Peter Watkins, The Universal Clock and The Monoform

First published on Spike Magazine (May 8th 2011) //

Writer and director Peter Watkins has dedicated his career to exploring the limits of docudrama filmmaking. After the BBC suppressed transmission of The War Game in 1965, most of Watkins work has been produced in Scandinavia and British interest in subsequent films has been curiously absent. Declan Tan investigates why

Peter Watkins’ directorial work, since his first experiments with the form in the 1950s, has gone a long way in defining ‘essential cinema’ by consistently setting itself apart from the mediocre; the movie as dung, the movie as formulaic product, all of which are most perfectly epitomised by, though not exclusive of, the Hollywood studio system*.

Today Watkins finds himself on the outskirts of modern filmmaking, his bold ideas shot into the black hole of film theory and his striking, often prophetic work sorely neglected though more relevant than ever with the industry’s relentless shift toward its centralised system of funding, where risks are a diminishing occurrence and only the safe bet is laid out on the boardroom table. Consider the situation in Britain and the demise of the UK Film Council, merging with the British Film Institute at the end of March 2011, and we begin to note the significance of Watkins’ campaign to enliven what he so long ago identified as false, stale and “authoritarian” filmmaking.

Having started out as an actor studying at the Royal Academy of the Arts, his early amateur films appeared during a period when the long-lasting effects of Edward Bernays’ influence were truly taking hold in the their push for total mind-wash capitalism, with its tenets still pervasive in the continuing monetisation of the Internet today. But to achieve this complete culture of consumerism, a certain attitude to the audience and its emotions, desires, attention and thoughts had to be adopted, one which can only ensure further stultification of any worthwhile relationship between media and viewer. Watkins was the natural reaction to what he saw as the then-mounting media onslaught.

After compulsory military service stationed in Canterbury, Kent, where he became acquainted with an amateur theatre group by the name of Playcraft, he got and quit a job in advertising before going on to create his initial dalliances in the director’s chair (in which he never really sits), employing the theatre group’s services in his award-winning WW II drama The Web (1956), as well as the American Civil War-set, The Field of Red (1958), both of which have unfortunately disappeared. Watkins then made the first notable and acknowledged work of his formidable filmography, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), a film which even at such an early stage of his career, began to explore the ideas in form and content that would make his name revered, respected but ultimately censored.

The Diary of an Unknown Soldier was the precursor to the Watkins style that followed; it showed events often coldly brutalised and simplified by the mainstream-media’s need to fit set limits of programming (the Universal Clock; programming constructed without meaning, context or feeling but fitting within time constraints determined by commercials). Watkins transformed them into something tangible and real, and almost always affecting, whilst experimenting with the ‘newsreel’ style, simultaneously developing his work’s relationship to reality, readjusting third-hand perceptions of heroism, disassembling the fourth wall and up-rooting the traditional media’s complacency. This film is, without doubt, a significant film not only in its invention but also in the fresh aspect that it gave to the muddied human face of war, particularly its depiction of the “ordinary, so harmless” enemy; an overt anti-war sentiment voiced by the narrator that would perhaps be too obvious in its message, an approach used in his early films that would become heavily criticised.

Narrated by Watkins himself, and toward its conclusion, the near-weeping Unknown Soldier meditates upon the absurdity of war: men trained to hate, without question, other men who just happen to be wearing a different uniform. Watkins would eventually balance these subtleties of meaning and intent in later masterpieces such as Punishment Park (1971), Edvard Munch (1974) and Evening Land (1977), correcting the blatant didacticism of his first efforts. Though he used the ubiquitous narrator in many of his films, he avoided such blunt statements as seen in Soldier, as he advanced his philosophy on the role of the media.

Watkins followed up with Forgotten Faces (1960), an unbiased faux-documentary about the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the first of many ‘collective experiences’ brought about by his films. Performed by ordinary people, Watkins again took the Bressonian route of using non-professional actors in a film that functions as an antidote to what he calls the “soap-opera historical reconstructions and TV news broadcasts, by sharing with the public an alternative exploration and presentation of history – especially their own history – be it past or present.”

Forgotten Faces again employed the familiarity of the ‘news broadcast’ technique and mixed in expressive tight-framing, close-ups of hands and faces, where work is required by the viewer not to meet some predestined end or feeling but to further broaden the possibilities of the medium of television, and the chance for an organic relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. He challenged the easy acceptance with which television neglected suffering and struggle by leaving the viewer passive and smothered. Instead, Watkins opens the floor to strongly opposing views, where the political message is ambivalent and, by using non-professionals, furthers his cause of involving the public in a democratic media, a method he would use throughout his career.

In Forgotten Faces, an early experiment with what became his style, events play out as if they are happening ‘now’. Shot in the back streets of Canterbury with a few Hungarian citizens and many of the Playcraft group, the players act out history and ‘become’, in many ways, a part of it. With this technique the inherent distance of history is contracted. The actors are aware of the camera, confronting the artificiality of stage-settings and trickery, with the camera suddenly focussing and readjusting to add a further element of realism played out naturally, instead of in predetermined set-ups that ring hollow and false. We are presented with brutality and quiet, feeling and reflection, crammed into every frame. This method, he hoped, “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.”

Along with the releases of his early films came the attention of the BBC, where he would eventually go for a time and create the next two of his revolutionary films; Culloden (1964), which drew connections between the “rape” of the Highlands in 1746 and the war in Vietnam; and The War Game (1965), a dramatisation of a nuclear strike in the UK, and its effects (the film was banned and the BBC moved to marginalise Watkins as a filmmaker, before hypocritically picking up his Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature).

Both of these BBC-funded films saw him continue to implement his philosophy for public/audience-engaged, democratic film, thereby removing “the comfortable avoidance of reality” inherent in conventional programming on television, to make it so that form and substance move in tandem and instigate genuine discussion into an otherwise one-way stream of mass audiovisual media, later termed the MAVM by Watkins.**

Exiled by the BBC for The War Game (1965) and pounced on by the critics for his now-accepted cinema outing, Privilege (1967), Watkins has never been willing, or permitted, to return to corporate television production, instead choosing to work from a distance in communal epics all over the world. At times, his work has met with extreme disapproval, to say the least, with many strange events transpiring either at showings of his films (the BFI refused to introduce him to the audience at a screening of The Freethinker) or in the producer’s office (many becoming highly vindictive and personal in their attacks). By challenging the mainstream media’s handle on the way we ‘view’ the world through television and film, Watkins has laid out new possibilities for meaningful audience interaction with media, not just for viewers and those involved in production, but on a personal level, as demonstrated in the genius of Edvard Munch, in which he faces many of his own demons through the guise of the once heavily censured Norwegian painter. Like Munch, who mixed past and present on his canvas and had subjects stare out at the viewer, Watkins must also wait to be accepted by the over-seers.

From the highly controversial to the startlingly personal, Watkins has simply wrought more truth from the faux docudrama genre than the directors of recent Iraq and Afghanistan documentaries have from the typical vérité school. That one-sided films like Restrepo are seen as objective is a trick played on audiences and a further example of the unaccountable actions of an irresponsible, lazy media. We are to believe footage has not been edited or structured to form a narrative, even of the loosest kind (despite the intercut talking-head interviews), a narrative that forces a feeling in the audience intended from the beginning and followed through to the end, no matter how manipulative that feeling is. It is a turning of the tables on work such as Watkins’ that struggles to battle the banalisation of torture and violence, seen in his Gladiatorerna (1969).

Watkins taking on the establishment media has been one of the constants of his sustained assault on conventional notions of television and film. A 14-and-a-half-hour exploration of news, civil defence and nuclear warfare that can only be found by special order or screening through a Canadian distributor, called Rësan (The Journey) (1986), is an update on his earlier work concerning the nuclear arms race issue. The filming saw him travel all over the world to see and hear the people’s perception of the problem, which often implicated the role of the mass media in misinformation. As signified by its lack of distribution the film, though important, was not warmly received by television station commissioners.

The question remains: are the effects of the MAVM and its Monoform-language irreversible? Are we only intended to be mere receivers, consumers, passive spectators when faced with news, television and film? The problem lies in education. Young people are trained, according to Watkins, “to accept the mass media in a non-critical light – as neutral, useful, informative elements in the social process, and ultimately, as the means to advance their own career.” Schools, colleges, universities and other institutions offering media and journalism courses all teach blind acceptance of the current form through vocational training; students become “economically rational units” in a system where the framework must be respected and advanced. Watkins writes: “In this process of teaching, students are also made to think that the public is inherently stupid – that it needs authoritarian, simplistic, rapidly-moving language forms in order to absorb (consumer) ideas from TV.”

The intended result, which precludes any critical analysis of technique, structure, or effect, merely slots trainees and audiences into pre-formed moulds, from which there is no real freedom or unique perspective.

But can a film change the world, anyway? Perhaps the BBC’s reaction to The War Game (1965) and their continuing repudiation of Watkins demonstrates the fear behind such a film being made public. Watkins adds: “That audiences have reacted with enthusiasm to work bending and breaking the Monoform, gives a glimmer of hope for the future. Yet as public funding is cut further (under the guise of saving money for the citizen in regards to the BBC) the Monoform and its school of thought will only strengthen through the lack of risk taking that will result from cuts in funding.” Which makes it all the more bleak that the government is enacting further cuts to the arts.

But perhaps now, with distribution opened by the potential of the Internet turned kinetic, filmmakers can move out from under the shade of studio funding to again re-define ‘essential cinema’.


* Recent war documentaries Restrepo (2010) and Armadillo (2010), though notable for their dangerous shooting styles, are examples of the ‘new form’ of false objectivity and reality where the enemy is faceless, the “good guys” are heroes, and despite the “them vs. us” narrative, the films are supposedly apolitical; perhaps a tag used to market films about the invasions to a wider buying audience and one, incidentally, also deployed for the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker (2010).

The falsehood that a film about an illegal war can be apolitical or objective is an especially irresponsible one, particularly considering Restrepo, made by reporters for Vanity Fair and ABC News, a fact which seems to signal another victory for the public relations machine. That a supposedly non-political film about a hyper-political situation has been made is also testament to the backward notions the filmmakers seem to have about documentary film-making. In these films the audience is an outsider looking in, no questions are asked, reasons for the soldiers’ or their superiors’ actions never taken to task; we are merely meant to sit, take heed of the heroism and be shocked by their struggle.

** The MAVM, he says, adheres to a strict framework which communicates, through the entire process, a conclusion preset before the programme even begins. It uses a repetitive audiovisual language with a rhythm that induces a non-stop hammering of the senses where silence and contemplation is wholly ignored, even despised. The constant use of rapid editing in an endless barrage of visual and audio information in a mono-linear push, arbitrarily constructed, prevents any inclusion of the audience into the material and works in keeping viewers from sharing or engaging in the process. This tendency is what Watkins calls the Monoform. These ideas and their existence though undeniable, with proof waiting in your television set, on any channel, at any time of day, give rise to further questions as to the function of media in the modern age.

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