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Michael Atkinson on the Uncelebrated Genius of Peter Watkins

Michael Atkinson on the uncelebrated genius of Peter Watkins.

Few serious movie consumers, if asked to tally up a list of the world's greatest living filmmakers from their forebrain, would likely include the incorruptible, pioneering Peter Watkins. They'd name Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, Abbas Kiarostami-and yet no one working in modern cinema, a culture that supposedly prizes originality (at least outside Hollywood), may be as brave, as politically vital, and as utterly intolerant of the medium's systemic compromises as Watkins.Don't be surprised if the name doesn't ring any bells. For most of his nearly 50-year career, Watkins has been the most disenfranchised, relentlessly sidelined film artist, at least outside the old Communist system. He was born British, but soon enough became a man without a country. (He lives in Lithuania now.) His notorious intransigence didn't help. Always on the move and forever at war with producers, distributors, and governments, Watkins was even banned by the BBC-the most visible example of his tangle with authority.Until the recent surge of DVD releases, spurred on, it seems, by the critical 2003 success in the United States and the United Kingdom of his ill-distributed six-hour epic La Commune (Paris, 1871), most of his oeuvre has been nearly impossible to see. In fact, Watkins might be the supreme living example of Noam Chomsky's view that the media culture marginalizes authentically radical sensibilities without being instructed by them. Watkins couldn't be heard because he told too many true stories about the evils of power, and told them too angrily. Over the decades, Watkins has arrived at his own appalled conclusions, and hasn't spoken with the press in years.One sly factor in his relegation to the outskirts may be his pioneering structural tool-the faux documentary, which he invented in The Forgotten Faces (1961), when he was 26, by faking a perfectly believable news-footage document of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in the streets of Canterbury, England. His best and most famous films put documentary-crew cameras where they wouldn't normally be, nudging his films into authentic nonfiction. His first BBC film, the gritty and tumultuous Culloden (1964), depicts shocked off-screen Brit news cameramen witnessing the axe-to-head Jacobite combat of 1745, complete with behind-the-lines talking-head interviews.Watkins's next film was the real fire starter: The War Game (1966), which reaped one of the strangest Oscars ever-Best Documentary, for a fully scripted, acted featurette. Made for British TV, it's a quasi-documentary, speculative portrait of nuclear devastation based upon the British government's own cost analysis and contingency plans. Visions of Londoners seared by radioactivity did not sit well with the BBC, and The War Game, which may have been the Cold War's most sociopolitically vital film, was officially banned in England for 20 years.Furious at being censored, Watkins established himself as an oracle of anti-authoritarian outrage: Privilege (1967) and The Gladiators (1969) both explored the role of entertainment media in controlling the masses, prophesizing our present-day pandemic of rock-star objectification, reality TV, broadcast sports, and punditry. Punishment Park (1971), on the other hand, is a dystopian critique intended for the Peace Movement years, but it is possibly even more relevant today. The premise is so simple it leaves singe marks: Watkins begins by explaining the very real McCarran Act, which granted summary-judgment powers to the president in times of potential insurrection. The Nixon-'Nam years were those times, and so the film follows two groups of arrested protesters as they're led to the Western desert, interrogated by a tribunal and then sent running, with National Guardsman and riot police on the hunt. The cast was largely unprofessional and spoke in their own voices, as radical rebel-victims or reactionary monocrats; often, it's less a narrative than a democracy-in-crisis street fight. Of course the film, like most of Watkins's other work, was barely given a commercial run in this country, and has been effectively erased from the cultural memory.If both The War Game and Punishment Park blurred the gray line between character and actor, Edvard Munch (1974) destroyed it altogether. Having landed in Scandinavia and chosen to make a biopic of the famous painter, Watkins may have seemed as if he were going to let up on the gas. But this three-hour epic, made for Norwegian TV, documents a decade in the artist's life and hones in on Industrial Age class injustice and the small matter of pervasive child labor so relentlessly that Munch often disappears into the social weft. Real working-class Norwegians play 19th-century citizens, but speak about labor rights and injustice in a way that's relevant even today.Watkins has never played well with others, and so when he was commissioned by French TV to make La Commune (Paris, 1871) in 2000, what they got was a marathon re-creation of the uprising after which the film is named, shot in a warehouse with ordinary Parisians as if the event were being covered by an in-period television news crew. The insurrectionary cant cuts like a chainsaw, and so the Gallic executives never broadcast the film, which slowly thereafter circled the globe in festivals and occasional art-house bookings. It's not a viewing experience you can shake off easily, and may be the most passionate and eloquent progressive-values film ever made.

Watkins on DVD:

The War Game / CullodenA double dose of early Watkins, visiting modern London as he and the British government imagined it after a nuclear attack and a post-medieval but ideologically familiar battlefield.
The Gladiators The most thoughtful of the era's many dystopian, society-controlled-by-organized-blood-sport satires.
Punishment Park You are there, in the Mojave during the Vietnam years, as the U.S. military unashamedly rounds up antiwar activists and uses them as training fodder. The on-the-fly shoot became so fraught with conviction that at one point Watkins worried that real bullets were being surreptitiously used.
Edvard Munch The greatest film ever made about an artist's life, but also a lacerating indictment of industrialization that says as much about 2007 as it does about 1894. Still, thanks to the artsy hook, this was the only Watkins film to maintain any sort of viable circulation in the United States.
La Commune (Paris, 1871)A historical mock documentary, this is the film event that turned Watkins into a cultural presence.Still to come on video:The JourneyA full-on, 15-hour documentary in which Watkins circled the globe hunting for peace and common sense in the autumn of the Cold War.

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