Will Films of Peter Watkins Find New Audience?

British director Peter Watkins' most famous movie, The War Game, won a Best Documentary Oscar in 1966. Now his films are being released on DVD. Critic Elvis Mitchell and Scott Simon discuss Watkins' work.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

British director Peter Watkins' most famous movie was made 40 years ago. The War Game was a 47 minute film that used documentary techniques, including interviews and handheld cameras, to make credible a fictional representation of the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Great Britain. The War Game was rejected by the BBC, but it won the 1966 Oscar for Best Documentary and Hollywood waved money at Peter Watkins. But his filmmaking career has since been checkered with movies that were abandoned, cut or never distributed. Studios pulled out of his film reconstruction of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and his film Punishment Park was never released. New Yorker Films is now releasing Peter Watkins' movies on DVD. And here to talk about his work, we're joined by our film critic, Elvis Mitchell.

Elvis, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Good to be with you Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Now, let's talk about Peter Watkins generally. He became famous for, as we noted, using techniques that were usually associated with the documentary in fictional films, including using people who often were not actors, or certainly were not known actors.

MITCHELL: It's funny that you talk about that, because all the techniques that he used - if you see Punishment Park, which to my eyes is one of the most amazing films I've ever seen, and I saw it when I was in college and it gave me nightmares - but the idea of using documentary techniques for fiction filmmaking was so new and so revelatory, and to use it in the setting in which he did in Punishment Park was just kind of astonishing.

SIMON: Let's talk about Punishment Park. He reportedly at first thought about making some kind of dramatized reenactment of the trial of the Chicago Eight, which became the trial of the Chicago Seven - Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale. He wound up making a film that would show dissidents and demonstrator detained, put on trial and then sent to a detention center called Punishment Park. A clip from the movie now.

(Soundbite of movie "Punishment Park")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Continue, Mr. Brown. Tell us, tell us your message.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) You don't want to hear my message, man.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) We want to hear your message.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) You don't want to hear my message.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) We saw some of it...

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) You've spent 50 years evolving a propaganda system that'll take the truth and change it into what you want to hear. You don't want it. All you want to do is sit on your fat, dividend-drawing ass and draw a dividends. You...

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Did I react to the names that you called me? I didn't react as your people just reacted moments ago, did I? You called me pig and other names. Did I react like that?

SIMON: So you have these faces which are not recognizable, and I guess, according to what I read about the film, there was no written script. People were asked to apparently take on a character.

MITCHELL: Well, he found as he was casting the film that the actors are so kind of representative of what he wanted to get in the film, their own experience. Many of the actors have been arrested for protesting. He just thought it'd be better to get them. And he found actors to play the parts of the tribunal who were not as right wing as the people they're playing, but certainly had sympathies in that direction. So they're really arguing these people down. And it didn't have this sort of - that feeling of sort of cheap, cynical thing we get nowadays of the things inspired by real events, or now it can be told. Because long before the phrase mockumentary existed, Peter Watkins was making films that were mean to sort of embody the attitudes of what was going on while placing them in an incredibly dramatic scenarios.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the - I'm not sure biopic is what I mean, but is - his film, which perhaps next to War Game was his best known film, about Edvard Munch, the artist, which did have distribution. How was his technique applied there?

MITCHELL: Well, in that same sort of way. I think - and I think of Altman here, because whenever - when you see Vincent and Theo, basically you're sort of lifting what feels like a conventional biopic out of that sort of thing that...

SIMON: This is Altman's film about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theodore...

MITCHELL: His brother, Theo Van Gogh. Yes. Well, that sense, that thing that Altman did was to kind of lift it out of the sort of rigidity of what we call Masterpiece Theater and give it real feeling and real emotional content and show somebody fighting against the worst parts of himself. Those things are things you can find in Edvard Munch, and it's just so startling to see. You think that - so many people didn't know how to react to his films that in the pans of the movies and the attacks people were actually talking about what's affecting them. And it somehow shows that a film that is really powerful, a piece of art that works in some way that is really incendiary and provocative, is sometimes beyond the articulation of critics to talk about. Because I think what he really wanted to do in all these films, and what really comes across, is he wanted us to feel them before we actually were able to figure out what we thought about them.

SIMON: He - Peter Watkins has moved around the globe a lot, hasn't he? He decided to leave England. He lived in the United States. He lived in France. He lived in Canada.

MITCHELL: I think because he gets a chance to see how much chauvinism there is in each of these countries. Many of these places are thought of as being kind of idyllic, like Sweden or Canada. And he gets the chance to see that, you know, beneath that sort of - that surface of everything's accepted and everything's incredibly democratic, that there is a kind of a corrosive national identify that he wants to get at. And all of his films in one way or another have dealt with the dangers of pride.

SIMON: His work has been seen by obviously a relatively small number of filmgoers, theater-goers, although I think at this point rather more students. But nonetheless, over 40 years, does he leave a real touchable legacy?

MITCHELL: All these things we've talked about here, Scott: you can't look at reality television now and not think in one way or another that he was there 40 years ago predicting it, sort of setting out the rules. And you see a film like Punishment Park, which sort of takes the what's the worst that can happen scenario of an exploitation picture and marries it to something incredibly sort of deeply felt. And there is an honesty in that that I think is missing from many of the people who have taken up his legacy. And I think his influence is felt and seen, but he didn't leave a signature. Unfortunately no fingerprints.

SIMON: Elvis Mitchell, our entertainment critic here on WEEKEND EDITION, who also hosts The Treatment on KCRW and many other public radio stations, speaking with us from New York.

Elvis, thank you very much.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott.

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