I have grappled with Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch several times, in both its theatrical and full length television versions. The theatrical release is a little easier to tackle thanks to its shorter length, but both cuts are equally dogged and solemn. Watkins unquestionably attempted something unique. Through a combination of dramatic recreation, voiceover narration and a-chronological editing structured on personal revelation rather than linear development, the film attempts to examine both the artist’s psychology and the historical moment of his work.
It is a laudable, serious effort, but it always falls short. It is really that disappointment more than the film itself that makes me watch it again. Because I respect the effort and recognize Watkins’s innovation and daring, I am always befuddled by my boredom and restiveness as it unfolds. It is not enough to say the film fails. The more important question for me (as a filmmaker as much as a viewer) is why does it fail?
Part of the problem is undoubtedly the intense personal identification Watkins reported feeling for Munch’s art and life. Emotional identification is a shaky basis for successful biography if, as Watkins also averred, the goal is a thorough grounding of the artist’s life and work in his time and place. Moreover, that identification may blind Watkins to how repetitive much of the material is. He may find fine shades of difference in what we see that are vital to understand Munch’s work; we’re just as likely to yawn at the tedium.
Nonetheless, that identification between filmmaker and subject can be accepted as central to the film’s purpose. More fundamentally, Watkins does not have a formal control equal to the task he has set himself. That he is making a biography of a painter only heightens the conceptual difference between the paintings the film records and Watkins’s own images. This is not to suggest Watkins should have mimicked Munch’s work, which would probably have produced unwatchable results. Rather, it is a matter of the ability to create images in an expressive, rather than an illustrative manner.
The editing is the key. Directors known for their nonlinear cutting, like Roeg or Resnais, produce a purely visual logic to the juxtapositions. The images simply flow, and if we’re not always certain of their relationship, that very inexplicability contributes to their power. Watkins only occasionally achieves such consonance. More often his cuts underline a point made by the narration. We’re always being told things, we’re not allowed simply to feel them, to respond to the irrational power of the image. In short, what prevents Edvard Munch from being the achievement it should be is a didactic literal-mindedness that works against the desire to understand Munch in the emotional and sensual terms of his art. As a result, we can applaud Watkins’s intentions, intelligence and conviction, but to ask for the kind of pleasure provided by the painter’s work feels like ungrateful bad taste.