Reel after Seemingly Needless Reel

Tony Wood

  • In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico by Masha Salazkina
    Chicago, 221 pp, £27.50, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 226 73414 9

Writing his memoirs in 1946, two years before his death, Sergei Eisenstein declared that he had ‘been fascinated by bones and skeletons since childhood’. His first experience of film involved watching a flying skeleton horse pull a bewitched carriage across the sky, in Georges Méliès’s Les 400 Farces du diable. It was skeletons, he says, that made him go to Mexico:

I remember holding a German magazine. And I saw on its pages some striking skeletons and bones. A human skeleton astride the skeleton of a horse … There were two other skeletons – a man, judging by the hat and the stuck-on moustache; and a woman, judging by the skirt and pompadour … What could it be? A madman’s delirium, or a modern version of Holbein’s Danse Macabre? No! These were photographs of the Day of the Dead, in Mexico City … This impression lodged in me like a splinter. My desperate longing to see this in reality was like a chronic sickness.

In December 1930, Eisenstein crossed the US-Mexican border to begin work on a film which, rather than curing his sickness, turned into a grandiose, heartbreaking failure. After 14 months, he was forced to abandon the project and return to the Soviet Union, having fallen out spectacularly with the film’s sponsors, the novelist Upton Sinclair and his wife, Mary Craig Sinclair. There followed years of acrimonious wrangling over the miles of film he had shot. By the time Eisenstein died in 1948, other filmmakers had carved two features and several shorts out of his footage, but he himself had been unable to edit the film as he wished.

The story of ¡Que Viva México! has been told many times by participants, bystanders, biographers and film scholars, most compendiously by Harry Geduld and Ronald Gottesman in their 1970 collection of correspondence and documents relating to the film, Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair: The Making and Unmaking of ‘¡Que Viva México!’ Inga Karetnikova’s Mexico According to Eisenstein (1991) gives a briefer account and reproduces a selection of Eisenstein’s texts and drawings from his time there. More recently, Aurelio de los Reyes has made a detailed investigation into the origins of the project, El nacimiento de ‘¡Que Viva México!’ (2006). Masha Salazkina’s In Excess rereads the film against its Mexican backdrop, situating Eisenstein’s project within the artistic and anthropological discussions of the time.

The idea of making a film in Mexico came after a period of frustration and failure in Hollywood. Eisenstein had left the Soviet Union in late 1929, along with his assistant Grigory Alexandrov and cameraman Eduard Tisse, having received official permission to travel to the West for a year to study the techniques of sound film. In Europe, they were well received in leftist intellectual and artistic circles, but made far less welcome by officialdom: the French interior ministry sent gendarmes to the Sorbonne to prevent a screening of Battleship Potemkin – they feared the film might set a bad example for their own working class – and eventually had the Russians expelled from the country.

Rather than return home, however, in April 1930 Eisenstein signed a six-month contract with Paramount; he and his team sailed for the US the following month. He suggested making films of War of the Worlds, Ulysses and Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, but these were turned down by the studio’s executives, as were the scripts he subsequently drafted – including Sutter’s Gold, an adaptation of Blaise Cendrars’s L’Or, and a version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. David O. Selznick praised Eisenstein’s Dreiser adaptation, but said that its critique of American society ‘cannot possibly offer anything but a most miserable two hours to millions of happy-minded young Americans’. ‘Let’s try new things by all means,’ Selznick wrote, ‘but let’s keep these gambles within the bounds of those that would be indulged in by rational businessmen.’ Over at MGM, Samuel Goldwyn had made his own calculations, telling Ivor Montagu, who collaborated with Eisenstein on his Hollywood scripts, to ‘please tell Mr Eisenstein that I have seen his film Potemkin and admire it very much. What we should like would be for him to do something of the same kind, but rather cheaper, for Ronald Colman.’

In the USSR, things had been very different: when Eisenstein restaged the storming of the Winter Palace for October, he had been allowed to close off parts of the city for hours at a time, and to deploy 8000 volunteers, many of them workers and soldiers who had taken part in the real thing; for Potemkin, he was given the use of the Black Sea Fleet for a day. Of course, working out a film’s budget is the job of the producer, not the director, whether in Hollywood or Leningrad; but Eisenstein’s financial innocence, combined with his sponsors’ ignorance, would have dire consequences when shooting began in Mexico.

Eisenstein’s contract with Paramount was cancelled in October 1930. Facing the prospect of an ignominious return to Moscow, he began to explore the possibility of making a film about Mexico. Like many members of the Russian intelligentsia, Eisenstein was both a leftist and an internationalist, and would have known a certain amount about the Mexican Revolution, which preceded the Bolshevik Revolution by seven years. By coincidence, the first play for which he designed sets, in 1920, was The Mexican, based on a Jack London story; it was while working on this that he met Alexandrov, who played an American boxer. But there is little in Eisenstein’s stage designs to suggest he was familiar with Mexican culture: that came later in the 1920s, through Russian literary depictions of Mexico – Ilya Ehrenburg’s Adventures of Julio Jurenito and Mayakovsky’s My Discovery of America – and then through his encounter with Diego Rivera, whose visit to Moscow in 1927 was arranged by Mayakovsky.

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