This is the story of Frida Kahlo, a famous Mexican modernist known for her great painting and sexy monobrow. This is a gal who means many things to many people. An important artist, but also a feminist, a revolutionary, an unashamed bisexual. And you could probaly guess, since there’s a biography movie made out of her, that the poor gal had to be either alcoholic or disabled. In this case she was disabled, unpleasantly impaled in a bus accident, sporadically confined to a full body cast. But since she’s an artist she paints pretty butterflies on it.
You know Salma Hayek will get an oscar nomination for this, mainly because of the bodycast. I gotta be honest though, ’cause that’s my job. I don’t think she’s necessarily doing great work here. She’s just doing pretty good in a role that she is good for, that happens to be real Important because it’s a real person, who was a brilliant artist, who was disabled, and had some kind of political context to her life that can be simplified into movie form. I’m not saying Salma is bad, especially not compared to her embarassing improv role in TIMECODE. And I can’t think of anyone better for the role. But she didn’t exactly blow my mind either, especially not during the scenes where she wears a schoolgirl uniform and tries to pass for a teen.
But who the fuck cares about that shit. The strong woman I saw this movie for wasn’t Salma or Frida. It was actually the director, Julie Taymor. This gal is so talented I’m scared of her. If you’ve seen TITUS you know what I’m talking about. Or if you’ve seen the making of TITUS on the dvd. They show her during rehearsals. She knows all the dialogue, and substitues for actors that aren’t there. Even sitting on the sidelines she gets so into it she looks like she’s about to cry, or she starts singing how the music is gonna go.
I mean she’s intense. TITUS was her first movie, but before that she travelled the world staging huge award winning musicals and operas. Usually I don’t approve of that type of shit, but hers had all kinds of giant freaky ass wooden puppets and masks and what not. She made alot of the puppets herself. She once did an hour long Edgar Alan Poe movie for pbs starring two dwarves and a bunch of giant puppets.
She grew up between Boston and Sri Lanka. She joined the Theater Workshop of Boston when she was 15, and when she was 16 she graduated high school a semester early and moved to Paris to study mime. When she was 21 she moved to Japan to apprentice with a master puppeteer. On the way there though she stopped in Indonesia, became a choreographer without knowing the language, and enjoyed living in “a small compound with a dirt floor and a well, with no electricity or phone.”
In Bali she took a chunk out of her leg climbing a live volcano. Instead of going to a hospital she camped out for the night and, hidden in the shadows, was able to witness a a baris war dance ritual performed under moonlight for the gods.
Wanting to make a film, she went to live in a hotel that never opened because Coca-Cola had built it on a sacred cremation ground. She met an american vietnam vet who thought her volcano leg wound would get gangrenous, so she let him perform surgery on it with no anesthesia. Later she got hepatitis, split her chin and mouth in a truck accident, got malaria, and won six Tony awards for The Lion King. She saw a tree full of roasted pigs, a pile of skulls in the woods, a mutilated bull that escaped a sacrifice ritual to roar into a microphone and then run through the side of a house and have it collapse on top of him.
I mean Julie Taymore has seen and lived 100 times more than anybody you will ever know or hear about. Holy fucking god damn shit, man. Seriously. You think of all these goateed hacks in sports jerseys that go to film school, make a couple shitty fisheye lens rap videos and then get to direct multi million dollar movies. Then THIS woman comes in. SHE ALMOST LOST HER LEG TO A VOLCANO, just so she could watch a ritual. She ran a puppet theater out of a shack in Indonesia when she was 21. She might be a little over qualified.
So wait a minute, why don’t they make a movie about Julie Taymor, then? Well, the problem is, how do you sum up an entire life of artistic adventures and puppet carving in movie form? It’s pretty fuckin fascinating in the big coffee table book, but if you turned it into a movie it would just seem like actors reading off a book report. And that’s the problem with FRIDA. For TITUS, Taymor had a real good script to work with. She wrote it with William Shakespeare. They knew what they were doing. Pretty good dialogue, in my opinion. Words of shakespeare.
But here you got a script by some guy who’s not William Shakespeare, with an uncredited assist by FIGHT CLUB’s Ed Norton. I don’t know how they could’ve done it much better, but the script really doesn’t work. I mean I enjoyed watching the movie, seeing the simplified story of some of the great things this gal did or the bad things she suffered or what have you. But I didn’t enjoy all this dialogue where the characters have to briefly summarize in conversation what they are trying to do with their painting or what their entire political philosophy is. In movies, all important people ever do is sit around drinking and making speeches about their politics. It’s corny, man.
Later Geoffrey Rush plays Trotsky, wearing community theater old man makeup. He kind of looks like one of those guys who dresses up as Mark Twain, with maybe a touch of Colonel Sanders. And she still fucks him.
Maybe what they need to do is just pick one period of Kahlo’s life and focus on that. Instead they try to go from childhood to death and tell us about her mind, her politics, three different relationships, plus the politics of Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. They do try to focus mostly on her relationship with Rivera, but this is sometimes a problem too. When he refuses to remove Lenin from a mural in the Rockefeller building and the mural gets destroyed, it seems like one of the most important scenes of the movie, but it has nothing to do with Frida. Sometimes it feels like the most beautiful tv movie you’ve ever seen.
Still, Julie Taymor does get several big chances to shine, and she shines the shit out of those chances. There are some very obvious JULIE TAYMOR SEQUENCES. The first big one is right after the accident, we see Frida’s surgery from her point of view, and the doctors are animated puppet skeletons. The credits reveal that she even hired those creepy american twins with british accents the Quay brothers to animate that scene.
Then there are other scenes where actual Frida Kahlo paintings are created in three dimensions or in animation or with Hayek in makeup. This is really where Julie Taymor jumps into action. I can’t think of a better portrayal of the artistic process. That’s the problem, Julie Taymor is a master at communicating visually what can’t be expressed in words. But in between these communications, she gets saddled with a bunch of asshole words. Who needs that shit? Not Julie Taymor of the Indonesian volcano. Most words are a big waste of her time.
Honestly, I wish this movie took place entirely inside Frida’s mind, instead of occasionally. I wish it was a silent movie about her thinking and painting. I don’t need this book report shit.
I still think the movie is worth your time. It’s just not worth Julie Taymor’s time. I mentioned the part about the volcano, right? If we don’t give her something better to work with, and fast, she’s gonna carve herself a canoe and paddle off to some country somewhere and immmerse herself in their traditional puppet theater. And we’ll never get another TITUS again. Let’s not fuck this up, people.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.