Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Aesthetic appreciation

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

Once everyone got over the hype of its film festival gala premiere, and Salma Hayek’s whirlwind visit to Toronto, I’m not sure too many people were excited about Julie Taymor’s movie Frida. The general consensus seems to be that the visuals were much more interesting than the script, which is my own opinion as well. The initial buzz about Hayek’s chances of an Oscar nomination also disappeared. But one element in the film seems to endure. David Poland put it like this in his review in TheHotButton.com:

“One of the most profound pieces of art in the film appears when Kahlo finally is freed of her full-torso cast. When that cast is removed, like a piece coming out of a kiln, there is a surprisingly long shot of Ms. Hayek’s bosoms. And they are, without just being a silly boy, aesthetically perfect. The camera lingers like a fresh set of eyes seeing a Michelangelo or DiVinci (sic) for the first time.”


Poland’s rival Jeffrey Wells, at moviepoopshoot.com (yep, that’s right) printed a still of this profundity, with the title “Object d’Art” and the following aesthetic commentary: “If someone were to take this ridiculously cheesy shot of a scene from Frida and blow it up and mount it on the walls of a respectable art gallery, it would sell for $10,000. The artistic mark of distinction is that slightly out-of-focus balcony railing off to the lower left. That and those tiny bits of plaster stuck to the breasts, and the general graininess. It might be even better if someone were to paint the photo as photo-realism. I just know it’s got an interesting ‘off’ quality.”

“Lowlife rutting beast that I am,” writes Wells later in the column, “it’s one of the things about Frida I can’t shake from my memory.”

Johanna Schneller in The Globe and Mail wrote in her column about a conversation she had with a bunch of male film critics after seeing Frida, where this scene was just about the only object of conversation. “Did you notice how Taymor lingered on Hayek’s breasts for a good five seconds,” she quotes a guy in “thick eyeglasses” as saying, “almost as if she were saying the breasts were the works of art?” This drove Schneller to track down the compiler of The Bare Facts Video Guide, a guy who fast forwards through two movies at a time, hits pause at any hint of skin, and then meticulously documents the details.

I then looked up the reviews by The New York Times and Roger Ebert, which failed to mention this scene. But the Times and Ebert aren’t the cutting edge any more, if they ever were. There’s a cultural phenomenon here – a transcendent moment that will live on in clips and stills and the popular memory, long after the rest of Frida has passed into oblivion.

Bare Facts

I think Poland is right that there’s a certain aesthetic perfection to the moment. It’s the last thing you expect at that point in the movie: the plaster cast comes off, and if you were thinking about it at all you’d assume the camera would pan up to her relieved face or something like that, but it stays in place, and there they are. It’s a very effective surprise moment. As are the moments in horror movies when someone leaps from behind the door and you jump out of your seat. And, by the way, there’s a certain aesthetic perfection to the outfit the girls wear at Hooters too. And I know (as I’m sure we all do) a guy who buys Playboy because the pictures are like “art.”

The fact of director Taymor being a woman, and a very astute one, strengthens the odds that there is indeed an aesthetic calculation to the scene (although to the extent you can figure out what that calculation is, it doesn’t seem to belong in this particular movie). But that’s obviously secondary to the lowlife rutting beast appeal. Surprise eroticism carries ten times the charge of the scene that everyone’s waiting for. They deluged the world in publicity about Halle Berry’s topless scene in Swordfish, and then the moment was so matter-of-fact and lackadaisical that the world just yawned. Much the same goes for Katie Holmes in The Gift. I’ve always been convinced that Teri Hatcher’s career went into immediate decline after her topless scene in Heaven’s Prisoners. She was famously the most downloaded woman on the planet, then she threw the mystique away.

On the other hand, Meryl Streep’s brief flash in Silkwood is probably the main thing that endures about the film. And although we’re talking a different part of the anatomy here, Julianne Moore’s half-nude scene in Short Cuts still gets written about more than anything else she’s ever done.


In a world where erotic images aren’t exactly hard to come by, it’s surely a little puzzling that so much extra cache would attach to this celebrity material. The Bare Facts Video Guide is just one of many sources of that kind of thrill; for example, ifilms.com has a “celebrity skin showcase” recording such privileged moments from the careers of Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and many more. I’ve sometimes wondered what the actresses think of this, if they know about it. No doubt they accepted those movie assignments based on a certain calculation – maybe involving economic pressure (many of the scenes come from earlier in the actresses’ careers), insecurity, and in all likelihood a genuine commitment to artistic intent. Bullock and Judd are probably well-adjusted enough to be philosophical about it, but even a freedom-of-speech stalwart couldn’t fail to understand why they might muse about lawsuits.

You would think we’d be blasé about celebrity by now, and I think most of us are, at least with half our brains, but maybe it’s not worth resisting. We might profess an ironic distance from the subject, but we end up talking about it just as much, so I guess ironic distance isn’t exactly worth its weight in gold. For my part, I’ll certainly admit it was more fun writing this article than an actual review of Frida would have been. Still, since there’s a little room left, I should say that the movie contains a great deal of exquisite imagery beyond that one scene, and finds a visual language that complements and deepens our appreciation of the paintings. But although the movie talks about the depth of Kahlo’s physical pain, Hayek’s rather superficially feisty performance doesn’t make us feel it. Alfred Molina isn’t much more subtle as Diego Rivera, but his more vivid presence overshadows hers, further skewing the film’s emotional centre. Add to this the overly conventional structure, and it’s an overall disappointment. Albeit with one, or two, compensations.

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