Geir Westby, Gro Fraas, Eric Allum, Amund Berge, Kerstii Allum
Peter Watkins experimental psuedodocumentary of the eponymous expressionist artist styles the film to the Munch’s work. Using the fuzzy, washed out, smoky black and blue color palette, Watkins also deemphasizes the unimportant through blur and shows the darkness that lies in the depths of the human heart and mind. Employing flat, dimensionless frontal shots, Watkins matches Munch’s perspective denying technique. The use of overlapping audio, the recycling and elipsing timeline that progresses, regresses, and folds in on itself, and constant repetition of what Munch is remembering or thinking about adds up to a stream of consciousness from the artist to the viewer. The highly amplified brush scratchings are an example of the way the documentary is expressive, but the point is Watkins conveys Munch’s interior through film experiments much as Munch conveyed his subject’s interior through artistic experiments.
The art of Munch is notable for it’s supreme subjectivity. Stripped of all distractions and artifice, of as many exterior details as possible, its aim is to depict the core feelings and emotions of humanity. Munch portrays our solitary existence by having people touching each other just meld together, rather than the closeness normally associated with contact neither human is truly present or one is absorbing the other’s life force like a vampire. His work deals with the difficulty of communication, and after all it’s rather hard to talk without a mouth or express with nothing more than a round smudge scraped on the canvas in the place of a full-featured head. Unlike the traditional realists of his time, who only dealt with exterior reality, Munch presented the interior through the exterior. Typically, it was easier for the critics to denigrate him than to attempt to understand the many new and different aspects of his work. Criticized for being immoral, ugly, and unspeakable, Munch was called a madman so many times he started to believe it. Thankfully, Munch’s work isn’t designed to be reprinted on greeting cards, but what scares some people and thus stirs their vehement condemnation is it goes places they don’t want to be, to the depths of human psychology, the darkest corners of the mind. The constant rejection drove Munch to a more conventional period before he got the courage to expand beyond painting to various graphic arts. There may not be a great way to depict lack of validation, but in various indirect ways, Munch’s work certainly has its results written all over it.
In traditional artist biopics their artistic influences tend to be the be all and end all of the “exploration”, as if the subject lived in a vacuum. Watkins includes this aspect, but it’s merely a minor portion of an all-inclusive whole. He blows through the lazy one-dimensional limitations by painting a picture of the political, social, and familial atmosphere. Every artist is effected by the time they live in, the rules, regulations, and values as well as wars, jobs, and welfare. Watkins takes us into the lives of the inhabitants of late 1800’s Kristiania (now Oslo), a place where child labor is expected and women make so little working at least 2/3 of the day in the factory they have to take to the streets at the end of their shift. These “asides” are so well done they threaten to overshadow the main subject, which is fine with Watkins, who tries to show the present through the past and vice versa.
Watkins shows that Munch’s work was mainly influenced by his personal life, a childhood of sickness and death (mother, siblings) followed by a brief but perpetually haunting affair with an unattainable married woman. A life without intimacy marred by constant bronchial problems created the pain, anxiety, and terror within the artist, driving him to portray the dark side of human emotion – suffering, jealousy, hate, and possession – in his work. His art is probably more about his own pain, but to some extent every human experiences the same pains.
Watkins likes to use non-professional actors who are very close collaborators on the film. They aren’t really supposed to act, just present their feelings or lack thereof, playing a part that suites them and improvising dialogue that’s largely their own researched views. In Munch and his work, the exterior tends to be a calm, quiet facade, a blank shell that hides a tormented soul. By suppressing all expression, all exterior display of emotion, Watkins gets performances without artifice much as Munch did with his models.
Watkins delivers the English narration to his Swedish language film. It’s highly informative, and sticking with Munch’s style as clinical and free of personality as can be. The sterility can be a turnoff, but it’s very unpretentious. Choosing not to shove every interpretation down the audience’s throat, the footage may not even correspond. The free association editing may lead you in certain directions, but the viewer is allowed to draw their own conclusions.