Frida: an injustice to Kahlo, art and Trotsky

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Frida
Directed by Julie Taymor
Written by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake and Gregory Nava
With Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas and Edward Norton
Buena Vista DVD

Frida is a really stupid bio-pic 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.

In a typical scene, Kahlo (played by Selma Hayek) and Rivera (Alfred Molina) go to a wild party at which 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, Kahlo defeats all the men.

After doing a vigourous 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 dancing partner's 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 Kahlo to engage in passionate discussions about art and politics at such a party rather than passionate dancing, but neither director Julie Taymor nor the screenwriters would want to bore an audience (or themselves) with the aspirations of the Mexican cultural left.

Taymor portrays Kahlo as a frustrated wife living under the shadow of a better-known husband. In reality, she was very much her own person and strongly identified with 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 Kahlo was in New York City with Rivera, when he was working on the Rockefeller mural). Arielism was decidedly opposed to any kind of modernisation, presumably including 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; it is about as preposterous as can be imagined. In comparing Stalin to Hitler, Trotsky turns this into a discussion about personalities (Stalin is boring; Hitler is charismatic and hence more dangerous). I am afraid that Entertainment Tonight informed this silly 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, about the milieu of the Communist Party of the USA in the late 1950s, when their world was 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 Lessing's Golden Notebook.

In more recent years, Sigal has shifted to the right while retaining a kind of conventional liberal outlook. Some might remember his New York Times op-ed attack on Peter Camejo's Green Party campaign for governor of California a couple of years ago.

In a June 17, 1989, Guardian article, 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 is moderator of the Marxism List (<http://www.marxmail.org>).

From Green Left Weekly, November 26, 2003.
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