Abstract

Director Julie Taymor says that her choice to direct Frida (2002) was made, in part, by the "prospect of striking a balance between the realism of a period piece set in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties and the interior landscape of this woman's mind" (Bosley 1). To convey to the audience a combined sense of Frida Kahlo's subjectivity, artistry and biography, Taymor employs digitally altered scenes to recreate her paintings which then come to life within the narrative. Taymor also suggests a recurrent theme in Kahlo's oeuvre, the permeability of death and life, while layering Frida's inner realities, her maimed body, and aspects of her culture, both modern and traditional. Ultimately, Taymor's focus on Frida's disabled body helps film audiences understand the complexity of Kahlo's life journey, one that continues to be constructed even after her death.

Julie Taymor's biographical film Frida (2002), based on the life of the Mexican modernist painter, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), interrogates the ways Kahlo's art was informed by her life experience.1 At the time Frida was released, the film received mixed reviews. Katie Clifford wrote that the movie focused "on the artist as a victim of circumstance rather than portraying her as an individual with agency"; the artist's contribution to artistic and political discourse was omitted (61). While Paul Smith was reminded of more recent female artists "who use their private lives and bodies as directly and vividly as Frida did in her work" (41), he nonetheless thought that Taymor was unable to translate this complexity in her film, particularly in the way the characters "seem to speak to each other in headlines: 'The marriage of an elephant and a dove'" (42). These critics failed to recognize the way Taymor's film reconceptualizes the disabled body in relation to subjectivity. Insofar as Taymor's film renders disability thematically — living with disability informed much of Kahlo's artistry and biography — it participates in the ongoing trend to make a particular disability a primary plot device (sympathetic instances might include The Elephant Man [1980], My Left Foot [1989] , and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [2007] ).2 Yet, in Taymor's rendering of Kahlo's subjectivity — the way she comes to knowledge about self, others, and the world — as difference, Taymor contests oppressive cultural definitions of disability. It is my intention here to discuss both the ways that Taymor anchors subjectivity to the disabled body and canvasses the current media discourse of the disabled body.3

Cultural distinctions of disability as abnormal or deviant persist within embodied formations of difference. As David Mitchell puts it, "the disabled body surfaces as any body capable of being narrated as 'outside the norm'" (17). The disabled body conveys social and physical distinctions from what is considered normative and therefore less culturally attractive. What disability studies of the past twenty years have argued is that public attitudes often present obstacles as significant as the physical limitations themselves. The homogenization of a society that continues to glamorize beauty and health within prohibitively narrow limits does much to render disability as deficiency rather than as difference.

While the discourse of disability in the media undergoes continual renegotiation, Hollywood has typically characterized disability in terms of lack or loss. While the medical and biological models in disability studies are being replaced or supplemented by socio-political models,4 television remakes of classic films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1981) or The Phantom of the Opera (1983), where disfigurement and disability is equated with deviancy, suggest that cultural attitudes of disability are slow to change. Such films, where the disability (physical deformity of face and body) goes hand in hand with maladjusted behavior, an inability to fit in with the rest of society, suggest that disability is often equated (incorrectly, by the able-bodied characters within the film) with an essential loss of humanity.5 The quest of Quasimodo to become a part of society is never realized, largely because that society cannot stand his different appearance, his deformed face and arched back. His participation in the membership of the church is relegated to what might be considered marginal at best. In the film, he lurks in the labyrinths of the cathedral's corridors and skylit passageways where the audience discovers that his mental and emotional capacities are equally disabled. The Phantom of the Opera, too, dwells on the fringe (or rather underbelly) of society; he is refused membership into the community who flock to the Opera House above his subterranean haunts to escape quotidian realities via romantic fantasy. Neither cinematic protagonist can hope for a normal life because their disabilities, their different physical bodies, represent their mental and emotional incapacity to fit into their respective communities. As Longmore observes, "we are let off the hook by being shown that disability or bias or both must forever ostracize severely disabled characters from society" (135).

Hollywood or Hollywood-influenced movies sometimes suggest, on the other hand, that the difference that inheres in a disabled body is acceptable if it contributes in a gainful way, sometimes even a patently commercial way, to the collective good. Frida Kahlo produced art of amazing staying power and commercial appeal. Not only is there scarcely a book store in America where a book concerning Kahlo or her art cannot be found, reproductions of her art also adorn the walls, nooks and crannies of numerous public places.6 While most of Frida's bequest to capitalism occurs after her death, Taymor's film evokes some of these best known reproductions through its occasional use of "3-D paintings or paintings that come to life" (Frida 113), wherein what appears to be a static image of one of Frida's paintings becomes an enactment by the actors within the (commercial) film.7 The conflicts between high art, socially committed art and capitalism are suggested most strongly in relation to Diego Rivera's work (he has to relinquish his commission in Rockefeller Center because of its Marxist elements), but some of Frida's popular appeal is again conveyed through the inclusion of her picture on the cover of the August, 1939 issue of French Vogue magazine.8

Frida's gift to art as against (if, ultimately, in addition to) commerce is suggested by a scene occurring early on in the film. After her traumatic accident (on which see further below), Frida is shown lying in bed drawing colorful butterflies on her body cast and then sketching her feet. She draws what she can see from her limited perspective, her feet, and what she feels like, a butterfly locked in its cocoon. Her father asks her, "What are your plans, Frida?" and she replies, "Right now I'm a burden but I hope to be a self-sufficient cripple one day." Her father counters, "You're not a burden my love" and then both parents give their daughter an easel fitted for her bed, along with paints and paintbrushes. In the isolation of the gift-giving moment, Kahlo's parents give her what she has given us — her art, which we would not have now had Frida not endured such trauma and (lifelong) rehabilitation.

But Frida's painted cast, her aestheticized, disabled body, metonymically represents much larger concerns and speaks to an array of intersecting discursive traditions: national, postcolonial, feminist, Marxist, postmodernist, (bi)sexual, surrealist, and magical realist. Such a mingling of discourses elevates the disabled body to the plural discourse of post-modernity and suggests that as we uncover how identity is rendered multiple, we uncover how difference really operates: through the underlying and overlapping of discourse, rather than as a mere aspect of otherness. Kahlo's art remains influential precisely because it contributes to such an array of discursive traditions. In mingling Kahlo's art and life, Taymor's film mobilizes a discourse of the disabled body that elevates difference in ways that speak to that paradoxical urge in America both to individuate and to unify.9

Another paradox the film explores is her presentation of Frida's need to hide her body's disfigured condition yet at the same time to express her body's pain. Recent sociological studies in both America and Europe show that the most common way people deal with disability is simply not to disclose it, if possible.10 Frida participates in "passing" — she hides the aspect of the disability that the world sees — when she hides her legs by wearing native dress.11 Herrera notes in her biography that Kahlo wore tehuana costumes in part to please Rivera, who liked the traditional dress of this region (Tehuantepec), but at the same time used them to hide her suffering.12 Kahlo's dress acted like a second skin (not unlike the body cast she wore during her rehabilitation), a magic armor that protected her from the world.13 Kahlo once wrote that the traditional tehuana dress made "'the absent portrait of only one person' — [namely] her absent self" (Herrara 112), an observation carried through in some of Frida's paintings that depict her costume hanging by itself.14 In Taymor's film, Kahlo's variously costumed, disabled body adapts to reveal her multiple personas. Kahlo in a bright red dress dances a tango provocatively with Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) to suggest the complexity of her sexuality; in a Marxist red blouse and khaki skirt she walks Mexico's streets in protest of the unjust government; in bold red and black tehuana dress she climbs an ancient Mayan pyramid to convey her adventuresome and indigenous Mexican spirit. Despite such bursts of mobility (among other periods of relative immobility), Frida repeatedly calls herself a "cripple" in the picture. As she is about to first undress for Diego, she stops and says, "I have a scar." He replies, "Let me see it" and then "You're perfect." Through the multiple personas of Frida Kahlo that Taymor emphasizes, we are ensured that Frida's disabled body, and by extension disability in general, is rendered multiple, adaptable, and not easily defined.

Taymor contests stereotypical depictions of the disabled body in the ways she organizes the narrative around Kahlo's body as the subject of Frida. Nearly every scene in Frida depicts the artist (as portrayed by Salma Hayek), starting with a scene from the end of her life when she is bedridden and has to be carried in her four-poster bed through the streets and onto a flat-bed truck so she that can attend (as we learn when the scene continues at the end of the film) her first and only one-woman show in Mexico.15 The film then flashes back to Frida's days as a schoolgirl. She runs through busy city streets, noisy institutional hallways, and bustling family gatherings. These opening scenes reflect the strong physical energy of Kahlo's youthful body. But the film then re-enacts the accident that almost ended her life at the age of eighteen, when the bus she was riding collided with a trolley car. This scene establishes a prominent theme of Frida: life is not distinct from death, but rather, an extension of death; every moment in her life follows on from this near death experience.16 Afterwards, as she lies sedated on the operating table, the young Kahlo dreams she is being operated on by doctors who resemble animated "Day of the Dead" skeletons.17 When she awakens, we hear the real doctors saying "The spinal column was broken as were the collarbone and two ribs. The pelvis is broken in three places. The metal rod [i.e. a handrail from the bus] entered the right side of the body and came out the vagina."18 Frida's disabled body becomes the axis of the telling of a life that teeters towards death unstoppably. Her lengthy convalescence, subsequent operations with extensive recuperative periods, and chronic periods of pain suggest that Frida Kahlo's art and life have become iconic to the world not despite her disability, but because of it.

In the film's depiction of the accident itself, the distorted sequencing of the film moves to a crawl, allowing the spectator to connect the objects on the film simultaneously to Frida's body, emphasizing Frida's subjectivity, how she registers knowledge about self and others in the moment of time and space she occupies.19 Toward this end, the film slows at the precise moment that the look of impending disaster appears on Frida's face, allowing for such a coalescence of meaning to occur.

Such cinematic pauses augment the distance between Frida and the object she is encountering, suggesting Frida's perspective and offering a theory of subjectivity that relates knowledge to the domain of the body. As Elizabeth Grozs puts it, "for the subject to take up a position as a subject, it must be able to be situated in the space occupied by its body. This anchoring of subjectivity in its body is the condition of coherent identity, and, moreover, the condition under which the subject has a perspective on the world" (47). A subject's body is defined by plurality: It is physical (real); it is mental (symbolic); it remains in various states of negotiation to people, places, things and even discourses. Its power is rendered by the totality of its complexity. The body avails itself as the hub of subjectivity by the way it completes complex psychic negotiation and depends upon distance so as to separate itself from the various objects it encounters. This real and symbolic separation of subject from object is marked paradoxically by loss and gain because the subject symbolically splits when psychic negotiation occurs.20 One way to look at this psychic process the subject experiences is through the theory of split-subjectivity made famous by Jacques Lacan.21 When we enter the mirror stage as an infant or toddler, we begin to perceive our selves symbolically, in other words, in relation to how others perceive us. For that symbolic process to happen, we experience loss: we symbolically lose our wholeness in the sense that we do not feel a connection to the physicality surrounding us. As "split subjects" we connect in part to our real bodies and another part to whatever we choose; the entire process is simultaneously voluntary and involuntary. Since we have experienced wholeness early in our lives, we long to go back to that unity through symbolically attaching ourselves to experiences, people, ideas, anything constituting a given relationship. However, unity is forever an illusive experience; we can never attach completely to anyone or anything, although we continue to try. Once we become subjects, we continue to orient ourselves by experience and knowledge gained through a plethora of relationships. These relationships can be seen as objects too. While these relationships vary in how meaningful they can be said to be with respect to any one person, place, object, institution, or discourse, relationships nonetheless involve a primary aspect of subjectivity, that of positioning. How we position ourselves to circumstances and events as they occur is one aspect of perspective, while how we position ourselves after they occur is another.

Throughout the film both types of positioning in relation to subjectivity, simultaneous and retrospective, are explored by means of Frida's body. In a revealing scene, Frida enters her house carrying groceries and overhears Trotsky and his wife arguing in Russian (about Frida's affair with Trotsky). Frida flinches when Trotsky slams the door on his wife and then her body slumps when she hears Trotsky's wife sobbing. Her body gestures the dual sense of perspective in her initial and subsequent positions, first revealing her dawning knowledge — the content of the argument — and then her reaction — compassion for Trotsky's wife. This duality of perspective continues in the following scene where Trotsky and party are departing. Diego and Frida stand outside the pink walled house on the cobblestone street. As Frida and Diego converse about why Trotsky leaves, it becomes apparent that Frida is positioned by the camera to come out on top of the conflict: at the end of the scene she stands above him in the frame, facing us, almost as tall as Diego (whose back is to us) because of the shot's visual perspective, on a diagonal receding into the distance. Her body or face is the dominating feature of most of the shots to suggest her viewpoint, her perspective, not his.22 Her closing words of the scene reinforce the simultaneity of the message her body has conveyed:

Diego: Why? [referring to her affair with Trotsky]

Frida: [cut to Frida turning toward camera in close-up.] Because we wanted to.

Diego: You've broken my heart, Frida.

Frida: It hurts… doesn't it? But why? It was just a fuck, like a handshake! [she mocks him, using words he had used earlier] … You promised to be loyal. You've been my comrade, my fellow artist, my best friend. But you've never been my husband…

By revealing the nature of her infidelity, Frida chooses to hurt Diego, who has hurt her repeatedly by his own infidelity with her sister Cristina and numerous other women. As Frida and Diego square off to one another on the stoned-lined street — their bodies standing outside the home, symbolizing their joint inability to remain faithful to shared domesticity — they are positioned as equals. Frida retains her personal power by telling Diego she has an affair with Trotsky simply because "they wanted to." Afterwards, her disabled body retains the camera's focus: she favors her left leg as she walks away.

In interviews regarding Frida, Taymor says she strove to capture Frida's point of view.23 Yet in the myriad ways Frida's body conveys the subtle negotiation of knowledge of each moment, Taymor goes beyond mere point of view to suggest the body (in Frida's case, often, the body in pain) as the originary locus of subjectivity.24

The film begins and ends with fairly similar images of Frida gazing at her reflection in the mirror above her bed, suggesting that Frida objectifies herself with frequent regularity, meaning that she negotiates her own identity through simultaneously perceiving and responding to herself. This emphasis on gazing into the mirror suggests that Frida uses herself as a primary locator of subjectivity, suggesting that what changes have taken place from the film's beginning to end are in fact revealed through Frida's reflections. At the film's opening, Frida's gaze embodies a past reflection (on her life up to that point, told in flashback), while at the film's closing, her gaze embodies a future prediction; she smiles knowingly at her impending death. The ending in a sense opens rather than closes, just as Kahlo's life and art continue beyond the physicality of her life (and one's viewing of the film).

Taymor occasionally stops the flow of the narrative, calling attention to the continued play of subject and object, how events shape both Kahlo's perception and ensuing reality. In the final animation scene that shows the painting "The Dream" (1940) come to life on the screen, where Frida's life and death merge in her dreamscape, we view one type of narrative pause.25 Where time and space collapse in the photographic collage of Frida and Diego in New York, we view yet another. The montage of Frida's life in Paris is streamlined to focus on another aspect of her subjectivity, her plural sexuality: Frida was attracted to both men and women.

Taymor collapses the distance of subject and object in yet another way. In a Bill Moyers' interview on PBS, Taymor reveals that she relies on colors to convey Frida's point of view. When Frida is happy and energetic, the screen is dominated by the bright colors she wears and those that surround her: bright blues, reds, and yellows. When she is sad and immobilized the screen is dominated by much subtler grays, greens, and browns. Taymor also relies on innovative film technology to draw out the changing states of Frida's mind. Live action sequences that slow into the form or look of a painting, or, conversely, paintings that become moving film are other key methods that Taymor relies on to emphasize Frida's subjectivity, in relation to her life and art. The final animation of Frida's painting "The Dream," discussed above, begins with a superimposed excerpt from her journal, suggesting that Kahlo constructs her own impending death: "I hope the exit is joyful. And I hope never to return."

Despite such moments of agency, Frida's numerous bouts of confinement in her four-posted bed suggest the presence of opposing social constraints. While Frida cannot do anything about her initial confinement after her near fatal trolley-car accident, she begins to complain about the necessity of repeated operations. Frida's repeated confinement suggests repeated efforts to "normalize" her through medical and social rehabilitation, wherein an impaired body is forced to become an able-body by any means available (Hughes 62). By emphasizing what makes Frida's disabled body more abled — endless operations — Taymor contests two key aspects of disability discourse in her film: the first concerns the nineteenth century method of confining the disabled body or removing it from active society; the second concerns the twentieth century strategy to "fix or improve the 'performance' of broken bodies and thus make them 'fit' once again" (Hughes 62-63). Because Taymor does not make clear in the film whose decisions are behind Frida's many operations, however, the matter remains open to interpretation. In one scene Frida complains to Cristina that the operations and not her body are the source of her endless pain. In an early scene where Taymor dramatizes the significance of Kahlo's first major operation after the trolley-car accident, the young Frida overhears the doctor tell her parents that they are not concerned whether Frida will walk or not, but whether she will live at all. Other than the initial operation that seems to be life-saving and the one near to the end of her life, the amputation of her foot due to gangrene, the reason for the operations remains unrevealed. Possibly Frida had succumbed to social pressures, what Nancy Mairs characterizes as society's attempt "to infantilize those with physical or mental limitations and none do so more than doctors and their adjuncts" (161). For better or for worse, folks listen to and follow their doctors' advice. Herrera suggests that Kahlo sought solace from the emotional painful realities of her life through seeking unnecessary medical operations, known as Munchausen syndrome (Paintings 235). However, the gaps in the text of her life and film allow readers or viewers to offer other interpretations.26 On the one hand, Taymor shows Kahlo's strengths, that Kahlo fought to make art her livelihood and fought for particular social issues. On the other hand, Taymor shows Kahlo's weaknesses, the effect of ongoing pain, emotional (Diego Rivera's presence in her life) and physical (numerous operations, recuperative periods, and failed attempts to bear a child). Taymor's decision to weave the known (the operations she undergoes) with the unknown (the necessity of the operations) with respect to normalizing her body's disability alerts the viewer to both ideological and medical realities of the day. Ultimately, Taymor's film shows Frida submitting to the many efforts to confine and rehabilitate her so as "to improve the performance of her broken body" (Hughes 63).27

In many of Kahlo's self-portraits which make up a third of her oeuvre, Kahlo offers an alternative allegory of the disabled body that rejects medical notions of the broken or impaired, and instead replaces them with paradigms of wholeness or healing, in effect claiming what Brecht insisted, that art can subvert an array of hegemonic interests; art is not intended to mirror reality but to change it (McCaughan 2). Kahlo's construction of counterhegemony is done through her conflation in the painted body of the political — national symbols and myths — with the personal — incidents from an individual's biography, but also intensely private states of mind and heart. Similarly, Taymor's structural use of Kahlo's pictures, where the layers of figurative and literal body merge, suggests the possibility of a matrix of difference comprised of the national and individual body. Taymor's portrayal of the tensions Frida negotiates in her life and art combats devalued notions of disability and instead replaces them with juxtapositions of political and personal agency. Kahlo and Rivera's Marxist political leanings are not only well-documented in the film, but Taymor suggests that the mutuality of their ideas informs their initial romantic intimacy (they are viewed marching arm in arm in the streets of Mexico to contest governmental tyranny) as well as their coming together after their first substantive break-up (Frida permits the politically volatile Trotsky and his entourage to live in her parents' house). Taymor's cinematic reproduction of Kahlo's 1933 painting "My Dress Hangs There," wherein Frida's tehuana dress hangs on a line with New York City in the background, constructs the uneasy mingling of Mexican versus American nationalistic discourse and suggests "the personal is political." Such paintings serve as commentary on the complex tensions existing between the powerful forces of the instinctual life and the constructed social being.

Phil Lee in "Shooting for the Moon" argues that, largely through the disability arts movement, an emancipatory politics of personal/collective identity has emerged. Such a program of positive personal identity centers on both universality and diversity, meaning that identities are supplanted by a politics of coalition, that is to say, a host of issues and campaigns centered around housing, health, welfare, education, employment, immigration, reproduction and media representations. A program of universal justice that accounts for difference suggests identity is rendered multiple and fluid, and typically is constituted by postmodern and feminist underpinnings (158). The scope of postmodern society is more fragmented, more diverse, and full of differences where living as process is achieved through the negotiation of an array of individual and cultural tensions rather than through the negotiation of limiting socio-political trends and attitudes.

Taymor does not merely contest current media representations of disability as separation, but also the nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of disability as in need of rehabilitation. Taymor's strategy of disrupting the flow of narrative through special effects suggests that Frida's disability led to her ability to re-signify the unity of her body in art.

Works Cited

  • Artemisia. Dir. Agnès Merlet. Perf. Valentina Cervi, Michel Serrault, Miki Manojlovic, Luca Zingaretti. Miramax, 1997.
  • Baddeley, Oriana. "'Her Dress Hangs Here': De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult." Oxford Art Journal 14.1 (1991): 10-17.
  • Barnes, Colin. Mike Oliver and Len Barton. Eds. Disability Studies Today. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Pub, 2002.
  • Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Tr. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
  • Block, Rebecca and Lynda Hoffman-Jeep. "Fashioning National Identity: Frida Kahlo in 'Gringolandia.'" Woman's Art Journal 19.2 (1998-1999): 8-12.
  • Bosley, Rachael K. "A Dynamic Portrait: Frida." American Cinematographer (Oct. 2002): 1-4. Online.
  • Carrington. Christopher Hampton. Perf. Emma Thompson, Jonathan Price, Steven Waddington, Samuel West. Orsans Productions, 1995.
  • Castro-Sethness, Maria A. "Frida Kahlo's Spiritual World: The Influence of Mexican Retablo and Ex-voto Paintings on Her Art." Woman's Art Journal 25.2 (2004-2005): 21-24.
  • Clifford, Katie. "Featuring Frida." Art in America 90.12 (Dec. 2002): 61.
  • Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The. Dir. Julian Schnabel. Perf. Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuel Seinger, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny. Pathé Renn Productions, 2007.
  • Elephant Man, The. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud. Brooksfilms, 1980.
  • Faris, Wendy. "Primitivist Construction of Identity in the Work of Frida Kahlo." Primitivism and Identity in Latin America: Essays on Art, Literature and Culture. Ed. Erik Camayd-Freixas and Jose Eduardo Gonzalez. U of Arizona P, Tucson, 2000. 221-240.
  • Frida. Dir. Julie Taymor. Perf. Salma Hayak, Mia Maestro, Alfred Molina, Lupe Marin. Miramax, 2002.
  • Frida. A Newmarket Pictorial Moviebook. Foreword by Hayden Herrera. Introductions by Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek. New York: Haymarket, 2002.
  • Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Dir. Stephen Shainber. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin. Edward R. Pressman Film 2006.
  • Grozs, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. 1990. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • ---. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1994.
  • Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Harper, 1983.
  • ---. Frida Kahlo: The Paintings. 1991. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
  • Hughes, Bill. "Disability and the Body." Barnes et al., 58-76.
  • Hunchback of Notre Dame, The. Dir. Michael Tuchner. Perf. Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, David Suchet, Lesley-Anne Down. Rosemont Productions, 1982.
  • James, David E. "Art/Film/Art Film: Chihwaseon and its Cinematic Contexts." Film Quarterly 59.2 (2005-2006): 4-17.
  • Jameson, Frederic. "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism." Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
  • Lee, Phil. "Shooting for the Moon: Politics and Disability at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century." Barnes et al, 139-161.
  • Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003.
  • Looking at Movies: An Introduction. New York: Norton, 2006. Online.
  • Mairs, Nancy. "Sex and Death and the Crippled Body: A Meditation." Ed. Snyder et al. 156-170.
  • Marchand, Roland. "The Parable of the Democracy of Goods." Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Fourth Edition. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, Eds. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 150-157
  • Marinelli Robert P. and Arthur E. Dell Orto. Eds. The Psychological and Social Impact of Disability. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1999.
  • McCaughan, Edward J. "Gender, Sexuality, and Nation in the Art of Mexican Social Movements." Nepantla: Views from the South 3.1 (2002): 99-143.
  • Mitchell, David. "Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor." Snyder et al., 15-30.
  • My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown. Dir. Jim Sheridan. Perf. Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan, Kristen Sheridan. Ardmore Studios, 1989.
  • Phantom of the Opera, The. Dir. Robert Markowitz. Per. Maximillian Schell, Jane Seymour, Michael York, Jeremy Kemp. Robert Halmi, 1983.
  • Public Broadcasting Station. "Bill Moyers Interviews Julie Taymor." Oct. 2002. <http://www.pbs.org//now/transcript/transcript_taymor.html>
  • Riley, Charles. Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change. Hanover and London: UP of New England, 2005.
  • Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1988.
  • Smith, Paul Julian. "Frida." Sight & Sound 13.3 (March 2003): 41-42.
  • Snyder, Sharon L. "Infinities of Forms: Disability Figures in Artistic Traditions." Snyder et al., 173-196.
  • Snyder, Sharon L., Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Eds. Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. New York: MLA, 2002.

Endnotes

  1. A version of this paper was delivered at the 2008 Film and History Conference. I would like to thank Paul Acker of Saint Louis University for his many helpful suggestions. The film's main source is Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, by Hayden Herrera (1983).


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  2. See Longmore chs. 6 and 7 for a survey and analysis of disability films and television programs.


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  3. Besides the disability film, Frida of course partakes of other genres, principally the artist biopic and the feminist biography (see James, Vidal). The latter two genres are combined in only a few other films, such as Carrington (1995) and Artemisia (1997). In Artemisia, Belén Vidal considers Agnès Merlet's biopic, which portrays the young life of Early Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, not only in the popular genres of history and romance, but also in academic and feminist discourses (90). In Artemisia's "competing and overlapping textual layering" of desire and fantasy, Vidal notes, it is possible "to get beyond the question of identification, and move into the wider possibilities of reconstructing historical identities as composite hybrid entities" (79). One other film combines all three genres, if not all that successfully: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), which deals with the photographer's relationship with a 'lion man' plagued by hypertrichosis. On Frida as an artist biopic, see Looking at Movies, ch. 2. The genres of disability, film, and feminist biography merge in Frida when she says to her philandering husband, "There have been two big accidents in my life, Diego. The trolley, and you."


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  4. In the U.S.A., the Disability Act of 1990 frames disability within a biological and medical model. Despite the undeniable value of services rendered under this law, it continues to promote the notion of difference as deviancy, largely because interventions are needed to make things "right" for those with disabilities. See Marinelli and Dell Orto, The Psychological and Social Impact of Disability for a thorough discussion of the need to reframe cultural definitions of disability.


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  5. See Longmore 135, who mentions these depictions of disability under a rubric of "monster characterizations."


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  6. In the studio where I practice yoga once a week, a poster of Kahlo's work, labeled only "San Francisco Museum of Art," hangs in one of the bathrooms. Ironically the painting reproduced, "Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird" (1940), is one of those where Kahlo suggests an intimate connection not with commerce or even human society but rather with nature (see Faris).


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  7. The technique also suggests the permeability of Frida's life and art, which the film inevitably 'capitalizes' upon, while also perhaps defamilarizing it through the use of such an unconventional technique.


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  8. Reproduced in Frida, 137 — but note that actress Salma Hayek impersonates Frida on the cover.


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  9. See Roland Marchand's "The Parable of the Democracy of Goods," in which he argues that one of the primary visions of America's democracy since the turn of the 20th century — the paradoxical principle of separate but equal — has been exploited relentlessly by advertisers so as to equate democracy with wealth.


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  10. Marinelli and Dell Orto note that "more than two-thirds of disabled adults of working age do not have jobs" (6). Riley and others write that many invoke their right to privacy and do not report their disability for fear of discrimination (19, 20).


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  11. Frida's right leg was withered by childhood polio and then broken and her foot crushed in the trolley accident of 1925. Ultimately the leg was amputated in 1953 (Herrera 14, 47, 412).


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  12. Herrera 111-112. Rebecca Block and Lynda Hoffman-Jeep observe further that "Frida Kahlo's adoption of Mexican indigenous dress began on the day of her marriage to Diego Rivera, August 21, 1929, when she borrowed a skirt, blouse, and rebozo from a maid to wear to the ceremony in the city hall in Coyoacán. Heretofore Kahlo's wearing of native clothing most frequently has been attributed to her desire to please her husband and hide physical deficiencies. However, this dress can also be seen as a political statement: Kahlo's sartorial endorsement of postrevolutionary ideology. Photographs of her in native dress when she and Rivera first visited San Francisco, from November 1930 to June 1931, communicated Mexican revolutionary cultural tenets as clearly as did Rivera's murals" (8). The film shows Frida first trying on a traditional white wedding dress, then wearing the tehuana costume instead, as in her painting "The Wedding Portrait" (1931), which Taymor depicts as a tableau.


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  13. Compare also the steel and leather corset she wore during a subsequent rehabilitation, shown in the film along with the painting depicting it, "The Broken Column" (reproduced in Frida 144-145).


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  14. See "My Dress Hangs There" (1933, referenced in the film; reproduced in Frida 106-107) and "Memory" (1937, ibid., 122).


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  15. Here Taymor takes some poetic license; according to Herrera, Frida was carried on a stretcher and placed onto her bed that had been set up in the art gallery (ix).


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  16. Frida's first words spoken in the film, to the workers carrying her in her bed, are "Careful, guys. This corpse is still breathing."


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  17. See Bosley, 4: "One of Frida's most startling subjective visions is actually a puppet-animation sequence created by The Brothers Quay (Institute Benjamenta, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer). Drifting in and out of consciousness after the bus accident, Kahlo sees doctors as chattering skeletons and hears disembodied voices relaying her grim prognosis. 'I've never met the Quays, but I've loved their work for years,' Taymor says. 'I simply gave them a scenario; I said it was a nightmare featuring skeletons in the Mexican Day of the Dead style, and I stressed to make it abstract, comic but slightly frightening. I sent them books of woodcut artist [José Guadalupe] Posada and photos of the hospital room, and they ran with it."


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  18. These horrific details were related by both Kahlo and her young lover Alejandro Gómez Arias; see Herrera 48-49.


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  19. For a thorough discussion of the historical evolution of subjectivity, see Donald Hall's Subjectivity. Hall defines "our subjectivity" to mean "our knowledge of individual selfhood and our degree of agency over that selfhood" despite the barrage of cultural influence exerted under any moment (62).


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  20. Here I follow Kaja Silverman's lead in The Accoustic Mirror, in which, in borrowing from Jacques Lacan, she views subjectivity as "dependent upon the recognition of a distance separating self from other — on an object whose loss is simultaneous with its apprehension" (7). Silverman writes that as subjects split, objects split too, a formula that is useful is seeing how subjectivity works on a psychic level. For "the subject enters the symbolic — to the divisions through which it acquires its identity, divisions … constitute the world of objects out of the subject's own self" (7).


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  21. For a through presentation of Lacan's mirror stage, see Grosz's Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction.


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  22. The final shot and dialogue are reproduced in Frida, 133.


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  23. In an interview transcribed in Looking at Movies (ch. 2),Taymor says (somewhat disconnectedly): "A woman who spent fifty percent of her life looking at a mirror hanging on the canopy of her bed. And then I knew that if I could tell this story from a subjective point of view — because what you get in a biopic is an objective point of view: this event, that event, this event, that event. And it's very interesting; it's a life worth telling. But then I want to tell the life from Frida's point of view."


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  24. Frida's body (and art) is also an obvious locus of her subjectivity when she responds to her knowledge that Diego has been having an affair with her sister by sitting alone and cropping her hair — which scene then becomes a tableau of the painting "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (reproduced in Frida 112-113).


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  25. The painting and a shot from the scene are reproduced in Frida, 156-157. The painting shows Kahlo sleeping in a bed floating among clouds. The leaves on the vine growing out of the yellow bedspread protect Kahlo's dream. According to Maria Angeles Castro-Sethness's analysis: "On the bed's canopy, echoing Kahlo's position, rests a skeleton in the form of a papier-mache Judas. Instead of a vine, the skeleton holds a floral arrangement from which grow wires connected to explosives. In 'The Dream' we encounter a surrealistic feeling of transformation and sublimation: the spiritual presence of death and resurrection — the skeleton, and the grapevine motif and the ascending movement conveyed by the painting, respectively — are united in a cycle that assures the continuation of life through rebirth and renewal. The skeleton that lies on Kahlo's bed symbolizes death, and the vines that surround her face suggest her extension of self to the earth despite that death. In this composition, the figures are centered and surrounded by a background that echoes the cycles of creation and destruction — the division between day and night and light and darkness. A mystical, supernatural force unites life and death and perpetuates them in a circular, harmonious motion. This indivisible unity, central in ancient Mexican philosophy, is intermixed with the Christian belief of death as redemption as earth and humanity's rebirth" (24).


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  26. Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text has made famous this notion of the gap or absence in text; this absence responds to the reader's, or in this case, viewer's specific need to create meaning individually.


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  27. After climbing the pyramid at Teotihuacán, Frida tells Trotsky, "I've been cut into, re-broken, re-set so many times. I'm like a jigsaw puzzle."


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Copyright (c) 2010 Micki Nyman



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