Point of View

Point of View: Independent Filmmaker? You’re Free. Be Bold.

Christopher Comrie and myself attended an exhibition of the art work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It was a great show and did what all very good exhibitions ideally do; which is to say, help one develop a greater appreciation or better understanding of the artists’ work.

For the sake of brevity I’ll assume you are already familiar with their lives and work, or would like to be and you will pursue that on your own. I won’t presume to explain or to be your introduction to their work.

Seeing the show led to Chris saying he’d like to see the film ‘Frida‘ again. Not being a documentary, he wanted to see if anything in the film had a relationship to the art show: did it get a feeling tone right or capture an essence of their work, or of the people themselves?

Could a narrative feature film possibly bear any resemblance to the work of painters, or tell their story?

So we revisited the movie ‘Frida’ last night. And it was very interesting.

What I had remembered best about the film was a sequence in which Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera go to New York City for the first time. This is not so surprising; I am fascinated by Diego’s mural in New York that was famously commissioned by, and immediately destroyed by, Nelson Rockefeller. ‘Frida’ was also directed by Julie Taymor, she of Broadway ‘Lion King’ fame. A background in puppetry, mask and visual theatre first, she conceived of Frida and Diego’s New York trip sequence as a kind of design piece; a collage of painting and photography.

My point is, I remembered this through the prism of Julie Taymor’s background, which I think was dead wrong. That sequence, which is about Rivera “the art star” conquering New York at MOMA in 1932, was not a clever “bit’ conceived by a designer. Or at least, not just that. It was a beautifully executed sequence by a filmmaker that found a visual way to relate biographical detail of the subject directly to the life and work of the artists being depicted.



Take Frida watching ‘King Kong‘, a new movie in the 30’s. Rivera (Alfred Molina) becomes Kong in a brilliant bit of funny about an artist taking NYC by storm. We see a giant ego as he beats his chest as Kong, in what is also a fabulous parody – and embrace – of Latin machismo.

But where Diego is Kong, Frida is tiny Ann Darrow, caught and screaming. What a wonderful visual metaphor for Kahlo’s real life statement on the accident that caused her lifelong pain; “I suffered two grave accidents in my life…One in which a streetcar knocked me down and the other was Diego.”

Or Kahlo’s terrible accident that caused her lifelong pain and countless surgeries. This hospital sequence starts with the accident:

The stunning image of her broken body at the scene of the accident has the feel of much of her work; followed by those amazing animated skeletons as doctors and nurses by the Quay Brothers. (‘Street of Crocodiles‘.)

Skeletons are strongly associated with Mexico because of the Day of the Dead and the engravings of Posada in the early 1900s, in which skeletons were used to satirize society’s rich. Prints of these engravings became rare but he was a huge influence on the generations of painters that followed, including Rivera and Kahlo. This sequence evoked Frida’s paintings, which were small, intimate and very personal pieces about what was going on inside her, and the results of her accident were a huge part of that.

Now, on the one hand, ‘Frida’ could be seen as a Hollywood movie, with a budget of $12M and peopled with stars. But it is an independent film, distributed by the Weinsteins, produced by Salma Hayak, with Gregory Nava as one of the screenwriters. Keep in mind, a major studio would have had a bigger budget and Madonna in the lead role, who was thumping for the part.

But back to those scenes. And to the point. Julie Taymor allowed herself to be utterly free and imaginative with those sequences. This was not the linear plain storytelling of a Hollywood movie. This was simply the free, loose, imaginings of the director, cut free. If the rumor is true that the NYC sequence solved the problem of not having the budget to shoot in New York, even better.

So not only do I think this would not have happened in a studio film, I urge you to do the same.

If you are writing, directing and producing totally independently, you don’t have to answer to a legion of executives, some of whom won’t know better than you. So experiment, tell the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it. Be free. Be bold. You already don’t have the money, so who are you trying to please anyway?

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