Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Edvard Munch

NOTE:  I have been dissatisfied with the quality of the last several Masterpiece Tests.  My feeling is that the rigid structure of this series of posts – breaking the films down into the seven different categories (beauty, strangeness, unity of form and subject matter, tradition, repeatability, viewer engagement, and morality) proposed in Paul Schrader’s “Canon Fodder” essay, one by one – is to blame.  As a result, I’m changing the format of the Masterpiece Test posts.  I’ll still attempt to assess the films based on the seven aforementioned criteria, which will hopefully be evident even if some of those factors aren’t literally mentioned by name.  Ideally, this will eliminate the awkward repetition of points that demonstrate more than one criterion, and make for a smoother read overall.

Year of Release  1974
Country  Sweden/Norway
Length  174 min.
Director  Peter Watkins
Screenwriter  Peter Watkins (in collaboration with the cast)
Cinematographer  Odd Geir Saether
Editor  Peter Watkins
Sound  Kenneth Storm-Hansen, Bjorn Harald Hansen
Costume Designer  Ada Skolmen
Makeup  Karin Saether
Cast  Geir Westby, Gros Fraas, Kare Stormark, Alf Kare Strindberg, narration by Peter Watkins

The biopic is at once one of the most popular genres of film (with awards-giving bodies, if not necessarily with critics or audiences) and one of the most problematic.  People’s lives aren’t stories, but many filmmakers have attempted to force the shapeless trajectory of their subjects’ lives into the square hole of three-act narratives.  The sheer machinations of plot necessarily smooth out the contradictions that make many “great men” fascinating in the first place, while often vastly simplifying (or virtually omitting) the subject’s relationship to his society, his contemporaries, and his family.  Landmark events and personal relationships are given too much or too little weight, leaving many of these movies feeling awkwardly paced, manipulative, and inauthentic.  Conventional narrative is simply not suited to capturing the lives of famous or important people, but only a handful of filmmakers have come up with new methods for delivering biographical material.

For most of his career, British filmmaker Peter Watkins has been concerned with ways of dismantling what he refers to as the “monoform” (“the internal language-form used by TV and the commercial cinema to present their messages”).  Along with Kevin Brownlow (director of 1965’s It Happened Here, a documentary-styled piece of speculative fiction that imagined what Britain would look like if the Nazis had won WWII) Watkins pioneered a type of docu-drama that blurred the line between documentary and fiction.  Watkins’ breakthrough was The War Game (1965), a disturbingly plausible look at what would happen if a nuclear bomb dropped in England.  As Watkins’ career has gone on, he has moved increasingly further away from such manipulative monoform devices as emotion-stoking background music, rapid montage editing, and three-act narrative structure.

Edvard Munch (1974) is simultaneously Watkins’ first biopic and his first major break with the monoform.  While previous Watkins works like The War Game and Punishment Park (1971) draw their power from their focused outrage, there is no denying that much of Watkins’ early work is didactic and stubbornly humorless to a fault.  The grim tone of Privilege (1967) is almost laughably out of proportion to its pop music milieu, while The Gladiators (1969) is single-minded to the point of being banal.  The far more dynamic Munch is a watchable median between Watkins’ early didactic work and his later, more difficult material, which is often easier to respect than it is to watch.  (In fairness, I’m basing this assessment entirely on 2000’s La commune, a 6-hour exploration of a little-known piece of French history, but 1987’s The Journey, a 14-hour look at various civilization’s reactions to nuclear technology, hardly sounds inviting).  Edvard Munch is a radical and ethically sound biopic, but its avant-garde qualities serve to make the experience more gripping rather than to shut the audience out.

Where many biopics tend to suggest that the key to understanding their subjects’ extraordinary lives can be found in a single monolithic event or a significant relationship with another person, Edvard Munch instead overwhelms the viewer with contextual information that simultaneously makes the titular artist’s work easier to understand while allowing the man himself to maintain a dignified air of mystery.  Watkins’ narration occasionally pops in to make the viewer aware of the passage of time, and to flatly announce certain historical details (ranging from child labor statistics to developments in the art world to the birth of Hitler) that may or may not have any direct relevance to Munch’s life.  The film does include the expected staging of various important events from Munch’s life, but these are often broken up by scenes that either don’t include Munch or that feature him so far in the background that lead actor Geir Westby essentially becomes an extra.  Munch also has fairly little dialogue in the film, as if to suggest that he might simply have been a product of his times.  It seems equally likely that the great artist’s work could have been inspired by his tumultuous home life, his frustrations with women, his repressed upbringing, the influence of his socially progressive bohemian friends, the work of other artists, or the attacks of art critics, each with varying degrees of consciousness or unconsciousness.  Compare this lifelike complexity with the simplistic Oedipal urges that fuel the protagonists of Oliver Stone’s W (2008) or Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), two recent examples of the monoform biopic.

It is unlikely that any two viewers would come away with the same interpretation of Edvard Munch, or even that an individual would have the same experience with it on multiple viewings.  Like contemporaries such as the great essay filmmaker Chris Marker, Watkins seems less concerned with imposing his own interpretation on the material than in getting at a greater but harder to define collective truth.  Watkins employs several stylistic techniques in Edvard Munch that are literally designed to prevent the film from succumbing to any one explanation.  He collaborated on much of the dialogue with the cast of non-professional actors, who, when they weren’t reciting things that there real-life counterparts said verbatim, were invited to write or improvise their scenes.  Watkins also used an innovative and dynamic editing technique that involved splicing bits of random footage, with no apparent relation to the dialogue or narration that it accompanies, at a number of points throughout the film, as if to suggest memories or thoughts that might be unconsciously influencing Munch’s developing artistic direction.

Of course it is essential for any film about a visual artist to possess a strong visual style, and Edvard Munch succeeds fully in this regard.  Odd Geir Saether’s cinematography initially seems a bit flat and grainy, like the work of a style-less craftsman doing functional work with subpar film stock.  But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that he has found the perfect middle ground between documentary plainness and painterly expressiveness.  In the sequences where characters are directly addressing the camera, they look equally like talking heads in a documentary and subjects of a Munch painting, fully justifying the potentially awkward intrusion of contemporary documentary techniques in this period piece.  The film also has a wonderfully tactile feel for the actual act of painting; the scenes where Munch scrapes away details from his in-progress works are perhaps the most riveting sequences of artistic creation outside of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956).  Saether’s camera work brilliantly finds the middle ground between Munch’s stylish eccentricities and the plain reality of everyday Scandanavia.  At one point in the film, an art critic sites the frequent use of red skies in Munch’s canvasses as an example of his “insanity,” an opinion that the film quietly contradicts in separate scenes by filming actual red Norwegian skylines.

Edvard Munch passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  From high art to B-movie pulp, with Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy

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