Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski


The lion in winter.

(2018) Documentary (NetflixStanislav Szukalski, Glenn Bray, Robert Williams, Ernst Fuchs, George Di Caprio, Jose Israel Fernandez, Suzanne Williams, Ben Hecht, Karen Mortillaro, Pyotr Rypsin, Lena Zwalve, Adam Jones, Gabe Bartalos, James Kagel, Timothy Snyder, Marek Hapon, Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Sandy Decker, Natalia Fabian, Rebecca Forstadt. Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski

 

It would be understandable if you hadn’t heard of Stanislav Szukalski. Even within the art world, his work is largely unknown these days, which is a shame – his talent and imagination are undeniable. However, the Polish-born artist’s case is not easy to contemplate.

Much of his work was destroyed during the Second World War; all that is left is conceptual drawings that he made. Following the war, he emigrated to the United States and lived in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills until he passed away in 1987. Late in life, underground comic artists like Glenn Bray, Robert Williams and R. Crumb discovered him; some of Szukalski’s drawings appeared in the latter’s Weirdo.

Bray, a collector of Szukalski’s art and a close personal friend (he ended up the executor of his will), taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist which remain the only recorded footage of him. It gives the portrait of a man who was often maddeningly arrogant, highly opinionated and occasionally sweet.

But there’s a dark side to Szukalski, one that was unearthed during the making of this documentary and one which even his closest friends weren’t aware of. The revelations change the nature of the documentary from a straightforward biography to something with a much more urgent issue that we continue to grapple with in the age of #MeToo – is an artist separate from his work? Can we love a Woody Allen movie and deplore his actions? Can we love Chinatown and censure Roman Polanski?

That’s what his friends have to come to terms with. Some, like Bray, remain loyal to the old man they knew; Bray contends that Szukalski was a changed man when he knew him and there is evidence that Szukalski was anxious to make amends. However, others such as Di Caprio are not so sure that some of the actions of the artist can be forgiven and we also have to consider the legacy of those actions; in his native Poland, Szukalski has been adopted as a figurehead by far-right extremists, even though Szukalski himself would point out that his work was meant to illustrate the common themes of mankind through his philosophy of Zermatism, which has come down to us thanks to the Church of the Sub-Genius which purloined some of the concepts as their own.

Szukalski used the art forms and mythologies of other cultures to help him explore Poland’s identity, and there’s no doubt that the art is powerful and expressive. But considering his state of mind when he created some of this work, can it be trusted? The filmmaker leaves it to you to answer that for yourself but I can’t help but wonder that if the art is an extension of the artist, then is the art also an extension of the darker elements of that artist? We may never adequately answer that one.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is incredible. Szukalski himself is fascinating although there are parts of his personality that are disturbing to say the least.
REASONS TO AVOID: Szukalski isn’t always an admirable guy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and depictions of anti-Semitism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artist George di Caprio was friends with Szukalski late in his life; his son is the actor Leonardo. Both men are listed as producers on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Afterimage
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
My Hindu Friend

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South Mountain


The happy family in twilight.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTalia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Nala Gonzalez Norvind, Macaulee Cassaday, Guthrie Mass, Midori Francis, Violet Rea, Isis Masoud. Directed by Hilary Brougher

 

The stillness of a mountain retreat can sometimes hide the sounds of hearts breaking. This impressive film of a woman evolving after a major blow to her self-worth raises a question: why isn’t Hilary Brougher not getting the kind of attention that is usually reserved for can’t-miss phenoms – because she is certainly that.

Lila (Balsam) lives in a pleasant home in the Catskills. She is an art teacher and her husband Edgar (Cohen) writes screenplays. At a barbecue attended by friends, including her bestie Gigi (Nichols) who is battling breast cancer has come over for an early summer barbecue, as Lila and Edgar’s daughters Dara (Norvind) and Sam (Cassaday) – from Sam’s previous marriage – are getting set to leave Dodge for the summer. In the midst of this, Edgar takes a business phone call in the couple’s bedroom. Lila is a bit put out by this.

You can only imagine how put out she’d be if she knew the real reason for the call; Edgar has been having an affair with Emme (Francis) who is at that moment giving birth to their son. Shortly thereafter, Edgar informs Lila that he’s started a new family and he’s moving out.

We discover this isn’t the first time that Edgar has messed around on Lila. It isn’t even the first time he’s fooled around with Emme. We are informed that the last time Lila found out about Edgar’s peccadillos, she had something of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Lila assures Gigi that she’s fine, and then shortly after when Edgar arrives to move out some of his stuff, Lila allows her rage to manifest in an unexpected way.

For the most part, Lila is fairly reserved but she has her moments when she boils over and her true feelings come to the fore. She ends up having an affair with Jonah (Oberholtzer) – a very handsome young man who looks like he could be a lost Skarsgård brother – which ends almost as quickly as it begins. Eventually Lila realizes that she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps and figure out who she is, who she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. For the first time, her focus is strictly on her own needs.

Brougher benefits from some beautiful cinematography courtesy of her husband, Ethan Mass which shows off the idyllic Catskills during a languid summer season. There is also a familiarity about the family home; it belongs to Brougher’s mother and the actors playing two of the children in the movie are her own.  All of this adds up to making the movie feel especially intimate.

Balsam is not normally a lead actress, although she has had a fine career making the most of smaller roles. She does look a little awkward in the scene where her and Jonah feel the sparks fly but other than that her performance is spot-on and raises some legitimacy for the idea that she should be getting larger roles. She is certainly the glue that holds together the picture here.

If I have a beef with the movie, it’s that it occasionally feels like it’s cheating a bit, sinking into clichés regarding Lila’s sexual life. I get that women react to this kind of blow in different ways but there are a couple of moves that Lila makes that seem out of character for her but I suppose that if my wife left me after multiple infidelities I’d probably act a little bit out of character also.

The movie is coming out on VOD at the perfect time. We’re headed into the summer and the heat and the sweet summer wind are perfect backgrounds for this film. Also, given that people are being forced to look for entertainment a little bit harder right now while the quarantine is still pretty much in effect, perhaps that will lead to people discovering this gem who ordinarily would not have. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Descends into occasional predictability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of sexuality, some brief nudity, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balsam is the daughter of legendary actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce van Patten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of Hearts
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Postcards From London