Bird Watching – Julie Taymor’s “Frida”
Like many pop culture junkies, I’ve followed the tales about the ups and (plunging) downs of the development of the Spider-Man musical on Broadway. Arguably ridiculous premise; record-breaking budget; actors getting injured; a seeming lifetime spent in previews; the interesting creative combination of director Julie Taymor—whose impressive Broadway credits include the incredibly huge hit The Lion King—and musicians Bono and The Edge, who, despite long careers in music, had never worked on a stage musical. Then, in March, there was the departure/ousting of Taymor from the production. The show had its official opening this past Tuesday, which Taymor attended, and she has only now begun speaking about her experience and frustrations with the project, as detailed in this article from yesterday’s New York Times. In what I’m sure is just a coincidence of timing (ahem), last night’s episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent was a riff on the Spider-Man situation, with some murder thrown in for good measure, of course. I didn’t watch, but word is that the depiction of the Taymor character was less than flattering.
This whole situation is oddly fascinating to me, from the original ambitious vision for the show to the power clashes to the media coverage of the whole thing. If I lived in New York, yes, I would totally see the show to try to understand more of what happened, and what Taymor’s original vision was, good or bad. I am quite sure that there is a screenwriter out there somewhere penning a film about this saga right now. It’s that absorbing. But I realized, as I was reading about the opening this week, I don’t even really know anything about Julie Taymor’s work. I’d never seen one of her films or any of her stage productions. I decided to remedy that, and I really hoped that it would help me launch a bit of a defense of her storytelling and artistic abilities, as it does seem to me she’s been a bit bullied at times throughout this process. Sadly, as I watched her 2002 film Frida, what I felt was that particular disappointment of wanting to love a film and just not being able to.
Frida is probably best known for the Best Actress Oscar nomination that Salma Hayek received, and her performance as Frida Kahlo is the main reason to watch the film. (Trivia: Hayek was the second woman of Latin American descent to be nominated in this category, after Fernanda Montenegro for 1988’s Central Station.) It’s a solid, passionate performance, and whether or not it’ll end up really being remembered as more time goes by, Hayek does command the screen. She does a good job with a character who, despite having many dramatic moments in the script, and being based on a very interesting real historical figure, is underwritten (the screenplay has four credited writers—never a good sign—none of whom are Taymor). It’s one of those things where “yeah, she’s a firecracker!” seems to be deemed all that we need to know to explain any of her motivation, choices, or desires. When you’re telling the story of a person’s entire life, I’d like more than that.
The film focuses mostly on the turbulent relationship between Kahlo and fellow famous painter, mentor-of-sorts, and womanizing husband, Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). This is fine; I realize that love stories are highest on the storytelling food chain in general, for better or for worse. But it’s frustrating to me that the film doesn’t give more time to her work, especially given that it’s become quite iconic, probably more so than his has. Except for some lip service to the issue in Rivera spouting about how if you’re a painter, you just have to paint, we don’t really know why Kahlo chooses this for her art. Yes, it was something that she could do in bed while convalescing from a horrible accident when she was eighteen. Yes, she has a talent for it, with Rivera repeatedly stating that she’s a better painter than he is. Yet, his character gets to speak often of the importance of his work, and his vision for it, but we don’t hear the same from her. We see many of her famous paintings, particularly in some beautiful and creative transition shots where the figures of Rivera and Kahlo in the paintings melt into images of the actors. But in the end, the film could have been called “Why I Put Up With Diego” more than anything else. I longed for more balance in the depiction of an important woman and her life’s work.
The visual landscape of the film shows some of that grand vision that Taymor is known for. She uses bold, saturated colors, and though for some they might seem gratingly like overuse of or romanticizing traditional Mexican art’s aesthetics, the same over the top approach is seen for the imagery in sequences that take place in New York City and Paris, and it worked for me. There are some animation effects used in montages and transition scenes that didn’t work as well, but I was always interested in seeing what she would try next. Examining the visuals was a good distraction from some of the repetitive story elements; I get that for years, Kahlo and Rivera had a bit of a love/hate thing going on, but how many broken dishes do we need to see before we’ve covered that?
Though I don’t think it’s the biopic Kahlo deserves, Frida is worth seeing for a glimpse at what Hayek could really do if given a role that challenged her in the right way. It also made me curious to finally seek out some more of Taymor’s trademark visually inventive work, such as the film told through Beatles songs, Across the Universe. The use of music in Frida is also almost relentless at times, from the background guitars to a sexy dance scene at a party to angry drunken bar serenading. Thinking of that and of the larger-than-life visuals on hand, maybe a Frida Kahlo musical should have been a Julie Taymor project.