Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Peter Watkins' films have consistently been in the 'difficult to see' category, stirring up controversy mostly in absentia. British film critics openly attacked his Privilege, a film with dangerous prophecies (a pop star becomes a shill for a political power broker) that now seem tame. Watkins has bucked the censors ever since his The War Game, an honest look at the unfeasibility of Nuclear War, was kept off the BBC because its candor was deemed detrimental to the public good. There are artists who work within accepted guidelines and visionaries who boldly question the political world around them. Even though Watkins' Punishment Park and The Gladiators are key political science fiction films about repressive democracies and feasible totalitarian states, their distribution has been next to nil.
But those thrillers were relatively easy to see compared to Watkins' masterpiece Edvard Munch, a Norwegian film originally done for television. This biography of the great painter is assembled in a consistently brilliant free-association style that resembles a cinematic version of what the late 19th century painters were doing -- tearing down conventions and exploring new ways of looking at the world. Edvard Munch is a long film but a fascinating one, an honest work of conceptual art that follows no rules but its own. There was nothing like it in 1974.
The life and times of Edvard Munch (Geir Westby) are seen in impressionistic glimpses. A linear story is augmented by voice overs and other relevant content is interpolated, mainly "on the spot interviews" with Munch's family members and contemporaries, and also people he never knew, such as members of a typical poor working family in 1880s Kristiania (Oslo). We see and feel the influences on the artist, such as the morbid atmosphere of suffering and death in his family and the middle-class attitudes condemned by his artistic friends, such as the provocative author Hans Jaeger (Kare Stormark). Edvard doesn't subscribe to the hatred of middle class values but he does gravitate toward the movement's espousal of free love when he has an affair with a married woman, Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas). Reacting to the art world's constant disapproval for his emotion-tossed images, Munch goes to Paris and Germany, enduring decades of hostile critical reception before finally being recognized as one of the great artists of the time.
Edvard Munch is a movie one begins in trepidation and then quickly becomes hooked on. It's one of the few films with a radical editing style that Savant can say works 100% -- after a couple of minutes to get one's bearings one is drawn into the story for the same reason one might be drawn into a conventional melodrama -- we empathize with the leading character and care what happens to him.
The stylistic difference allows us to observe Munch from several viewpoints at once. We see his family life, his associates in the bohemian art society, and some less fortunate Kristiania citizens all at the same time. A narrator identifies people and recounts facts about living conditions, and also gives us a running account of Edvard Munch's art works in progress. The actor Geir Westby looks remarkably like Munch (sort of a cross between James Dean and James Spader) and doesn't talk much. Peter Watkins instead layers on narrated sections from Munch's diaries, in which the artist often referred to himself in the third person. The result is that we get inside Munch's head without the actor having to 'interpret' the character for us, at least not as a quantifiable whole.
That really places Edvard Munch in its own category. A standard artist biopic like Lust for Life still confronts us with a strong personality like Kirk Douglas, doing his utmost to externalize Vincent van Gogh's internal conflicts for our appreciation. Edvard Munch encourages us to think about Munch and not the acting of the lead role. Chances are that actually "being there" and hanging out with van Gogh or Munch for a day wouldn't necessarily impress many of us that we were in the presence of a great man. Edvard Munch would rather explore the artist from the facts, rather than emotional inventions.
Most attempts to use free-association cutting in linear narrative film are either restrained or unsuccessful, the main culprit being the 'flash forward' trick which hardly ever works. Edvard Munch cuts all over the temporal map and communicates its intentions with pinpoint accuracy. A dozen formative memories and traumatic incidents are everpresent in Munch's work, and they recur time and again.
We also see fascinating recreations of Munch's working style. One key image starts as a charcoal drawing and eventually becomes a picture of two women sitting in remorseful poses. Along the way Munch paints and repaints most of the canvas several times, eventually eliminating all peripheral details -- which still seem to be present behind his dark obliterations and light blank-outs. As a last step he appears to torture the oil surface with scars and pencil lines, making his painting the antithesis of 'just so' order and balance.
While this is happening, Watkins will intercut those stark free-association images of Munch's past: The deaths of his mother and sister from consumption, the grim mood at his house, the bliss of his relationship with Mrs. Heilberg and its eventual dissolution. The images become repetitive-obsessive, working far better than actor's speeches or a narrator's emphasis. Munch's diary readings hint at these influences without pointing to them like street signs.
The result is that 'great artist' Edvard Munch is observed intimately without distortion. The picture leaps into motion at the beginning and doesn't invent a big emotional moment for its finish. Without the typical biopic framework that embalms great people, from John F. Kennedy to Johnny Cash, Edvard Munch lets us learn something real about the struggle of a real person with his art.
New Yorker's DVD of Edvard Munch is a product of extremely high quality. The Project X Company released its first Peter Watkins film Punishment Park independently in Canada before moving its distribution deal to New Yorker films. As the disc production and mastering is still handled by Project X the quality is superb, something that cannot be said of many New Yorker discs. The excellent 1:33 image always looks stunning and the encoders offer a selection of subtitle options for this movie split between Norwegian dialogue and English narration. Besides a French sub track, there are two English subtitle tracks: One track covers only the Norwegian content, and the other covers everything. That kind of viewer-friendly thoughtfulness is rare.
The 174 minutes go by faster than one would think. The show was originally longer for television but Watkins trimmed it for a theatrical release that more or less never happened. Watkins is an activist filmmaker, an outspoken proponent of his films and the ideas in them. He's clearly embracing the DVD medium in hopes of disseminating his work widely, a luxury most of his films never enjoyed. Edvard Munch was grudgingly shown by its Norwegian sponsors and (according to Watkins) aggressively repressed, to the extent that some of his attempts to access the materials were met with hostile (and untrue) stories that they could not be found, etc. The main extra on this DVD is a lengthy booklet containing what Watkins calls a self-interview. Given Watkins' consistent artistic achievement his stance as a combative artist is wholly justified. If one's life work has been suppressed and one has a choice, why stew bitterly or remain silent? Why leave critics to effect a toothless 'rediscovery,' essentially turning your story into theirs?
Watkins is as sick of the media establishment as he is of the various commercial-political entities that suppressed most of his films, and he starts his insert booklet with a legally binding "Peter Watkins Standard Copyright and Usage Notice" aimed directly at journalists and editors he feels have consistently distorted his message. He doesn't want his words quoted at all unless the full content of his message is included. He's sick of hearing his comments about production and creative matters quoted, while his thoughts about the meaning of his work are ignored -- specifically the flaws in mass media that all of his films address.
I don't know what this bold stance will do for Watkins' work, or whether the media will continue to consider him marginalized, but I'm impressed. 99% of filmmakers throw their work onto the waters and abandon them. It's unfair to decide that an artist defending his work is necessarily an egotist. Watkins' self-interview is a fascinating look at an artist sharing his thought processes in a useful way. His production stories are absorbing. His views about the promise of television expression being crushed and nullified by a timeslot-regulated sameness he calls the 'monoform' are radical only in that they make sense and go against the order established by the commercial media.
Project X and New Yorker are going to continue with more Peter Watkins films, which Savant will be eagerly awaiting. I've seen The War Game on PBS and was present at a UCLA showing of the excitingThe Gladiators back in 1971 or so, and his other titles hold equal promise.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Edvard Munch rates:
Supplements: Filmmaker's self-interview in 24-page insert booklet, filmography
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 24, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson