“Watkins’ filmmaking bravely seeks an insistence on personal truth his own and the viewer’s.”
New Yorker Video, in a continuing series of Peter Watkins releases, has issued DVDs of two films that are not only provocative and moving, but actually feel necessary. Yet not too many people have seen Edvard Munch and The Freethinker, especially in the U.S. In explaining why this is, Watkins is not shy about casting blame.
For most of his career, Peter Watkins has had a growing apprehension over the developing “language” of Western — and now international — audiovisual media, whether generated by a movie screen or a TV set. It all started with D. W. Griffith, he says, and you have to believe him when you watch, say, the frantic race-against-time sequence in the “modern” story from 1916’s Intolerance. With seconds to spare, an execution must be stopped, and Griffith seems to have invented, on the spot, the very film grammar still used today to engorge an audience’s sensory intake. Midst D. W.’s rapid editing, with all its cross-cutting compressing time and space, who in the audience can think of anything except saving that poor young man from the electric chair?
And then to watch a Hollywood thriller like 2004’s Bourne Supremacy — as I just have — is to witness the enduring power of Griffith’s innovations. Take the car chase sequence, for example. With the addition of bone-crunching sound and ever-accelerating intercutting — images flash at you for seconds or fractions of seconds at a time — the onrush of sight and sound makes Intolerance‘s efforts look like a stroll in the park. (Are there statistics on how many petit mal seizures have been caused by this one sequence alone?) And yet it still carries the basic filmic sentence structure developed by Griffith. It’s just faster, louder, and, you could say, more sophisticated in messing with your head.
Entertainments like the Bourne films are drugs, and Watkins calls their delivery system Monoform: in his words, “the repetitive language that uses rapid “seamless” cuts, and an incessant bombardment of movement and sound.”1 Editing like this is now so overwhelmingly prevalent that an average viewer wouldn’t be aware of a distinction to make — it’s simply how much of the visual media behaves these days, and of course that kind of blind acceptance is part of Watkins’ point. He sees Monoform as a fascistic tool that media moguls wield to control the film- and TV-watching public.
As he protests mightily, is Watkins just pissing in the wind? Back in the beat fifties, William Burroughs declaimed that, like Mayan priests and their calendars, media baron Henry C. Luce and his publications held sway over the minds of America. His magazines Time and Life told readers what to think and feel every day of the year. It’s thought control, Burroughs contended, a kind of slavery.
Exactly, Peter Watkins would say. In the 19th-century Norway and Sweden, respectively, of his films Edvard Munch and The Freethinker, it’s the newspapers that functioned as film and TV, manipulated by humongous corporations, do today. In those days, it was the monarchies pulling the strings. Then came Griffith and the movies.
For Watkins, filmmaking is a political activity as well as a personal one; he remains staunchly independent of the marketplace. In booklets accompanying the DVD releases of both films, articles penned by Watkins and others lay out his ideology at some length, and it’s persuasive. At the same time, though, his ideas can seem off-puttingly dogmatic, projecting a rigidly held, single-minded stance impervious to criticism.
Clearly, Watkins hates oppression of any kind, and he views the blanket application of Monoform as an oppression of an insidious sort, operating on clueless people, like Americans, who view themselves as part of a free society. That may well be. In the context of commercial TV, broadcast news, and date night at the Cineplex, we are essentially zombies in thrall to a monolithic corporate will. And I’ll admit right now that I, well, enjoy the Bourne movies.
But I doubt that Watkins sees himself as a crusader to abolish film as entertainment or propaganda — two things it so frequently is, often at the same time. Instead, he’s arguing for a media alternative in which the public can actually participate and be allowed to reflect on what it sees. Although such alternatives exist in independent and avant-garde filmmaking, the means of getting them out to a large public is disappearing. With the withdrawal of government funding, public broadcasting, for example, must now yield to the demands of the marketplace and effectively cease to feature “alternative” viewing. As for commercial TV, there will be no more Rod Serlings or Paddy Chayevskys or Playhouse 90s. And was the “golden age of TV” really all that golden?
It’s now 2008, and anyone with a young, forming mind is part of the Entertainment Generation with its attendant devices — phones, iPods, whatever2 — out of which all the input, all the connecting leads to the minimizing of what used to be called solitude, that place where self-knowledge, the processing of primary experience, just being alive — all that good stuff — takes place. And as much as it may be disappearing, self-reflection is key for Watkins and these two biographical works, Edvard Munch (below left) and The Freethinker (right).
Wanting the audience to lose its media junkie passivity and participate in the films, Watkins disallows the fast cutting and “seamless” flow of cookie-cutter, rush-to-the-end-and-save-the-girl feature film narrative. Pacing is slow and allows room for thought. Scenes end decisively and move to the next often not linearly in regard to time and space. Formally, the films’ structures are more like mosaics that flash from one tile to another, toggling between past and present, and often repeating scenes in different juxtapositions to others. The filmmaker makes deliberate expressive choices in this structure, but the viewer, Watkins hopes, “completes” the film in his own way by allowing image and sound to resonate with his own past and present. However cantankerous Watkins may seem in print, his filmmaking bravely seeks an insistence on personal truth — his own and the viewer’s.
In a leap, these films attempt to mirror the form of experience itself — experience, that is, minus iPod and car chase. Experience where you are responding to the environment and all that entails, meaning not just the tree or person in front of you, but all the mass of social and cultural forces of your time bearing down on you — but, further, the vast store of memories within you: the past. This is you, at any given moment.
And, in a parallel, equivalent way, this is Edvard Munch in Watkins’ 1974 film. The painter, with his tormented, lonely, outcast early career, has never found himself in a Hollywood biopic probably because the turmoil — and astonishing productivity — of those years never produced a true catharsis on which to hang an Irving Stone-type narrative arc. Far from committing suicide or mutilating himself, Munch lived into his eighties after segueing (having committed himself into an asylum in 1908) into a rather comfortable existence as a Famous Painter, with plenty of commissions buying a nice big house and an enviable north-facing studio. His work changed, too. Although he often revisited early themes and visual motifs, there were no more screams and bloody skies. The figurative work and landscapes could sometimes be disturbing and mysterious but seldom cathartic. Only some late self-portraits, as the painter faced his own mortality, hearken back to the excoriating paintings and graphics made before the century turned.
While his contemporary, Vincent van Gogh, writing to brother Theo about his goals as a painter, expressed a desire to act as a simple carthorse pulling a wagon full of people out to see the spring, Edvard Munch seems determined to be a Virgil guiding his viewers through a personal hell.
Yet, before he gets underway with Munch’s ghastly and formative childhood — “illness, insanity, death” — Watkins opens the film by intercutting brief scenes of the Munch household with staged, faux interviews with the 19th-century poor of Christiania (later Oslo) that then collide with images of the era’s wealthy middle class promenading along that city’s Karl Johan Street. The filmmaker’s voiceover, which continues to intervene throughout, gives a detailed account of Norway’s arid and conservative cultural scene at the time, which neatly dovetails with descriptions of the social strata in which the painter and his family found themselves during Munch’s childhood and adolescence — when they held onto a middle-class existence only by the skin of their teeth, their precarious income forcing them to live on the edges of slums.
Watkins, who began his career as a documentary filmmaker, frames these social and cultural environs with documentary techniques (hand-held camera, jagged cuts, sudden zooms to a face) that pop the illusion of a narrative window right from the start. Expecting maybe a biopic or carefully considered documentary, the audience is set up for a different experience, where one is not strapped in and sent on a thrilling — but familiar — ride through a storyland version of tragic creative genius.
And, once again, who is the foremost example, since his death in 1890, of tragic creative genius but Vincent Van Gogh? Perhaps the best made Hollywood biopic of a famous painter, but still egregious in its distortions and false dramatic conclusions, is Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of Irving Stone’s potboiler biographical novel of Van Gogh, Lust for Life (1956).3
The climax of Minnelli’s show has Kirk/Vincent out under the blazing sun attempting to finish one of his most famous late paintings, Wheatfield Under Threatening Skies. With no other purpose than to harass the unhappy artist, a squadron of crows dives in on Van Gogh, who, flailing like the madman he is, scares them off and then turns to the canvas, rendering the pesky scavengers as jagged slashes of black paint. But it’s Vincent’s insanity — and his fevered release of it into paint — that proves too much, and he cries out, “It’s impossible!” abandons the canvas, steps deep into the field, and shoots himself.
The implication here is that, crows aside, Vincent’s isolation and mental illness had pushed his art to an extreme that could no longer contain the bad energy raging inside of him — so, no more painting, time for death, time to “go home again” and “Theo, hand me my pipe.”
In other words, the painter had his wits about him. And so does Watkins’ Munch. But unlike Vincent, who mostly wanted to please with his imagery,4 Munch consciously strove to provoke and disturb. Once the filmmaker has Munch break free of his family and begin his career, the painter begins to apply paint to canvas — always a tricky bit in the movies because they’re mostly determined to make the act of creation look like frenzied art therapy and not the deliberated, long haul of concentrated labor it mostly is.
When it’s time for Munch to paint his groundbreaking work, The Sick Child (1885-1886), Watkins seems to get off on the wrong foot and step into Lust for Life territory. While still rooted in the naturalism then prevalent in Norway, the painting features a sudden — and uncharacteristic for the artist — assault on the painting’s surface, with palette knife, the blunt end of a brush, fingernails, and who knows what else. The narration declares this activity of scratching and scraping an aggressive release of frustration over his continuing problems with the women in his life. Anything’s possible, but I wonder, as Watkins also suggests, that the painter was more intent on formal gains, like achieving his “nervous dissolving treatment of color,” and reaching toward a simplification of form.
Munch apparently never repeated this experiment. Throughout the rest of his life, Munch resisted impasto and aggressive mark-making and instead would alter and move forms around by wiping the surface clean of paint and beginning anew in order to create a relatively thin and deceptively underworked surface, much like the Matisse of the twenties and later. As the film develops scenes of Munch painting and making prints, Watkins excels in making it all appear legitimate and convincing. The artist is working, not emoting, and knows exactly what he’s doing. Watkins’ Munch also recognizes the work is going somewhere, not standing still.
The casting call for Edvard Munch yielded no Kirk Douglases: Watkins continued and refined his practice of using non-actors, even for the two main roles of Munch (Geir Westby) and Mrs. Heiburg (Gros Fraas). Both are superb, but Watkins isn’t demanding performances in a traditional movie sense, where characters “develop” within a linear dramatic arc. Munch and his mistress react to each other — the painter gets upset at times and has angry outbursts, etc. — but the filmmaker’s mosaic structure has the effect of time standing still for long stretches while we take in Munch as if he himself were an experience, not a character in a story.
Munch’s six year, on-and-off affair with the married woman tagged “Mrs. Heiburg” is the stem of the film’s first half. Any scene of hesitant or passionate kissing between them is likely to be juxtaposed with the oft-used sequence of the artist’s mother dying when he was a small child. Sex, death, and women are frequently fused in Munch’s early work; the film’s juxtapositions, the toggling back and forth, has us experiencing this fusion as part of the “now” of Munch in the film, which also uses audio means to achieve the effect. The sound of Munch weeping, as in the aforementioned “I can’t go on” scene, is layered on top of dialog and ambient sound in other scenes.
The Edvard Munch project was intensely personal for Watkins, as he makes clear in the self-interview that’s part of New Yorker’s accompanying booklet: “I discovered — I felt — a very deep affinity to this Norwegian artist.”5 Quoted elsewhere in the booklet, Watkins describes how he felt the connection “on the most personal level — sexual fear and inhibition, need, yearning . . .”6 But just as strong was Watkins’ sense that the painter’s struggle with critics, with acceptance in his own country, paralleled his own battles with the BBC, which had banned his film The War Game in the mid-sixties, and the press, which had severely “attacked” his work.7 In his prose Watkins can sound bitter about his career in a way that approaches paranoia, but then you realize, where have these two films been?
If Watkins’ Munch film can then be seen as much autobiographical as biographical,8 his nineties project, The Freethinker, is much less so. But even here, where Watkins was commissioned by the Swedish Film Institute to produce a film about August Strindberg, his completed work (in 1994) ran up against the same strictures, even outright banning in Scandinavia, as did his subject’s plays and writings in the 1880s.
Initially, in the early 1980s, after Watkins had dutifully produced a screenplay about Strindberg, funding ran out, after which the project lay fallow until the filmmaker found the unlikely support of something called the Nordens Folk High School. Here, Watkins abandoned all trace of auteurism and allowed his script to be developed, added to, and improvised on, in a lively cooperative effort Watkins calls a “full-length video production course.”9
Much of the film concerns itself with the turmoil of Strindberg’s first marriage to Siri Von Essen, who’s played by ecology student Lena Settervall (above, out of character). Unconventionally beautiful, with a high forehead that beams intelligence, Settervall has a sometimes solemn, often psychically charged presence that demands respect and admiration. By allowing Siri to be a strong, modern woman — who, in character and out, provides her own personal feelings about male/female relationships — Watkins gets one of his major themes across in a startlingly direct manner. Edvard Munch was pervaded by that era’s budding feminism among artists and writers, but The Freethinker depicts it as an arena in which Strindberg and his wives and lovers engage, split, and rejoin until the writer, in lonely dotage, retreats to a rooming house and profound isolation.
In a fearless, even physical performance, Anders Mattson plays the young August Strindberg as an obsessed, angry, and rather unpleasant fellow who treats his wife badly. After Siri, an actress before she met the writer, receives better reviews than her husband while performing in one of his plays, Strindberg disparages, then forbids, her acting career. Their lives careening into fighting, mutual bitterness, and near poverty, Strindberg continues to write plays and books of essays and history that mostly alienate his public — and the youthful Swedish intelligentsia — who discard him like smelly garbage.
In one brilliantly staged (and improvised) sequence, a young, contemporary Strindberg scholar comes running across a bare soundstage to angrily confront Anders Mattson, who is in character as Strindberg. The scholar hurls accusations of domestic cruelty — she’s got a letter to prove it — and wants the writer to reconcile his misogyny and personal failings with his stature as thinker/writer. He can’t do it; in response, all he can muster is “C’est la vie.”
Watkins and his student crew don’t soften the writer’s ugly stance toward women, but they make the issue more complex and create depth and sympathy for Strindberg as a human being. Using the techniques refined in Edvard Munch, Watkins again achieves an “experiencing” of the artist by rejecting a biopic’s telescoped rush toward catharsis, or resurrection, or downfall, and allowing a juxtaposition of scenes to suggest that artist’s existential truth. Often, one scene may be a notably static one. A recurring sequence in the second half of Freethinker has the elder Strindberg (Torsten Föllinger, not a student I’m betting) listlessly wander the parlor of an end-of-the-line rooming house, picking out a melody (Chopin?) on the out-of-tune piano, straightening a picture on the wall, or thinking and writing in a darkened bedroom. No drama here, but when placed next to the young Strindberg tearing into poor Siri for whatever made-up offense, the effect is profoundly, dry-eyed sad (i.e., not maudlin or sentimental) in a way I’ve never encountered in a film.11 Shooting on video — tape, I’m assuming — pays off in those rooming house scenes. The clinical dryness of the medium yields the exact texture of an old man’s loneliness in an empty rooming house parlor circa 1911.12
A scene following an intertitle featuring one of the writer’s more hostile anti-feminist texts is especially resonant, but its effect on a viewer is hard to predict because each viewer will likely have a different response. In the intertitle, Strindberg’s prose explains that, as a writer, he must portray women so that they will “not have a clean spot on them.” The film doesn’t go on to give Strindberg’s larger textual context, so, in other words, what did the writer mean by that? It’s easy enough to guess: here’s Strindberg, in a regressive manner, throwing blame onto women for some kind of betrayal, and tossing in a bit of association with menstruation, too.
But as the intertitle cuts to a short sequence, never repeated, of Strindberg’s mother dying as father and son look on, the film provides its own visual context. Her mouth agape, the mother struggles for breath; she’s probably in a coma. Very graphic — and realistic, as I can attest: my mother died in a coma with her mouth agape in much the same manner. But in this context, and in the viewer’s context, the remark “not a clean spot on them” goes from simple misogyny to something altogether more deeply personal, private in fact — for Strindberg and the viewer.
In this way, Freethinker, and Edvard Munch before it, gets directly to a central purpose: to dismantle the wall between the medium and its audience. For Watkins, these films therefore become political, as he feels all artistic expression must be, if it carries the weight of true and necessary communication. Matisse once said that his aim was to “simplify” painting, but Munch was tackling the same goal just as Henri got his first box of watercolors. By striving to enact change, however, both painters became “political.”
Any true avant-gardist, like Munch or Strindberg, seems destined to isolation, in spite of their art germinating within cultural and intellectual groups, and Watkins’ films articulate these influences with astonishing depth. With Munch you have the reigning intellectual group, the Christiania Boheme; with Strindberg it’s the “Young Sweden” group. The dynamic of each film then becomes simple: each artist either detaches from the group or is discarded by it, to then go sailing off on his own.13 I know nothing of Watkins’ early influences or any membership in a group, but this theme of lonely creative endeavor brings the filmmaker’s own career experience into the mix, the idea of individual integrity, a moral consistency, that must be at the core of an artist’s intent. Such intent can forebode events (Watkins links Munch’s sense of societal terror, e.g., The Scream to the 20th-century cataclysms of both world wars) and effectively change how we see or think.
Taking on iconic figures in Norway and Sweden, both projects were shot in their respective countries, using native nonprofessional actors speaking their own language. All actors were encouraged to improvise, in character, on their own personal views on such topics as marriage; this technique allows the films a lively tension between, say, the topic of the status of women in 1974 or 1994 and that same issue in circa 1890 as it affected the personal lives of the two artists. In Edvard Munch the young Strindberg wanders into such a discussion among the Christiania Boheme, and when the concept of women being freed from the strictures of marriage comes up, Strindberg enters the fray with a misogynist bravado (no, keep ’em chained) that’s then belied by his face’s descent into a look of vague regret. Does the regret belong to Strindberg or to the actor? The viewer can’t be sure.
Apparently, this brand of subtlety was not much savored by the media bosses in Sweden; the film, according to Watkins, was “effectively” banned from TV throughout the Nordic region and refused everywhere else.14The Freethinker, to my own knowledge, never showed up on American public broadcasting, which in 1994 was concentrating on, what, John Tesch concerts? Nowadays the prospect of seeing a film like The Freethinker or Edvard Munch on public television is even more unlikely, with big producers of programming, like Boston’s WGBH, steadily buying into what Watkins has been decrying for decades: the use of a kind of modified Monoform to juice up its projects. Everything from nature shows to a Masterpiece Theater production of Dicken’s Bleak House — a co-production of the BBC and WGBH — now feature jump cuts and sound mixes designed to make sure everybody’s awake out there. Why not throw in some big orange explosions?
Watkins’ films would be adjudged by the programmers as too long — the equivalent of asking the viewer to watch paint dry — and, actually, maybe, too controversial. Edvard Munch ran afoul of Norwegian media, initially because a suit from the Munch family demanded some material be cut. Watkins complied, and yet the film still lay dormant in Norway, possibly because of resentment over the fact that the director of this film about the country’s most beloved artist was a foreigner.15 That’s no issue in America, of course, but any show about a Famous Artist televised here must blunt biographical and societal sharp edges and avoid that most uncherished quality these days: complexity.
Speaking from the early 20th century, Marcel Proust seems to have articulated, in a quite different context, what Watkins hopes the viewer might experience and take from his films. When the critic Ruskin compared reading to a “conversation with the wise and noble,” Proust wrote to disagree, replying that, when one reads, it is “to receive a communication with another way of thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude . . .”16
As we watch his films, Peter Watkins wants us to retain that same intellectual power. With his innovations, he permits the space and the solitude that allows us to do just that.
From where I sit, I would declare these two titles the best DVD releases of 2007. They are indispensable and will hopefully ensure a wider audience, at least in North America, for these deeply felt, innovative, and lucid films.
Because Watkins made them to be shown on television, both films are ripe for home video. Transferred by Project X, New Yorker Video vividly presents them with little sign of aging, even in the case of Edvard Munch, which is over thirty years old.
Edvard Munch was shot on 16mm film and cut into two versions. The original broadcast release, discussed here, runs 220 minutes; a theatrical release, distributed internationally but at least initially only shown in the U.S., runs 174 minutes. New Yorker issued the cinema release in 2006. I’ve only seen the company’s longer broadcast cut, but to my eyes it looks wonderful. Watkins must’ve used fairly fast film, which results in prominent grain even in well-lit situations, but the grain gives the film a warm, intimate look, sometimes approximating the appearance of old autochrome prints.17
Edvard Munch comes with a hefty 56-page booklet containing a pertinent chapter from Peter Watkins, Joseph Gomez’s 1979 biography of the filmmaker, plus Watkins lengthy self-interview, which goes far in detailing his creative intent and all the hopes and fears that go along with it.
Although The Freethinker was less elegantly shot on videotape, the format perfectly served Watkins’ collaboration with his untrained filmmakers, and the film looks terrific on DVD. The two-disc set comes with a 15-page booklet featuring texts by Watkins that detail his work with the Nordens Folk High School and the post-production trials and tribulations.
- Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The Freethinker. New Yorker Video, p. 8. [↩]
- In an interview on the DVD of his film Inland Empire, director David Lynch begs the viewer, “Please, don’t watch this film on your phone!“ [↩]
- Regardless of its failings, I can’t help being fond of this picture, which has the mitigating factor of Miklós Rózsa’s exceptional score. [↩]
- Consider the two sunflower paintings he executed to decorate Gauguin’s room at the yellow house, or the painting of an apple tree in blossom intended for the nursery of brother Theo’s infant son. [↩]
- Peter Watkins, booklet insert, Edvard Munch, New Yorker Video, 35. [↩]
- Ibid., 11. [↩]
- Ibid., 35. [↩]
- Ibid., 36. [↩]
- Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The Freethinker, 7. [↩]
- Does high school equal college over there in Sweden? [↩]
- Actually, maybe in Bergman, who was deeply influenced by Strindberg. [↩]
- The parlor’s interior seems perfectly appointed and furnished for the era, but, with the filmmakers’ humorous nod perhaps to the artificiality of the proceedings, Strindberg, deciding to go out, fetches his overcoat from what looks like a shiny plastic coat hanger! [↩]
- The Freethinker provides a recurring but succinct image for that very metaphor: a solitary Strindberg manning a small sailboat in a choppy sea. [↩]
- Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The Freethinker, 10. [↩]
- Ibid., 29. [↩]
- Quoted from Caleb Crain, “Twilight of the Books,” The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2007, 138. [↩]
- Autochrome was a very early photographic color process, invented near the turn of the 20th century, that has a granular, almost pointillist look that gives its prints a very painterly feel. [↩]