Saturday, November 13, 2010

The other Frida

Frida : naturaleza viva. Clasa Film Mundiales, S. A. 1984. Paul Leduc, director; producers, Manuel Barbachano Ponce, Dulce Kuri; writers, Paul Leduc, Jose Joaquin Blanco; photography, Ángel Goded; editor, Rafael Castanedo; production designer, Alejandro Luna. Performers : Ofelia Medina, Juan Jose Gurrola, Salvador Sanchez, Max Kerlow, Claudio Brook.

For all her ubiquitousness in pop, and sometimes high, culture [1], Frida Kahlo has only been portrayed twice in the cinema [2]. Ofelia Medina’s much less well-known but arguably superior essay [3], directed by Paul Leduc, beat its cinematic sibling to the punch by nearly two decades [4]. Thus it can be seen as a sort of proto-Fridamania work, being released, as it were, right on the cusp of the wave that was to culminate in the full-blown Frida cult(ure) of ca. 2000 and the release of the thrice-familiar Salma Hayek version.

With unarguable Mexican bonafides – in contrast to the latter work’s internationalist credentials – Frida : naturaleza viva is at first, and, perhaps second glance, a striking corrective to its splashy rival. In quintessentially art movie fashion, this Frida is essentially a memory film; it does not tell a life’s progression but rather presents stream-of-consciousness vignettes of selected moments and incidents from the artist's life. It’s all done largely through visual imagery, and to a lesser extent, music. The prowling, leisurely paced camera repeatedly views objects related to her life and work – the art, of course, but also mirrors, bottles, political memorabilia, plants, pottery, and letters. There’s not a lot of dialogue or plot exposition, and as a result the stately pacing will try the patience of all but the most determined viewer.

To be sure the Hayek version follows the same fragmentary formula but presents Frida’s life more as a story, and in a more audience friendly, i.e. faster-paced, style, all the while seducing the viewer with its superior technical razzle-dazzle. In any case, both films eschew biographical linearity and instead opt for a floating, quasi-surrealistic montage of memorable images. Indeed, truth be told, there are more similarities between the two films than differences, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to describe the later Frida as a somewhat unwieldy remake of the prior work [5], a revised and expanded – though not necessarily improved – edition of the Leduc/Medina original, if you will.

Neither film treats with much depth Frida’s, or for that matter, Rivera's political views, though here again the critical consensus is that the Leduc does a superior job of suggesting with some texture the nature of Frida’s political thought [6]. The later Frida ignores or downplays Kahlo's socialist worldview, anti-Americanism, and physical ailments. But in fairness the Medina/Leduc interpretation also leaves out a lot of (sometimes) unpleasant details of Frida’s life : Rivera's womanizing, her divorce from Rivera and subsequent remarriage to him a year later, her drug use and drinking, Frida’s experiences outside Mexico, and her staunch support of Stalinism in her later years. In any case the irony has not been lost on commentators that the current rampant commercialization of Frida and her art is very much at odds with her decidedly Leftist politics.

Ultimately I suspect that most Mexicanists, historical purists, and a fair number of critics will side with the Medina, but - for better or worse - the Taymor-Hayek is the one that will appeal to a broader audience as the more accessible introduction to the artist and her work. In truth, there’s plenty of riches in both films. As for me, I’m fond of both, but tilt toward the Mexican take. Time indeed alters the way we see a movie, and time has been kind to Frida : naturaleza viva.

[1] The all the more frequent references in art history and travel books which describe Rivera as the husband of the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo underscore her status as the preeminent Mexican artistic icon. Of course not so long ago the spousal references were reversed.

[2] There are a number of documentaries as well as theatrical productions which have appeared.  Of the documentaries, my favorite is PBS’s The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo (2005). [update 8 Mar '11 : last night I was fortunate to catch on Canal 22 the excellent, regrettably little-known Yo Soy Frida, which would be my current choice as the best Frida documentary - BCS]. Among the innumerable Frida pages on the 'Net is this selective summary of Frida Kahlo films, which, alas, omits the aforementioned Yo Soy Frida.  
  I’m not a theater buff but even the most cursory Google search will reveal a number of theatrical venues; Ms. Medina in particular has revived her Frida persona in a theatrical context in recent years, for example Cada quien su Frida.

[3] The Medina/Leduc version is, happily, creeping up in critical esteem and [North of Border] audience familiarity. For a forceful argument for the earlier film as being the superior work see John Ross, Free Frida Kahlo! and Seth Fein, Frida/Frida, naturaleza viva, American Historical Review 108, no. 4 (October 2003): 1261-63. See also Andrea Kirsh’s comparison of the two films, The three fridas 1 : films and books on Frida. For a pro-Taymor/Hayek counter point of view, see Eli Bartra, John Mraz, "Las dos Fridas: History and transcultural identities," Rethinking History v9 n4 (December 2005), pp. 449-457. 

[4] The actual release date of Frida: naturaleza viva is a little vague; I’ve seen it referenced in various sources as: 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1992.

[5] Fein, p. 1261.

[6] See also: Juliet Lynd, “Art and Politics in Leduc’s Frida ; Naturaleza Viva,” Romance Languages Annual X (1999), pp. 696-702.

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