To Armley! Not, today, to its fearsomely turreted prison (I did my time there when writing this), but to the marvellous Armley Mills Industrial Museum – specifically, to the tiny cinema in the museum’s basement, which hosts a monthly arthouse film night in an authentically replicated 1920s cinema-ette.
The film on offer (passing lightly over the two supporting features, on which I’d rather not comment, except to say that one was quite good and the other wasn’t) was Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971).
It’s a great film in a lot of ways. It depicts, in faux-documentary style, the sentencing of crews of long-haired American radicals by a desert-based kangaroo court that condemns them to the ordeal of ‘Punishment Park’: a 53-mile trek across the Mojave desert towards an American flag, during which they will find themselves pursued by the US forces of law and order – for “training purposes”.
Actually, the brutal desert scenes are – despite being the only really cinematic elements of the film – dramatically rather lame. The pacing is all over the place, and out in the desert it’s not easy to tell one mildly irritating hippie from another (their sort all look the same to me…).
But this is an ideologically driven film. So what of its ideology? Well, it’s less monumentally tiresome than you might expect. At the time – as contemporary reviews suggest – it must have seemed somewhat paranoid. Now, its arguments feel like museum pieces. Strangely – and presumably unintentionally – the film ends up hinging on the charisma of its actors (or rather ‘actors’, the cast being all amateurs, rank or otherwise, and the script being mostly improvised).
The conservative civic worthies who make up the tribunal are, without exception, superbly convincing: from the pissed-off union guy, to the outraged-by-everything spokeswoman for ‘the American family’, to the splendidly lizardly representatives of the US legal elite.
But the fireworks – for me, at least – come from three performers: Kent Foreman as a voluble black broadcaster delivering an excoriating dissertation on violence in American history, Carmen Argenziano as an afro-bearing radical showing off the star power that later won him a bit-part in The Godfather Part II, and – most of all – Jim Bohan, sweatily convincing as a gun-happy sheriff with a greasy combover and more than a hint of a butch Kevin Spacey about him.
To quote a critic who knows his stuff far better than I do:
He is a believable man. His sunglasses protect him from the exposed gazes of the political prisoners. He can see their eyes. His are hidden. He looks like a young father, balding a little. To its credit, the film does not demonize him. He sweats. He does his job. His instructions seem reasonable enough.
The main thing is, I’d never have seen this film were in it not for Miniciné at Armley Mills. So well done them.