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Medium Well

Art for art's sake in 8 Mile and Frida.


As pop-star romans à clef go, the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile sure beats anything Elvis ever did. It's even better than Purple Rain (which, as a Prince-fanatic grade-schooler, I must have seen in the theater at least half a dozen times). In fact, the only film of its kind that's more satisfying and interesting is probably the Jimmy Cliff reggae/gangster tale The Harder They Come, which most of the millions of Eminem fans who have pushed 8 Mile up the box-office charts have probably never even heard of.

Set in Marshall Mathers' native Detroit, this tale of a talented white rapper (Jimmy Smith, aka Bunny Rabbit) from a trailer park on the outskirts of the city trying to make it in a black man's world will be familiar to anyone well-acquainted with Mathers' biography. The details have been changed a little but not much. The three women who supply so much of the content on Eminem's records are all here: Doted-on daughter Halie Jade becomes doted-on little sister Lily. The irresponsible, alcoholic mother Eminem lashes out against on record becomes an object of mixed affection (and unlikely glamour) played by Kim Basinger. The anguished relationship with (ex-)wife Kim on record is broken up into far gentler relationships with estranged girlfriend Janeane (Taryn Manning, much of her work seemingly left on the cutting-room floor) and comely new dalliance Alex (Brittany Murphy, with her trademark mix of adorable and dangerous).

The script here (from Scott Silver, the brain-wizard behind 1999's disastrous The Mod Squad) is strictly perfunctory. If you've seen Purple Rain (or The Karate Kid or the first couple of Rocky movies, for that matter), you can pretty much imagine the narrative arc: Shy kid from the wrong side of the tracks hones his craft but can't cut it when the pressure's on. He suffers humiliation and defeat at the hands of more confident and privileged rivals. He deals with personal issues --a messy broken home, romantic problems, arguments with friends and employers, his own relatively inchoate emotional problems --that all go sour at the same time for a nadir about two-thirds of the way into the film. Then he gets it all together, breaking out of his shell for a rousing and climactic victory during a concluding confrontation.

But if 8 Mile's script is nothing special, the direction from Curtis Hanson and lead performance from Eminem are special indeed. Hanson, an old pro who got his start working with Samuel Fuller on the brilliant if little-seen racism meditation White Dog and who has become an A-list director in recent years after helming L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, takes this bundle of familiar tropes and shapes it into a movie. And Eminem's overwhelming starpower, no-brainer backstory, and searing screen presence (no major pop star --discounting pre-rock icons such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin -- has ever given a big-screen performance this convincing) are all the material Hanson really needs.

But 8 Mile isn't just about the life of Marshall Mathers. For starters, it's different from most other pop-music romans à clef in that most of the music heard in the film isn't actually that of the star. 8 Mile is set in 1995, and most of the film's soundtrack is the music that Rabbit and his friends are listening to. As much about hip hop as about Eminem, 8 Mile captures a specific cultural moment -- artists like Mobb Deep (their classic track "Shook Ones Pt. II" blaring from Rabbit's headphones during the opening credits), Wu-Tang Clan, and Notorious B.I.G. reflecting a gritty era when East Coast hip hop experienced a rebirth and before East/West violence and gilded-age greed turned things sour. And the story itself is as much about any struggling MC -- dreaming of making it big while rapping with Biggie while driving a beater and living at home with mom.

It's also a film about Detroit, the most bracing cinematic essay on that decaying industrial city since Paul Schrader's Blue Collar. All dour grays and rusted browns, Hanson's Detroit is a bombed-out collection of abandoned buildings, blighted neighborhoods, run-down trailer parks, and ramshackle pressing plants. It's not a pretty place, but Hanson makes it a memorable one and conveys how such rough-edged music would emerge from such an environment.

8 Mile is also, of course, a film about race: Its title refers to a road that separates city from suburb, black from white. One tip-off to the film's ambition occurs when Rabbit's mom is seen painting her toenails while watching Imitation of Life -- Douglas Sirk's '50s "passing" melodrama --on television. But, like both Blue Collar and Purple Rain, 8 Mile is a film about race that denies the subject's importance. If Purple Rain posits an imaginary multicultural utopia in the middle of lily-white Minnesota, 8 Mile joins Blue Collar in embracing class, not race, as a source of solidarity.

And finally, right, it's a film about Eminem, perhaps the most momentous talent American pop music has produced in the last 20 years. It isn't a concert film --8 Mile parcels out Eminem's rhyme skills in small doses. He and pal Future (Mekhi Phifer) riff on "Sweet Home Alabama" when Rabbit's mom's boyfriend is blaring it from the trailer. There are two impromptu battle scenes -- one in a parking lot, the other during lunch break at the pressing plant --in which Eminem flashes his skills. But it's all setup for the finale.

8 Mile is bracketed by an MC "battle" competition at a hip-hop club called The Shelter, and these scenes -- more exciting with conflict than anything in Rocky, The Karate Kid, or Gladiator -- may convey the thrill of hip hop at its purest better than anything else captured on film. There is a raw intimacy to these battles -- MCs going head-to-head in a gray, graffiti-scarred club. Rabbit --an easy target due to his race -- freezes up during the opening battle. But Eminem lets loose for the conclusion. The final battle ingeniously conveys one of the key facets of Eminem's greatness as an artist -- rather than obscuring his whiteness, he embraces it, and he may be the most self-deprecating rapper ever. Forced to take the mic first in his climactic battle with champion MC Papa Doc, Rabbit steals Papa Doc's material by anticipating everything he'll say about Rabbit and saying it for him. You're right, Rabbit raps, I am white. Your crew did beat me up. You did steal my girlfriend. I do live in a trailer park. My friends are Uncle Toms and retards. And I'm still standing here in your face.

What hip-hop naysayers and highbrow snobs don't understand is that, like all of the truly great rappers (and Eminem is indeed the only white person to belong on a very short list), only even more so, Eminem loves language -- unexpected ideas, odd juxtapositions, complicated cadences, rhyme for rhyme's sake. This concluding battle sequence -- one of the most thrilling things you'll see on the big screen all year -- gets all this across. It alone will make 8 Mile an enduring cult classic for hip-hop fans. And it'll win over any skeptic who gives it a chance. -- Chris Herrington

A short, helpful biography: Frida Kahlo (pronounced KAH-low), one of the most prominent female visual artists of the 20th century, was born in Mexico in 1907. In 1925, Kahlo suffered an excruciating injury in a trolley accident -- a metal handrail pierced her from her back through her pelvis. She spent a year recovering, mostly in a full body cast, and in the meantime learned to draw and paint -- usually self-portraits from a mirror her parents installed above her bed so that she could make the most of her limited perspective. When she had healed, Frida sought the professional critique of Diego Rivera, renowned Communist and muralist. He loved her work and soon introduced her to the lively Mexican art scene and the livelier politics of his revolutionaries. Married not long after, they endured nearly 25 years and two marriages to each other, including fierce battles, countless affairs, and 32 operations for Frida, who had never fully recovered from her defining accident. She died in 1954 at age 47, having enjoyed only one exhibit of her work in her native Mexico. Primarily a self-portraitist known for her one long eyebrow and enigmatic, smileless expression, her paintings combine traditional folk imagery with icons of herself, often in various states of suffering and loss.

A short review: Frida is a tasteful and exciting illumination of the life and work of the prominent but oft-overlooked Kahlo, not only as an artist but also as the revolutionary she became under mentor/husband Rivera. Unlike other artsy biopics, Frida pushes farther than just aesthetics and explores with judicious detail the particulars of the ideas behind the art -- the politics, the Communism, the pain, the dirt.

I compare Frida to two of the better artist filmographies from the last 10 years: What's Love Got To Do With It and Pollock, about Tina Turner and Jackson Pollock, respectively. Watching the former, I longed for a deeper exploration of Turner's conversion to Buddhism, which seemed so integral to her transformation from battered wife to solo titan. Similarly, I was captivated by Pollock's dual focus on the art and mental illness of its subject but left the film not understanding why his work was so significant. Frida manages to best both films in these respects by developing the range of Frida's influence: that which inspired her and that which makes her inspiring. The result is a revealing panorama that integrates all of Kahlo's passions -- art, politics, family, Rivera -- without scrimping on (almost) any of them or fearing the stigma of Kahlo's leftist leanings or accomplished bisexuality. However, by covering all of the bases, Frida never stays with one subject for very long -- least of all, Kahlo herself. Unified but episodic, the film avoids the depths of Kahlo's sufferings as little more than exposition and overdevelops her relationship with Rivera (it's really a movie about their marriage), depriving its star (Salma Hayek) of the kind of powerhouse Oscar-momentry that Angela Basset and Ed Harris were able to milk decisively from their respective icons.

Hayek spent 10 years fighting to get Frida made, beating out divas Jennifer Lopez and Madonna to this particular prize. She's quite good here: dark and feisty, though not quite as dour as the Kahlo I remember from art-history class. Hayek, however, is overshadowed by Alfred Molina's Rivera. A Dionysian firebrand, he finds just the right balance between his robust and confrontational politics and artistry and the great passion and respect with which he regarded his wife. In particular, Rivera's expression of pride and deference at Kahlo's exhibit -- which she attended, against doctor's orders, carried in on her bed -- is quietly profound.

Director Julie Taymor, known principally for her reinventions of The Lion King as a Broadway musical and Shakespeare's gory Titus as an art film, succeeds here by restraining her usually florid metaphor and scope and staying close to Kahlo's spirit and style. Particularly fascinating are her brief, stylish fantasias that combine the duality of Kahlo's personal angst with her creations -- shown as mind-bending collisions between her tormented, imaginative life and that which lived on the canvas. By the end, the two worlds are indistinguishable -- and indelible. -- Bo List

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