Inspired by the current polling going on at Wonders in the Dark (which for my money is the best movie blog site on the web right now) concerning the Best Films of the 1970’s, I decided to catch up on some of the great films from that decade I had yet to see. One thing led to another, and there I was with the obscure Edvard Munch sitting atop my Netflix queue. Directed by renowned forefather of the docudrama, Britian’s Peter Watkins, this complex and nearly four hour long biopic of Norwegian post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch was originally made as a miniseries for Norwegian/Swedish TV in 1974. It was released theatrically around the world in 1976 and was recently done up as a two-disc special edition on DVD. I watched it in those two parts over the course of two nights and was completely transfixed.
Brazenly presented in the style of a documentary, Watkins’ film begs you to feel as if his cameras were literally there from “moment one” in Munch’s childhood during the late 1800’s all they way up through the abrupt close of the film half way through his life around 1910. There are scenes done like mock-interviews with family, friends and critics, as well as “flashback” style scenarios and voice-over narration (by an austere Watkins) describing the socio-political climate that shaped Munch’s worldview. Extreme close-ups and grainy hand-held photography serve as precursors to the infamous Danish “Dogme 95” film movement some twenty years later. In fact, how the exaggerated and unrealistic color schemes of Munch’s paintings may have inspired the early films of Lars Von Trier (The Element of Crime, Medea, Europa) while the hyper-minimalism of Watkins’ film about Munch surely influenced his Dogme era films (Breaking the Waves) could be fodder for a whole separate discussion. Unlike a Dogme film, however, where style was often done for style’s sake, the unique and forward-thinking sound design and editing of Watkins’ magnum opus was done to mirror the inner turmoil and obsessions of the film’s protagonist.
Munch had a tortured childhood in Christiania (now Oslo) where he witnessed his mother and sister succumb to tuberculosis while he often found himself sick and at death’s door. He also suffered through a strained relationship with his pious (and perhaps bi-polar) father. Seeking meaning in the madness and driven by a strong desire to rebel, a young Munch became caught up in the Bohemian cafe society where like-minded artists, writers and philosophers rallied against conservative middle class social mores and preached the virtues of free-love, hard living and suicide. It was in this milieu where Munch’s style developed and evolved while he battled his inner demons and became further scarred by disastrous affairs with married or “free” women. The film presents us with repeated images of tender moments capturing his first love affair interwoven with scenes from his sister’s and mother’s blood-curdling deathbeds overlapped yet again with sights and sounds from the raucous cafes of Christiania and later Berlin. As a result of this uncanny editing, the viewer is literally transported inside Munch’s head as he anguishes over his canvases with often violent strokes of his brush or pallet knife and is left sobbing in his isolation. Part of the appeal beyond the stylized film technique on display is the level of intimacy it allows the viewer to reach with many of the artist’s most powerful works…one of which, “The Sick Child” we see painstakingly created from conception to completion.
During this turbulent time Munch inevitably became one of those artists whose paintings were critically reviled as the disturbed and meaningless smears of a madman, and later he was actually institutionalized for a short spell with “anxiety”. Nowhere is this anxiety more on display than in his most famous work, “The Scream”. Watkins also showcases other artists and writers who influenced or were influenced by Munch’s work, most notably the Swedish playwright and novelist August Strindberg. It was Strindberg whose work later held Ingmar Bergman in rapture, and it should come as no surprise that many moments from Bergman’s films, most notably Cries and Whispers and The Hour of the Wolf, seem as if they were Munch paintings come to life. Bergman often dealt with many of the same themes as Munch’s work surrounding not just an artist’s painful introversion but also man’s psychotic desire to uncover the innermost thoughts of woman — no matter how horrifying those thoughts are. As Watkins’ film so clearly portrays, many of Munch’s contemporaries had their lives cut short by disease, drink, murder or suicide. Yet ironically it was Munch who lived until 1944 up to the ripe old-age of 80 (no unlike Bergman also did in the next generation) and apparently found some level of peace in his later years (not depicted in Watkins’ film) when his work became more well regarded and he achieved a level of financial stability that allowed him to take care of his remaining sisters (one of whom went mad) and aunt. Peter Watkins’ portrait of Edvard Munch, much like the works of its subject, was clearly ahead of its time and deserves a high ranking in the canon of films depicting the psychological life of an artist.
I always find it fascinating how one artist can influence another, how generations can connect across the vast expanse of time and place through the art they leave behind and how artists from the same generation often tap into shared fears and emotions and elemental themes without ever being aware that the other was thinking the same thing at the same time. Twice in the past two days as I drove, Airborne Toxic Event’s “Wishing Well” played on the radio as I reached my destination. Nobody else in modern rock seems to cover “young male artist angst” as well as this group, and both times I found myself compelled to sit in my parked car until the song was over. It’s the type of song you want to listen closely to the lyrics, and the lyrics here conjuring images of “…and she emerged from the dark like a ghost in my head” could just as easily have been influenced by Munch as not. Sitting in my car listening to the song made me think of that moment from Robert DeNiro’s film A Bronx Tale where the young boy learns the best way to test a girl and find out if she really likes you is to see if she’ll unlock the car door for you. Well, in this day of power locks and remote-controlled starting, that test seems unlikely. I always thought a great way to test a woman’s connection to you is to see if she is willing to sit there in a parked car listening to a good song until it ends. Another great test for me: Will she stay for the credits after a good film?
And while listing to “Wishing Well” I thought of Edvard Munch and his primal shrieks, the interconnected nature of art and life and life as art, that blood-red sky hanging over “The Scream”, the model for Munch’s “Madonna” who was later shot dead through the head by a mad Russian lover, that innocent kiss on the back of the neck that inspired his “Vampire”, the mad women from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and well, that well that Rex Thomas Gail fell down in his dreams in my own novel The Thief Maker, and that botemless well that haunted my nightmares until Paul Thomas Anderson revealed to me what was at the bottom in There Will Be Blood. Well…what is at the bottom? A Scream? Oil? A Canvas? Ambition? Love? Despair? Art? Part of the beauty and mystery of life is figuring it out for yourself…
Written by David H. Schleicher
“I paint not what I see, but what I’ve seen.”
“I inherited two of mankinds most frightful enemies — the heritage of consumption and insanity.”
“I have no fear of photography as long as it can not be used in heaven or in hell.”
“From my rotting body flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”
Click here for a past Tribute to Ingmar Bergman.