Back in 1976 British director Peter Watkins publicly announced that the manner in which "objectivity" in Western media is handled is in a dire need of critical reevaluation. Watkins claimed that the constant pressure for objectivity behind film for example would ultimately destroy the director's desire to contribute with personal ideas. Needless to say the British press was perplexed.
Two years before his now notorious statement Watkins completed Edvard Munch (1974), a massive TV project with a running time of nearly three hours, which was meant to retell the life of the famous Norwegian painter. Structured as a pseudo-documentary with plenty of fictional characters Edvard Munch relied on a script where the story is being told as if one were to read a book. Piece by piece, observing the life of the main protagonist, Watkins managed to recreate a world where words and images were closely intertwined.
Offered with a gentle narration that would introduce most every episode in this film Edvard Munch's autobiography is also a vivid portrait of Christiania (now Norway) and the socio-political climate from the beginning of the century. In fact, many of the "native" scenes in this film are played by non-professional actors providing Edvard Munch with a degree of authenticity its creator wasn't particularly comfortable with. After all there is certain dose of "objectivity" in this film that far surpasses most any other autobiography picture I have ever seen.
Unlike other autobiography films such as Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh (1991) for example where the viewer becomes more closely associated with the story and less with the persona behind it Edvard Munch uses its narrative to keep the audience focused on the main protagonist. There is a constant attempt by Watkins, at times bordering what a minimalist composer would do, to be as concise as possible with his camera. Even when Edvard Munch's love affair with Fru Heiberg is being followed the narrator would always point the audience to specific aspects of the story that will reveal a different side from the Norwegian painter's character thus avoiding a more balanced approach towards the rest of the characters in this film.
Later in the film when Edvard Munch undergoes a significant crisis in his life Watkins also deliberately adjusts what we have become accustomed to: the suggestive narration. The film visibly changes pace as well and instead of the familiar rhythm Watkins has followed throughout more and more often his camera would rest on a specific painting, almost as if the director wanted to take a much needed breather, thus effectively replacing words with images. This new technique works very well as it provides the film with a desired resolution which in effect summarizes all of the events from Edvard Munch's life while providing plenty of time for the viewer to reexamine the story.
Unlike what other writers have claimed there is very little in Edvard Munch that strays away from the focus of this film: the life and deeds of this controversial painter. Yes, there are some occasional references to other European masters, there are some sporadic parallels to other socio-political events, and there are other characters that would occasionally cross Edvard Munch's path. The film, however, is virtually obsessed with delivering every little detail from the life of the Norwegian painter thus examining the creative process an artist would suffer. This is a film about art and how art is being created!
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 this new collaboration between Project X and New Yorker Films proves to be one of the better distribution efforts to come under the logo of the East Coast based label. The disc is almost too good to believe that it was actually produced by New Yorker.
Both color and contrast are handled extremely well preserving the natural look of the film. This happens to be quite a complicated affair actually! The use of light in Edvard Munch is very interesting as quite often Watkins' camera would freeze on a particular painting as to recreate the internal struggle raging in Edvard Munch. The result is a film with a very diverse look: some of the indoor scenes reveal plenty of grain and not as much detail while some outdoor scenes have quite the contrasting look. The DVD print however handles everything quite well by recreating exactly how Peter Watkins intended his film to look.
The strongest asset of this DVD release however is indeed the fact that Peter Watkins was directly involved with the transfer process. It truly shows that New Yorker were under pressure to deliver a properly converted print, with a great progressive image at that, which certainly makes me wish that they would learn from the spectacular results. Indeed if most every release from New Yorker's catalog was this good film buffs won't have to scratch their heads in disbelief every time an independent/foreign film is released. Give credit where credit is due: this is one marvelous looking package!!!
How Does the DVD Sound?
In addition to the spectacular video presentation New Yorker have also provided equally impressive audio options: you could either choose to see the film with its original English/Norwegian 2.0 Dolby Digital track and select optional English or French subtitles or, you could choose an all-English version which is equivalent to what one would describe as a dub. The audio is free of cracks, hissing, or other foreign noises, and dialog is very easy to follow. Indeed, quite well done!
I am fairly certain that one of the reasons why this DVD is not stacked with extra material is because of Peter Watkins' negative sentiments toward mass media. As a result Edvard Munch only offers a generic filmography section plus a massive 24-page self-directed interview in which the director talks about the film, its history, and the story behind it.
This DVD package from New Yorker is such a revelation! I was fearful that we would be offered yet another PAL-NTSC port that would effectively downgrade Edvard Munch to just another one of those average discs the R1 market is flooded with. Instead, one of the greatest autobiography pictures of all time has been granted a top-notch presentation!! You own it to yourself: Edvard Munch should be in your collections! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!