Frida (2002)

reviewed by
Louis Proyect

When I write film reviews, I try to apply the dictum of my late father who used to say, "If you can't say something good about a person, say nothing at all." I made an exception last week for "The Quiet American", which I regarded as a disappointment both in terms as an adaptation of Greene's novel and the novel it was based on. Since Greene is one of my favorite writers, I felt compelled to say something about the miscues if only to clarify my thinking about his original intentions and how to assess them in light of some of the things that Edward Said has said so eloquently.

Now I turn to an all-out disaster, although like "The Quiet American" it received rather favorable reviews when it came out. "Frida" is a really stupid biopic based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and feminist icon who was married to Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Since it touches on modern art and includes Leon Trotsky as a character, two subjects close to my heart, it is necessary for me to address the profound injustice done to them and to the rather interesting personality of Kahlo herself, who is reduced in this film to a cursing, drinking and brawling eccentric whose motivations seem driven more by her sexual/reproductive organs than her brain.

There seems to be little in director Julie Taymor's background that would indicate an affinity for Frida Kahlo, other than as a peg to hang some rather fanciful cinematic images on. With a career that began in puppetry, she is best known for her stage direction of Walt Disney's "The Lion King", a favorite for NYC tourists. Her major film credit prior to "Frida" was an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" that appears to follow the postmodernist convention of throwing historicity into the wastebasket. One minute you are in ancient Rome, the next you are in Mussolini's Italy. With this sort of quirkiness in her background, it should be no surprise that scant interest in Mexican politics is evident in her film. That would only get in the way of her story.

In a typical scene, Kahlo (Selma Hayek) and Rivera (Alfred Molina) go to a wild party where Mexico's entire bohemian left has gathered to drink and to dance. When a sultry female guest is offered up as a dancing partner to the winner of a contest to see who can chug-a-lug the most Tequila, Frida defeats all the men. After doing a vigorous tango with the woman (despite the fact that the historical Frida was in a wheelchair much of the time), she plants a passionate kiss on her mouth. This might make for a lively minute or two of film; it does nothing to advance our understanding of Frida Kahlo. It would have been much more likely for her to engage in passionate discussion about art and politics at this party rather than passionate dancing, but neither Taymor nor the screenwriters would want to bore an audience (or themselves) with the aspirations of the Mexican cultural left.

For the details on Frida Kahlo's real life, I urge readers to look at Margaret A. Lindauer's "Devouring Frida : The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo". This is an excellent introduction to her artistic evolution, which matters little to Taymor. It is also an examination of the Kahlo cult that began in the early 1980s when her work first began to be exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. Hayden Herrera, whose biography of Kahlo caters to these trends and is credited in Taymor's film, is the main target of Lindauer in her attempt to demystify and historicize the artist. In an October 28, 1990 NY Times article titled "Why Frida Kahlo Speaks to the 90's", Herrera wrote:

"Like a goddess, she is referred to by her first name only. Madonna, Isabella Rossellini and Cindy Crawford are fans. She has captivated everyone from scholars writing dissertations to Chicano muralists, fashion designers, feminists, artists and homosexuals. According to Sassy, a magazine for teen-age girls, she is one of the 20 women of this century that American girls most admire.

"From her death in 1954 until the late 1970's, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was virtually unknown outside her native country. Today she has become an international cult figure. You can buy Frida Kahlo buttons, posters, postcards, T-shirts, comics and jewelry. You might even come upon such fetishistic objects as a Frida Kahlo mask or a framed self-portrait into which a silver sacred heart has been inserted. In 1984, in recognition of Kahlo's pre-eminence among Mexican women artists -- indeed, in the opinion of many Frida is the greatest painter Mexico has produced -- the Mexican Government decreed her art to be national patrimony. (She thus joins an elite company of male artists that includes her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.)"

Landauer writes, "Herrera's interpretation of Frida and Diego Rivera implies that Kahlo's marriage profoundly affected her character, causing her to abandon professional aspirations and restricting herself to the repressive social expectations of a devoted wife." If nothing else, Taymor's film is slavishly devoted to this portrait of Kahlo.

Far from expressing the frustrations of a wife under the shadow of a better-known husband, Kahlo's main goal artistically was to express the beliefs of a philosophical current known as Arielism. This can best be described as an anti-imperialist ideology that saw Mexico's salvation in its indigenous past. (In Taymor's film, this is reflected more or less as homesickness for Mexico when she was in NYC with Rivera working on the Rockefeller mural.) Arielism was decidedly opposed to any kind of modernization, including presumably the sort of scientific socialism that Trotsky defended.

When Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) shows up at the Kahlo household, he makes an impromptu speech at the dinner table that is about as preposterous as can be imagined. In comparing Stalin to Hitler, he turns this into a discussion about personalities (Stalin is boring; Hitler is charismatic and hence more dangerous). I am afraid that "Entertainment Tonight" informs this scene more than Trotsky's rather clinical understanding of Stalinism and fascism.

One might attribute this to the mischief of Clancy Sigal, the chief screenwriter. Sigal is best known as the author of "Going Away", a roman a clef about the CPUSA milieu of the late 1950s, when their world is collapsing about them. Sigal went off to Great Britain to escape the ravages of the witch-hunt, where he met and had an affair with Doris Lessing. A thoroughly creepy figure based on Sigal is one of the main characters in her "Golden Notebook". In more recent years, Sigal has shifted to the right while retaining a kind of conventional liberal outlook. Some of you might remember his NY Times op-ed attack on Peter Camejo's Green campaign for Governor of California a couple of years ago.

In a June 17, 1989 Guardian piece, Sigal explained his political evolution:

"In the Sixties, I changed from being John Reed, the US radical journalist, to Colonel Blimp. Because that's when I began to realise how important the best of the old was to me, and how much I despised the unworkable new. Worst of all for a second-generation socialist, it dawned on me how much party labels were a nonsense when it came to real life. Once again I plunged into a political wilderness from which I've yet to emerge."

In other words, just the perfect screenwriter for a Hollywood version of the life and times of Frida Kahlo.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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