The entire point of Peter Watkins’s cinematic career, so he seems to indicate in his interview with himself in the liner notes for New Yorker Video’s Edvard Munch DVD, is to directly challenge the perception deadening (at best) and enslaving (at worst) effects of the hegemony of 20th-century media, the conception of which was arguably the arrival of the moving picture. Strangely enough, two of his most acclaimed films take place decades before the Edison’s kinetoscope, but Watkins seems to use the anachronism of creating a hypothetical “first-person cinema” in the B.C. years to accentuate his impassioned appeal for elevated media consciousness. His recent six-hour millennial masterwork La Commune (Paris, 1871) was blunt about it, framing a rag-tag experimental theater ensemble attempting to reenact a moment of French social resistance with televised coverage from within (two community reporters practically serving as the film’s tour guides) and without (daily reports from the State-suckling network distorting the public’s all-but-assigned opinion). It’s undoubtedly the type of marathon movie that admittedly strong-arms you into the sort of masochistic approval that causes you to assert, albeit quizzically, “It really starts to pay off in hour four.” (What was that about the media browbeating its audience again, Peter?) But La Commune‘s slow, academic Bunsen-burn reaches a rolling boil when one of the commune wenches raises her musket barrel directly into the television camera and, thereby, out into the film’s audience like a train arriving at La Ciotat.
His 1974 film Edvard Munch, commissioned (and then, according to Watkins, ceremoniously held hostage) by the Norwegian NRK and Swedish SVT television stations, is neither as slow as La Commune nor does it reach any sort of boil. (Not, at least, in the 1976 theatrical version edited down from the television original’s 210 minutes.) What it offers instead is a jagged portrait of a nearly-mute artist who speaks his sexual frustrations and emo baggage over a thwarted affair with the pseudonymous “Mrs. Heiberg” through his evolving artistry, and then seems nonplussed when the crusty, high society powers-that-be react with outrage, contempt and marginalization, as though Munch actually used the brackish, tubercular blood ejaculating from his sisters’ diseased lungs as a tempera mixer.
Munch first loses any hope of a good reputation at home in Norway, and then abroad where his canvases are ridiculed for either being too grotesque or for being opportunistic, jumping on the caboose of Parisian expressionism. When I reviewed Malcolm X, I claimed that the best way to process the biopic is to “accept the part of their subjects’ identities and sensibilities that their respective directors seem to understand as their own ideals.” Edvard Munch, in Watkin’s subjective documentary setting, is one of the penultimate cultural crusaders, a relic of a dying era in which individualism could, apparently, still conceivably be intuitive and not reactionary. But he’s also an early crucible of a strangely unified dismissal, a collective critical spanking that stands in for the theoretical “official” assessments of a media-guided anti-consciousness Watkins rails against in his printed statements. Spike Lee undoubtedly thought he had picked up the torch from Malcolm X’s own hand when he directed X, but if Watkins really sees himself as Munch’s successor, wouldn’t he have done better to assign his image to someone who remains marginalized? Munch’s “The Vampire” isn’t the Edvard Munch of its day. It’s the Showgirls.