Cycle of Peter Watkins' films- Admirable director

Discuss your favourite and not-so-favourite Directors here
Post Reply
Posts: 9
Joined: Sat Jul 11, 2009 4:31 pm

Cycle of Peter Watkins' films- Admirable director

Post by pierrefriquet »

Body of Text on Peter Watkins,
Peter Who ?
Read the following body of text that includes
-Analysis of his films by Chris Fujiwara
-the Usual wikipedia biography
-his personal statement on the MEDIA crisis

A screening of his film is planned in my head,

Culloden (1964)
Punishment Park (1970)
The Bomb {?}
La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000)

with such elaborate web site, ,
I won't even need to produce any material for a presentation,
his words are just enough.

The Pressure of Time, the Look at the Camera, and the Boundary in the Films of Peter Watkins
By Chris Fujiwara

A triple pressure acts on the people of Peter Watkins's La Commune (Paris, 1871): (1) the two-month time window of the historical Commune; (2) the need to define, in terms of the present crisis, the legacy and meaning of the Commune; (3) the pressure of the media, including Watkins himself and his film (long as it is), to reduce time to ever smaller quantities: a minimization of time that culminates in the scene at the barricades, when the Communard TV reporter (Gérard Watkins), converging with the camera on each of the actors in turn, requires them to acknowledge and testify about their double existence as modern-day actor and historical character: "Would you have been on the barricades in 1871?"
Time in Watkins's films is like the time that Walter Benjamin, in the fourteenth of his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," qualified as "not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now." In Section XVI of the same essay, Benjamin argues for the necessity of "the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop." A perfect description of Watkins's procedure in La Commune, and a perfect description of the goals of the members of the Union des femmes shown in the film, who seek to break their identification with their work and liberate time for themselves.
In Edvard Munch, The 70s People, and Evening Land, time explodes: each film is a mosaic of moments far flung in time and space, in which sound and image overlap and diverge; the "cutaway" is constantly deployed in a way that relativizes the term and renders it meaningless, since here there is nothing but cutaway, no shot that is not cut away from or that is not cut-away-to from another shot. These films are penetrated and saturated by voices alien to the image, coming from other "scenes," making it impossible to identify and bracket the scene as a separate unit within the flow of displaced images and sounds. Everything is mixed, combined, juxtaposed; there is no unanimity in these films - no more than in La Commune, in which hardly a position is ever affirmed without eliciting a counterargument, a protest, or a catcall (indeed, "it's difficult to be a democrat," as a woman says in the film).
The ambiguity that Watkins cultivates from his earliest films achieves its fullest form in The Freethinker and La Commune. Watkins intersperses different kinds of profilmic events: staged historical or fictional events and situations involving "real people" - often the same people who appear as actors in the staged events and who, speaking as "themselves," comment on the characters they play. A character in these films appears not as a programmed embodiment of a preordained series of actions and responses within a precontrived plot whose outcome is known to the author (who, by this knowledge, assumes a privileged position outside and above the work), but as a consciousness that makes and determines the meaning of situations and that participates in dialogue with other figures, including the author (who is thereby placed within the work).
A further ambiguity arises from the undecidability of whether a given profilmic event is staged or "real-life." Though this ambiguity becomes especially acute in The 70s People and Evening Land, none of Watkins's films is ever totally free from it, and the blurring of the line between staging and real-life situation (or that between character and actor) constitutes one of the decisive formal facts of Watkins's work, one fraught with consequences. The place of the "real" fluctuates radically during a Watkins film.
In conventional documentary-film usage, any voice-over narration is almost automatically ascribed to a direct authorial address. But Watkins's films multiply narrators and distribute them across both sides of the line between staging and real-life situation. In several films, including Punishment Park, sometimes the source of the voice-over narration is an offscreen character (a journalist) who, at times, passes over on-screen. On the other hand, in The Gladiators, the voice-over narration sometimes anticipates events still to come in the narrative ("of the eight people in this room, four will shortly die, and the remainder will continue to play the Game as hard as they can") - why? Surely to subvert the form of the documentary by affirming that every outcome is already predictable in advance, an assertion that moreover links the narrator, as the agent of a media system, with the "system" that (within the fictional world of the film) determines the course of the Peace Game. In any case, knowledge is never enough. Knowledge can even become ridiculous: in The 70s People, the narrator irrelevantly announces the time ("time: 7:25 a.m.") over shots whose chronology is dispersed and in a context where such knowledge cannot inform of us of anything or be used for anything and thus has no meaning.
In Evening Land, on the other hand, the absence of a voice-over narrator becomes a source of uncertainty. (The various voices-off in the film are not associated with a position of knowledge and authority or with a function of information seeking.) Evening Land is, moreover, a model of a narrative feature film in which the illusions of "proximity" or "identification" are defused and destroyed - first by the fact, made unmistakeable by Watkins's techniques, that we never get "closer" to the characters than the camera and microphone allow, second by the narrativization of these recording devices so that their limitation by the conditions of recording (police lines, crowd movements, etc.) becomes apparent, and third by the foregrounding of the arbitrariness of recording choices (as when, during a speech by a labor leader, the camera stays for an extended time on the figure of a left-wing reporter in the crowd).
One result of the varying position of the narrator in Watkins's work is the relativization of the place of the author. In Privilege, as in other Watkins films, it becomes clear that the place of the author is not the same as the place from which the voice-over narration is uttered. The looks of onscreen characters at the camera in Watkins's films are crucial in this regard. In general, the look at the camera is supposed to acknowledge the act of filming and the act of watching, thus implying an address to the spectator and making apparent the act of filming as an act of discourse. However, looks at the camera in Watkins's films raise two crucial questions: to whom is the onscreen look addressed? And who is looking?
In La Commune, in scenes that are presented as the reportage of TV journalists, characters who look at the camera are understood to be looking at the (fictional) audience of the TV broadcast - in other words, at a space, at a group of people, that are not the same as the space and the people of the audience watching the film La Commune. They are looking, then, into an unreal, fictional world. But this fictional world is, of course, also a metaphor for the world of the real audience. In other scenes of La Commune, including those set in "real-life" situations, looks at the camera dispense with the fiction of the TV journalists, their camera, and their audience and aim directly at - what or whom? The author of the film? The audience watching the film? It's clear that the addressee of the onscreen look can fluctuate and vary, just like the figure who looks (who could be any onscreen character at any moment).
Then there are looks at the camera that arise from an "enacted" situation and whose meaning is undecidable. In the scenes (which recur throughout La Commune) in which a bourgeoise woman sits at her desk writing letters about events in Paris, she periodically looks up at the camera. Here (as also in some scenes in The Freethinker) the camera is like a familiar intimate, a presence as real and as somehow indeterminate as that of a spouse, a pet, or a mirror. Then there is the extraordinary moment in which, during a gathering at the bourgeoise's salon, while a guest speaks offscreen about the deplorable state of his business since the start of the Commune, the housemaid, in close-up, stares steadily and coldly into the camera lens.
The look into the lens in Watkins's films carries strong psychological and social connotations. The very first shot of Edvard Munch shows Munch looking at the camera and establishes contact itself as a category, and an act, of fundamental importance. The absence of contact stifles and irritates Munch; he challenges it in his work. The narrator (Watkins) points out: "In many of Munch's family studies, the faces are turned to the side. Human contact with the eyes is avoided." Munch stubbornly berates Mrs. Heiberg in the country house: "It's that inaccessibility of yours that makes me angry." Contrary to some theoretical models that have been proposed to explain the look at the camera in cinema, in Edvard Munch whether or not a character looks at the camera has no necessary connection with whether the shot is understood as an act of direct address. The looks toward the camera in Edvard Munch have no specific expressive intention: they merely reenforce contact.
In The 70s People, the intermittent looks of the two heroines at the camera are flat, seemingly intentionless. Their looks seem to hint (like Munch's stares at the camera in Edvard Munch) that their adhesion to the world of their family lives, as presented in the film, is faltering and weak; that they are not fully part of that world. Other looks express irritation, or - in the case of the girl who threatens suicide on the high window ledge - the explicit demand that the camera go away. These looks imply a kind of personhood that may have something in common with the "strange sort of emptiness" Vanessa sees in Steven in Privilege. Like Steven, and like Munch, the young heroines of The 70s People struggle to escape an inauthentic and unsatisfying existence.
The look toward the camera is thus the crossing of a boundary - a crucial act in Watkins's work. But what is the boundary and where is it located? In the "Set Me Free" production number in Privilege, the police barricade, contrary to our possible initial assumptions, does not mark the boundary between the spectacle and the (onscreen) audience but between two groups of figures who are mobilized within the spectacle. The girl who apparently slips through the barricade, unnoticed, to join Steven on stage is, we realize, also part of the show (just as in The Gladiators, everyone is subsumed under the "system," including the left-wing radical who thinks he is trying to destroy it). A continuity within the spectacle slides all the way from the represented world toward us, the film audience.
In our own time, as a woman says in La Commune, the enemy is invisible; a physical barricade is no help: now the problem is economic; it is globalization and media. Paul Virilio writes in Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles of a form of popular resistance that is "a defense without body, condensed nowhere." This is the form of defense that is needed, but which the historical heroes of La Commune were unable to marshal. Already, in The War Game and Privilege, Watkins's work has shown the displacement of struggle from external to internal space; the saturation of both regions (and also the region of time) by media; the state's denial of private space and its appropriation of private space for state use - a colonization of the interior.
Time, then, becomes the most critical boundary. In La Commune, when a character onscreen suddenly starts talking about the Commune in the past tense and from the perspective of today, the slippage reveals time to be - not a fiction, but a variable space for a kind of structured free play in which the consciousness that it is play (that this is 1999, that we are actors playing the people of 1871) is not suppressed but allowed open expression. This happens without any apparent loss in the intensity of the actors' commitment to their staged reality, with its minimized and pressurized time. This passage across what would, in "real life," be an insurmountable time barrier constitutes a radical step toward the decolonization of interior space, made possible by Watkins's drive to pin down and solidify the moment so that its acute tension can be felt in a new way.
Originally published in Peter Watkins (Chris Fujiwara, editor, Jeonju International Film Festival, 2007)
Chris Fujiwara

Peter Watkins
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Peter Watkins (born 29 October 1935) is an English film and television director. He was born in Norbiton, Surrey, lived in Sweden, Canada and Lithuania for many years, and now lives in France. He is one of the pioneers of docudrama.
After studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Watkins began his television and film career as an assistant producer of short TV films and commercials; and in the early 1960s was an assistant editor and director of documentaries at the BBC. All of his films have either been documentary or drama presented with documentary techniques, sometimes portraying historical occurrences and sometimes possible near future events as if contemporary reporters and filmmakers were there to interview the participants. Watkins pioneered this technique in his first full-length television film, Culloden, which portrayed the Jacobite uprising of 1745 in a style similar to the Vietnam War reporting of the time. In 1965, he won a Jacob's Award for Culloden at the annual presentation ceremony in Dublin.[1]
The scope and formal innovation of Culloden drew immediate critical acclaim for the previously unknown director, and the BBC commissioned him for another ambitious production, the nuclear-war docudrama The War Game, for The Wednesday Play strand. Although Watkins' strong anti-war beliefs had already been apparent in Culloden, the BBC apparently expected The War Game to be dry and patriotic;[citation needed] when the finished film turned out to be not only graphically horrifying but an open rebuke to government policy, the BBC were pressured into banning it from broadcast by the government, although they did arrange a screening for journalists and television critics. Watkins has since had similar conflicts with state television networks in other countries. The production was subsequently released to cinemas and won the 1966 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, eventually being screened by the BBC on 31 July 1985.
His reputation as a political provocateur was amplified by Punishment Park, a story of violent political conflict in the United States that coincided with the Kent State Massacre. Opposition to war is a common theme of his work, but the films' political messages are often ambiguous, usually allowing the main characters to present violently opposing viewpoints which in many cases are improvised by the cast: in Punishment Park, the soldiers and dissidents were played by nonprofessional actors whose political opinions matched those of their characters so well that the director said he feared actual violence would break out on set. He took a similar approach in his Paris Commune reenactment La Commune, using newspaper advertisements to recruit conservative actors who would have a genuine antipathy to the Commune rebels. Watkins is also known for political statements about the film and television media, writing extensively about flaws in television news and the dominance of the Hollywood-derived narrative style that he refers to as "the monoform".
After the banning of The War Game and the poor reception of his first non-television feature, Privilege, Watkins left England and has made all of his subsequent films abroad: The Gladiators in Sweden, Punishment Park in the United States, Edvard Munch in Norway, Resan (a 14-hour film cycle about the threat of nuclear war) in ten different countries, and La Commune in France. Freethinker: The Life and Work of Peter Watkins, is a forthcoming biography by Patrick Murphy, a Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at York St John University and Dr John Cook. It is being compiled with Watkins' active help and participation.
• The War Game is filmed in a documentary fashion and looks at the possible effects of nuclear war on England. The film is notable for its intense power and imagery. It later won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, as well as the 1967 Best Documentary Feature award in Great Britain.
• The Gladiators (The Peace Game) views war as a futuristic sporting event where it seems as if games are being played for a television audience.
• Privilege looks at a performing singer placed in a futuristic totalitarian state. The main character, Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), is an intense character who sympathizes with the youth of the nation. He becomes very popular, yet realizes that his life is also controlled by the government. In 1978, Patti Smith recorded one of the film's songs, "Set Me Free" (as "Privilege (Set Me Free)") on her album Easter. The recording charted on the Top-100 lists in the UK (#72) and Ireland (#13).
• Punishment Park is based on the "siege mentality" of police force during the 1970s. Protesters are given a choice for sentencing, and Punishment Park is one of the choices. Punishment Park lets the Protesters try to endure a three day long contest in a barren desert without food, while being pursued by armed National Guardsmen.
• Edvard Munch looks directly at Munch's life, with special detail to his early years.
• The 70's People

• Culloden (1964)
• The War Game (1965)
• Privilege (1967)
• The Gladiators (The Peace Game) (1969)
• Punishment Park (1970)
• Edvard Munch (1973)
• The Seventies People (1975)
• Fällan (The Trap) (1975)
• Aftenlandet (Evening Land) (1977)
• Resan (The Journey) (1987)
• The Freethinker (1994) (Titled Fritänkaren in Swedish)
• La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000)

The Media Crisis 1. Media Crisis - Suggestions for Use and Personal Prologue

THIS SECTION contains the text of the critical media analysis which I completed in August 2003. This analysis has suggestions on how to use the site, a newly revised Introduction, seven chapters, and a series of appendices, which give additional information and examples. In addition, there is a 5-page analysis by Canadian filmmaker Geoff Bowie of the newsbroadcasting on CNN
Suggestions for usage
This statement is intended primarily as a resource, being a combination of critical ideas as well as practical concepts for challenging the existing rigid and hierarchical processes of the mass audiovisual media (MAVM).
There are over 100 pages to this statement. As minimum reading, I would recommend the revised Introduction to the media crisis.
The chapter The American MAVM, Hollywood and the Monoform is very important because it contains key descriptions of the Monoform, the Universal Clock, and other standard media practices, which are subsequently referred to throughout the other chapters.
I would also recommend The public - alternative processes and practices, for at that point this statement turns from a critical perspective towards a series of alternative proposals. I hope that the Conclusion is also helpful, in drawing certain threads together.
The other chapters are: The European, Scandinavian, Canadian MAVM; Media education, popular culture, and violence; Filmmakers, festivals, and the repression, and The role of the Global Justice Movement
There are thirteen Appendices, which are also indicated where appropriate throughout the main body of the statement.
You have the option to continue reading through as much of the statement as you wish, or to select chapters or Appendices.
Finally, there is CNN - America's Pravda - an important 5-page analysis by Geoff Bowie of three CNN newsbroadcasts on Monday, October 7th, 2002.
Geoff Bowie is a Canadian filmmaker, and the director of THE UNIVERSAL CLOCK, a documentary film about the making of La Commune .
On several occasions in this statement, I briefly mention an element of the media crisis, saying that I have written about it elsewhere. This refers either to text which appears in PART 2 of this site or to another recent (as yet unpublished) article. If you are interested in any of the topics which are not developed at length here, please let me know.
Personal Prologue
When I use the term ‘media crisis’, I am referring to the increasingly irresponsible manner in which the mass audiovisual media (MAVM) function, and to their disastrous impact on society, human affairs, and the environment.
I refer 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 refer to the widespread resistance within the professional ranks of the MAVM towards critical debate having any bearing on what they are doing. I refer also to harsh repression within the MAVM: holding professionals in line, and thereby undoubtedly playing a direct role in silencing critical voices.
And finally, I refer to the refusal by global education systems to allow young people access to any form of genuinely critical media pedagogy - which might give them an opportunity to challenge the role and practices of the MAVM.
This extreme crisis for global civil society AND for the environment, falls into six principal areas under examination: • the role of the American MAVM, with their disastrous impact on global politics, social life, and culture • the somewhat less obvious, but equally dangerous role of the MAVM in most other countries • the role of global media educators (encouraging young people to enter the mass media as acquiescent professionals, or to accept the mass media as passive consumers) • the role of film festivals and of filmmakers themselves • the complex role of the counter-culture movement • the role of the public.
Before I review a few of the elements in each of these areas of responsibility, I’d like to comment on some of the overall aspects of the media crisis.
The first has to do with the general purpose of the MAVM in society, no matter where they are at work. What exactly is their role in contemporary society?
Is it to provide citizens with as reasonably impartial and unbiased information as possible? Is it to give viewers a mixture of entertainment - populist and non, simple and complex, violent and peaceful, monolinear and non, brief and sustained, aggressive and spiritual? Is it to listen to the public (even if not to work with it in a participatory manner)? (The above is not an ideal formula - far from it - I am simply offering it as a possible introduction to a more mixed version of television and commercial cinema than we have at the present time.)
Or is it the reverse of all these things? Is the role of the MAVM to overtly entrap/offend the public with mono-programming and lack of choice, and with the most simplistic and crude commercial programming possible? Is it to create violence in society? Is it to set aggressive, pro-government, pro-military, pro-consumer-society agendas? (As well as keeping all of its decisions and methods secret?)
Television reality, in global terms, has become the latter. But instead of being critically recognized for what they are - an increasingly manipulative, malevolent and destructive force in contemporary society - the MAVM (regardless of which culture, or in which part of the world) tend to be seen by most of the public, including many intellectuals, as something akin to a necessary public service (like turning on the hot water tap). And are considered equally harmless.
The startling disparity between the actual existing role of the MAVM, and public awareness of that role, has become an outstanding phenomena of our contemporary life. The silence, and lack of knowledge regarding the nature and consequence of the Monoform and the Universal Clock, and of the various forms of on- and off-screen violence (let alone the impact on global culture and the environment), are just some of the highlights on a long and deadly list of missing links.
The agendas used by the MAVM to define the ways in which they function, and the practices they enforce to essentially hold in place the consumer society (with its reliance on massive economic exploitation), while sustaining world arms races and the practice (or threat) of war to replace diplomacy - appear to be largely invisible to the vast majority of the general public.
The above was written in 2003. Please now see the text of a revised Introduction to this website, which draws attention to the direct links between the role of the mass audiovisual media, and the looming environmental catastrophe.
Perhaps I can best begin by describing my own increasing awareness of the media crisis, and my initial attempts to challenge it.
Even when I began making films as an amateur, I remember thinking that much of the commercial cinema in the 1950s and early 1960s, and television in general, felt extremely stilted and conventional, holding the public locked into set and authoritarian agendas.
I can recall, in the later 1950s - when I was developing the 'newsreel style' in my early films - that one of my primary aims was to substitute the artificiality of Hollywood and its high-key lighting, with the faces and feelings of real people. One step in that direction was The Forgotten Faces (1960), in which I used 'ordinary people' to recreate the events of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, as though they were happening in front of newsreel cameras. In reality, we were filming in the back streets of Canterbury, Kent.
Another dimension to my work, introduced in the 'Hungarian' film and developed in the 1960s, was to offer a way of countering the effects of soap-opera historical reconstructions and TV newsbroadcasts, by sharing with the public an alternative exploration and presentation of history - especially their own history - be it past or present.
It seemed, even back then, that the MAVM had come to represent a kind of supra-system encircling the visible social process - and having an immense role in shaping (and distorting) it. The role of TV in imposing silence during this period regarding the developing nuclear arms race, is a salutary case in point. Thus another emerging goal in my work was to find forms which might help the public to break away from this repressive system, to distance themselves from the media-cultivated myths of 'objectivity', 'reality', and 'truth', and to seek alternative information and audiovisual processes for themselves.
These various premises - or at least their early stages - underlay the making of Culloden (UK, 1964), and The War Game (UK, 1965). In the first, I employed the style used in Vietnam War newsbroadcasts in order to bring a sense of familiarity to scenes from an 18th century battle, in the hope that this anachronism would also function to subvert the authority of the very genre I was using.
The second film was the first of my works to deliberately mix opposing cinematic forms (in this case, a series of static, high-key lit, recreated interviews with establishment figures, colliding with jerky scenes of a simulated nuclear attack). Which - if either - was 'reality' ? - the fake interviews in which people quoted actual statements made by existing public figures, or the newsreel-like scenes of a war which had never taken place?
Punishment Park (USA, 1970) attempted to bring some of the methods used in Culloden into a contemporary setting - and added dimensions of allegory to the hoped-for 'distancing effect'. How could a film as 'real' as this 'documentary' looked, be 'real', if its environment (a 'punishment park' in America) did not exist?
Edvard Munch (Norway, 1973) added strongly personal and subjective elements to the presentation, and to the editing methods of a biographical film.
It was not until the mid-1970s that I began to understand the problematic structure and role of the Monoform (which I also had used). Most of my subsequent work - The Journey (a global peace film, 1983-86), The Freethinker (Sweden, 1992-94), La Commune (France, 1999) - has been a series of attempts to break away from that formula.
In summary, my work with (mainly) non-professional actors has always been driven by a desire to add a dimension and a process to television, which it still lacks today: that of the public directly, seriously, and in depth participating in the expressive use of the medium to examine history - past, present and future.
Inherent in this has been my constant attempt to broaden and make more complex the relationship between the audience and the MAVM (including in my own films), and to have the audience - the public - share in this work. I have tried to find processes which would enable me - and the audience - to somehow burst out of the constraints of the frame, or of the traditional hierarchical documentary format. This has entailed experimenting with various alienation or distancing methods, coupled with an intense and demanding process for the 'actor', wherein history - past and present - become intertwined.
Post Reply