SHOOTING SCRIPT: Door of Fire; a review by Frank Allen.
American Book Review, July-August, 2004.
A stormy drama of betrayal, exile and love, Shooting Script: Door of Fire focuses on the tragically intertwined destinies of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky.
The “plot” covers the time between Leon Trotsky’s arrival in Mexico in January 1937 and his assassination in August 1940. The cast of historical characters (like one of Rivera’s crowded murals) includes Trotsky’s long-suffering wife, Natalia; their son, Lev Sedov, who dies “a naked frothing lunatic” in Paris; Ramon Mercader, the “naive idealist” who assassinated Trotsky; David Siqueiros, the leftist painter; Paulette Goddard, the movie star, “a small radiant woman in white;” Andre Breton, the French surreal poet, and his wife, Jacqueline; Antonia, Rivera’s wet nurse, a Tarascan Indian woman who taught him “that everything alive owes everything to/the dead;” even the rude and colorless Joseph Stalin; Frida’s pet spider monkey, Fulang, and many others.
Tremblay isn’t interested in unraveling the convoluted “Labyrinth of Madness,” extramarital relationships, and murky Soviet espionage. Staccato descriptions and fast-paced dialogue incorporate and go beyond (and challenge) biography and history to search for syncretic truth, “humanity’s greatest hope,” poetic illumination of historic/political events instead of a fixed documentation of them.
Those familiar with the life and work of Kahlo and Rivera or with events of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions might see it as an exploration of complex aesthetic issues. Should art motivate people to take political action? When does an image become a message? What are the social ends of art? Those for whom these events are unfamiliar could see it as a whirlwind of scenes in which identity and motivations “cross and dissolve” lie a film played on fast-forward. At the end, other than Kahlo’s and Rivera’s memorable “symphony of color,” there is no emotional closure, other than mourning, and one is left with unresolved questions: Is Trotsky’s horrible murder an isolated moment in time? Does it have definite or unpredictable implications for political social issues of our time, or both? Is the thematic subtext of this work historic or current art and politics, or is it perhaps a collection of kaleidoscopic mini-biographies? In a world in which “direct action is not possible,” Rivera’s fatalistic response, as he tells Trotsky, seems to be “to merrily, defiantly, devour the Great Devourer.” Aztec warrior and emblem of modern terror and uncertainty, “the heart’s cruelest secrets” and implacable fate, stands in the center of a frantic, swirling narrative screen play.
To express the effect of a “collision” of turbulent events, Tremblay utilizes cinematic techniques: camera directions like “close iris,” “open iris,” “freeze frame,” flashbacks, superimposed images, and many others. One gets the effect of watching a movie (something like Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai) and participating in the “shooting” of a movie with sharply etched foreground (“Leon’s face against the window, his eyes like gray birds that have seen too many bleak dawns”) and haunted background in which “an indio woman/her face covered in a blue rebozo/calls in the night for her lost children."
“(P)lanned like a strip of movie film,” Shooting Script portrays characters like “Dancers revolv(ing) in orbits around the glittering floor.” Panoramic effects represent a Rivera mural, and close-ups suggest a Kahlo self-portrait, both of which incorporated the idiom of Mexican folk art. Each frame of a movie, as with each poem, is composed of “bits,” “flecks,” “sparkles,” and “a speck of light,” and the whole “comes alive” as a poetic montage in which “color-dreams of visions blur on the Avenue of the Dead.” Static panels and self-portraits (large vs. small formats) are transformed into “a slow spinning galaxy,” rushing to a climax that is tragic on historic and personal levels.
The imagery is meant to be the equivalent of Kahlo’s expressionistic iconography, magical and frightening, “pure and cruel,” in Andre Breton’s words. Whether they are “surreal” or not, Frida’s self-portraits, a futuristic visual autobiography, “hard as steel/yet delicate as butterfly wings,” are notable for depicting a courageous woman, emotionally vulnerable and in pain, filled with hard-won cultural pride and acceptance of bisexuality, determined not to relinquish control of her destiny. The poem “Night Augury” suggests a self portrait by Kahlo, and, in one of her sketches, John Dewey is an “Aztec eagle priest.” A pot of geraniums is a “fetus strangled by its umbilicus,” and clouds are “platters of cut-open pomegranates.”
Tension between competing artistic and political aims, confused personal lives and the disastrous end of Trotsky, culminates with his funeral in the last poem, “The Urn and the Egg.” In “slow-motion” his funeral cortege passes, “The Virgin of Guadalupe, saints, angels, with golden hales .../white wings through steel bar gates, sharp as devouring teeth .../young soldiers, their eyes gleaming like oiled bayonets.” The “golden haloes” and “white wings” symbolize the ideal threatened by practical politics (“steel bar gates” and “oiled bayonets”). A hopeful associated theme is “the painted egg” that Rivera gives to Trotsky. It portrays an idyllic scene of “a ring of peasant farmers” dancing, above them the words “The earth is ours!” “Think of this as the better world you dream of,” Rivera says to Trotsky. After Trotsky is murdered with “a mountaineer’s ice-axe,” the painted egg, passion and innocence, denial and idealism, are laid to rest in his “funerary urn” in the “elemental mud” of Mexico. The “door of fire” both erotic and spiritual, is the point at which “a life of struggle” is transformed into “boundless” opportunity, passageway to testing of the soul. Ambivalent “flames” are pure as “Golden haloes” and “devouring” like deceitful political rhetoric, and, in dramatic contrasts of light and shade, it illuminates characters’ faces (“firelight gleams in Diego’s red eyes”) and dream landscapes (“Diego looks down/sees a crowd of Teohuacanos in bright costumes”) with “Kleig-lights” and torches.
“(H)ero of the Revolution,” Eastern European intellectual with Jewish-Russian background, commissar of war and mastermind of harsh military force, Trotsky believe in “the withering away of all states.” Self-centered yet exuberant, Rivera’s artistic ability is marred by opportunism and outrageous sexism. Trotsky is attracted to Kahlo (“a native queen”) as relief from sacrifices required by years of self-denial. Admiring Trotsky for charisma and “ruthlessness,” “melting his Ukrainian ice,” Kahlo tells Trotsky, “Sponsor me as Lenin sponsored you.” Trotsky thought Rivera’s frescoes were wonderful interpretations of the Russian Revolution. Rivera preferred Trotsky to Stalin and lobbied hard to have him granted asylum in Mexico. What happens to troubled bonds of these characters “in orbits” around each other, becomes the problematical issue of divided identities.
Shooting Script has the impact of a movie, the intricate vividness of a painting It illustrates “a mask of ashes and snow,” nightmare-like events and the blind sunlight of Mexico, failure of great people, and admirable sides of people victimized by self-deception. These poems are intense and expressionistic. They explore inner feelings and the world, the “devouring teeth” of politics, the “shattered fragments” of artistic vision. Dissolving barrier between genres, commemorating the Hispanic heritage of the Americas, they are multi-layered “color-streams” about extraordinary characters, privileged and doomed to pass through a “door of fire,” who keep enduring faith in “the next life” to the bitter end.
Frank Allen is a syndicated book reviewer for CNS.