IN THE GLOBAL INTEREST - Lessons for Life from Edvard Munch

By Gareth Evans, a London-based writer, editor, film and event producer and Whitechapel Gallery’s Adjunct Moving Image Curator.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. - Simone Weil

Spoiler Alert 1: This piece presupposes a viewing familiarity with the film discussed.

Spoiler Alert 2: There can, in my opinion, be no more rewarding and insightful response to this film than that offered by Joseph Gomez in his path-making (and still un-matched) book length study Peter Watkins (Twayne, 1979), long out of print and urgently deserving of updated republication. Fortunately, Gomez has done just that, at least in terms of his chapter on the film in question, for the Eureka Masters of Cinema 2007 dvd release, an essential purchase (and one we are lucky to have at all; see below). I feel no hesitation in recommending this course of action, as there is simply no point in me repeating or paraphrasing his outstanding scholarship on the film, its inception, intention, production, construction, strategies, reception/s and threats. He has supported Watkins and his project from the outset, as a viewer, listener, comrade and friend and deserves every respect for this commitment.

First it was The War Game. Not on screen, not yet; but as a broken-spined paperback from 1967 (the year of my birth), the most unsettling incarnation imaginable of the relatively brief – but more or less mass market - trend for bound image and text expressions of significant film works. Sometimes these took the shape of a novelisation with stills inserted throughout or in the heightened paper stock of the ‘gallery’ centre. At others, one held the perhaps more expected publication of the screenplay (albeit equally only a publishing project of the 1960s) with accompanying image grabs.

This edition was both of those and also wildly ‘other’: a truly urgent adaptation (in black and white of course) of the television ‘play’ by Watkins himself, a fiction of sorts (the frontispiece disclaimer states that “there is not a single genuine newsreel photograph in the book… There cannot be, because this book deals with an event that has not yet taken place”). Strangely, given their prohibition on UK transmission of the documentary fiction, the BBC gave permission for the reproduction of numerous still frames.

In this allowance, nevertheless, a sense of the potency of Watkins’ moving image abilities is implicitly revealed; his astonishing facility with the liaison between image, sound, music and the spoken / performed word that has proved so definitive to our understanding of the possibilities of film in our times. And yet, for this reader, finding the ‘distressed’ edition (published jointly by Sphere Books and Andre Deutsch) in a charity shop for laughably few pence, it might as well still have been a film – its kinetic page designs (by Paul Watkins…), kin in their textural access to the print version of Ways of Seeing that would follow five years later, did jolt and blast, did shout and scream and weep, in all but word only.

Then it was the celluloid itself, finally broadcast, as it should have been 20 years earlier, on BBC2 television (into the medium-heart of a nation; how impossible this feels now is an indication of the scale of the ground covered, or lost, since) on 31st July 1985; the darkest coming-of-age programming our generation could have been given. Enough said, here. It takes the breath to another place merely to think on it.

A further screening followed, at university thanks to an enlightened tutor, along with Culloden (well before home availability). Then Privilege (on television again, such chances now lost for good it appears) and, much later, at the cinema, Punishment Park (I’d publish Watkins’ words on the 2005 UK re-release in the moving image magazine Vertigo) and La Commune. Such a trajectory of encounter with the oeuvre of a film-maker is perhaps not unusual (sequence, founding book and politicized delay apart). But, I should add, also in the timeline, there was involvement in a (perhaps suitably) storm-besieged, promotionally-challenged weekend complete showing of The Journey at a theatrical bunker in London’s East End and, date forgotten now, Edvard Munch.

The reason why the meeting with this particular film is added as a form of culmination to the decades-long encounter is not only because it was the most recent discovery, albeit many years ago. Rather, it is because it feels like it took / takes place inside time, which is to say, outside the (universal) clock.

In his other films, Watkins has created startling möbius strips out of collapsed temporal binaries - the then-in-now of Culloden, The Freethinker and La Commune - has immersed in the charged present-tense for his radical media triptych from the late 1960s and early 1970s or posited a future imperfect in divergent registers for The War Game and The Journey).

However, in Edvard Munch, a different order of experience is being investigated – and made. Just as the film so fluently occupies multiple temporal spaces at once (the internal multiple frames within the subject ‘matter’, as well as those of making, viewing, stages of re/release and its evidence ‘for the record’), it also exists far from any limitation to the moment of one reading or audience. It demonstrates, by example, how we live inside our own embodied perception of time, which is to say life, which is anything but linear or neatened by narrative ‘arcs’ and the exposition of ‘plot’, personal or otherwise, into the crude and misleading trinity of past, present and future. All are coterminous with our appreciation of space (or place). Film is rarely treated with the dignity it deserves (but which Watkins bestows), for its unparalleled ability to render this realization in images that can travel and transport.

For this, and for other achievements that will become apparent, the film stands, for this correspondent, and many others it seems, as singular in Watkins’ filmography, not because it stands apart thematically or formally, but because it seems to contain all the other films within it (their approaches to themes, the strategies of their realization and even their concerns: this will be developed below).

Given that Watkins first saw Munch’s paintings in 1968, a year, however much it has been betrayed since, that offered much in terms of its collective and internationalist potential, one is encouraged to think how, in Edvard Munch and in his larger body of work, Watkins properly explores what it might mean truly to be radical in one’s dealings with reality as it is found. This is because, not least, he fully accepts, and expresses, the indivisible relationship between the creative, personal act and the political, social act: they are one and the same. Inflected yes, casting different shadows at variant times, but cut from the same fabric. Similarly, his films find ways to show what can’t be seen. The interior life is externalized through social enunciation, while the ‘world’ is apprehended from within the self, and in both directions each is changed by the meeting.

In this, he has always been exemplary: the great film-maker of exactly that, meetings; between the self and society, individuals, social groups, sides in conflict, ways of thinking and being, systems of belief, economy and organization. Even if those assignations are bloody and destructive, Watkins’ explicit optimism endures throughout, and this is mostly clearly appreciated in the undeniable fact that the films exist. They are. This is the foundational optimism in action. What else could he be - given the decades of hostility, ignorance, dismissal, wilful and woeful institutional barracking he has faced - and yet he has persisted, persevered, endured – and made, such works he has made, so far from the default setting as to establish their own constellational arrangement and centrifugal force.

That he has been able to keep on keeping on, through core production and now major recovery or retrieval often against all the odds (as in the case of Edvard Munch), is due in part to the critical friendship of key supporters, most notably Oliver Groom for the film under discussion. This extraordinary private initiative – of definitive salvage and outstanding restoration – is the gesture usually expected – certainly hoped for - of national institutions, foundations and the like. Their failing underlines the importance of the film rather than diminishing it, because it confirms its ongoing, politicised relevance, in making, circulation and now independent advocacy.

There are many reasons – superbly delineated and analysed by Gomez – as to why the film is aesthetically so powerful, affecting and finally transformative, both of its material and of its audience; whether it be due to the astonishing ensemble of untrained citizens, their performances and on-screen reflections / responses, the hand-held cinematography and its use of indirect light, the framing and compelling location filming, the intuitive and fractured editing, the polyphonic sound design, astute commentary, the historical and political alignments… That these approaches evidence a deeply collaborative artist at work is a given. Watkins’ understanding of that terminology and relationship, however, goes far further and deeper than its casual and overused deployment might suggest. He might be the most articulate of living film-makers but his fiercely rigorous intelligence is offered as a secure base from which performers, crew members and audiences – all forms of the ‘public’ – can build their own spaces of thought and act within the work; can find the time and sites where they might wish to reside. Utterly anti-hierarchical, he is so certain of his approach only in the way that a building for the common good must be sure its roof will see out the storm.

Just as he walked into Munch’s paintings and found so much of himself in their brushstrokes and maker, so we now are encouraged to do the same with his film; encouraged, urged even, by the technical abilities mentioned above, constantly to remind ourselves of the imperatives, needs, desires and losses of our own lives in supportive dialogue with Watkins and Munch and with all the elements of the filmic territory he has established.

In summary, we might say that the form of the film (of the body of work and its attitude) is what makes it so distinctive and effective. Its form is both world-making and its way of being in the world. It is associatively creative and instinctively political. Watkins does not make something new for reasons of novelty. He does so because the act of witness, of testimony to the observed and felt truths of experience, the necessity to speak truth to power (again and again) is inseparable from the form his work makes and takes, its expressive necessity.

Everything works towards this realization of heightened form, which could also be termed integrity. It demonstrates rigour, profound creative tension, priority, camaraderie, the ability to listen and the requirement to speak (out). Watkins remains a threat to established orders (not only the barons of the mass audio-visual media networks) because he is serious, properly serious (this is his crucially important tone) about the condition and oppression and needed struggle of our period, and because he is genuinely inclusive in how he attempts to address the undeniable issues facing us on so many sides, near and far, present and imminent.

This is what is meant when it’s observed above that Edvard Munch contains, actively and by implication, the multitudes of all his other films. Watkins’ lifelong resistance, shown explicitly in his anti-militarist works, to all forms of structural violence – the terrible damage done to bodies, consciousness, ecologies, shared and valued structures, images – is summoned within Munch’s painting The Scream as the existential embodiment of all the aforesaid, simultaneously distilled and expanded until they blood the whole of the sky with their wounds.

Yes, at the last, and lest we forget, Edvard Munch is a film about an artist, a painter. Even if we remind ourselves only of that, we must also declare that in the cinematic gallery of such titles, only three further film-works, I would argue, deserve consideration alongside it: Pirosmani (Shengelaya), The Quince Tree Sun (Erice) and Vincent (Cox).

So different in so many ways, this quartet share two qualities unequivocally. First, each has found and made (as the artists they celebrate also) their own colour for the world as they understood it. This colour is not only hue or shade: it is the beating vocation of that world.

Second, they are made out of love for the commonwealth of people, of flora and fauna, of the earth itself. I mean this as no exaggeration. Despite their focus on an individual maker, they refuse to separate that person from all the elements that have made them, and which they in turn affect. There is an absolute respect for the full register of being, from a wooden table to a pair of boots and a single leaf to a forest entire.

Against the ongoing wanton destruction of all that is, the endless erasures, these films – and all of Watkins’ works – attend. They watch and shape and in so doing declare: life matters, justice is not negotiable, love in all arenas is the highest expression of worth and, in permanent solidarity with the subject of that affection, another world is possible.

Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul. – Nicolas Malebranche

NOTES

  1. As of May 2012 The Scream was the most expensive painting sold at auction. It was bought anonymously for $119.9 million.

  2. The leading title of this essay is adapted from that of a book devoted to Watkins’ The Journey.

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© Peter Watkins 2018