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Munch on this

Edvard Munch

Films about artists are so often disappointing, sadly inadequate when it comes to conveying artistic psychology and the creative process.

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It is therefore a special pleasure when a film like Edvard Munch comes down the pike. Recently released on DVD by New Yorker Video, this lesser-known but brilliantly conceived artist biography manages to feel both comprehensive in charting the historical details of the artist's life and also unusually adept at conveying the emotional and intellectual character of an artist whose work, like his signature "The Scream," is so intimately bound up with his tortured state of mind.

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Made in 1974 for Norwegian television, British filmmaker Peter Watkins' hypnotic biopic is shot with a blend of experimental and documentary techniques. Like Munch's Expressionism, Watkins' vanguard approach says far more about the artist's state of mind than flat, naturalistic, conventional storytelling. Shaky camera work, amateur actors, voice-over narration and "interviews" with visitors to Munch's 19th-century exhibitions give the film an unsettling frisson of truth.

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Watkins is comprehensive in showing the brutal, pitiless world from which Munch's work emerged. It was a world defined by outrageous divisions between the rich and the poor, between the masquerade of piety worn by the same middle-class that legalized prostitution to create a sexual service industry for its ranks and at every turn exploited its working class. A Europe founded on repression and social inequities was therefore not likely to celebrate the grim truths of Munch's work.

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And yet, despite nearly unanimous critical rejection of his paintings, Munch continued to produce, experiment and evolve.

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Most fundamentally, Munch (played by an impressive Geir Westby) and his art were informed by the misery of his personal history. Throughout Munch's adult life, Watkins flashes back to haunting visions of his childhood when he and his siblings watched family members slowly, heartbreakingly consumed by tuberculosis.

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Watkins is not only able to convey the psychological mire from which Munch's Expressionism arose, but also charts the progression of his paintings from naturalistic to the tortured, dark translation of his own emotions in line and color.

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The result is a uniquely satisfying film that allows personal history and artistic technique to intermingle and give a fuller picture of an artist's experience.

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felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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Edvard Munch. New Yorker Video. $29.95. Now available.



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