Thursday, December 13, 2007

Edvard Munch: Special Edition 2-DVD Set


A distant cliff with thick ridges running vertically down its face looms large in front of us; rough, shadowy indentations pockmark the surface of this rocky landscape. A rocky landscape, you say? No. Rather, this shot is a close-up of a canvas on which Edvard Munch has been building layer upon layer of paint. It is the culmination of a startling series of shots in which the increasingly frenetic artist paints, scrapes away, re-paints, and nearly bores a hole into the canvas as he constantly revises his work. I cannot recall an instance in which the tactile elements of a painting have ever been captured so vividly on film: the sound of a knife flensing away paint, the actual texture of the paint layered on a canvas. Then again I have never seen a film quite like Peter Watkins´ brilliant "Edvard Munch" (1973).

The film primarily covers a ten year period from 1884-1894 (Munch from age 21 to 31) though it often returns to Munch´s tragedy-scarred childhood. Nineteenth century Christiania (today known as Oslo) was a city plagued by disease, both of the consumptive and venereal kind, and the Munch family, though not poor, was not spared its blight. Edvard´s mother, brother and his beloved sister Sophie died when he was still a child, and these crippling losses haunted him the rest of his life.

In 1884 the young Munch (played by Geir Westby who, like the rest of the cast, is a non-professional actor) belongs to a Bohemian intellectual circle spearheaded by Hans Jaeger (Kåre Stormark). Jaeger´s radical philosophy (a sloppy mix of nihilism and anarchy) influenced Munch greatly, though Watkins contends that another relationship, his long-running, tempestuous affair with the mysterious Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas), was even more important in shaping the painter´s life. The story progresses through Munch´s formative years as an artist and details his battles with his own inner demons as well as demons of a very external kind: the art critics of his time.

As in his other films, Watkins employs pseudo-documentary techniques to recreate historical events, but "Edvard Munch" does not blur the lines between documentary and fiction so much as it renders the distinction altogether meaningless. Watkins narrates in a dry, formal voice that provides historical and political context, and all of Munch´s dialogue is taken directly from his diaries. Yet Watkins hardly restricts his film to a "just the facts" approach. Indeed, "Edvard Munch" is one of the most wildly innovative films I have ever seen, every bit as radical as the most avant of the avant-garde.

The film leaps back and forth through time, frequently flashing back to Munch´s childhood. The elliptical editing conveys Munch´s emotional state rather than simply connecting a series of events in typical biopic style. As Munch scratches frantically at his canvas, we return to the moment when his sister Sophie was dying of tuberculosis. Sometimes characters speak directly to the camera, either speaking on their own or answering the questions of an off-screen female voice. Where this voice comes from I have no idea, but it hardly matters. The actors sometimes improvised their lines, responding to questions with their own opinions rather than from Watkins´ script. Watkins used improvisation by non-professional actors to mixed effect in "Punishment Park" (1970), but in this film the strategy works to perfection.

All of these creative tools (discontinuous editing, characters looking at the camera, etc.) have been used in other films but the remarkable thing about "Edvard Munch" is that none of them function solely as Brechtian devices. Though the film has reflexive elements, it is not overtly self-conscious in the way that Godard´s films of the 60s or many of today´s post-modern films are. Rather, this hodge-podge of stylistic choices creates the eerie sense that we are peering in on past events as they are happening; the movie has an immediacy and physicality that lend it extraordinary power. Watkins has created a unique cinematic point of view that I can only describe as a free-associative semi-omniscient perspective which leaves open all possibilities at any point in time. Any shot that best conveys even the most subtle nuance is fair game. In art, there are no rules save those meant to be broken.

No subject is off-limits either. Though the film is about Edvard Munch, sometimes the story expands to depict life in Christiania, where the bourgeoisie thrived but the working class suffered from wretched labor conditions as well as rampant disease. Watkins has always been a politically engaged director and he lavishes attention on the world around Munch in order to avoid the romantic depiction of the artist as a solitary genius. Munch was shaped not just by mentors such as Hans Jaeger and, later, August Strindberg, but also by the conditions in which he was raised; his melancholia was not just artistic self-indulgence, but the logical response of a sensitive intellect to the squalor and inequity he witnessed every day (some scholars have also suggested that Munch suffered from bipolar disorder, an issue not addressed in the film).

Watkins clearly identifies with Munch. Munch had a restless mind and his style changed frequently, moving from impressionism to naturalism to expressionism and most points between; he also experimented with multiple media including lithography and woodcutting. His paintings were aggressive and shocking; agitated viewers didn´t know quite what to make of them. All of this alienated the staid art critics who derided Munch´s work, forcing him to move from to Paris and then later to Berlin, though he wouldn´t find acceptance anywhere until much later in his career. Similarly, Watkins describes himself as a marginalized director whose politically charged films have been suppressed by the media who prefer safer, more easily categorizable films. No doubt Watkins derives great pleasure by depicting Munch´s critics as preening dullards who treat any deviation from the norm as evidence of either incompetence or dementia.

Watkins matches Munch´s relentless experimentation with his own free-form innovations in this mesmerizing film. Though it is difficult to describe exactly how this movie looks, sounds and feels, I can easily describe its effect on me. I was riveted from start to finish, and found myself consistently surprised at every turn. "Edvard Munch" creates its own cinematic language and there is no way to anticipate which shot will follow from the previous one. What could have been a dry, predictable biopic is instead a dazzling panorama of not just a life but a world of ideas and emotions. It is also a deeply moving film that accumulates power with each scene. By the end I found myself in tears, not from sorrow, but rather because I felt overwhelmed by the blunt force of the film.

"Edvard Munch" is the best film about an artist and the artistic process that I have ever seen. Unlike most art films, it does not manufacture any cheap epiphanies when the artist is miraculously inspired by happenstance (Jackson Pollack watches a toppled paint can drip onto the floor and, in one quick cut, he is a genius!) Instead, we see that Munch achieved his most significant breakthroughs by three primary methods: work, work, and more work (much the same way Watkins made this movie). The film is every bit as much about the joy Munch took in the process of creation as it is about the anguish he suffered, and it produces an intoxicating viewing experience.

A distant cliff with thick ridges running vertically down its face looms large in front of us; rough, shadowy indentations pockmark the surface of this rocky landscape. A rocky landscape, you say? No. Rather, this shot is a close-up of a canvas on which Edvard Munch has been building layer upon layer of paint. It is the culmination of a startling series of shots in which the increasingly frenetic artist paints, scrapes away, re-paints, and nearly bores a hole into the canvas as he constantly revises his work. I cannot recall an instance in which the tactile elements of a painting have ever been captured so vividly on film: the sound of a knife flensing away paint, the actual texture of the paint layered on a canvas. Then again I have never seen a film quite like Peter Watkins´ brilliant "Edvard Munch" (1973).

The film primarily covers a ten year period from 1884-1894 (Munch from age 21 to 31) though it often returns to Munch´s tragedy-scarred childhood. Nineteenth century Christiania (today known as Oslo) was a city plagued by disease, both of the consumptive and venereal kind, and the Munch family, though not poor, was not spared its blight. Edvard´s mother, brother and his beloved sister Sophie died when he was still a child, and these crippling losses haunted him the rest of his life.

In 1884 the young Munch (played by Geir Westby who, like the rest of the cast, is a non-professional actor) belongs to a Bohemian intellectual circle spearheaded by Hans Jaeger (Kåre Stormark). Jaeger´s radical philosophy (a sloppy mix of nihilism and anarchy) influenced Munch greatly, though Watkins contends that another relationship, his long-running, tempestuous affair with the mysterious Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas), was even more important in shaping the painter´s life. The story progresses through Munch´s formative years as an artist and details his battles with his own inner demons as well as demons of a very external kind: the art critics of his time.

As in his other films, Watkins employs pseudo-documentary techniques to recreate historical events, but "Edvard Munch" does not blur the lines between documentary and fiction so much as it renders the distinction altogether meaningless. Watkins narrates in a dry, formal voice that provides historical and political context, and all of Munch´s dialogue is taken directly from his diaries. Yet Watkins hardly restricts his film to a "just the facts" approach. Indeed, "Edvard Munch" is one of the most wildly innovative films I have ever seen, every bit as radical as the most avant of the avant-garde.

The film leaps back and forth through time, frequently flashing back to Munch´s childhood. The elliptical editing conveys Munch´s emotional state rather than simply connecting a series of events in typical biopic style. As Munch scratches frantically at his canvas, we return to the moment when his sister Sophie was dying of tuberculosis. Sometimes characters speak directly to the camera, either speaking on their own or answering the questions of an off-screen female voice. Where this voice comes from I have no idea, but it hardly matters. The actors sometimes improvised their lines, responding to questions with their own opinions rather than from Watkins´ script. Watkins used improvisation by non-professional actors to mixed effect in "Punishment Park" (1970), but in this film the strategy works to perfection.

All of these creative tools (discontinuous editing, characters looking at the camera, etc.) have been used in other films but the remarkable thing about "Edvard Munch" is that none of them function solely as Brechtian devices. Though the film has reflexive elements, it is not overtly self-conscious in the way that Godard´s films of the 60s or many of today´s post-modern films are. Rather, this hodge-podge of stylistic choices creates the eerie sense that we are peering in on past events as they are happening; the movie has an immediacy and physicality that lend it extraordinary power. Watkins has created a unique cinematic point of view that I can only describe as a free-associative semi-omniscient perspective which leaves open all possibilities at any point in time. Any shot that best conveys even the most subtle nuance is fair game. In art, there are no rules save those meant to be broken.

No subject is off-limits either. Though the film is about Edvard Munch, sometimes the story expands to depict life in Christiania, where the bourgeoisie thrived but the working class suffered from wretched labor conditions as well as rampant disease. Watkins has always been a politically engaged director and he lavishes attention on the world around Munch in order to avoid the romantic depiction of the artist as a solitary genius. Munch was shaped not just by mentors such as Hans Jaeger and, later, August Strindberg, but also by the conditions in which he was raised; his melancholia was not just artistic self-indulgence, but the logical response of a sensitive intellect to the squalor and inequity he witnessed every day (some scholars have also suggested that Munch suffered from bipolar disorder, an issue not addressed in the film).

Watkins clearly identifies with Munch. Munch had a restless mind and his style changed frequently, moving from impressionism to naturalism to expressionism and most points between; he also experimented with multiple media including lithography and woodcutting. His paintings were aggressive and shocking; agitated viewers didn´t know quite what to make of them. All of this alienated the staid art critics who derided Munch´s work, forcing him to move from to Paris and then later to Berlin, though he wouldn´t find acceptance anywhere until much later in his career. Similarly, Watkins describes himself as a marginalized director whose politically charged films have been suppressed by the media who prefer safer, more easily categorizable films. No doubt Watkins derives great pleasure by depicting Munch´s critics as preening dullards who treat any deviation from the norm as evidence of either incompetence or dementia.

Watkins matches Munch´s relentless experimentation with his own free-form innovations in this mesmerizing film. Though it is difficult to describe exactly how this movie looks, sounds and feels, I can easily describe its effect on me. I was riveted from start to finish, and found myself consistently surprised at every turn. "Edvard Munch" creates its own cinematic language and there is no way to anticipate which shot will follow from the previous one. What could have been a dry, predictable biopic is instead a dazzling panorama of not just a life but a world of ideas and emotions. It is also a deeply moving film that accumulates power with each scene. By the end I found myself in tears, not from sorrow, but rather because I felt overwhelmed by the blunt force of the film.

"Edvard Munch" is the best film about an artist and the artistic process that I have ever seen. Unlike most art films, it does not manufacture any cheap epiphanies when the artist is miraculously inspired by happenstance (Jackson Pollack watches a toppled paint can drip onto the floor and, in one quick cut, he is a genius!) Instead, we see that Munch achieved his most significant breakthroughs by three primary methods: work, work, and more work (much the same way Watkins made this movie). The film is every bit as much about the joy Munch took in the process of creation as it is about the anguish he suffered, and it produces an intoxicating viewing experience.

1 comment:

Brett said...

Peter Watkins is the most important filmmaker of the second half of the twentieth century.

In this film, and throughout his work, Watkins not only challenges the viewer but also other filmmakers to escape the restrictions of accepted cinematic processes: http://bit.ly/bGLvVj