Dec 29, 2018
Welcome back to another Netflix Original documentary, the last one for 2018, and produced in part by Leonardo DiCaprio. For the other Netflix Original documentaries from this year, check out “Seeing Allred” (Episode #041), “Take Your Pills” (Episode #081), “Mercury 13” (Episode #116), “The Rachel Divide” (Episode #123), “Recovery Boys” (Episode #186), “The Bleeding Edge” (Episode #214), “City of Joy” (Episode #256), “Reversing Roe” (Episode #266), “Quincy” (Episode #270), “Two Catalonias” (Episode #277), “Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” (Episode #291), “Shirkers” (Episode #305), “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” (Episode #312), and “The American Meme” (Episode #357). I can think of a few of those that will probably make the Oscar nominations for Best Documentary, although my money is on “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (Episode #193). Still crying over that one.
Today’s movie is “Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski” (2018), the Netflix Original documentary directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski and written for the screen in collaboration with Stephen Cooper. The film follows the odd tale of Stanislav Szukalski, a Polish sculptor whose life took one unexpected turn after another. His work was recently rediscovered by art critics and collectors, especially Glenn Bray. The film was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, known art lover, and includes multiple interviews with his father, George DiCaprio.
Surrealism is one of my favorite art styles. Of course, everyone knows Dali, and a host of other high profile early surrealists, but the genre has exploded over the years to include modern talents like Murakami, d’Holbachie, and Ryden. In fact, Leonardo DiCaprio has one of the largest collections of Mark Ryden’s pop surrealist work, which I had the pleasure to see on display a few years back at one of the trendier art spaces around Hollywood. There are also many forgotten surrealists, and few with the weird kind of life that Stanislav Szukalski knew, and the weird kind of effect he had on the world, both then and now. In fact, the title work, Struggle, is shown in high detail from multiple angles, using a similar method to display the fashions in “McQueen” (Episode #235). A hand in a clutched position, with the tips of the digits formed into the heads of fantastic creatures, fighting against each other. It must be seen to be believed, and it was one of his few works to survive to the modern day.
Szukalski’s life must also be seen to be believed, especially as someone who wrestled with the meaning of patriotism and national heritage. Patriotism and nationalism are two sides of the same coin, each speaking to a dangerous form of identity that has historically lead to some of the most heinous acts performed by humanity. His own struggle with the concept lead Szukalski’s work to be exploited by Polish nationalists in the lead up to World War II, much in the same way that Nietzsche’s philosophy was exploited by the Nazis. And as we learned in the documentary, some of the symbols created by Szukalski are still being used by the far-right Polish nationalists of today, groups that Szukalski would denounce as fiercely as he did the Nazis, both before and after the invasion of Poland. I’m not entirely convinced that we should separate the artist from the art, but I do think we should separate the art from the exploiters whenever possible, because guilt by association helps no one. Especially when his strange life continued to evolve even further.
Szukalski spent a great deal of his life coming to grips with his beliefs after fleeing Poland. Beginning in 1940 after settling in Los Angeles, he worked on a massive idea known as Zermatism, which was a pseudoscientific-historical analysis that posited all humans come from post-deluge Easter Island, and that humanity is locked in an eternal battle with the descendants of the Yeti. Yes, that’s right, Bigfoot. It’s an idea that dovetails nicely with another pseudo-scientific historical idea of the lost continent of Mu, the Pacific Ocean counterpart to Atlantis proposed by James Churchward, who suggested that it was also the location of the Garden of Eden, along with a lot of thinly-veiled racist ideas about its inhabitants. The major difference between the two, however, is that Szukalski saw his theory as uniting all of humanity whereas Churchward used it to “prove” (in heavy quotes) the primacy of Europeans. While the ideas may be absolutely bonkers, the imagery Szukalski used in his drawings during this time became the inspiration for a number of the underground artists interviewed in this film, all of whom would humor Szukalski with his beliefs while being absolutely enthralled with his output. Between his artwork, his beliefs, and his life story, you really come to realize that Szukalski saw himself as a man apart from everyone else, and who brought incredible insight and vision to his work.
“Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski” (2018) is an amazing documentary about an incredible artist, examining his life and art that was almost lost to the dustbin of history. While every viewer may not appreciate his artwork right away, I suspect everyone who marvels at his life story will come to appreciate his art as well. Fans of surrealist art, or fans of the underground Los Angeles comic art scene, should definitely check out this film, then learn a whole lot more about his life and art afterwards.
Rotten Tomatoes: NR
One Movie Punch: 9.8/10
“Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski” (2018) is rated TV-MA and is currently streaming on Netflix.