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Punishment Park

  •   U.S.
  •   Chartwell Artists
  •   1970
  •   1 hr 30 mins

Background

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 ...

Filming

‘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.

Reaction

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.’


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© Peter Watkins 2016