Succinct Cinema: The Filmography of Peter Watkins is Radicalism, Personified

Content Warning For: Discussions of violence historical and otherwise, and embeds of disturbing imagery.

Before the Blair Witch, before the Cannibal Holocaust and the band Spinal Tap,1 the scripted, fictionalized use of documentary formatting and filmmaking had already emerged. Film was only just out of its infancy when the concept started being flirted with, and many notable points of development and influence occurred in the 1960s on both sides of the pond, with James McBride’s disturbing microbudget picture David Holzman’s Diary filmed in New York, and the beginning of our subject Peter Watkins’ feature career over in England.

Watkins as a filmmaker truly started with two BBC productions that attracted great attention, controversy, and acclaim, including an Oscar for the latter production: Culloden, which premiered in December 1964, and The War Game, which retracted its 1965 broadcast and instead was released as a theatrical short in ’66. The pitches for each were at once straightforward and intensely confrontational: What if a 1700s battle proudly proclaimed as the very last fought on English soil could be witnessed firsthand through modern wartime journalists, and in the process Watkins and company could tackle their own country’s government, culture, and history of imperialism and genocide; And what if, two decades before Threads or The Day After, nuclear fallout in the Western world could be documented and studied in all its horror? In both cases, the viewer must rely on the intuition that the recording of these events is historically impossible in order to understand that they are experiencing a carefully crafted realization of what it might look like for one to record such things, critically conscious and contemporary works of unreality.

These projects were far-reaching in implication but to some extent narrow in focus, or quite local to the British Empire, if nothing else. Watkins’ vision soon rapidly expanded over the course of the later ’60s and early ‘70s, into works simultaneously more sweeping and more intimate, culminating with Edvard Munch in 1974. Each and every one of these films, including the less prominent Privilege from 1967, manifest as challenges to the sociopolitical status quo of the Western world, from the human cost of the Cold War’s arms race, to conservative backlash against artistic revolution and liberalism in the late 19th Century, and critical fear of the rising police state in America. These films are thus strongly politically subversive, but they are also manifesting radicalism in other forms, challenging cinematic conventions, visual and technique convention as well as narrative and content convention, accomplishing a grander, purer synthesis of absolute thematic and cinematic radicalism. Radicalism of this extensive and ultimate nature is what maintains these films’ immortality and relevance throughout the decades.

A key narrative image that would later inspire the cover art for House‘s 2010 Criterion release, its first official Western distribution ever.

This is a concept and filmic methodology that functions in parallel with, of all things, Nobuhiko Obuyashi’s 1977 masterpiece House, which is about, in brief, upending the particular brand of social conservatism that emerged in Japan post-WWII by portraying young women, who challenge social convention as passionate artists and athletes without concern for getting married, being preyed upon by an older woman who is taking out her trauma and grief from the war on younger generations. The realism style and archetypal narrative drama of popular Japanese cinema like Kurosawa’s samurai films is challenged by applying a humorous tone to the film’s horror story, along with a surrealist style and deliberately unrealistic special effects, and further direct undercutting of conservative social mores such as the wanna-be male hero being turned into flaccid phallic symbols, or even the simple title card in English instead of Japanese. Directly addressing the nation’s recent history and sociocultural state in the midst of an emphasis on unreality that assaults on a primal level the same sensibilities that are being directly discussed on an ideological level enhances the confrontational nature of the work while forcing the particular target audience to think about what it’s supposed to be considering instead of having any level of escape or remove. Accordingly, the film was swiftly embraced by the younger set and rejected by those it was criticizing, and this circles back into Watkins’ own similar functional confrontation of his audience and corresponding relationship with his critics.

Punishment Park (1971)

In the filmmaking of a work like Punishment Park, the verisimilitude is taken to its very limit, using handheld documentary and guerilla filmmaking in sequences featuring non-professional actors and actual local political activists expressing their critical views of real-world politics (completely transient from 1970s to 21st Century) in improvisational dialogue, and being subjected to physical environmental hardships of heat and dehydration to more powerfully feel the emotions and pain, a filmmaking tactic similarly and to a lesser extent employed years later with the actors in say, The Blair Witch Project. All these elements and attributes coalesce into an overall effect of forcibly removing the escapist disconnect that audiences are often able to maintain while engaging in works of similar content/subject matter, contemporary sci-fi dystopias where any troubling questions or challenges of authority can be silenced by filtering it through an artificial unreality and designating as another world, another time, wholly separate from what’s going on outside or inside your head. Instead, a cop firing a rifle at unarmed, innocent political dissidents on-screen is forcibly associated with the Kent State Shooting that was on the minds of the filmmakers and audience at the time of initial release, and given an onscreen presence of reaction to this horrifying act with the same thoughts that are supposed to be going through the viewer’s mind. The audience is put under consistent and considerable pressure to be thinking about reality, to perceive what they’re observing as if it were reality being actively observed and recorded and thus one simply has to actually be listening to and considering what is being expressed onscreen, an overabundance of resources being unevenly distributed due to being filtered through a system of institutionalized oppression. There is no escape from the reality of the system’s failings and flaws.

One of the greatest works of cinema ever categorized as a “TV movie”, it’s a lengthy, challenging affair, but it is truly stunning in its beauty and depth.

This precisely implemented and deliberate disintegration of cinematic convention through convergent visual technique and ultimately direct communication with the audience goes beyond heightening the impact of thematic content, and takes said communication even further, when it is employed in the aforementioned career pinnacle Edvard Munch. By the vehicle of exploring the life of an artist with whom Watkins strongly identified on a personal level, he was able to engage with the audience’s previous reactions to his work and his previous experiences with his films, in parallel with and channeled through Munch’s own experiences with his artwork and critics. The use of his personal, recognizable voice being a critical element of previous works, as discussed with its presence at the end of Punishment Park, places all the more relevance on his positioning himself as the voice reading Munch’s diary entries, which creates an intrinsic association in the audience’s mind between the director and his subject matter when the two intertwined speak of the anxieties of creating art, or responding to criticisms of similar sentiment. That this is inappropriate to be seen by or shown to the public, that it challenges their conventions, their status quo, that it’s truly exposing the frightening realities that its audiences are scared to acknowledge or discuss openly, whether they be psychosexual anxieties or societal failings, this is the conversation that Watkins is engaging with at each and every moment of his filmography in a throughline of radical challenging of society.


This work has been revised and republished from a 2017 college essay.

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For longer-time followers, I am happy to formally announce that Super Mario Misadventures #1: Mario 64 will publish during the last week of May, and Late to the Party: LoZ Twilight Princess will follow soon after on Monday June 8th! This film essay wound up preceding those two exciting pieces only because I am leading in to a showing of the aforementioned J-horror masterpiece House tonight at 7 PM PST/10 PM EST, in memorial of Obayashi after his passing this spring.