Media Blackout on Provocative Director Lifts

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Edvard Munch
New Yorker
Possessor of one of the most provocative 40-year careers in current moviedom, Peter Watkins may be finally emerging from behind what has been in effect a media blackout, thanks to recent theatrical exhumations and the presentation on DVD of his entire corpus, one epochal film at a time, from New Yorker. This 1974 masterpiece—a biopic of the famed Norwegian Expressionist and sickbed child of the Industrial Age's alienation aura—may be his most accessible film, thanks to the high-art hook. But don't assume it's the only Watkins film that doesn't interrogate power: This gripping three-hour yowl traces a decade in the helplessly autobiographical artist's life via Watkins's signature methodologies. Not only does it convincingly dare to approximate a documentary—narration, direct-camera address, etc.—as Watkins has done from the beginning of his career, but the film also places 19th-century class injustice, including the small matter of pervasive child labor, in the foreground so relentlessly that Munch himself (personified by Eric Allum) often disappears into the social weft. Likewise, as with the later films, Watkins's actors are completely amateur and are often called upon to speak their minds outside of their fictional personas. It's not a film of acting and character but of testimony and experience. Meanwhile, the film's angry gravity and smoky visuals (cinematography by Odd Geir Saether) create an indelible period ambience, and the fidelity to both the art and the poverty surrounding it is breathtaking. Only a handful of films outside of Watkins's filmography can lay claim to portraying the angst of an entire culture, and perhaps none with as much conviction and integrity. The disc comes only with a massive "self-interview" by Watkins, who never tires of speaking truth to globalizing power and to those who have effectively marginalized him for decades. For more about Watkins, his films, and his firsthand experiences fighting the good fight, see his website, mnsi.net/~pwatkins.
 
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