Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Edvard Munch (Watkins, 1974)

In 1968, Peter Watkins traveled to Oslo University to attend a special screening of his works and, during his time there, took the time to make a visit to the Edvard Munch Museum. As he looked at Munch’s painting, Watkins discovered that he had an affinity with the famed Scandinavian artist, best known for his iconic painting, The Scream. Whereas Watkins’ films often blur the lines between the past and the present, Munch had no trouble placing adult versions of himself and his siblings into a painting illustrating a traumatic childhood event. Like Watkins, Munch also made frequent use of characters gazing directly at us, weary looks upon their faces. In the films of Watkins, these looks often are a result of political oppression. There is generally a mixture of despair and accusation bubbling behind the eyes of these people that have been trodden upon by the wrong-headed policies of the wealthy and powerful. With his 1974 documentary/biopic, Edvard Munch, Watkins argues that the tension in Munch’s paintings comes from the conflict between a repressive, conservative upbringing and a revolutionary spirit schooled in the power of passion and sexuality as a driving force towards artistic truth.

Shortly after his visit to the Munch Museum, Watkins felt determined that he must create a film dedicated to examining the artist’s tumultuous life, his struggle to gain critical acceptance and his eventual descent into insanity. It took three years to convince the powers-that-be in Norwegian television to fund the project, which may come as a surprise unless we consider the chilly critical reception that Munch’s work received throughout his lifetime. The end result is a thoroughly revealing work -- not only of Munch and the various influences and conditions that made him into the tortured genius we remember today, but also of the way in which mainstream society fiercely resists artistic expression that does not conform to comforting depictions of realism.

Using a cast of non-professional actors, Watkins follows Munch over the course of several years from dreary childhood to early artistic experimentation to critical pummeling to tentative critical acceptance and finally ending up in the loony bin. Watkins’ method is to create a kind of time-travel pseudo-documentary in which known historical facts and quotes from diary entries are mixed with staged interviews of actors playing various key figures in Munch’s life. There are also recreations of critical moments in Munch’s life, such as two near death experiences and various unsatisfactory affairs. Growing up in an ultra-conservative community where the middle class citizens gather daily to promenade while the children of the lower classes work 11-hour shifts at the local factory and the police force takes it upon themselves to personally inspect prostitutes for venereal disease, Munch has the good sense to fall in with the local Bohemians. He listens attentively as his companions discuss free love, politics, the nature and purpose of art and who’s going to pick up the bar tab. Watkins skillfully intercuts these discussions with shots of Munch at home, battling with his disapproving family over his behavior and new moralistic outlook. It is here where Watkins’ film is at its strongest – connecting the various tensions at play in Munch’s life directly to the bold, confrontational nature of his paintings. Setting Munch’s biographical history and his artistic history side by side, Watkins attempts to offer a reconciliation, thus presenting a deeper portrait of a complicated man.

At each and every exhibition, Munch’s work is met with scathing reviews that question both the creator’s morality and his sanity. Smugly, we as viewers get the opportunity to scoff at critics that failed to recognize the breakthroughs Munch was making in becoming a pioneer of Expressionism. Watkins also stages various reactions that might possibly have been made by the general public. Notably, most of the criticisms revolve around the fact that Munch has dared to break away from Naturalism and not simply recreate his subject realistically. Munch’s distorted faces and bloodied skies do not simply meet with disapproval; they inspire scandal. The most compelling question arising from Watkins’ film is why such outrage in reaction to paint on canvas? By including comments from an upstanding bearded gentleman who believes that the strength of institutions like marriage and the church are the only thing keeping society from descending into utter anarchy, Watkins allows us to see how 19th century Norwegians might get their panties in a bunch over something like The Scream.

At nearly three hours, Edvard Munch does occasionally overstay its welcome, circling back to repeat critical moments (not the consumption scene again!) or meandering off the trail into vague poetical musings. Despite the fact that Watkins has clearly made an effort to give due attention to Munch’s lesser known works, the film inevitably builds up to the creation of The Scream and has a difficult time sustaining our interest beyond that point. Once you’ve heard ‘Freebird’, it just feels like it’s time to turn off the lights and go home, you know? It’s mildly interesting to be aware that Munch delved into wood carving and working with acid later in life (not the kind you’re thinking of), but at the same time, it does little to strengthen the themes Watkins has developed so effectively in the first two hours. Despite these minor misgivings, Edvard Munch is an extraordinary achievement, succeeding both in telling the story of an important and captivating artist, as well as provoking vital questions about the inflammatory nature of anti-naturalism.



Anonymous Brett Gerry said...

Peter Watkins is a greatly misunderstand and important filmmaker. In this film, and throughout his work, Watkins not only challenges the viewer but also other filmmakers to escape the confines of readily accepted practices: http://bit.ly/bGLvVj

4:36 AM  

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