Saturday, July 16, 2016

Film Reviews: Toyen & Stardust Stricken

* 1\2 (out of ****)

Artist responding to the world around them through their art. That is the common theme found in both of these DVDs released earlier this year by Facets; "Toyen" (2005) and "Stardust Stricken" (1996).

"Toyen", directed by the one of the "fathers" of Czech cinema, Jan Nemec ("A Report on the Party and the Guest" (1966) and "Diamonds of the Night" (1964), is an experimental "documentary" on surrealist painter Marie Cerminova, better known as Toyen.

Born in 1902 Prague, Toyen became known for her erotic paintings and sketches. Fearing capture of the Nazis during World War II she lived underground, sheltering a Jewish painter. After the war the two eventually left Czechoslovakia for Paris before a Communist takeover in 1948. She remained in Paris, where she died in 1980.

To call "Toyen" a documentary may be somewhat misleading. "Toyen" would be better described as an experimental video diary. It lacks a traditional linear narrative going over Toyen's life from birth until her death. That is what ultimately hurts "Toyen" more than anything. There is no sense of Toyen's life provided to the audience. If you are not Czech you may not know who Toyen was. In fact, I can't even be certain if you are Czech you would know who Toyen was because filmmaker Jan Nemec never explains the impact Toyen's paintings and sketches had on society. Is Toyen remembered today? Was she an influential figure in the surrealist movement of the 1920s & 30s? "Toyen" doesn't tell us.

Primarily what is shown on-screen are re-creations of Toyen's life with actress Zuzana Stivinova playing the role of Toyen as a narration is heard (presumably by Mr. Nemec) reading Toyen's diary. Many times the images do not match the narration. "Toyen" also shows us the real sketches and paintings of Toyen as the narration is heard. This may have had more of an impact on the viewer if we knew what the paintings were meant to represent. What exactly was happening in Prague during the time of these paintings and sketches?

Admittedly I am not familiar with the life and work of Toyen but was it not the responsibility of Mr. Nemec to supply the audience with a sense of this artist's work? Clearly Mr. Nemec wanted to tell this story. There was passion on his part. Does he truly feel this is the best representation of Toyen's life? In the end it feels as if "Toyen" was made for people who already knew the work of Toyen, are familiar with Czech history, are interested in avant-garde cinema and the surrealist movement. Anyone that doesn't fit into these groups is not welcomed.

"Stardust Stricken"
 ** (out of ****)

"Stardust Stricken" is a documentary about the life of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Mr. Makhmalbaf has directed more than 20 films. His best known films to American audiences may be "The Cyclist" (1989), "Kandahar" (2001) and his most recent film, "The President" (2016). He also acted in fellow Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami's (who sadly passed away recently) "Close-Up" (1991).

Unlike the case with "Toyen" the subject matter for this documentary is still alive and thus able to be interviewed yet oddly enough, like "Toyen", the audience still lacks a true understanding of who this artist is. The majority of "Stardust Stricken" has Mr. Makhmalbaf sitting in front of a camera talking about his life as scenes from his movies are cut in to show the relationship between his life and art and how his life has made it into his films.

The biggest problem with this technique is lets assume you do not know who Mr. Makhmalbaf is and you happened to watch "Stardust Stricken", instead of listening to this man talk about himself would it not have been more insightful if Iranian movie critics were also interviewed discussing Mr. Makhmalbaf's films and the impact they had on (or lack of) society? How about including actors that had worked with the director discussing their reaction to reading his scripts or discussing his directing technique. How about other filmmakers, Iranian and those from other countries, discussing their reaction to his films. Would that not help put Mr. Makhmalbaf and his films into a better perspective? It is one thing to hear someone talk about themself and how they view their work or even themself as a person, but it is another to hear the opinion of others in connection to it.

As with "Toyen" some audiences may not know who Mohsen Makhmalbaf is, of course someone will say, why are they watching this in the first place if they don't know who he is. If that is true, are fans of Mr. Makhmalbaf also going to deny this documentary would have been better served by including more voices discussing the work and maybe influence of Mr. Makhmalbaf's films?

There may have been legitimate reasons people were not included in this documentary. Budgetary reasons for example or because the subject matter is controversial. The government has banned certain films directed by Mr. Makhmalbaf. Perhaps filmmakers and actors feared retribution from the government if they participated. But the job of a critic is to look at the final product and express their opinion on the quality of a movie. How effectively does it get its point across?

"Stardust Stricken" has value in that the viewer is able to hear from the director as he discusses his life. Fans may find that very interesting. But "Stardust Stricken", which was directed by Houshang Golmakani, doesn't feel "complete". It doesn't demonstrate to Western audiences what makes Mr. Makhmalbaf stand out among other Iranian filmmakers.

Audiences should watch the films of Mr. Makhmalbaf and devoted fans will want to see "Stardust Stricken" but you may gain more insight into Mr. Makhmalbaf by simply watching his movies.