Frida + My Fear of Greatness
I love movies. But sometimes I get all silly and anxious and filled with apprehension as the opening credits start to roll. Now to be clear, I’m not worried that it’s going to be bad. I’m worried that it’s going to be really great. Like, REALLY great. I feel this urge to turn it off in case my heart explodes for how great it is.
What if my heart can’t handle it? What if I can’t handle the awesome?
I think a great film is like consulting Tarot cards – it depends on what my question is on the day, as to what I’ll get out of it. But what if I’m not ready to hear what the film is trying to tell me?
So much angst sitting on an aeroplane coming into the opening scenes of Frida, the 2002 film of the surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. Directed by Julie Taymor, it is both produced by and stars Salma Hayek. Hayek was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal as Kahlo and the film won two Academy Awards for Best Makeup and Best Original Score. So I already know, the film is going to be good. Really good.
Fortunately, the film takes off at a good pace and my apprehension is forced to take a back seat while I settle in to see what messages the film has for me. There are the usual topics that always come up for me in strong films – overcoming fear, the value in authenticity and the power of my own voice. But there were a few newbies too around fidelity and marriage, beauty and death, being alone, plus being human and all the feely feels that go with it.
Frida Kahlo was a woman ahead of her time, which is a phrase I find obscure, in part because it suggests we evolve only one way and ‘now’ is so much better than ‘then’. I prefer to think Kahlo came from a time before women were domesticated, before their wildness was crushed, before they were conditioned on how to be good girls (I’m thinking about 7000 BC here. More on that another time). She drank heavily, she smoked.
She dressed like a man sometimes, she slept with women sometimes and she danced with who she wanted to dance with without consideration of what others thought.
Frida was madly in love with her husband who was not loyal to her and while this clearly hurt her, she did not try and change him. A sentiment that is echoed throughout the film but begins early when a young Frida asks her father’s advice as they are preparing for her sister’s marriage.
“What do you think matters most for a good marriage?” she asks.
“A short memory.”
“Why did you get married Papa?”
“I can’t remember.”
The film is witty and vibrant and even the gruesome scenes are aesthetically beautiful – in particular the portrayal of Frida’s terrible trolley car accident when she was 18 years old. The injuries were horrific – spine, collarbone and ribs broken, pelvis broken in three places, her right leg had eleven fractures with her foot dislocated and crushed.
She survived the accident, the handrail from the trolley car pierced through her abdomen, entering at her left hip and exiting through her vagina.
Yes, you read that correctly. Her vagina.
A couple passengers died at the scene while others died later. It took two years before Frida could walk again but she never fully recovered, going on to have dozens of surgeries throughout her life where bones were re-broken and reset. She lived in constant pain and was bedridden in full body casts for extended periods of time.
I knew of the accident before I watched the film and had often wondered how such monstrous injuries and the violent experience of a steel handrail inside her could ever be psychologically overcome. And yet, in the film and through her surviving artworks, she is this incredibly vibrant character, larger than life, or rather, larger than her difficulties.
She had a mono brow and didn’t give a fuck, she dressed in bright colours despite the despair that must have been knocking daily and she didn’t shy away from painting the things that hurt her.
She seemed to live a life of constant pain and constant pleasure. She lived completely, madly, deeply and not just when she was mobile – being stuck in bed recovering from yet another surgery, she still lived with passion and vitality and still worked on developing her art.
“I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.”
Her self-portraits are fascinating, raw, vibrant, unflinching. But I suppose, how else can you paint yourself when it’s what you see every day in the mirror above your bed? To paint herself any other way would be a lie – a lie only to herself.
“I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”
Ahhhh…. I’m reminded yet again that that is what all art is. Good art that is.
Forget the audience, forget the critics, forget it all. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do for yourself right now.
And fuck fear. Fear doesn’t get a seat at your party.
Fear is something that Geoffrey Rush’s character of Leon Trotsky is no stranger to. Despite having his children murdered, despite the incredible guilt and sorrow and anger he must have experienced at their deaths, he was able to live on. He’d lost so much and yet somehow because he had, he still had so much to live for. Simply, he just had to keep on keeping on.
“I’m alone with few friends and no resources against the world’s biggest killing machine. So what can I do but keep on working… LIVING.”
Trotsky had an unwavering belief in truth and in humanity, despite the struggles and persecution he experienced in his own personal journey. I felt both inspired by him and ashamed of my own small fears. I don’t face the same dangers he faced and yet… I can’t bring myself to have the same strength of voice.
I’m so drowning in my own apathy and navel gazing and not good enoughness that I stay small and just don’t get things done. Well, not anymore.
The tragedy of both Trotsky and Kahlo’s life will not be for naught. I will keep creating and keep trying like none of it matters. I don’t need the kiss of society to do what I need to do. I owe it to Frida to be the best woman I can be. With health on my side I have more privilege than her, with choices and time and physical capability to feel, to heal, to learn and to let go.
This film helped orchestrate a thousand deaths of the stuff that doesn’t need to matter in my life anymore and the start of my own revolution – yes, yes, in spite of the fear! Frida says, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” And so, I will tell my truth in my own voice and stand strong in the faith that it’s real and valid and it’s safe to share it.
I’ll speak up, I’ll show up and in showing up, I become the revolution.
Frida died at just 47 and yet she jammed so much greatness into her short life. I calculate that that gives me 8 years to work my arse off and jam in so much more passion and joy and beauty. Fill myself up on the things that excite me, that fill me with apprehension and terrify me with the potential scarediness of greatness. Because you know what?
I think this heart of mine can handle it.
I need to hear more stories about strong women leading beauty-filled and spiritual lives, and so I created Empress Crow and Rabbit. It’s a forum to showcase the inspirational stories of women in uniquely feminine careers. It's also a bridge between what we think we know and what we feel is right. Thank you for joining me – let’s all learn, grow and celebrate the feminine together.
Photo credit: Lucy Spartalis