It’s surprising that Frida wasn’t made before now. After all, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has been a pop culture icon for nearly 30 years. Before the early ’80s she was primarily known as the exotic wife of famed muralist Diego Rivera. But after Hayden Herrera’s biography of her was published in 1983, Kahlo suddenly emerged as an artist in her own right. Her work was intensely personal, and she specialized in mixing folkloric motifs that so fascinated modernists with an obsessive interest in self-portraiture.

In that latter aspect she was the perfect discovery for an era of celebrity, in which the personalities of artists like Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and Andy Kaufman became intertwined with–and indistinguishable from–their art. Later conceptual and performance artists like Karen Finley and Cindy Sherman were also exploiting their own bodies in their art.

From there it was but a short step to the phenomenon of the ultimate 24/7 artist in the age of celebrity. I refer to Madonna, whose music was her art–along with her videos, her shifting personas, her manufactured controversies, her seemingly calculated lifestyle choices and her publicly staged encounters with maternity. No wonder the Material Girl wanted to play Frida Kahlo.

Luckily, we’ve been spared this particular exertion, since Ms. Ciccone opted for Swept Away, a film that’s already been hooted off the screens in New York and L.A. Instead, Salma Hayek landed the part. By the ordinary measures of the conventional biopic, which Frida is, she’s perfect for the role.

Hayek, like Kahlo, is a mestiza of Mexican and Semitic origin. In preparation for the role, Hayek enhanced her resemblance to the title character by letting nature take over the hair above her eyes, mouth and in her armpits.

But what Hayek couldn’t–or more accurately, wasn’t willing to–do was replicate the horrible physical traumas Kahlo endured in her short life, which included childhood polio and a crippling bus accident as a young adult. The real-life Kahlo chose to enswathe herself in exotic indigenous garb largely to cover her disfigured body, saving the physical self-revelations for her paintings.

Given the numerous scenes in which we see Hayek’s finely tuned and very attractive physique, this inconvenient fact is left out of Frida.

As much as anything else, this highlights the essential phoniness of the film. Though Hayek’s performance is perfectly adequate, she always seems to be exactly what she is: a movie star pretending to be an iconic figure from history. It might be objected that this conflict is unavoidable, but other movie stars have succeeded in making the transformation: Henry Fonda did long ago in Young Mr. Lincoln, and Cate Blanchett more recently managed to do so despite a lightweight script in Elizabeth.

The dress-up pageantry of this film isn’t limited to Hayek. Frida is a two-hour highlight reel of the artist’s life as one long party, with cameo appearances by stars playing stars. It careens from her first, meet-cute glimpse of Rivera, to hot sex, to the bus accident, to winning Rivera’s attention, to hot sex, to uproarious, alcohol-soaked art parties, to hot sex, to encounters with very famous people including Nelson Rockefeller, Andre Breton, Picasso and Leon Trotsky, where Frida reaches its nadir.

In the 1930s, Trotsky was one of the world’s most polarizing figures as he hid from Stalin in Mexico. In this film, Geoffrey Rush makes him a gentle, sexually considerate, grandfatherly pleader for peace and brotherhood.

In short, he’s not the world’s most notorious, uncompromising Communist, he’s a socialist Alan Alda instead. One would never guess this kindly soul once commanded the Red Army, or that the internecine struggles waged in his name cost the lives of millions of Soviet citizens.

Instead, Trotsky and Frida have a September-December love affair, designed to contrast Rivera’s beastly disregard with the courtly attention of a doddering Slav. Climbing together to the top of a Teotihuacan pyramid, despite their respective infirmities, Rush’s “Trotsky” exclaims, “You can not imagine what a joy it is for me to be here, to see all this. … It is the first time I’ve felt like a real person in years.” Cue the pickaxe, and quickly.

Alfred Molina put on 30 pounds for his role as the corpulent Rivera. He gives the film’s most convincing performance, partly because his role is easier. Since the film’s not called Diego, he can tramp through it, making pronouncements about the coming Revolution and his own unfitness for matrimony, and generally be the limited character we expect. Molina’s not expected to carry the film, though at times he does. He’s in the film nearly as much as Hayek, and when he’s onscreen, he occupies a huge physical and psychic space as Kahlo’s mentor, lover, husband and foil.

In truth, the film should be called Diego and Frida, for it is as much about their relationship as Sid and Nancy, Tom and Viv or some future film called Bill and Hillary. However, Rivera hasn’t fared as well in the court of fashionable opinion, although he is generally held in greater critical esteem (except, perhaps, among feminist scholars). Furthermore, calling the film Diego and Frida would deny the latter sole possession of the spotlight, well as she may deserve it.

The best moments in Frida come when director Julie Taymor (best known for Broadway’s The Lion King) exercises her theatrical instincts. Taymor, who recently adapted Shakespeare’s blood-soaked Titus Andronicus for the screen, is at her best and most original when she depicts Kahlo and Rivera’s tumultuous stay in New York in the late 1930s as a series of Dadaist collages. In the same sequence, there’s a witty evocation of one of the period’s most popular films, King Kong, in which Kahlo imagines herself in the Fay Wray role, being snatched, kicking and screaming, from her bed by a Kong-sized Rivera.

Such moments are the exception, however. Although Frida is a handsome film, if a very forgettable one, one’s patience with it depends on one’s expectations for biographical movies.

The mother of all biopics is, of course, Citizen Kane. The greatness of that film wasn’t in its choice of subject, but in the innovative ways it found to delineate its subject’s immensity. Kane demonstrated that film can make a work of art that rises to the level of its subject. Similarly, in Caravaggio, one of the best and most original biopics of a painter ever made, Derek Jarman used stagy, Brechtian devices to explore the squalid social and sexual milieu that begat such glorious, luminescent art (the historical Caravaggio was a cutthroat hoodlum), and made a film worthy of its subject.

By contrast, Frida treats its subject as the pop commodity she has become, a figure worthy of placement on a Barnes & Noble shopping bag. It’s typical of Frida’s vulgarization of the long, lonely process of making art that, in scenes where we see Rivera painting a nude model, the film’s immediate interests are prurient: Is Diego shtupping this one, too? No doubt, many artists have slept with their models over the centuries, but the artists and subjects also spent hundreds of tedious working hours in each other’s company, in their grueling quest for truth and beauty–a fact that Frida doesn’t acknowledge.

Frida certainly isn’t dull, but in the end, it remains a showy, shallow, connect-the-dots costume pageant that offers little more information and insight than can be found in a 10-minute Internet research excursion.

Bowling for Columbine
When the Beltway snipers were apprehended a couple of weeks ago, millions of people heaved a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, what could have been a golden opportunity to examine this country’s gun laws has already been squandered: Politicians turned their attentions back to the election, and the media’s largely done likewise.

The current informational and political vacuum in the wake of the hysteria surrounding the recent crime spree makes the timing of Michael Moore’s new documentary, Bowling for Columbine, all the more vital. It’s nothing less than a sweeping examination of the American culture of violence.

Moore’s fans will be delighted to know that he sticks to his trademark persona as a rotund Joe Sixpack from Flint, Mich., wearing an ever-changing array of baseball caps. Early on, Moore reveals he was an expert marksman in his Michigan boyhood, which gives him something like street credibility when he visits the famed Michigan Militia. Moore’s Michigan roots serve him well elsewhere in some of the film’s many fascinating byways, including another media-magnified tragedy that occurred in his hometown.

In a prologue, Moore explains the film’s title. Bowling is what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two Littleton, Colo. teenagers, were doing on the morning of April 20, 1999. It was their early morning class at a local bowling alley, for gym credit at Columbine High. It was also the last class they ever attended. Several hours later, they and 13 others were dead. Dozens were wounded.

Less than two weeks later, as shocks reverberated across the country and teenagers were confronted by metal detectors at their school doors, Charlton Heston paid a visit to nearby Denver. Defying a request by the city’s mayor to cancel his previously planned visit, apparently oblivious to protesters outside, Heston made a strikingly callous address to a crowd of rabid gun nuts. “The mayor said, ‘Don’t come here,’” Heston began, smiling as the crowd booed the mayor’s name. “But we’re already here! This is our country! This is America, and we’re free to travel anywhere in our proud land!”

With Columbine, Moore has a beginning, and with Heston, he has an ending. At the film’s conclusion, he visits Heston’s Hollywood home (in a typically droll touch, with the help of a tourist “star map”) and merely by introducing himself on Heston’s intercom, gains admittance. Once inside, Moore challenges Heston on his uncompromising gun views, which the star, posed in front of a Ben-Hur poster, refuses to renounce.

In between Columbine and Heston, Moore takes us on a fascinating tour of some lesser-known corners of the gun debate, which will interest even those who already believe in sensible gun laws.

Moore’s central question involves why America suffers upward of one hundred times more gun casualties annually than other industrialized nations. Eventually, Moore zeroes in on Canada, a country with much history and culture in common with Americans, and one with an extraordinarily high rate of gun ownership: about 7 million firearms in 11 million households. Yet, in 1999, there were only 165 Canadian gun deaths, compared to the appalling American death toll of 11,127.

When Moore stops in a bar in Windsor, Ontario–just a trip across the bridge from Detroit, America’s Murder Capital–his interviews with its fairly rough-looking habitués are revealing.

Despite their rough exteriors, these Canadian barflies turn sunny when Moore talks to them. One woman tells him that she leaves her door unlocked, even after she was once robbed. Elsewhere in Windsor, a police officer has difficulty remembering a murder there, until he recalls one committed by “a guy from Detroit.”

When Moore asks a Toronto native to “take [him] to a Canadian slum,” we see a quiet, orderly, well-maintained complex of brick high-rises and rowhouses, with ample green space. Elsewhere, Moore interviews three very ordinary young adults, in front of a Taco Bell. He asks about Canada’s public health system: “Why should medical care be free?” His interviewees blink at him with bafflement, before one shrugs and says, “It’s a human right. Everyone’s got a right to live.”

What’s surprising about Bowling for Columbine is that it’s a patriotic film, full of populist empathy. While it’s all too easy to slip into shrill denunciations of America’s culture of violence, Moore manages to stay on the little guy’s side. He places blame on a government run by corporate interests that perpetrate large inequalities of wealth and opportunity, and on a media that stokes a climate of fear, transforming every quiet hamlet into Dodge City each night on the 6 o’clock news.

Nonetheless, the American intellectual left has generally been cool toward Moore, regarding him as a factually sloppy, self-promoting grandstander. Journalists in the know have retailed stories of his disastrous tenure at the helm of Mother Jones.

Moore’s film has flaws: a montage of America’s foreign interventions, scored to Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” would have been better left to Noam Chomsky’s video collection. Other sequences in Bowling have rubbed lefty critics as contrived and phony: In two separate sections, Moore drops his purportedly detached stance and indulges in his inner Oprah.

Frankly, though, such concerns are mere aesthetic posturing. The critics should let Moore be Moore: With the recent departures of Wellstone and Hitchens, the American Left has no greater weapon than him remaining in its arsenal. EndBlock