Punishment Park (1971)
director: Peter Watkins.
The most personal of my choices, “Punishment Park” never received a general release and, like other Watkins’ films was pretty much buried. It is now available on You Tube and I was delighted to be able to view it again recently. His earlier film, “The War Game”, made for the BBC and about a nuclear attack on the UK, had been banned. Over 10 years later the film was still relevant but could only be seen in local community centres and church halls. How effective, how true does a movie have to be for authorities to not want us to see it ?
“Punishment Park” is a similar documentary style (I refuse to use the prefix “pseudo”) projection into a dystopian near future. It posits a reaction to the counter- culture by the authorities whereby, after a tribunal, those arrested are given the option of prison or going to Punishment Park, an area in the desert where those who choose have to travel 50 miles to the American flag pursued by the National Guard. The film intercuts between a group in the desert and the tribunal for the following group.
It is obviously a political film. Watkins has an agenda and pulls no punches in showing which side of the fence he stands. It is this “fence”, the polarization of American society in the late 1960s, which is shown more effectively than in any film I have ever seen. The absence of any mutual understanding between the two opposing groups is repeatedly made. The treatment of the black activist at the tribunal seems crass and ridiculous yet mirrors the treatment of Bobby Seale who was bound and gagged in the courtroom during the trial of the Chicago 7. There is always an element of “this could happen” about this movie which makes it so compelling. A monotone English voice coldly narrates adding a veracity to the images.
Seeing “Punishment Park” again is not like watching a view from another time. The same polarization exists today, the potential for oppression remains. The arguments are the same and the film is still relevant. The style is also wonderfully modern. The rapidity of the editing , the hand held shots, the involvement of the film makers as the events unfold bring to mind the films of Nick Broomfield, “Man Bites Dog”, even “The Hurt Locker. The legacy of music video on cinema is the eye-blinking speed of cuts between shots. Watkins uses this so effectively that it is difficult to believe that the film is 40 years old.
On leaving the cinema in 1972 a friend asked if we had just watched a documentary. We were surprised at his reaction but this reflects no deception on the part of the film-maker rather how effective his methods had been. A film which still provokes thought, discomfort and anger after all this time.
Taxi Driver (1976)
director: Martin Scorsese. starring: Robert de Niro.
“Taxi Driver” is the director’s first major, big budget, movie. He had made good films previous to this and “Mean Streets” is a great one. The later film nicks it because it is a more collaborative and thus more structured film than the labour of love that is “Mean Streets”. Scorsese even had a bona-fide movie star in the lead role after his boy De Niro’s turn as the young Vito Corleone in “Godfather 2”. Robert was on a roll which brought us “1900”, “The Last Tycoon”, back with Martin for “New York, New York” and then “The Deer Hunter”. (Blimey, I have missed some quality movies from this list of 10). The script, by Paul Schrader, a man as driven as the director, was a ready rolled portrait of alienation and it’s consequences. Scorsese gave notice of his intentions to make a film about urban and personal claustrophobia by employing Bernard Herrmann to score the film. Herrmann had written the music for Hitchcock’s great run of 50s classics. He wrote the music for “Citizen Kane” for Christ’s sake. This was to be his final work.
Travis Bickle, our hero, is a man estranged from the world around him. He wants to make connections but is unable to. He hates the world he sees through the windscreen and in the back seat of his cab. When he tries to make connections he meets the platitudes of fellow driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) or fails through his own social inadequacy with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). He is, in his own words, “God’s lonely man”.
The film’s progression to the violent climax is perfectly pitched. Bickle tenses as Tom (Albert Brooks) tries to move him along and you just know that the Vietnam vet could do some real damage here. The destruction of his TV is as funny as hell. When Travis shows up at a political rally sporting a mohican it is obvious that it is all over for him and for whoever gets in his way. The involvement with a teenage prostitute, Iris, (Jodie Foster) and her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) inevitably ends in violence because Bickle is, by this time, too far gone.
Scorsese with “Taxi Driver” brought the urban cinema of Hitchcock, Kazan, Lumet and others into the modern age. He paved the way for Tarentino and Ferrera to make their provocative films. More than any director he was aware of cinema history and, I think, it was no accident that he did this. “Taxi Driver” is a modern film. Every year in the USA there are shocking murders such as the Columbine shootings. This film forewarned of these events and explains the psychology of the disturbed loners who commit them.Travis only ends as a “hero” because society will always interpret violence to suit it’s own ends. A great, GREAT film.
As a change of tone here is Michel Gondry’s “sweded” version. (see “Be Kind, Rewind).