Forward Into the Past 

Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch attempts on-the-spot reporting—of the 19th century

After years of being ignored, globe-trotting British filmmaker Peter Watkins is experiencing a renaissance.

by Steve Ericson 

After years of being ignored, globe-trotting British filmmaker Peter Watkins is experiencing a renaissance. Toronto’s Cinematheque Ontario and New York’s Anthology Film Archives have held retrospectives of his work, and he’s been the subject of major articles in Cinema Scope and Cahiers du Cinema. His six-hour video La Commune (Paris 1871) popped up last year at the Belcourt’s “Nashville Premieres” festival. And now, just as New Yorker Video has issued the first in a series of eight planned Watkins DVDs, the Frist Center is offering a rare screening of his 1974 masterpiece Edvard Munch this Friday.

Watkins started off his career on a high note, paradoxically winning a Best Documentary Oscar for his second film, 1965’s completely fictional The War Game. The radical politics of the ’60s counterculture have always been central to his work—1971’s Punishment Park, just released on DVD, is a sci-fi fantasy in which black activists and hippie pacifists are forced to run a desert gauntlet in the vain promise of freedom—but he held firm to them after they fell out of fashion. Indeed, if there’s a central weakness to his films, it may be their political stridency. And yet, however paranoid a film like Punishment Park seemed a decade ago—even if it was inspired by the Kent State massacre and the FBI’s persecution of the Black Panthers—the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have made it much more sympathetic. Edvard Munch is one of Watkins’ most accessible films, despite its nearly three-hour length. While far from apolitical, its historical distance makes the ideological discussions seem less shrill. (With a great deal of time devoted to free love and struggles over sexual morality, it seems as much about the 1960s as the 1880s.) Originally filmed for Norwegian television, it carefully lays out its subject’s social context: in the late 19th century, Munch’s hometown of Kristiania (now Oslo) was populated by a rising bourgeoisie whose pleasures depended on a working class—including many children—that toiled for 17-18 hours a day. Munch’s mother and sister died young, and the painter himself was often ill. Like many Watkins films, Edvard Munch is intensely verbal. At times, it has the feel of docudrama, with nonprofessional actors who bring their own opinions into their characters: they express these political and philosophical views directly to the camera, as if they were being interviewed. But the movie uses image and sound in counterpoint. If there’s something prosaic about this sensibility, it’s countered by lyrical, free-associative editing. At once, the movie is dreamy and drab. Watkins also shows himself to be a fine art critic, demonstrating at length how Munch made his artistic breakthrough: endlessly reworking a painting of his sister by tearing away at the canvas with pencils. Watkins calls the result, “The Sick Child,” the first Expressionist painting, but he also shows how the Norwegian bourgeoisie and media laughed it off at the time. It’s easy to see Edvard Munch as a self-portrait, since Watkins’ work has often been dismissed, underappreciated and difficult to see. But Munch eventually found his way into the canon. Deservedly, the same may be happening to his biographer. 


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