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June 25, 2003

DVD Review -- "Frida"

Friedrich --

We caught up with Frida, the Julie Taymor-directed biopic about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with Selma Hayek as Frida, Alfred Molina as her hubby, Diego Rivera, and tons and tons of high-profile guest stars in small roles as historical characters. (Antonio Banderas as Siquieros, for instance, and Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky. Did Frida really sleep with Trotsky, by the way?)

A dud, though semi-interesting to think and gab about. On the plus side, and to Taymor's credit: lots of enjoyably glam glimpses of Mexican radical bohemia; great décor, color and light; and a taste for presenting women as the sexually powerful creatures they are. On the minus side: lots of this-might-work-onstage-but-not-in-a-movie ideas (puppet interludes, collage-y passages, is-it-a-tableau-vivant-or-not recreations of Frida's paintings); and a complete inability to get you to focus on the characters and the situations.

In fact, in many ways, the movie is a real lesson in how not to do it. Instead of the characters and the story, Taymor (a well-known stage director) has you watching the decor, the lighting -- the stagecraft. She seems far less interested in Frida and Rivera than in putting on a Julie Taymor show, something she evidently knows how to make work onstage. (I haven't seen her stage work.)

The movies, though, seem to flummox her. I couldn't sit through her first movie, "Titus." Did you catch it? Shakespeare, supposedly, but really an inept Fellini-esque phantasmagoria. "Frida," which is more conventional, is much easier to take. Even so, it's an odd combo of talent and cluelessness, and is almost never very engaging; Taymor's talents don't seem to include using a motion picture camera or editing a movie. (Rumor has it that Harvey Weinstein made her cut about a half-hour from the film.) For Taymor, cameras exist to capture her set-ups, and a movie idea is a stage idea that has managed to get itself filmed.

Frida and Rivera? We saw the movie just a few nights ago and already I've forgotten almost everything about them. But the colors, the light, the decor ... Too bad about those puppets, though.



posted by Michael at June 25, 2003


I agree with you about Frida, but disagree completely about Titus. What does "Shakespeare, supposedly" mean? That the direction un-Shakespeared the play, somehow? I have to ask: you couldn't sit through the movie, but have you ever managed to sit through the play? Have you ever even seen it? It's not one of the Bard's best, and in fact there's quite a bit of debate about whether it's Shakespeare at all. (Hence the fact that it's very rarely performed, even in England.) What Taymor did was take a bloody and less-than-successful play and turn it into compelling cinema.

Posted by: Felix on June 25, 2003 09:12 AM

I've seen the play staged 3 times, by different companies. The only one that worked was Jon Jory's at Actor's Theater of Louisville--they made it into a space opera, complete with light swords!

Posted by: Mike Snider on June 25, 2003 09:24 AM

Tastes change. Actually, Titus was one of the most popular plays presented by the Kings Men. It was in constant rotation, and drew large receipts (taken from a friend who has published a lot on the topic).

Taymor's adaptation, excepting the cheesy feelgood ending, is faithful. It is a dark and ugly play.

Posted by: Jeff Ward on June 25, 2003 03:21 PM

Chalk me up as loving "Titus" - I own the DVD, I've watched it several times. It's stagy as hell, but it seems to work for the material - it's stuff that you can't take completly seriously, so in some strange way the distance caused by the anachronisms, etc., bring you closer, emotionally.

"Frida" did suck, though - but then, so does virtually every biopic. I have a theory about it: a life, no matter how many interesting events happen in it, can't make a compelling movie because there's no theme: people are born, they do some stuff, and they die. And theme that the filmaker tries to add inevitably feels tacked-on. A biopic that tries to tell someone's whole life story ends up with the feeling of a checklist (Has crippling accident, check. Marries Rivera, check. Meets Trotsky, check.)

Welles managed it in "Kane", but he (a) was a genius, and (b) had the advantage of a fictional(ized) lead character. I've yet to see a biopic of a historical figure that really held together as drama. My thought is, don't try to tell the whole story - pick one incident and tell it completely, and maybe flash back or forward to give some context. Lives consist of stories, but they are not stories in and of themselves...

Posted by: jimbo on June 25, 2003 08:26 PM

Jimbo -- What about Clint Eastwood's Bird? Or Spike Lee's Malcom X? Or even Dickie Attenborough's Gandhi?

Posted by: Felix on June 25, 2003 09:38 PM

Felix -- Nice posting on "Frida," thanks for the link. The length of her hair was a puzzle, no? Short? Long? And why? And, yeah, for what it's worth, I've read "Titus Andronicus" and seen a stage production of it. (Which worked pretty well, treating it like the bloody potboiler it seems to me to be.) I know there are smart people who enjoyed Taymor's "Titus," but to me it's a 3rd-rate Fellini production, as though he'd tried to direct "Satyricon" at a too-early stage in his career (at the time of "White Sheik," maybe), before he commanded the kind of camera magic you need to put across a phantasmagoria. But, obviously, bright people disagree on this.

Mike -- Light swords? That seems about right. Did the play strike you as being as proto-postmodern as it did me?

Jeff -- Thanks for the info. I had no idea the play was such a success first time around. Goes to show ya.

Jimbo -- Points taken about "Titus," though it still strikes me as leaden. But what the heck. And biopics, hmmm. Not a fave genre of mine either, for much the same reasons. Always seemed to me that filmmakers need an actual idea, a "take" (if you will) on the character's life. Either that or, as you say, why not focus on a finite bit of the life? In category one, I liked the Altman biopic about Van Gogh and his brother, "Vincent & Theo," which presented the two guys as two halves of the same creature. True or false, the concept seemed to me to hold the movie together. In category two, I liked the Patsy Cline biopic "Sweet Dreams." Some great men-and-women-in-love-and-at-war stuff in there. But generally speaking not a genre that does much for me.

And, hey, was I missing something or was "Frida" entirely missing an idea or concept?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 26, 2003 02:37 AM

Michael B--

the production was thoroughly pomo, and parts of Elizabethan theater, with its cavalier blending of gender, time and place, slip easily into some kinds of pomo discourse.

But the play, despite being set in the the Roman Empire, is north European pagan. Everybody in it is damned sure they know what's honorable and that honor is right. I think the reason the play can seem un-Shakespearean is that there's no moral ambiguity anywhere in it. It's more like Wahabi Islam than postmodernism.

Posted by: Mike Snider on June 26, 2003 11:46 AM

My feelings about Titus have always been colored by knowing that Olivier made Vivien Leigh play the mute who's tongue is cut out (I believe) at the point when their marriage was falling apart. Just 'yuck' all the way around.

"Sweet Dreams"? I just remember it as a lot of screaming and yelling country queen angst ridden life stuff. I liked "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Malcolm X" better. In the former, Sissy Spacek really engaged me as a real live woman.

Posted by: caroline on June 26, 2003 12:28 PM

I liked "Vincent and Theo" too, I thought the premise held together fairly well.

I thought "Malcolm X" was alright.

But for me the over the top best biopic was Gandhi. I once sat and watched it with a room mate who spoke no English (illegal cook up from Mexico). The emotional content come through accross the language barrier, and had him close to tears at points. The Academy got the Oscars right on that one, sacre bleu!

Posted by: David Mercer on June 26, 2003 03:36 PM

Whoops! Just read this post and realized that it's not a good idea to visit this site.

Yet another idiot piece about the Stalinist stooge... Frida Kahlo.

When are you going to do a teary-eyed piece about Hitler's girlfriends?

Yes, being a stooge of Stalin does disqualify one from serious consideration as a sentient being.

Do you light candles to the memory of the great Soviet Union? Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet, right?

Seig Heil, comrades. Marxism is Nazism. I'd suggest you cease displaying your stupidity in public.

Posted by: Stephen on June 30, 2003 05:10 PM

Huh? Was someone here being starry-eyed (let alone "teary") about Frida?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 1, 2003 03:58 AM

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