Eisenstein, (Amérique Film Canada, 2000)
Frida, (Miramax Films,2002)

Film biographies of artists have been a strange brew. From Kirk Douglas's Van Gogh in Lust For Life, to Charlton Heston's Michelangelo (The Agony & The Ecstasy); from a whole selection of Ken Russell films to Ed Harris's Pollock, the motion picture and the portrayal of creative process has been an uncomfortable blend. The two recent films seek to change that by dramatically overstepping the bounds of narrative film-making and going into a netherworld of imagination and symbol. We are the richer for it.

First Eisenstein. Directed by Canadian Renny Bartlett, this is the story of Soviet filmmaker and trailblazer Sergei Eisenstein. We see his beginnings in the theater studying under the Master. We follow him as he makes his first successful film Potemkin, and revels in the great reviews. We see him chastised for thinking too highly of himself, "it is not your film...it is OUR film!" Remember this was Bolshevism! We see him allowed to travel to Hollywood, to study sound, where he was courted by the studios to direct. This was not to be, but he did go to Mexico, where he was released in a sense, and shot miles of film paid for by a patron. This footage was never completed by Eisenstein, and remains an enigma. Upon his return to Russia he is given an assignment by Stalin (seen in shadow only) to tell the story of Ivan the Terrible. This was to have been a trilogy, but Eisenstein lost all Stalin's support when Part Two came across as critical of Papa Joe's programs. Eisenstein died from a major heart attack at a party celebrating the release of this second chapter of the Ivan story.

The film is funny and challenging, engaging and frustrating. Clips of Eisenstein's film are shown to good purpose. Bartlett deals with issues such as artistic freedom in a totalitarian environment, homosexuality, love and truth in a thought provoking and entertaining way. Eisenstein is filled with symbols and imagery and pays tribute to the invention of filmic montage first developed by its subject. Simon McBurney gives a bravura performance as this visionary director, and the supporting cast is solid. The Mexican scenes have a life of their own, outside and open contrasting the claustrophobic interiors of the Russian sets.

Frida, on the other hand, begins in Mexico, and revels in the color and energy of the tropical environs. The story of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has been a long time coming. When I studied art, 30 years ago, there was no mention of Kahlo in the art books. Not even a passing mention. In fact virtually no women artists were mentioned in my years at University (save for Kathe Kollwitz and Emily Carr). Recent years have seen the rise of Georgia O'Keeffe, Kahlo, and many others. They were there, doing fine work, but were treated as secondary to the men they worked beside. Frida was a labor of love by actress/producer Salma Hayek (who portrays Kahlo) and the extraordinary director Julie Taymor.

Taymor designed and directed Disney's The Lion King for the stage, and it is a remarkable achievement of imagination, creativity and bravura. This same inventive spirit is carried to cinema as Taymor seeks to tell the tragic story of Frida. Frida Kahlo was a schoolgirl in Mexico during the 1920s when a freak bus accident left her with spinal damage, a right leg severely broken; a rod pierced her pelvis and exited her vagina; gold flakes being carried by a painter on the bus entered her blood stream. There was some doubt that she would ever walk again. The doctor bills almost ruined her parents. While she recovered, trapped lying flat in bed in a body cast, she taught herself to paint. Diego Rivera, Mexico's premier muralist, saw her worked and became her patron, her mentor, her lover and husband. The pain continued for Kahlo, both the physical and the emotional. Rivera was a womanizer who, although he promised loyalty to Kahlo, was neither faithful nor loyal. But he loved her for 30 years.

Mexican imagery and symbols are used to great advantage in Frida, just as they were part of Kahlo's artwork. Rivera encouraged her to wear the beautiful dresses and jewelry of the natives, to embrace her Mexican roots, and these roots are evident throughout the film. Taymor creates tableaux based on Kahlo's paintings, and then animates them into the scene bringing the paintings to life. Hayek as Kahlo is extraordinary, giving the self-portraits the three dimensions of depth, breadth, and motion. Alfred Molina makes a powerful and believable, even sympathetic, Diego Rivera. When JD Rockefeller (played by Edward Norton) stops work on, and then destroys, the mural in Rockefeller Center (because it had an image of Lenin) Molina's face expresses outrage, unbelief, and his unbending ideals.

This is a beautiful and disturbing film. It is marvelously creative in its use of color, images, editing, and special effects. No, there are no car chases, or light sabers, no aliens or giants, just real people who breathed and loved, who bled and cried, laughed and sang. The special effects are in the animation of the paintings, in the montage sequences. These sequences harken back to Eisenstein, after all it was he who invented this filmic standard. The two films are intertwined; Rivera's socialism reaches its peak when he harbors Leon Trotsky in Frida's house, Eisenstein's communism diminishes as his work grows. Stalin is a main character in both films although never really seen in either. Mexico is the country of liberation, but love of homeland is critical for both. When Frida is in New York or Paris she cannot wait to return to Mexico; although Eisenstein finds release in Mexico, it is Russia which inspires him.

It is not easy to portray the creative spirit on film. Scenes of pensive artists, chewing on pencils, sketching and thinking, are boring. These two brave films, made by brilliant craftsmen, will serve as models for the biography of the future. Show the work! Celebrate the creative process!

 

[David Kidney]