Watched Peter Watkins' Punishment Park earlier this week. It's an amazing film, one of the most passionate pieces of political filmmaking I've seen. I actually agree with some of its detractors that it seems somewhat masochistic -- feels rather like jamming a pin into the meat and decay of one's own rotten tooth -- but in its honesty, the vitality of its form, and the force of the director's belief (in something, tho' we'll leave aside the question of what for the moment -- perhaps simply that truth, perception, and engagement matter, that the filmic transaction is worth taking seriously), it manages to inspire no less. Perhaps there's some force to be gained from the pain of the poke it offers, too. Sometimes painful experiences can be motivating, as was the case with Cassavetes Faces... Or maybe I just enjoy certain kinds of pain. (Coincidentally, Watkins, in his director's introduction, reminds one of no one so much as Sade as played by Patrick Magee in Marat/Sade...). In any event: I was going to say that The Assassination of Richard Nixon probably seems as weak and ridiculous as it does to me (at midpoint; I've paused it to vent a bit of bile, so I can actually finish the film) because I can't but compare it to Punishment Park. I realized as I began to write this paragraph, however, that even if I hadn't seen Punishment Park this week, The Assassination of Richard Nixon would still be somewhat embarrassing.
Initially, it seems to have promise. Sean Penn plays a disappointed man, a divorced furniture salesman lost in a life too large for him, betrayed (he comes to feel) by America; in the heart of his failure, he decides to take up arms, to try to do something about the things that are wrong around him (or really, with his life) -- by flying a hijacked plane into the White House and killing the person he feels comes to symbolize most clearly the evils of the time. Given the relevancy of the means of assassination, and the fact that any presidential assassination film, released into this current climate, must on some subconscious level interface with the un-publically-speakable wish some may have to assassinate a more current Republican, I'd probably want to be kind to it on principle alone -- if only it were a little less condescending, the music a little less syrupy; we need works of art that grapple with the current state of political disenfranchisement and choked-down rage that's simmering out there, like Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, for instance. To even approach this realm of discourse earns one a merit badge for courage. Unfortunately, the sympathy the film has for its main character isn't a matter of politics, doesn't stem from a perception of any actual inequities in American life (let alone any of the horrors of American foreign policy -- Vietnam is barely even mentioned); the filmmakers are clearly comfortable people who lack any rage or political convictions of their own (other than the everyday reactionary sort that watching a lot of TV tends to inculcate in people). They want us to feel compassion for Penn, but not because he's angry at things worth being angry at; rather, because he's a loser, a victim, a failure, whose every pathetic attempt to get by at work or win back the affections of his ex-wife serves to explain why he wants to kill Nixon. He isn't even allowed to deludedly express his fixations in political language at any length -- the film isn't courageous enough even for that, to at least make Penn articulate in his rage; instead, we're offered an ultimately self-serving and self-reassuring opportunity to squeeze out a little condescending sympathy for the little guy, without ever having to really examine power imbalances in American life or to think that there's anything fundamentally wrong going on out there. The film's thesis is not unlike the post 9/11 American supposition that Al Qaida hate the US because they resent their freedoms; the anger of the disenfranchised that the film purports to deal with is ultimately used simply as a tool to congratulate American viewers on how great they are, to reassure them that all is well, really (and that they can even afford to feel a little sorry for the people who hate them!). Bleh. It's tripe. It will look just fine spliced up for TV to make room for commercials.
But then, I'm only forty-five minutes into it. I should at least finish the film. If you need further reading, here's a link to Peter Watkins' current website. Nothing to do with the Nixon film, but his views on the media are quite interesting. It looks like several of his films are going to be distributed in North America on DVD over the next little while. Really, Punishment Park is necessary viewing, and very relevant to the current, uh, state of things -- right up there on the must-watch list with The Battle of Algiers.
Doesn't it suck how the war in Iraq has kind of quietly faded into the background? Become just another part of the way things are, like the homeless people on the street and the job you have to go to in the morning...?
Post-script: actually, the film becomes a little more interesting in the second half, but not so much so that I'm going to substantially revise anything I've said. Nice final shot, though. Best thing about the film.