If the Jeopardy category were “enigmatic directors,” then Terrence Malick might be the basis for most of the questions. For an “art” movie, last year’s Tree of Life had an exceptionally high degree of visibility; I sometimes wondered if it was being projected directly onto everyone’s doorstep, rather than at a nearby cinema. It now seems Malick is in the sweet spot both of being able to do whatever he wants – suddenly working faster than he ever has in his life, he’s already completed another film and reportedly started yet another - and of being guaranteed immense respect and deference. Certainly Tree of Life is a serious-minded work, evidencing a phenomenal ease with the tools of cinematic creation. But it’s essentially egotistical and ungenerous: it doesn’t evidence a scrap of interest in the life experience of anyone other than Malick himself, and doesn’t give you anything that you can practically use once you leave the theatre. With a little less refinement, the film would have resembled a dazzlingly eloquent bore at a party, sucking up the air with his wacko theories.
I like my cinematic enigmas to be more humble and grounded, and I thought I’d try today to turn your attention toward Peter Watkins, one of the least industry-integrated filmmakers ever to win an Academy Award. He was born in the UK in 1935, and came to prominence with two films in the 1960’s. Culloden reconstructed the 1745 battle of that name as if TV cameras had been present. The War Game depicted the aftermath of a nuclear attack; it was rejected by the BBC for its intensity and then won a documentary Oscar (a particular testimony to its power, given it’s a work of speculation). Watkins then plunged into the swinging sixties with Privilege, studying themes of manipulation and indoctrination through the medium of a cult pop hero: the film is dazzlingly imaginative and energetic, wildly of its time, and quite prophetic.
His next two films were biting allegories. The Gladiators depicts East and West channeling their aggression into “peace games,” broadcast on TV. More didactic and narrow than his best work, it suffers now from various points of similarity to other dystopian works, although it exhibits all his skill at nailing establishment ideologies. Punishment Park imagines that the America of Nixon and Vietnam might offer its young dissidents the choice of trying to evade draconian prison sentences by taking their chances in a (rigged) desert survival exercise. Cutting between the desert and the judicial proceedings, the film was despised at the time, and hasn’t lost any of its power: actually, after Guantanamo Bay, and against a backdrop of escalating complacency in the face of destructive war-mongering politics, it may seem even more relevant now. In fact, it’s arguably so gripping as to undermine its own intentions, drawing the viewer into fascinated but generalized revulsion, at the cost of evoking a meaningfully directed response.
At this point Watkins might still have followed a direction at least vaguely related to the mainstream. But he didn’t. He went to Sweden to make a film about Edvard Munch, which received significant acclaim (I skip over it here only because it’s been too long since I saw it). That was in 1974: his sixth credit in ten years. Since then, working and (I believe) living primarily in Scandinavia, he’s only made seven more films, the last of them over a decade ago. Worse, most of these have barely been seen, and aren’t easily available – for example, his film The Seventies People was effectively buried after its first screening, and is apparently now missing except for one print held in Paris and another in Denmark, neither of them generally accessible and neither with English subtitles.
His 1994 film The Freethinker is on DVD though, and I recently watched that. It’s a long, sometimes deliberately grueling meditation on the dramatist August Strindberg, disorienting the viewer by switching between different phases of Strindberg’s life and by sowing deliberate confusion as to (for instance) whether at a given moment we’re watching a representation of Strindberg or rather being told about him, whether we’re watching a recreation of his life or a scene from one of his plays. The film doesn’t use talking head experts, but periodically drops us into contemporary discussions about his legacy, as well as sensitizing us to the wretched poverty and prejudice in Sweden at the time.
The film amply illustrates then Watkins’ emphasis on the necessity of an alternative audio-visual language (made explicit near the start of the film). A statement on his excellent website (pwatkins.mnsi.net) emphasizes the “increasingly irresponsible manner in which the mass audiovisual media (MAVM) function, (and) their disastrous impact on society, human affairs, and the environment” and refers to “the widespread public passivity towards the way the MAVM flagrantly comport themselves as proponents of violent, exploitative and hierarchical ideologies, and to the catastrophic and ongoing lack of public knowledge about what the mass audiovisual media are doing to us.” I take the point of The Freethinker to be not so much Strindberg himself, but to sensitize us to the bland linearity of most historical representation, shaped and conditioned around a selected set of “facts” and interpretations (the fact that most viewers likely aren’t particularly interested in the subject might be a deliberate device for promoting our focus on this deconstructive process).
Watkins’ website is crammed with provocative material, such as a scathing essay on the coverage of Princess Diana’s death (“I heard media professionals who had either completely lost their sense of reason, or had become even more manipulative than my (previous statements) indicated”); it’s a detailed and fascinating record of a stubbornly iconoclastic path through life (a recent update says a distributor in Toronto is working to release some of these missing works on DVD, and that Watkins is “preparing a CD-Rom lexicom on the media crisis”). His critique of mass media malignity becomes ever more relevant as the standard of our public discourse grinds relentlessly into greater trivia, shrouding the mass erosion of quality of life and prospects for sustainability. One imagines Watkins would view Tree of Life as belonging to the same camp as the mass media he despises, tying up our faculties with a superficially warming sense of belonging and wonderment, which only blunts our capacities to fight for our rights and futures. Of course, valiant as his efforts may have been, he’s been hopelessly outmatched. Still, in addition to The Freethinker, Edvard Munch and the earlier films I’ve mentioned are available on DVD. If you hope to spend any time on cinema that enhances and instructs you, you could do much worse than allocate some of your time to Peter Watkins.