Munch’, sending out poor video copies on those occasions when they let people rent the film. Once even, NRK sent a copy of ‘Edvard Munch’ to an exhibition of Munch’s works at the London National Gallery - and the video turned out to be mostly black. - http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/munch.htm

Peter Watkins and the Politics of Expression
On Edvard Munch (1974) and The Freethinker (1994)
"Watkins' filmmaking bravely seeks an insistence on personal truth — his own and the viewer's."
New Yorker Video, in a continuing series of Peter Watkins releases, has issued DVDs of two films that are not only provocative and moving, but actually feel necessary. Yet not too many people have seen Edvard Munch and The Freethinker, especially in the U.S. In explaining why this is, Watkins is not shy about casting blame.
For most of his career, Peter Watkins has had a growing apprehension over the developing "language" of Western — and now international — audiovisual media, whether generated by a movie screen or a TV set. It all started with D. W. Griffith, he says, and you have to believe him when you watch, say, the frantic race-against-time sequence in the "modern" story from 1916's Intolerance. With seconds to spare, an execution must be stopped, and Griffith seems to have invented, on the spot, the very film grammar still used today to engorge an audience's sensory intake. Midst D. W.'s rapid editing, with all its cross-cutting compressing time and space, who in the audience can think of anything except saving that poor young man from the electric chair?
And then to watch a Hollywood thriller like 2004's Bourne Supremacy — as I just have — is to witness the enduring power of Griffith's innovations. Take the car chase sequence, for example. With the addition of bone-crunching sound and ever-accelerating intercutting — images flash at you for seconds or fractions of seconds at a time — the onrush of sight and sound makes Intolerance's efforts look like a stroll in the park. (Are there statistics on how many petit mal seizures have been caused by this one sequence alone?) And yet it still carries the basic filmic sentence structure developed by Griffith. It's just faster, louder, and, you could say, more sophisticated in messing with your head.
Entertainments like the Bourne films are drugs, and Watkins calls their delivery system Monoform: in his words, "the repetitive language that uses rapid "seamless" cuts, and an incessant bombardment of movement and sound."1 Editing like this is now so overwhelmingly prevalent that an average viewer wouldn't be aware of a distinction to make — it's simply how much of the visual media behaves these days, and of course that kind of blind acceptance is part of Watkins' point. He sees Monoform as a fascistic tool that media moguls wield to control the film- and TV-watching public.
As he protests mightily, is Watkins just pissing in the wind? Back in the beat fifties, William Burroughs declaimed that, like Mayan priests and their calendars, media baron Henry C. Luce and his publications held sway over the minds of America. His magazines Time and Life told readers what to think and feel every day of the year. It's thought control, Burroughs contended, a kind of slavery.
Exactly, Peter Watkins would say. In the 19th-century Norway and Sweden, respectively, of his films Edvard Munch and The Freethinker, it's the newspapers that functioned as film and TV, manipulated by humongous corporations, do today. In those days, it was the monarchies pulling the strings. Then came Griffith and the movies.
For Watkins, filmmaking is a political activity as well as a personal one; he remains staunchly independent of the marketplace. In booklets accompanying the DVD releases of both films, articles penned by Watkins and others lay out his ideology at some length, and it's persuasive. At the same time, though, his ideas can seem off-puttingly dogmatic, projecting a rigidly held, single-minded stance impervious to criticism.
Clearly, Watkins hates oppression of any kind, and he views the blanket application of Monoform as an oppression of an insidious sort, operating on clueless people, like Americans, who view themselves as part of a free society. That may well be. In the context of commercial TV, broadcast news, and date night at the Cineplex, we are essentially zombies in thrall to a monolithic corporate will. And I'll admit right now that I, well, enjoy the Bourne movies.
But I doubt that Watkins sees himself as a crusader to abolish film as entertainment or propaganda — two things it so frequently is, often at the same time. Instead, he's arguing for a media alternative in which the public can actually participate and be allowed to reflect on what it sees. Although such alternatives exist in independent and avant-garde filmmaking, the means of getting them out to a large public is disappearing. With the withdrawal of government funding, public broadcasting, for example, must now yield to the demands of the marketplace and effectively cease to feature "alternative" viewing. As for commercial TV, there will be no more Rod Serlings or Paddy Chayevskys or Playhouse 90s. And was the "golden age of TV" really all that golden?
It's now 2008, and anyone with a young, forming mind is part of the Entertainment Generation with its attendant devices — phones, iPods, whatever 2 — out of which all the input, all the connecting leads to the minimizing of what used to be called solitude, that place where self-knowledge, the processing of primary experience, just being alive — all that good stuff — takes place. And as much as it may be disappearing, self-reflection is key for Watkins and these two biographical works, Edvard Munch (below left) and The Freethinker (right).
Edvard Munch The Freethinker
Wanting the audience to lose its media junkie passivity and participate in the films, Watkins disallows the fast cutting and "seamless" flow of cookie-cutter, rush-to-the-end-and-save-the-girl feature film narrative. Pacing is slow and allows room for thought. Scenes end decisively and move to the next often not linearly in regard to time and space. Formally, the films' structures are more like mosaics that flash from one tile to another, toggling between past and present, and often repeating scenes in different juxtapositions to others. The filmmaker makes deliberate expressive choices in this structure, but the viewer, Watkins hopes, "completes" the film in his own way by allowing image and sound to resonate with his own past and present. However cantankerous Watkins may seem in print, his filmmaking bravely seeks an insistence on personal truth — his own and the viewer's.
In a leap, these films attempt to mirror the form of experience itself — experience, that is, minus iPod and car chase. Experience where you are responding to the environment and all that entails, meaning not just the tree or person in front of you, but all the mass of social and cultural forces of your time bearing down on you — but, further, the vast store of memories within you: the past. This is you, at any given moment.
And, in a parallel, equivalent way, this is Edvard Munch in Watkins' 1974 film. The painter, with his tormented, lonely, outcast early career, has never found himself in a Hollywood biopic probably because the turmoil — and astonishing productivity — of those years never produced a true catharsis on which to hang an Irving Stone-type narrative arc. Far from committing suicide or mutilating himself, Munch lived into his eighties after segueing (having committed himself into an asylum in 1908) into a rather comfortable existence as a Famous Painter, with plenty of commissions buying a nice big house and an enviable north-facing studio. His work changed, too. Although he often revisited early themes and visual motifs, there were no more screams and bloody skies. The figurative work and landscapes could sometimes be disturbing and mysterious but seldom cathartic. Only some late self-portraits, as the painter faced his own mortality, hearken back to the excoriating paintings and graphics made before the century turned.
The Red VineWatkins keeps his film within the boundaries of the years 1884 to 1895 when Munch spent his youth bursting into notoriety in Norway and then on the Continent. It's hard to think of another painter who so directly translated personal anguish and terror onto graphic media. With a clear specificity even unto events, there's a sister dying, a mother dead, sickrooms and death watches, a girlfriend as darkling Madonna, jealousy, and suicidal depression. Viewing early Munch, you don't have to feel you're speciously reading autobiographical agenda into the work. If you confront a painting like 1890's The Red Vine (above), where a house, although ostensibly covered by ivy gone to red in late autumn, appears to be hemorrhaging (to the horror of the foreground figure), then Munch probably intended it to be hemorrhaging.
While his contemporary, Vincent van Gogh, writing to brother Theo about his goals as a painter, expressed a desire to act as a simple carthorse pulling a wagon full of people out to see the spring, Edvard Munch seems determined to be a Virgil guiding his viewers through a personal hell.
Yet, before he gets underway with Munch's ghastly and formative childhood — "illness, insanity, death" — Watkins opens the film by intercutting brief scenes of the Munch household with staged, faux interviews with the 19th-century poor of Christiania (later Oslo) that then collide with images of the era's wealthy middle class promenading along that city's Karl Johan Street. The filmmaker's voiceover, which continues to intervene throughout, gives a detailed account of Norway's arid and conservative cultural scene at the time, which neatly dovetails with descriptions of the social strata in which the painter and his family found themselves during Munch's childhood and adolescence — when they held onto a middle-class existence only by the skin of their teeth, their precarious income forcing them to live on the edges of slums.
Watkins, who began his career as a documentary filmmaker, frames these social and cultural environs with documentary techniques (hand-held camera, jagged cuts, sudden zooms to a face) that pop the illusion of a narrative window right from the start. Expecting maybe a biopic or carefully considered documentary, the audience is set up for a different experience, where one is not strapped in and sent on a thrilling — but familiar — ride through a storyland version of tragic creative genius.
And, once again, who is the foremost example, since his death in 1890, of tragic creative genius but Vincent Van Gogh? Perhaps the best made Hollywood biopic of a famous painter, but still egregious in its distortions and false dramatic conclusions, is Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of Irving Stone's potboiler biographical novel of Van Gogh, Lust for Life (1956).3
Lust for LifeKirk Douglas, who proved a dead ringer for the painter as he's depicted in Van Gogh's self-portrait with straw hat, gives a wonderful performance, but the film yields to forced clichés about the relationship between Vincent's battle with a recurring illness and his lonely, shortened career as Famous Painter. For the sake of lurid melodrama, the film relegates Van Gogh's ever-increasing bouts of debilitating seizures to some kind of violent schizoid craziness that somehow informed the painter's formal intentions and experiments. That twist and shout cypress tree and those flashing stars in Starry Night; the oppressive, saturated reds and greens in the Night Café — the guy had to be kind of nuts to paint these things, right?
The climax of Minnelli's show has Kirk/Vincent out under the blazing sun attempting to finish one of his most famous late paintings, Wheatfield Under Threatening Skies. With no other purpose than to harass the unhappy artist, a squadron of crows dives in on Van Gogh, who, flailing like the madman he is, scares them off and then turns to the canvas, rendering the pesky scavengers as jagged slashes of black paint. But it's Vincent's insanity — and his fevered release of it into paint — that proves too much, and he cries out, "It's impossible!" abandons the canvas, steps deep into the field, and shoots himself.
The implication here is that, crows aside, Vincent's isolation and mental illness had pushed his art to an extreme that could no longer contain the bad energy raging inside of him — so, no more painting, time for death, time to "go home again" and "Theo, hand me my pipe."
Van Gogh's crowsMore likely was that Van Gogh's illness — possibly a physiologically based disease and getting worse with more frequent seizures — was making the activity of painting less possible. Poor Vincent: at the time, his work was going extremely well. When he was actually able to do it, that is. There's nothing nutty about that late, crow-infested painting; it's very controlled and carefully considered in form, content, and the application of paint. For over a hundred years the painting's surface has remained "healthy." Van Gogh was very savvy technically; he knew how to paint "fat over lean," so that the paint wouldn't crack and flake in a matter of a few years.
In other words, the painter had his wits about him. And so does Watkins' Munch. But unlike Vincent, who mostly wanted to please with his imagery,4 Munch consciously strove to provoke and disturb. Once the filmmaker has Munch break free of his family and begin his career, the painter begins to apply paint to canvas — always a tricky bit in the movies because they're mostly determined to make the act of creation look like frenzied art therapy and not the deliberated, long haul of concentrated labor it mostly is.
When it's time for Munch to paint his groundbreaking work, The Sick Child (1885-1886), Watkins seems to get off on the wrong foot and step into Lust for Life territory. While still rooted in the naturalism then prevalent in Norway, the painting features a sudden — and uncharacteristic for the artist — assault on the painting's surface, with palette knife, the blunt end of a brush, fingernails, and who knows what else. The narration declares this activity of scratching and scraping an aggressive release of frustration over his continuing problems with the women in his life. Anything's possible, but I wonder, as Watkins also suggests, that the painter was more intent on formal gains, like achieving his "nervous dissolving treatment of color," and reaching toward a simplification of form.
Munch apparently never repeated this experiment. Throughout the rest of his life, Munch resisted impasto and aggressive mark-making and instead would alter and move forms around by wiping the surface clean of paint and beginning anew in order to create a relatively thin and deceptively underworked surface, much like the Matisse of the twenties and later. As the film develops scenes of Munch painting and making prints, Watkins excels in making it all appear legitimate and convincing. The artist is working, not emoting, and knows exactly what he's doing. Watkins' Munch also recognizes the work is going somewhere, not standing still.
It's in his personal life, and out in the world of galleries, critics, and commercial endeavor that Edvard seems lost, fragile, and stuck in entropy. A repeated scene of the painter, alone in a room weeping into his hands, saying, "I can't go on," reverberates either with the disappointments inherent in his affair with Mrs. Heiburg or with the predicaments of poverty and isolation — but not with madness and the act of painting, as Vincent's cry of "It's impossible!" does in the Minnelli film.
The casting call for Edvard Munch yielded no Kirk Douglases: Watkins continued and refined his practice of using non-actors, even for the two main roles of Munch (Geir Westby) and Mrs. Heiburg (Gros Fraas). Both are superb, but Watkins isn't demanding performances in a traditional movie sense, where characters "develop" within a linear dramatic arc. Munch and his mistress react to each other — the painter gets upset at times and has angry outbursts, etc. — but the filmmaker's mosaic structure has the effect of time standing still for long stretches while we take in Munch as if he himself were an experience, not a character in a story.
Munch's six year, on-and-off affair with the married woman tagged "Mrs. Heiburg" is the stem of the film's first half. Any scene of hesitant or passionate kissing between them is likely to be juxtaposed with the oft-used sequence of the artist's mother dying when he was a small child. Sex, death, and women are frequently fused in Munch's early work; the film's juxtapositions, the toggling back and forth, has us experiencing this fusion as part of the "now" of Munch in the film, which also uses audio means to achieve the effect. The sound of Munch weeping, as in the aforementioned "I can't go on" scene, is layered on top of dialog and ambient sound in other scenes.
The Death ChamberThis splintering of the moment — where past and present coexist — finds a powerful equivalent in a single work by Munch, The Death Chamber, circa 1892, a watershed painting depicting the painter's family in the aftermath of the passing of the mother, or possibly the sister, at which times Munch was five and fourteen respectively. Yet he and his siblings are depicted as being at the age they were in 1892, that is, as full-grown adults. In this way, Watkins skillfully places Munch's creative mindset on the same page as his own.
The Edvard Munch project was intensely personal for Watkins, as he makes clear in the self-interview that's part of New Yorker's accompanying booklet: "I discovered — I felt — a very deep affinity to this Norwegian artist."5 Quoted elsewhere in the booklet, Watkins describes how he felt the connection "on the most personal level — sexual fear and inhibition, need, yearning  . . ."6 But just as strong was Watkins' sense that the painter's struggle with critics, with acceptance in his own country, paralleled his own battles with the BBC, which had banned his film The War Game in the mid-sixties, and the press, which had severely "attacked" his work.7 In his prose Watkins can sound bitter about his career in a way that approaches paranoia, but then you realize, where have these two films been?
If Watkins' Munch film can then be seen as much autobiographical as biographical,8 his nineties project, The Freethinker, is much less so. But even here, where Watkins was commissioned by the Swedish Film Institute to produce a film about August Strindberg, his completed work (in 1994) ran up against the same strictures, even outright banning in Scandinavia, as did his subject's plays and writings in the 1880s.
Initially, in the early 1980s, after Watkins had dutifully produced a screenplay about Strindberg, funding ran out, after which the project lay fallow until the filmmaker found the unlikely support of something called the Nordens Folk High School. Here, Watkins abandoned all trace of auteurism and allowed his script to be developed, added to, and improvised on, in a lively cooperative effort Watkins calls a "full-length video production course."9
Siri in The FreenthinkerThe results, which further the formal experiments of Edvard Munch, produce a profound effect on a viewer who's willing to focus on, and indeed participate with, this four-and-a-half-hour film. The students, who look much older than "high school" students and thus must be college-age, 10 took on all aspects of the production, making costumes, filming, directing, and acting. As actors, none of them professional, they without exception shine, particularly the two principals.
Much of the film concerns itself with the turmoil of Strindberg's first marriage to Siri Von Essen, who's played by ecology student Lena Settervall (above, out of character). Unconventionally beautiful, with a high forehead that beams intelligence, Settervall has a sometimes solemn, often psychically charged presence that demands respect and admiration. By allowing Siri to be a strong, modern woman — who, in character and out, provides her own personal feelings about male/female relationships — Watkins gets one of his major themes across in a startlingly direct manner. Edvard Munch was pervaded by that era's budding feminism among artists and writers, but The Freethinker depicts it as an arena in which Strindberg and his wives and lovers engage, split, and rejoin until the writer, in lonely dotage, retreats to a rooming house and profound isolation.
In a fearless, even physical performance, Anders Mattson plays the young August Strindberg as an obsessed, angry, and rather unpleasant fellow who treats his wife badly. After Siri, an actress before she met the writer, receives better reviews than her husband while performing in one of his plays, Strindberg disparages, then forbids, her acting career. Their lives careening into fighting, mutual bitterness, and near poverty, Strindberg continues to write plays and books of essays and history that mostly alienate his public — and the youthful Swedish intelligentsia — who discard him like smelly garbage.
Strindberg and his childrenAs in the Munch film, Watkins keeps his narrative — if you can call it a narrative — extremely simple. We see Strindberg as a child suffering under repressive parents, as a young man and author provocateur, and finally Strindberg as old man. But these acted scenes are shuffled and recombined constantly with no accommodation to a linear timeframe. The filmmaker sticks to the mosaic-like structure he established in Edvard Munch, but perforates the concept even further with readings of Strindberg's prose and letters (often by the actors out of character), intertitles with explanatory or excerpted text (replacing Watkins' voice-overs in Edvard Munch), a question-and-answer session with an unnamed audience, and brief scenes from Strindberg's plays put on by professional actors.
In one brilliantly staged (and improvised) sequence, a young, contemporary Strindberg scholar comes running across a bare soundstage to angrily confront Anders Mattson, who is in character as Strindberg. The scholar hurls accusations of domestic cruelty — she's got a letter to prove it — and wants the writer to reconcile his misogyny and personal failings with his stature as thinker/writer. He can't do it; in response, all he can muster is "C'est la vie."
Watkins and his student crew don't soften the writer's ugly stance toward women, but they make the issue more complex and create depth and sympathy for Strindberg as a human being. Using the techniques refined in Edvard Munch, Watkins again achieves an "experiencing" of the artist by rejecting a biopic's telescoped rush toward catharsis, or resurrection, or downfall, and allowing a juxtaposition of scenes to suggest that artist's existential truth. Often, one scene may be a notably static one. A recurring sequence in the second half of Freethinker has the elder Strindberg (Torsten Föllinger, not a student I'm betting) listlessly wander the parlor of an end-of-the-line rooming house, picking out a melody (Chopin?) on the out-of-tune piano, straightening a picture on the wall, or thinking and writing in a darkened bedroom. No drama here, but when placed next to the young Strindberg tearing into poor Siri for whatever made-up offense, the effect is profoundly, dry-eyed sad (i.e., not maudlin or sentimental) in a way I've never encountered in a film. 11 Shooting on video — tape, I'm assuming — pays off in those rooming house scenes. The clinical dryness of the medium yields the exact texture of an old man's loneliness in an empty rooming house parlor circa 1911.12
Strindberg old Strindberg young
A scene following an intertitle featuring one of the writer's more hostile anti-feminist texts is especially resonant, but its effect on a viewer is hard to predict because each viewer will likely have a different response. In the intertitle, Strindberg's prose explains that, as a writer, he must portray women so that they will "not have a clean spot on them." The film doesn't go on to give Strindberg's larger textual context, so, in other words, what did the writer mean by that? It's easy enough to guess: here's Strindberg, in a regressive manner, throwing blame onto women for some kind of betrayal, and tossing in a bit of association with menstruation, too.
But as the intertitle cuts to a short sequence, never repeated, of Strindberg's mother dying as father and son look on, the film provides its own visual context. Her mouth agape, the mother struggles for breath; she's probably in a coma. Very graphic — and realistic, as I can attest: my mother died in a coma with her mouth agape in much the same manner. But in this context, and in the viewer's context, the remark "not a clean spot on them" goes from simple misogyny to something altogether more deeply personal, private in fact — for Strindberg and the viewer.
In this way, Freethinker, and Edvard Munch before it, gets directly to a central purpose: to dismantle the wall between the medium and its audience. For Watkins, these films therefore become political, as he feels all artistic expression must be, if it carries the weight of true and necessary communication. Matisse once said that his aim was to "simplify" painting, but Munch was tackling the same goal just as Henri got his first box of watercolors. By striving to enact change, however, both painters became "political."
Any true avant-gardist, like Munch or Strindberg, seems destined to isolation, in spite of their art germinating within cultural and intellectual groups, and Watkins' films articulate these influences with astonishing depth. With Munch you have the reigning intellectual group, the Christiania Boheme; with Strindberg it's the "Young Sweden" group. The dynamic of each film then becomes simple: each artist either detaches from the group or is discarded by it, to then go sailing off on his own.13 I know nothing of Watkins' early influences or any membership in a group, but this theme of lonely creative endeavor brings the filmmaker's own career experience into the mix, the idea of individual integrity, a moral consistency, that must be at the core of an artist's intent. Such intent can forebode events (Watkins links Munch's sense of societal terror, e.g., The Scream to the 20th-century cataclysms of both world wars) and effectively change how we see or think.
Taking on iconic figures in Norway and Sweden, both projects were shot in their respective countries, using native nonprofessional actors speaking their own language. All actors were encouraged to improvise, in character, on their own personal views on such topics as marriage; this technique allows the films a lively tension between, say, the topic of the status of women in 1974 or 1994 and that same issue in circa 1890 as it affected the personal lives of the two artists. In Edvard Munch the young Strindberg wanders into such a discussion among the Christiania Boheme, and when the concept of women being freed from the strictures of marriage comes up, Strindberg enters the fray with a misogynist bravado (no, keep 'em chained) that's then belied by his face's descent into a look of vague regret. Does the regret belong to Strindberg or to the actor? The viewer can't be sure.
Apparently, this brand of subtlety was not much savored by the media bosses in Sweden; the film, according to Watkins, was "effectively" banned from TV throughout the Nordic region and refused everywhere else.14 The Freethinker, to my own knowledge, never showed up on American public broadcasting, which in 1994 was concentrating on, what, John Tesch concerts? Nowadays the prospect of seeing a film like The Freethinker or Edvard Munch on public television is even more unlikely, with big producers of programming, like Boston's WGBH, steadily buying into what Watkins has been decrying for decades: the use of a kind of modified Monoform to juice up its projects. Everything from nature shows to a Masterpiece Theater production of Dicken's Bleak House — a co-production of the BBC and WGBH — now feature jump cuts and sound mixes designed to make sure everybody's awake out there. Why not throw in some big orange explosions?
Watkins' films would be adjudged by the programmers as too long — the equivalent of asking the viewer to watch paint dry — and, actually, maybe, too controversial. Edvard Munch ran afoul of Norwegian media, initially because a suit from the Munch family demanded some material be cut. Watkins complied, and yet the film still lay dormant in Norway, possibly because of resentment over the fact that the director of this film about the country's most beloved artist was a foreigner.15 That's no issue in America, of course, but any show about a Famous Artist televised here must blunt biographical and societal sharp edges and avoid that most uncherished quality these days: complexity.
Edvard MunchIn the films, Munch and especially Strindberg can be less than likeable, and what American audience, assumes the programmers, wants their Famous Artist to behave like a prick? The Famous Artist should be an inspirational hero and transcend the muck we live in, or, the one we glimpse others living in. But there are lots of unpleasant, nontranscendent corners in Watkins' films: parents die bleeding violently and/or painfully, prostitutes get humiliating vaginal examinations by health inspectors, wives and mistresses get abused. The creative life is messy and unhappy but not unique, and a lauded writer like Strindberg ends his life in the kind of banal loneliness that many of us must face. These films are challenging because they toss the existential ball right at you and, then, once you catch it, don't tell you what to do with it. You can't throw it back, and images from either show can linger in the mind for weeks, or longer.
Speaking from the early 20th century, Marcel Proust seems to have articulated, in a quite different context, what Watkins hopes the viewer might experience and take from his films. When the critic Ruskin compared reading to a "conversation with the wise and noble," Proust wrote to disagree, replying that, when one reads, it is "to receive a communication with another way of thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude  . . ."16
As we watch his films, Peter Watkins wants us to retain that same intellectual power. With his innovations, he permits the space and the solitude that allows us to do just that.
* * *
From where I sit, I would declare these two titles the best DVD releases of 2007. They are indispensable and will hopefully ensure a wider audience, at least in North America, for these deeply felt, innovative, and lucid films.
Because Watkins made them to be shown on television, both films are ripe for home video. Transferred by Project X, New Yorker Video vividly presents them with little sign of aging, even in the case of Edvard Munch, which is over thirty years old.
Edvard Munch was shot on 16mm film and cut into two versions. The original broadcast release, discussed here, runs 220 minutes; a theatrical release, distributed internationally but at least initially only shown in the U.S., runs 174 minutes. New Yorker issued the cinema release in 2006. I've only seen the company's longer broadcast cut, but to my eyes it looks wonderful. Watkins must've used fairly fast film, which results in prominent grain even in well-lit situations, but the grain gives the film a warm, intimate look, sometimes approximating the appearance of old autochrome prints.17
Edvard Munch comes with a hefty 56-page booklet containing a pertinent chapter from Peter Watkins, Joseph Gomez's 1979 biography of the filmmaker, plus Watkins lengthy self-interview, which goes far in detailing his creative intent and all the hopes and fears that go along with it.
Peter Watkins on the setAlso included are three short vintage Norwegian documentaries from 1953, 1957, and 1963 that easily justify their inclusion by giving a broad rundown on Munch's career beyond the period covered by Watkins (right). More importantly, they reveal how drastically the tide of public opinion turned in favor of the artist until, by the 1950s, Munch had been granted his own museum and official status as Norway's representative and beloved Famous Artist. In addition, there are six minutes of film shot by Munch on an early 9.5mm "traveler's camera" in the twenties. An accompanying article in the booklet attempts to tie these snippets to the painter's more visionary work, but to me it they looked like any amateur fooling around with a new toy.
Although The Freethinker was less elegantly shot on videotape, the format perfectly served Watkins' collaboration with his untrained filmmakers, and the film looks terrific on DVD. The two-disc set comes with a 15-page booklet featuring texts by Watkins that detail his work with the Nordens Folk High School and the post-production trials and tribulations.

1. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The Freethinker. New Yorker Video, p. 8.
2. In an interview on the DVD of his film Inland Empire, director David Lynch begs the viewer, "Please, don't watch this film on your phone!"
3. Regardless of its failings, I can't help being fond of this picture, which has the mitigating factor of Miklós Rózsa's exceptional score.
4. Consider the two sunflower paintings he executed to decorate Gauguin's room at the yellow house, or the painting of an apple tree in blossom intended for the nursery of brother Theo's infant son.
5. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, Edvard Munch, New Yorker Video, 35.
6. Ibid., 11.
7. Ibid., 35.
8. Ibid., 36.
9. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The Freethinker, 7.
10. Does high school equal college over there in Sweden?
11. Actually, maybe in Bergman, who was deeply influenced by Strindberg.
12. The parlor's interior seems perfectly appointed and furnished for the era, but, with the filmmakers' humorous nod perhaps to the artificiality of the proceedings, Strindberg, deciding to go out, fetches his overcoat from what looks like a shiny plastic coat hanger!
Strindberg adrift13. The Freethinker provides a recurring but succinct image for that very metaphor: a solitary Strindberg manning a small sailboat in a choppy sea.
14. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The Freethinker, 10.
15. Ibid., 29.
16. Quoted from Caleb Crain, "Twilight of the Books," The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2007, 138.
17. Autochrome was a very early photographic color process, invented near the turn of the 20th century, that has a granular, almost pointillist look that gives its prints a very painterly feel.

Introduction to the Listing of my Films 

by Peter Watkins

PERHAPS I can best begin by describing my own increasing awareness of the media crisis, and my initial attempts to challenge it.
Even when I began making films as an amateur, I remember thinking that much of the commercial cinema in the 1950s and early 1960s, and television in general, felt extremely stilted and conventional, holding the public locked into set and authoritarian agendas.
I can recall, in the later 1950s - when I was developing the 'newsreel style' in my early films - that one of my primary aims was to substitute the artificiality of Hollywood and its high-key lighting, with the faces and feelings of real people. One step in that direction was The Forgotten Faces (1960), in which I used 'ordinary people' to recreate the events of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, as though they were happening in front of newsreel cameras. In reality, we were filming in the back streets of Canterbury, Kent.
Another dimension to my work, introduced in the 'Hungarian' film and developed in the 1960s, was to offer a way of countering the effects of soap-opera historical reconstructions and TV newsbroadcasts, by sharing with the public an alternative exploration and presentation of history - especially their own history - be it past or present.
It seemed, even back then, that the MAVM had come to represent a kind of supra-system encircling the visible social process - and having an immense role in shaping (and distorting) it. The role of TV in imposing silence during this period regarding the developing nuclear arms race, is a salutary case in point. Thus another emerging goal in my work was to find forms which might help the public to break away from this repressive system, to distance themselves from the media-cultivated myths of 'objectivity', 'reality', and 'truth', and to seek alternative information and audiovisual processes for themselves.
These various premises - or at least their early stages - underlay the making of Culloden (UK, 1964), and The War Game (UK, 1965). In the first, I employed the style used in Vietnam War newsbroadcasts in order to bring a sense of familiarity to scenes from an 18th century battle, in the hope that this anachronism would also function to subvert the authority of the very genre I was using.
The second film was the first of my works to deliberately mix opposing cinematic forms (in this case, a series of static, high-key lit, recreated interviews with establishment figures, colliding with jerky scenes of a simulated nuclear attack). Which - if either - was 'reality' ? - the fake interviews in which people quoted actual statements made by existing public figures, or the newsreel-like scenes of a war which had never taken place?
Punishment Park (USA, 1970) attempted to bring some of the methods used in Culloden into a contemporary setting - and added dimensions of allegory to the hoped-for 'distancing effect'. How could a film as 'real' as this 'documentary' looked, be 'real', if its environment (a 'punishment park' in America) did not exist?
Edvard munch (Norway, 1973) added strongly personal and subjective elements to the presentation, and to the editing methods of a biographical film.
It was not until the mid-1970s that I began to understand the problematic structure and role of the Monoform (which I also had used). Most of my subsequent work - The Journey (a global peace film, 1983-86), The Freethinker (Sweden, 1992-94), La Commune (France, 1999) - has been a series of attempts to break away from that formula.
In summary, my work with (mainly) non-professional actors has always been driven by a desire to add a dimension and a process to television, which it still lacks today: that of the public directly, seriously, and in depth participating in the expressive use of the medium to examine history - past, present and future.
Inherent in this has been my constant attempt to broaden and make more complex the relationship between the audience and the MAVM (including in my own films), and to have the audience - the public - share in this work. I have tried to find processes which would enable me - and the audience - to somehow burst out of the constraints of the frame, or of the traditional hierarchical documentary format. This has entailed experimenting with various alienation or distancing methods, coupled with an intense and demanding process for the 'actor', wherein history - past and present - become intertwined.
Peter Watkins, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2007


La Commune:

The Universal Clock (2000)   

The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins is a 77-minute documentary film about Watkins and the making of La Commune. The film is directed by Geoff Bowie and produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The universal clock refers to the synchronisation and the global movement of the televisions in the world, calibrated to be diffused anywhere around the globe, at any time.


By • Nov 13th, 2007 •
Peter Watkins (left) and FIR's Editor at the NYU Graduate Film Dept.
Peter Watkins (left) and FIR's Editor at the NYU Graduate Film Dept.
I shudder at the thought of being comic relief in a Peter Watkins film. But that is what he suggested he would like to do with me some day. Often amused by my personal stories, on rare occasions even moved to laughter by my light-hearted attempts at buoyancy, Watkins sadly admitted that nothing remotely funny ever happened to him. The best he could summon was a tale of errant underwear on a trip to Australia (if memory serves) when, each time he sent his laundry out to be cleaned, one pair of underwear would mysteriously be switched with someone else’s – identifiable by a yellow elastic band that none of his underwear bore. Week after week this infiltration occurred with clockwork regularity until, as his visit drew to a close, all of his underwear had been supplanted by the yellow-striped invaders. It was funny, and it was also absurd. It was also uncharacteristic. I have yet to see a ‘funny’ sequence in one of his films.
I brought Watkins to NYU’s Graduate Film School, where I was teaching at the time, under the chairmanship of Laslo (DEATH OF A SALESMAN) Benedek, and the students were so impressed by his lecture that the following week many of them wore corduroy pants – which he had worn during his visit – in emulation.
I also got him a paying gig at The School of Visual Arts, my main academic squeeze, where he and film theory teacher Joan Braderman locked horns at one point over Watkins’ demonstration of the corruptive force of the TV media, something he’s still passionate about – the Monoformic bastion of media power, and style of news-casting which precludes viewer participation even in terms of active thought.
Peter Watkins was always functioning at counterpoint-level with the industry, and he was utterly uncompromising in his work, and so he found himself at odds quite often with the money people as well. He and I almost got a film off the ground, and it would have been one of the proud achievements of my life to have done so, but it was great even coming close. Normally shunning professional actors for having destroyed their natural qualities (and that’s just the tip of his objections), he consented to work with Robert Shaw on my project, called THE MEDUSA SPAWN. The approximate time period: the early 70’s, following the non-release of his PUNISHMENT PARK.
The project actually had first gone to Shaw, and he signed on provided it was directed either by Watkins, Robert Aldrich, or John Boorman. (Shaw signed on to THE TAKING OF PELHAM OF ONE TWO THREE because he’d been assured Aldrich was at the helm, only to find that Joseph Sergent was the actual director when he got there.) I spoke to Aldrich, who was complimented by Shaw’s interest, and offered to help raise money, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) take the reins. Watkins seemed even more unlikely, but when we met, he responded positively, and even considered Shaw an actor who hadn’t been ruined by being professionally trained.
The project never went beyond the wonderful stage of us all getting together and discussing it, but I remained in touch with both of them for some time. Shaw, realizing MEDUSA wasn’t going to launch any time soon, said he’d been forced to accept a project he was less enthusiastic about, called JAWS. Watkins wandered back to Europe. And I, just kept going, getting the occasional film off the ground, teaching, writing for Films in Review…
And now I have the pleasure of watching the quintessential Peter Watkins on DVD, something that has been too long a time coming. The bulk of it is represented by New Yorker Films, a serious outfit up to the task of releasing the films of the person I consider to be the most serious living filmmaker on the planet.
From New Yorker Films
CULLODEN (1964 – 72 mins) & THE WAR GAME (1965 – 49 mins)
THE GLADIATORS (1969 – 91 mins)
(1961 – 18 mins)
EDVARD MUNCH (1976 — 174 MINS)
And from First Run Features
LA COMMUNE (PARIS 1871) (2000 – 345 mins)
THE UNIVERSAL CLOCK: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (2001 – 76 mins)
Watkins was born in ’35 and, unlike my friend Barbara Steele, who was born in ’37 and remembers the bombings of England in WWII as something of a child-like adventure, for Watkins the two years made all the difference. His THE WAR GAME, originally titled AFTER THE BOMB, and inspired to a degree by his haunted childhood memories, is a devastating fake-documentary about the consequences of a nuclear attack on England, made in ’65, discussed in parliament, and banned by the BBC for twenty years. I once ran into a fellow who, with his girlfriend, had seen a double-bill of TWG and DOCTOR STRANGELOVE in a theater in Washington DC in the late 60s and, in an effort to lift themselves out of the severe depression into the which the films had plunged them, got married the next day. I told Watkins the story and he was almost amused. I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to tell it to Kubrick.
As with Bunuel’s great pseudo-doc, LAND WITHOUT BREAD, TWG is filled with horrific ironies, and on some levels can be seen as obsidian-black comedy. It offers no solutions, and decades later Watkins, still concerned about the world’s inadequate nuclear attack information-dissemination, made an update (which is not part of either of these collections) called THE JOURNEY.
TWG uses hand-held camera techniques, abuses the negative and reprints it to recapture the feeling of WWII newsreel footage (much as Wes Craven went to grainier and grainier stocks to achieve the same feeling in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT), and intersperses this with ‘man-on-the-street’ talking head interviews, and rolling titles. The effect of this checker-boarding is constantly challenging intellectually, replicating, as alternate track commentator Patrick Murphy states, Brechtian detachment techniques. There may be some water damage to the actual negative, but in this rare instance, it only serves to intensify Watkins’ aesthetic goals. The contrast level is superb – better than on the two 16mm prints I’d collected (one of which I gave to Watkins when I learned he didn’t have one).
Watkins does great work evoking real feelings from non-actors, and his co-staging of the action sequences is horrifyingly believable. For reasons, I’m sure, he considered to be honesty to his art, he only took credit as Producer and Writer, not even for narration, some of which he supplies as the ‘reporter’ behind the cinema-liberte camera.
With ironic absurdity, the contents of a post-holocaust ration-meal menu is read aloud. This same device – co-incidentally – shows up in STRANGELOVE as Slim Pickens reads out the contents of the bomber’s survival kit (“…one issue of prophylactics…three lipsticks…three pair of nylon stockin’s…shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff…”
Murphy, whose voice I didn’t care for, but whose facts are well-compiled, discusses Mary Whitehouse – co-founder of the Clean-up TV campaign who objected to the film’s content without having seen it. As I understand it, this is the same Mary Whitehouse who, in ’86, made sure every act of violence against women was censored from my film STREET TRASH, but left in a castration sequence in which a bum’s dismembered member was tossed around the junkyard in a perverse game of keep-away. Still up to her old tricks.
On the same disc is Watkins’ debut feature, CULLODEN, portrayed as a documentary for lack of a better term, but it isn’t that. Or let’s say, for a documentary, it’s as revolutionary as any of the revisionist cinema coming out of the French New Wave, which was an influence on Watkins.
Set in 1746, with news cameras and interviewers incongruously present, the film covers the devastating defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the Inverness moors – the last battle on British soil. With clear parallels to US pacification maneuvers in Vietnam, not to mention Britain’s own suppression of the Mau Maus, the BBC was bold to televise the film, and in fact they got wholly behind it (however they lost the courage the following year with TWG, and soon Watkins would leave his country and wander the globe for forty years, sporadically getting films off the ground).
The striking B&W cinematography by Dick Bush is lushly mastered (the active grain in bright shots is a bit distracting, but that’s it as far as any carping about quality). His capturing of faces (and Watkins’ direction of same) is as good as any faces Eisenstein or Dreyer ever captured. DP Bush also worked on the Ken Russell BBC docs (hint, hint, New Yorker!).
Commentator John Cook presents an excellent analysis of Watkin’s approach to filmmaking, clearly illustrating his breaking of the rules, his recurrent themes, the personal nature of his work (both as pre-echo and actual subtext), and his complex rationale for using non-professional actors. He refers to LA COMMUNE quite often – a bookend to CULLODEN in his eyes. And he maps Watkins’ evolving style and personal feelings about film. When I hung out with him, he was reluctant to show nudity, and would never show a woman naked unless the man in the scene were equally undressed; now he’s against violence in his films as well. So CULLODEN is something he could not have done the same way today. Cook and TWG commentator Murphy have co-authored a book on Watkins called ‘Free Thinker’, which was published by Manchester University Press. For whatever reasons, I found Cook’s commentary to be of more depth and usefulness. Perhaps it was partially because CULLODEN is a half hour longer than TWG.
Joe Gomez, founding director of film studies at North Carolina State University, and author of the book “Peter Watkins”, has the unenviable assignment of extolling the virtues of Watkins’ least successful endeavor, THE GLADIATORS (aka THE PEACE GAME). He doesn’t even address the film for 16 minutes, talking instead about Watkins’ abiding pre-occupation with the dilemma of media, and about PRIVILEGE, the director’s only Hollywood excursion, still a personal, thematically consistent work, but at present unavailable from Universal’s archive. When he does address THE GLADIATORS, he disarms us by revealing Watkins’ expressed feeling that it is his most static work. I’ll agree with that, but equally troubling is a co-authored script which doesn’t ring true in the actors’ (and non-actors’) mouths, and a stylistic juxtaposition between the formal, detached world of the narrative’s military leaders, and the more documentary-like, energized environment of the soldiers, which was more successfully accomplished by Kubrick in PATHS OF GLORY. I never believed in the reality of the film’s near-future world in which international conflicts are fought by small, chosen teams representing either side.
Gomez doesn’t want to sound like a lecturer…but he does. His delivery fits the film – monotone, deliberate, staccato. He knows his stuff, but Cook (commentator of CULLODEN) is still the best of the bunch. Also presented is an early (1959), 17-minute Watkins amateur effort, THE DIARY OF AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER, which helped get the fledgling director his BBC gig in much the same way that John Schlesinger and Ken Russell made their way into British TV. It’s a good double bill. Both are about war, and both combine realistic and expressionistic elements. Also included is a 12-page booklet featuring a Peter Watkins self-interview, with stringent restrictions about using quotes.
Everything that didn’t work about THE GLADIATORS works in PUNISHMENT PARK, even Gomez’s commentary. He calls Watkins the most marginalized major film-artist in the second half of he 20th Century. I’ll say! The same time that PP failed to open (four days isn’t opening…), a film I co-produced – THE PROJECTIONIST – did open, and it dealt with some of the same issues: media-brainwashing, US atrocities equal to any other country’s, etc. But we leavened our film with fantasy and humor. It didn’t do well, but there was no marginalization.
PP may be set in any time, but it was made in 1970 amid an escalating Vietnamese conflict, truculent public protests, the shenanigans of a megalomaniacal President, tragic assassinations… and its story of dissidents facing deprivation ordeals in the desert seemed then, and actually seems now all over again, not so far-fetched as one would wish. This release has a 28-minute intro by Watkins, reading from prepared notes, in his late 60’s with hair gray and thinned, in a possibly pink sport shirt. I hardly recognized him, but I couldn’t forget his style – articulate, hitting those beats about the media and his marginalization. It was nice to see him again, after all these years, older but holding tough; like another outsider I once worked with, Alejandro Jodorowsky, a lion in winter.
His 2004 prelude tells you everything you need to know going into the film. Later, Gomez hits all the fine points in his scene-specific talk-along. The film was shot in 16mm in three weeks. The non-actors’ roles were loosely based on figures of the times such as Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, and LeRoy Jones. Watkins allowed more improvisational freedom than ever before. He recounts and quotes the post-screening attacks from the media, one of whom called the film “…the wish-fulfilling dream of a masochist.” The studios backed off, then the TV stations, and even educational facilities reacted harshly (my screenings of his work at NYU & SVA notwithstanding). The Danish press were inadvertently duped into thinking it was an actual documentary and had harsh words for the US, which they quickly retracted, though Watkins suggests that they didn’t really have to: the social metaphor of the film is as real for him today as it was then. And to make his point, he reminds us of the 2,000,000 prisoners in US prisons, of the prison camps in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.
Also included on the PP disc release is THE FORGOTTEN FACES, a 1961 18-mintute amateur film by Watkins about the ’56 Hungarian Revolution, recreated in the back streets of Canterbury, also a text essay by media critic Scott MacDonald on audience responses to PP, and 24-page booklet, this time with an excerpt from Gomez’s 1979 book about Watkins, which he considered updating, but after consideration left it as it was.
I’d last seen EDVARD MUNCH when it opened in the mid 70’s, and I remembered how good it was, but didn’t remember feeling eager to revisit its three hours of unrelenting Watkins-esque somberness. Well, the surprise is on me. It has real intellectual warmth which lends itself to repeated viewings. I couldn’t stop watching it unfold, and, as a bizarre and yet telling companion piece, it should be double-billed with the Charlton Heston starrer THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, to demonstrate just how wrong, and just how right, films can go in trying to depict the process of artistic inspiration.
Munch was raised in a grim society, in which children openly worked eleven-hour days, in which illness and madness haunted the middle class (and Munch’s family in particular). The grainy 16mm cinematography serves the narrative well. Courted by the Bohemian element in local clubs, Munch is forced into intense conflict about his family and social life. From the first moment he touches paint-brush to canvas, we understand what’s gone into the creative act. It’s no wonder Ingmar Bergman described the film as a “work of genius,” nor (why are we surprised) that it was met with ambivalence at best in the country it depicted.
A cast of non-professionals rises to the occasion in consistent Watkins’ directorial/narrative style and, importantly, they look like the real characters in Munch’s life and paintings. The actor playing Munch presents, for me, a central aesthetic mystery of the film. Geir Westby shows little emotion throughout – we look at him…and he looks at us – yet we know Munch was emotionally devastated as his life went on (it’s reflected so clearly in the evolution of his work), and we hear him sobbing on the sound track, and described in emotionally despairing terms by the narrator. The answer to this puzzle isn’t the obvious one – an actor unable to hit the right notes, like Omar Sharif in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO or Heston in AGONY/ECSTASY. There’s some twisted, intellectual rationalization behind it, but what it was, much as I relate to Watkins’ work, I could never divine. I didn’t feel it damaged the film, just added a lingering question about the director’s intentions, which is not answered in the otherwise-enlightening 24-page booklet included with the disc, wherein Watkins addresses the questions he feels are relevant about EDVARD MUNCH, as well as his work in a larger context. He explains his theories of the “Monoform,” and his life-long “Marginalization” quite definitively for the limited amount of space allowed him in such a supplement, and also addresses an important and relevant aspect of this epic film – its similarity to his own, difficult career. I’m often reminded of something Ettore Scola told me, that a great screenplay is half story, half memory. Think: THE PIANIST, Scola’s A SPECIAL DAY or WE ALL LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH, THE TENANT, and so much of Bergman’s and Fellini’s work for starters. Then add this one to the list. To quote Watkins’ writing about it (an entire passage, so I don’t think my old friend will be annoyed): “I think that the main impact on my work, on the making of this film, came from the intensity of the similarity I felt to Edvard Munch as a man, as an artist, as someone who struggled throughout his life. This intensity – combined with the angst I was feeling at the time about the growing attacks on my own work – definitely shaped the form and structure of EDVARD MUNCH and thus played a role in the direction of my later work.” The kinship between Munch’s story and Watkins’ is uncanny and essential to its impact. I used to argue with film historian (and regular FIR contributor) William K. Everson about the importance of being familiar with an artist’s life in order to best understand his work. Everson disagreed: he felt the work spoke for itself. I always used Chaplin as my key example, whose body of work reads like an autobiography. One can certainly love Chaplin’s work without knowing about his life, but how much more those films mean if one does. And so it is, in particular, with EDVARD MUNCH. It’s so Peter Watkins.
And now we come to LA COMMUNE (PARIS 1871), a 345-minute (that’s 5 hrs. 45 mins, ladies and gentlemen…) re-enactment of the infamous incident of late 19th Century Paris, performed on an improvised sound stage with the usual, anachronistic Watkins accoutrements: two television crews this time, one representing the POV – to a reasonable degree – of the dissenters, the other the calm, cloistered take by the Versailles government base. This three-disc set comes from First Run Features, and is pristinely mastered in B&W, with solid subtitles, and an image that holds the chaos of the nascent government of the poor.
And chaos it is. I know Watkins must have hopes for the human race, else why would he keep doing these similarly-themed films, so worrisomely redolent of human divisiveness and despair. He must see them as a tool of enlightenment. As long as the bombs haven’t fallen yet – the big bombs, that is – then there must still be hope. Although I’m the light-hearted guy who kept cracking jokes as Watkins stared at me in deadly earnest back in the 70’s, paradoxically I’m the one who believes that chaos will surely win out. I’m with Leonard Cohen, who sang, at his sepulchral best: “I’ve seen the future, baby: it is murder.”
Over 200 non-actors populate this volatile film. The ebb and flow of the working class as they rose up against the bourgeois French Government is depicted in such detail, such thought-provoking density (even Watkins’ nemesis, the “Monoform”, is discussed by the communards), that a better reason for the ‘pause’ and ‘reverse’ DVD functions has probably never existed. I don’t know how the patrons at theatrical showings were able to take it all in.
THE UNIVERSAL CLOCK, a 76-minute documentary revolving around the making of, but not always on the set of, LA COMMUNE, is directed by Geoff Bowie, and was funded by the National Film Board of Canada. We get to see Watkins directing, at times phenomenally agitated, gesticulating and lurching about, and at other times discussing his performers’ roles with them, smiling and laughing at their ideas.
It’s always interesting to see behind-the-scenes color footage from a film that is released in B&W. Another recent example is Kevin Brownlow’s brilliant THE DICTATOR AND THE TRAMP (available on Warner’s 2-disc release of THE GREAT DICTATOR), also released in 2001, which uses color footage shot by Sydney Chaplin on his brother’s film location. Both docs’ color footage have an amazing effect on many levels – even the art direction is fascinating, seeing which colors translate into which gray-tones.
Bowie has several of the performers commenting off-set, as well as an actress who was unable to be in the film because of her ‘professional’ status. Every interviewee rises to the occasion, talking to us on an intellectual level. Watkins is brought into the montage with a lecture during which he draws a simple diagram of his ‘Monoform’ organism, elaborating on it whenever Bowie returns to him.
Also inter-cut into the doc are TV salespeople at a Cannes TV marketing convention, and their attitudes play right into Watkins’ worst nightmares. Chris Haws, representing Discovery [Channel] International, USA, defines the UNIVERSAL CLOCK = the standard commercial television hour, clocking in at 47 1/2 mins. Haws claims that all work can indeed, and absolutely must, conform to this model. There’ll be no fretting by the advertising people this way; all programs will be the same length, planet-wide. Some can’t or won’t do it, he admits, but if they’re the Agassi’s of the TV documentary, they’ll be able to do it brilliantly. Concluding the analogy, others can’t play against Agassi to save themselves, and they can’t play ball in the audio-visual media either. He may admire them as artists, but being unable to adapt to the paradigm of the Universal Clock, they won’t be seen. Simple as that.
“Today, our subconscious is colonized by the beat of the Universal Clock. Filmmakers mutate into suppliers of products and brands. Rather than revealing reality, the documentary is covering it over. Like others, I want the documentary to be able to take back time, time to be committed, to respect a process, to treat a subject seriously, to experiment, and time for the viewer to think.” I don’t know if that quote is Watkins’ or Bowie’s, but it sums up the dilemma beautifully.
LA COMMUNE takes its time. It played the Film Forum in NYC in two parts, and everyone I know who saw it loved every minute. There was no marginalization this time. I hope.

And it was so nice to see Peter smile and laugh.

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