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Peter Watkins

Gamblour. · 1 · 1229

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on: March 22, 2007, 08:05:48 PM
So, I didn't find a thread for Watkins or any of his films, though I'm sure someone around these parts has discussed Punishment Park. Nonetheless...

I'm taking a class on artists' biopics (a dreadful, awful class, as most biopics are completely shit. there's no way to tell an artists' story by just presuming you're telling the truth!). And for a paper, I chose to write about Watkins' "Edvard Munch." The film runs at three hours (which reminds, I will add it to that thread) and is really amazing. He uses the format of a documentary to tell Munch's story, and in terms of his artwork it's just brilliant. I'm gonna paste some of my paper here, although it's still a rough draft...if you feeling reading this, it's pretty long, but I feel like I really captured a lot of what is great about Watkins and his style, and in particular this film and its depiction of the artist.

Also I haven't seen any of his other films, but apparently they're all great, especially Punishment Park...

"The film covers the period of Edvard Munch’s life between 1884 and 1895 (Keser). Munch, played by Geir Westby, is portrayed as melancholy and lonely, suffering both tuberculosis and apparent signs of depression. The film follows him through his career, going from exhibition to exhibition. All the while critics rip apart his work, often referring to Munch as being deranged and mentally insane. Watkins shows Munch’s relationship with the philosopher Jaeger (Kar Stormark), who explains his ideas on the notion of free love. This philosophy carries throughout the film, as Munch’s attempts at love often result in jealously and heartbreak as a result of free love. Munch’s main romantic interest, a woman known as Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Frass), is married, and often rejects Munch’s advances in order to remain with her husband. In another film, Mrs. Heiberg may well have been viewed as the femme fatale, but Watkins’ depicts Munch’s growing misogyny and frustration as the result of the philosophy of free love. 

Peter Watkins’ foremost aim in creating Edvard Munch was to reveal aspects of the artist’s personal life in order to shed light on his paintings, providing a counterpoint to what he called “art historians limited way of writing about an artist” (Gomez 40). He argued that art historians always took an “aesthetic or intellectual viewpoint,” and thus never get “into the soul of the artist” (Gomez 42). The concept of biography is often overused to explain the meaning behind an artist’s work, but here Watkins asserts that, at least, in Munch’s case, looking at his personal life would reveal the most about the inspiration behind his work.

   Additionally, Watkins’ film plays the role of art historian, carefully studying the brushwork of Munch as they create what are truly impressive replicas of Munch’s paintings. For example, the film follows the progression of one of Munch’s earliest paintings, The Sick Child (1886), as he eventually scratches through the original paint with a pencil, creating a jarring texture. Watkins uses an extreme close up of the pencil scarring the canvas and the heightened sound to examine the “destruction” of the initial stage of the work.

   Watkins’ decision to study Munch’s life and works through the format of a faux documentary presents a number of benefits. The format lends itself to capturing authentic images of nonfiction. There is an assumption of a lack of artifice involved in the creation of a documentary, which Watkins addresses by using similar techniques. For example, the camera throughout the film is almost entirely handheld, which gives the audience the impression of immediacy of the subject and that the filmmakers are able to follow the characters in whatever direction they go. The paradox of the faux documentary rests in that these characters are merely actors, and that their actions, though the camera might presume otherwise, are scripted. The effect is one of observation, and therefore the style of the film creates an impression of spontaneity. Through this technique, the audience begins to forget that the actions are scripted and begins to invest its trust in the film’s authenticity. This authenticity breeds a stronger rapport between the audience and the characters of the film, and thus a more emotional bond is created.

    Narration is not a device solely used in documentaries; however, when used in a traditional fiction film, narration is often viewed as a weakness. In a documentary, narration provides the audience with additional facts about the subject, and Watkins uses this to his advantage. The voiceover creates a layer of context, information, and meaning in addition to the visuals. In this way, narration solves the problem of expository dialogue. The characters in contemporary biopics are often given clunky dialogue in order to provide the audience with contextual information. The narration in Edvard Munch provides the exposition, thereby allowing the characters to reserve their dialogue for meaningful responses and interactions.

Additionally, the narration provides a greater context for the time period and setting, while also grounding the narrative in chronology. The latter results in a more cohesive narrative, given the film’s complex editing. This also results in a greater factual basis for narrative. Often, the narrator states the year in which the film is currently taking place and various information about that year. For example, when we reach 1889, he informs that this is the year Hitler was born. In this way, the narrator supplies context applicable directly not only to the film, but also on a global scale, allowing the audience to grasp the setting on a multitude of levels.

   The use of sit-down interviews grants the audience further insight into the characters’ thoughts, while also providing a temporal, social context. The characters espouse views current to the ideologies of Norway at the turn of the century, ranging from issues of the role of women, art, infidelity, family, and politics. The interviews allow for deeper introspection and provide another instance in which the fourth wall is broken.

   Watkins attempts to portray Munch’s personal life as heavily influential on his painting through his use of parallel editing. Over the course of the film, scenes are cut together, or even interrupted, by images that happen both earlier in Munch’s life and earlier in the film. The main events repeated throughout the film show the childhood trauma he and his sister went through dealing with tuberculosis and his rejected advances with Mrs. Heiberg. They repeat so often and thoroughly that they become a sort of obsessive mantra for Munch. These images from the past haunt Munch, and Watkins uses parallel editing to examine how these memories not only affect and influence his artworks, but how they are remembered constantly during various situations.

   Watkins maximizes the effect of the documentary format in his film in order to present more exposition in a direct way and to gain further introspection from characters. Furthermore, the director achieves a style of filmmaking that is both influenced by Munch’s work and representative of visuals and motifs seen throughout his paintings. Unlike other biopics, Watkins does not attempt to ape Munch’s composition or use special effects to recreate the style of his art. Rather, he depicts imagery and settings that would perhaps have inspired Munch to create his various paintings.

   A running motif in the film involves characters looking at the camera. In a traditional fictional film, when characters look at the camera, it is often either a mistake or a gag. In a documentary, however, there exists an ongoing awareness of the camera. Subjects and passersby often gaze into the camera lens. In Edvard Munch, Watkins brilliantly employs this inherent result of nonfiction filmmaking. The effect reinforces the notion of the film as a documentary, constantly presenting an awareness of the camera, and it also reflects an aspect of Munch’s paintings. In his work, Munch often paints his subjects staring back at the viewer with dead, vacant faces. The Scream (1893), Puberty (1893-5), and Death in the Sickroom (1893) all feature this motif. Watkins’ use of this imagery produces a haunting tone over the course of the film, and also provides a glimpse of Munch’s own personal torment.

   Unlike films such Frida(2002) or Modigliani (2004), Edvard Munch does not try to bring works of art to life, through special effects or by duplicating compositions. Rather, Watkins attempts to set Munch’s works in a realistic context, showing what might have been the inspiration for certain paintings. In the middle of the film, Munch paints the portrait of a young, nude girl. The scene is short, and we do not see what the result of this session was. The scene depicts the painting of Munch’s Puberty, but no attention is drawn to this fact. The moment passes by quickly, unlike a scene in Artemisia (1997) where the titular artist and her supposed lover slowly and eventually form the pose of her painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (1621). The shot continues for a prolonged period of time, and the event represents a key moment in the film. Watkins does not use Munch’s work for dramatic purposes such as this, but only brings attention to a work if it is a breakthrough for Munch himself. For instance, upon scarring the canvas of The Sick Child, the narrator notes the innovation for Munch, and includes a quotation from Munch’s journal about the achievement.

   Watkins portrays other Munch works, but offers them in a context of actual experiences. Towards the end of the film, we see a past image of Munch and Mrs. Heiberg embracing at the edge of a body of water. The setting sun casts a large reflection over the water. The image of the sun’s reflection is in several works of Munch, but this coinciding with the couple in the foreground closely resembles The Dance of Life (1899-1900). Watkins takes the imagery from that painting and creates the moment from which it may have been derived. In this way, Watkins exhibits that personal experiences account for the inspiration in many of Munch’s paintings.

   Another example occurs during a scene in which Munch, in a voiceover, describes his painting The Vampire (1895). Munch sits in the foreground, out of focus and blurred, and Mrs. Heiberg sits in the background, laughing and, from his point of view, ignoring Munch. The camera subtly glides back and forth, almost unintentionally, placing Heiberg’s open mouth in the same plane as Munch’s neck. The result is a visual metaphor for a vampire, coupled with Munch’s description of his painting. The fact that Munch is out of focus additionally recalls his tendency to place himself in his paintings with a featureless physiognomy, such as Death in the Sickroom. Watkins creates another moment in which the camera highlights Munch’s subjective experience of pain and jealously, while presenting the contextual moment of possible inspiration for his work."