Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Freethinker (Watkins, 1994)

For his recent film study of iconoclast Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes employed six different actors to portray the central character, emphasizing his belief that a monolithic view of such a complex character would be inevitably problematic. When making a film biography, a director faces the challenge of staging personal moments that in most cases had no witnesses other than the direct participants. Even though viewers are aware that they are watching a film, a filmmaker can be put in the awkward position of purporting to ‘know’ in situations where knowledge is impossible. Consequently, responses to these films can get mired in discussions of whether this or that really happened while larger thematic matters get ignored.

For his four-and-a-half hour film on the troubled life of Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, Peter Watkins employs the same kind of democratic principles that he advocates for world governments in anti-authoritarian films like Punishment Park and The Journey. Watkins is, if nothing else, an untiring champion of the people. For The Freethinker, this means opening up the discussion to not only members of his cast, but also members of the public who have been invited to watch his actors rehearse and perform improvisations. There is no question that The Freethinker has the personality of a Watkins film in the way it blends documentary with historical recreation. In form, it most closely resembles Edvard Munch made some twenty years earlier. However, in this instance, Watkins goes even farther incorporating outside voices. The actors who play Strindberg and his wife occasionally address the camera in Bergmanesque close-up to share their thoughts on the characters they are playing. Peripheral characters discuss Strindberg in round table settings only to have the actors later drop character to share their own thoughts from the late 20th century. In a small black box theater, Swedish members of the public respond casually to Watkins’ actors, waxing philosophical on the internal struggle between emotions and intellect.

And yet, at the end of the day, it is Watkins who controls the film’s editing decisions. In Strindberg, he has found a character full of contradiction. Early on, a revolutionary writer and historian who argues that the history of Sweden is the history of its people rather than its rulers, Strindberg later succumbs to the pressure of his critics and turns his back on his early ideals. His behavior becomes erratic, particularly as it concerns his family and his attitude towards women sours from comparatively enlightened to straight-up misogynistic. Quotes from Strindberg’s writings are displayed on title cards and then juxtaposed with both scenes from his plays and scenework speculating on how his domestic life might have looked behind his public appearance. Most of these scenes are performed with basic costumes and sets. Some appear to be simply the actors in rehearsal. Watkins’ films have always leaned towards the academic. Here, more than ever, it seems as if Watkins is using film to compose a thesis that never arrives at its conclusion. This is, in some sense, admirable as it allows viewers to feel as if they are a part of the investigation. At times though, Watkins’ refusal to boil down his subject can prove wearisome, particularly as he meanders to his pet theme of the damaging influence of modern media

The Freethinker has admirable qualities; however, it is not likely to hold the attention of anyone but Strindberg enthusiasts and Watkins completists, two categories that do not exactly boast large populations. Watkins has made films that are more provocative, more penetrating and better looking. Most importantly, he has made Edvard Munch a more effective examination of the artist in conflict with society.



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