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.

Rivera acquainted Eisenstein with his own work and with that of other muralists, above all José Clemente Orozco; he also reminded him of Posada’s popular prints, in which skeletons cavort, dance, ride horses and play instruments. In Hollywood, Eisenstein acquired more Mexican materials, including Anita Brenner’s Idols behind Altars, which emphasised the rituals and legends of pre-Hispanic civilisations; it was illustrated with photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston that clearly influenced the composition of Eisenstein’s own images of Mexico.

The owner of the shop where Eisenstein bought these books was Odo Stade, a Hungarian who had known Pancho Villa, and fed Eisenstein’s interest with tales of the revolutionary campaigns. Stade told Eisenstein he would need around $25,000 to make his Mexican film. As it turned out, Stade’s sense of what films cost was little better than Eisenstein’s; the Sinclairs, whom Eisenstein approached for funding at the suggestion of Charlie Chaplin, knew even less, and gave him the money. In November 1930, Eisenstein signed a contract with Mary Craig Sinclair laying down Stade’s figure as the budget, and setting a schedule of three to four months. By the time Eisenstein left Mexico in March 1932 he had spent $60,000 and shot more than 200,000 feet of film; the final cut was supposed to run to no more than 10,000 feet. According to Montagu, this was no cause for alarm: the cost and ratio of raw footage to edited film for Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran were similar. Because the film had to be sent back to Hollywood for processing, Eisenstein never had access to rushes; so he filmed more takes than he would have needed, just in case. Never having made a film before, the Sinclairs could only look on aghast as the bills piled up and reel after seemingly needless reel arrived from south of the border.

Eisenstein and his crew were arrested on 21 December, less than two weeks after their arrival, by the Mexican police, who were worried they might exert a Bolshevising influence. After questioning, they were escorted back to their hotel, where the police kept a close watch on them: a man was assigned to share a bed with each member of the party. According to Hunter Kimbrough (Mary Craig Sinclair’s brother, who had come along to keep an eye on his sister’s money), Eisenstein’s escort ‘was as fat as he is, and they could get only a single bed. Tisse drew a man who was much interested in the plumbing in the bathroom.’ The police confiscated Eisenstein’s diaries for the six months prior to the arrest – they might have told us more about the precise origins of the Mexican project – but released him and his crew the next day; later that week, they were filming bullfights in Puebla.

They spent the first four months of 1931 travelling around Mexico, to Acapulco, Tehuantepec, around the Yucatán; in mid-January they rushed to Oaxaca to shoot the aftermath of an earthquake, and the resulting 12-minute short was screened in Mexico City to help raise funds for the victims. In early May they went to the state of Hidalgo, and spent the next four months at a hacienda at Tetlapayac, in the middle of a landscape strewn with maguey plants; the smell of fermenting pulque wafted through the air, volcanoes shimmered in the distance. Tensions had by then already begun to develop between Eisenstein and Kimbrough. In her 1952 biography of Eisenstein, Marie Seton claims that Kimbrough ‘despised the Mexicans and had a natural suspicion of strangers and foreigners’, inconvenient traits in a man who had to work with Russians in Mexico. Kimbrough complained to Sinclair that Eisenstein was wasting time, and that he ‘acts like a dictator’. Eisenstein wrote to Sinclair that ‘most of the time in lesser or greater degree Hunter is drunk’ – which added to the film’s budget the burden of ‘parties, girls and all other pleasures’. In July, one of the actors accidentally shot and killed his sister, another was bitten by a snake, and Eisenstein came down with a fever after filming a scene standing in a fountain.

Eisenstein seems to have been more than content that summer, however. He was reading eclectically – he sent for a biography of Stalin, a book on Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Webster’s Dictionary (he was disappointed with its ‘historical-etymological superficiality’) – and began to draw again, producing dozens of sketches with a recurrent focus on crucifixion, bulls and violent death. They were marked by an unabashed eroticism: he recalled in 1946 that ‘they were drawn almost automatically. But how obscene they were!’ Salazkina devotes several pages to Eisenstein’s sexuality, and reproduces a letter in which he strongly implies he had his first full homosexual experience in Mexico, crushing ‘the complex that had been weighing down on me for ten years (or more!)’. Mexicans seemed to appeal to him physically: his memoirs refer to them as his ‘beloved raza de bronce’, and speak of the ‘golden surface of bare skin’, ‘bodies knowing no shame, bodies to whom what is natural for them is natural’.

Eisenstein identified so deeply with the country that its landscape seemed to meld with his personality. In his memoirs he writes that ‘during my encounter with Mexico, it seemed to me to be, in all the variety of its contradictions, a sort of outward projection of all those individual lines and features which I carried and carry within me like a tangle of complexes.’ Jottings from February 1943 read: ‘Mexico, as outspreading of my innermost’; ‘Mexico as my interior monologue’. The coexistence of ‘monumental simplicity and unrestrained Baroque’, of bare rectilinear forms and decorative exuberance, amid riots of colour, made Mexico a kind of living montage, the components of which were arranged not ‘vertically’ in time, but ‘horizontally’ in space, simultaneously unfolding within a single landscape, like Rivera’s historical murals at the Palacio Nacional. In the work of the muralists, too, Eisenstein found echoes of himself: in an essay of 1930-31, he describes the paintings of Rivera and Orozco as incarnating a series of oppositions – masculine/feminine, action/contemplation, vertical/horizontal – and adds that he found ‘the same polarity at the core of myself and my cinema – of my moving frescoes (for we also work on walls!)’.

Seton believes that Mexico was the only place where Eisenstein felt ‘accepted as a human being’. She says he ‘could not speak of Tetlapayac without his voice breaking into tones of excitement and pain’. It was here that he produced the first substantial written scenario for ¡Que Viva México! Its terse, evocative prose effectively conjures the scenes: ‘The weary army enters the village and the soldiers in ravenous anticipation inhale the smoke of the bonfires. Clarions sound the call to “rest”.’ But it is certainly not a shooting script, and it isn’t as detailed as the storyboards Eisenstein was later to produce for Ivan the Terrible, for example. It consists of four ‘novels’, framed by a prologue and an epilogue, ranging across Mexico in space and time – beginning with the mythic eternity of the stone gods and pyramids of Yucatán, moving through the pre-modern idyll of Tehuana society and the iniquities of the late 19th-century porfiriato to the revolution of 1910. The epilogue was intended to bring viewers squarely into the present, with footage of contemporary Mexico – ‘highways, dams, railways’ – intercut with carnival scenes from the Day of the Dead. The opening would portray static faces at a timeless funeral rite, the conclusion would stage the victory of life over death, as ‘a gay little Indian carefully removes his death-mask and smiles a contagious smile.’

The whole film was to be bound together by a score based on Mexican folk music; the first novel, ‘Sandunga’, set in Tehuantepec, is named after a Oaxacan song, and the 1910 episode was to take the revolutionary corrido ‘La Adelita’ as its refrain. Much of the footage used in the earlier episodes was shot in the first half of 1931. Tetlapayac was the setting for the third part, filmed that summer, and centring on the peón Sebastián’s failed quest for revenge after his betrothed is raped by a friend of the hacendado; Sebastián and two of his compadres are buried up to their chests in the soil and trampled to death by horses in a striking sequence of stylised violence. ‘Mexico is tender and lyrical, but brutal too,’ Eisenstein wrote in his memoirs, and much of the film he planned sought to combine these elements: the ‘Fiesta’ episode, for example, was to revolve around a bullfight, intercut with scenes from the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, linking the murderous skill of the matador to the experience of religious ecstasy.

The material for the epilogue was filmed in Mexico City. While the scenario called for a child’s face to be revealed beneath a skull mask, somewhere along the way Eisenstein added a satirical twist: figures dressed in the regalia of church, state and bourgeoisie – a bishop, a general, a lace-wearing grande dame – remove their masks only to reveal the grinning skulls of actual skeletons. The echoes of Posada are obvious, but perhaps the Oaxaca earthquake also played a role: in his 1976 memoir Epokha i kino, Alexandrov describes arriving at a cemetery where the tremor has opened up the walls of a mausoleum to show skeletons with ‘old Spanish clothes, lace collars, jewellery, hair untouched by time’. Eisenstein had to borrow skeletons from the medical school and dress them in finery. The targets of his satire were embodiments of the ancien régime, their double death – skull-mask on skull – signalling their obsolescence in the new Mexico being forged. Eisenstein also told Seton that he planned to include here, in a venomous montage, the footage he had taken of President Pascual Ortiz Rubio and of the archbishop of Mexico.

The authorities had been cautious, to say the least, when Eisenstein arrived, and appointed the artist Adolfo Best Maugard to act as what Salazkina, in a nice phrase, calls ‘censor and chaperone’ to the project. Indeed, the government provided an additional layer of interference, often seeking to blunt the film’s critical edges. Officials complained, for example, that Eisenstein’s portrayal of class struggle at Tetlapayac ignored the fact that peones and hacendados were united by being first and foremost Mexicans. By the time Eisenstein arrived, the ‘institutionalisation’ of the Mexican Revolution was gathering pace, as some of the 20th century’s most durable corporatist structures took shape in an increasingly authoritarian climate. The footage Eisenstein took of athletic parades, and of politicians and churchmen in particular, alarmed Sinclair, who later described it as ‘fascist in tone’. But he was seeing unedited film, and it is tempting to imagine Eisenstein doing for Mexico’s rulers what he did for Kerensky in the famous peacock sequence in October.

By September 1931, the Sinclairs were becoming increasingly concerned at the delays in the film’s schedule and its ever expanding budget. Relations between Eisenstein and Kimbrough were more fraught than ever. In late November, Stalin sent Sinclair an ominous telegram: ‘Eisenstein loose [sic] his comrades confidence in Soviet Union stop he is thought to be deserter who broke off with his own country.’ At the time, Sinclair leaped to Eisenstein’s defence; but in 1950 he told Seton that he and his wife realised Eisenstein ‘was simply staying in Mex. at our expense in order to avoid having to go back to Russia. All his associates were Trotskyites, and all homos.’ The crisis point was reached in mid-January 1932, when Sinclair ordered filming to stop – just as Eisenstein was about to shoot the episode on the Revolution, having convinced the Mexican government to lend him 500 soldiers, 10,000 guns and 50 cannon.

Eisenstein left Mexico for the US in mid-March. He spent just under three weeks in New York, where he was able to see some of the rushes for the film (Salazkina is mistaken in saying that he ‘never lived to see any of his footage’) before departing on the SS Europa on 19 April. Sinclair sent Eisenstein a telegram saying that the film would follow him ‘on the next boat’. The promise was never kept: in 1933 the Sinclairs instead hired Sol Lesser, producer of the Tarzan movies, to recut the footage into a feature called Thunder over Mexico, which essentially stretched the episode set in Tetlapayac into a conventional melodrama. The film raised an outcry among Eisenstein’s supporters: there were protests across Latin America and in Europe, including among a group of Romanian political prisoners; the journal Experimental Cinema called it ‘an unmitigated mockery of Eisenstein’s intention’. The British documentary maker John Grierson’s verdict on Thunder over Mexico was that ‘the clouds and the cactus will pass for great photography among the hicks.’

¡Que Viva México! has had a complex afterlife. The Sinclairs extracted two more shorts from the footage – Eisenstein in Mexico (1933) and Death Day (1934) – and sold some of the remaining film to the Bell and Howell Company, which produced at least two documentaries from it in 1940-41. The previous year, Marie Seton had been allowed access to the negatives to make Time in the Sun, a vain attempt to get closer to Eisenstein’s original idea. Eisenstein saw both this and Thunder over Mexico the year before he died, and told the French film critic Georges Sadoul that ‘the way they cut my film is more than heart-breaking.’ The negatives and prints of ¡Que Viva México! were eventually deposited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1954, and three years later Jay Leyda, a student of Eisenstein’s, put together 225 minutes of a ‘study film’. In the late 1970s, after an agreement had been reached between the Soviet and US governments, Alexandrov did his own edit of the film, with schmaltzy music and a lugubrious voice-over from Sergei Bondarchuk. This is the version most people have been able to see; it sticks fairly closely, if ponderously, to Eisenstein’s draft scenario. The film critic Oleg Kovalov re-edited the film in a more lively, lyrical spirit in 1998 as Meksikanskaia fantaziia, and the German film historian Lutz Becker is now at work on yet another version.

Salazkina notes that while ¡Que Viva Mexico! is ‘in some ways less than a film, in other ways it is more’. It accounts for a large part of the nine-year gap in Eisenstein’s filmography between The General Line (1929) and Alexander Nevsky (1938). He returned to a changed country in 1932, caught up in the frenzy of forced-pace industrialisation under the Five Year Plans. Control over the arts was being centralised, and the vanguard figures of the 1920s, including Eisenstein, were frequently attacked for their ‘formalism’. This was the main criticism levelled at Eisenstein’s other ‘lost’ film from these years, Bezhin Meadow, which he worked on from 1935 to 1937, after a period of being unable to get his projects approved. But even though he made a public self-criticism of his ‘mistakes’, the film was banned by the bosses at Mosfilm and subsequently destroyed. He was able to redeem himself only by making a 13th-century epic with obvious 20th-century resonance, as Nevsky defends the soil of Rus from invading Teutons.

Many critics have argued that in his later films Eisenstein abandoned his commitment to montage in favour of narrative continuity and ‘organic’ unity. The shift would have a political analogue in the contrast between his earlier revolutionary fervour and the seeming apologias for autocratic rule in Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. David Bordwell, in an article written for Screen in 1974, concluded that there were ‘not one but two Eisensteins’, and implied that the period in Mexico formed the ‘break’ between the two. But would ¡Que Viva México! have belonged to the earlier period or the later, or would it have been a transitional work? Salazkina argues the latter, insisting that in Eisenstein’s Mexican project ‘the dialectic is still at work, not completely subsumed by the organic principle.’ But the question is unanswerable – only if Eisenstein had been allowed to edit the film would we be able to gauge the state of his ideas concerning montage at the time. What little evidence there is points in both directions: on the one hand, his plans for satirical intercutting of the Day of the Dead footage with shots of Mexico’s temporal and spiritual grandees; on the other, his claim in a letter to his friend Seymour Stern of April 1932 that ‘I think I have solved (anyhow for myself) the montage problem (as a system of expression).’ The statement is preceded by the remark: ‘Viva Mexico in the theoretical research field is before everything a “shot” (camera angle) picture.’

Salazkina notes that Eisenstein made much more extensive use of low camera angles in ¡Que Viva México! than before, and that shots from similar positions recur in his subsequent films. The use of deep focus is another new development, continued in Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, and the composition of many shots in ¡Que Viva México! foreshadows these later works: the death of the Tetlapayac peones, for example, prefigures that of the Tatar prisoners slain with arrows in Alexander Nevsky; and the profile of an indigenous Mexican floating over the pyramid at Chichén Itzá is echoed a decade and a half later when Ivan’s head hovers in the foreground over a procession of supplicants stretching into the distance. The spirit of Posada also haunts Muscovy: in the second part of Ivan the Terrible, we see a large skeleton painted on the wall behind Metropolitan Filipp as he conspires with the boyars.

But ¡Que Viva México! also contains visual echoes of earlier films: the bared torsos of the peones recall the ship’s crew in Potemkin; the Aztec and Mayan stone gods of the prologue are distant relatives of the idols and icons in October, and of the statuary impassively watching the Revolution unfold in the streets below; the footage of the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the ‘Fiesta’ sequence recalls the Orthodox procession in The General Line.

Yet there is one feature of ¡Que Viva México!, aside from its setting, that puts it apart from Eisenstein’s other works. The films he made before leaving the USSR in 1929 were all silent; the form of montage was exclusively visual, requiring precise arrangements of shot sequences and intertitles. The films he managed to complete after his return, by contrast, each had a soundtrack on which he and Prokofiev worked closely; at times, according to Eisenstein, the rhythm and dynamics of the music would determine the editing rather than the other way round. Where silent film involved a horizontal succession of images, the addition of a soundtrack demanded what Eisenstein called ‘vertical montage’, the interweaving of correspondences between music, words and images. ¡Que Viva México! was intended as a sound film: its visual architecture was to be underpinned by melodic structures which, in the process of editing, would have shaped and been shaped by the succession of images. But work on the soundtrack never began, and the scores that have accompanied the various reconstructions are inevitably distant from Eisenstein’s intentions. What should have been Eisenstein’s first sound film ended up being his last silent one. Of the many amputations suffered by ¡Que Viva Mexico!, its enforced silence is the least remarked but was perhaps the most damaging.