BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE CINEMA OF PETER WATKINS ON DVD

By • Nov 13th, 2007 •

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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)
PUNISHMENT PARK (1971 – 88 mins) & THE FORGOTTEN FACES
(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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