“¡Que viva Mexico!” Eisenstein in North America (1931)

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For anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing, Experimental Cinema was basically an organ of Soviet avant-garde movie-making published in English. It includes articles written by Sergei Eisenstein, Béla Balázs, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and numerous others from that milieu. El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko were employed as photographers for the journal. You can download a few issues published between 1930 and 1934 courtesy of the Internet Archive. Movie posters for some of the films discussed in its pages can be found in my post from a few days ago on the Stenberg brothers.

The following review of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, Que viva México!, was written by the American filmmaker and studio producer Morris Helprin. At the time, both he and his wife were committed communists. Later, Helprin became president of London Films in Hollywood (one article in Experimental Cinema called Hollywood “the sales agent of American imperialism”). Still, quite a neat summary and some behind-the-scenes details. If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can download the following texts or watch the full-length movie below.

Eisenstein in Mexico

Morris Helprin
Experimental Cinema
September 1932

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“Que Viva Mexico!”

It is the first film made in the Western hemisphere to assume the mantle of maturity. The furthest step yet from the idiocies of corn-fed Hollywood. It turns its tail up at the banal; thumbs its nose at the benign. It is pictorial rhetoric of such vital force that it thunders and roars. Yet it contains every aspect of the popular cinema.

QUE VIVA MEXICO!

That day at Los Remedios, when we walked over the hills in search of a suitable location, served as an indication of Eisenstein’s preciseness, his exciting demands that his subject be even in quality. All Mexico around us was “beautiful enough to swoon in.” Here was no prettiness of the postcard cinema, none of your oak-paneled pictures that need but sprinklings of chemical brilliants to turn them into revolting chromes. The top of a mountain and an ancient aqueduct jutting at a seven-thousand foot height into a stilled canopy of swan-white clouds. You could set your camera down at almost any spot and grind. And have a beautiful scenic.

But the Russian, followed hastily by Tisse, his cameraman, Aragon, a young Mexican intellectual who serves as a guide, interpreter, and go-between, a camera boy, and myself, trailed by five peons who were the day’s actors at a peso each, led a frantic chase to find the spot. Following which were at least a dozen of the spots.

Eisenstein was introduced to Mexico by his Mexican friend, the film-student Agustin Aragon Leiva, whose forebears took root there four hundred years ago and whose love for his country is as intense as Eisenstein’s love for the cinema. Through this young Mexican and other friends of the Russian, Mexico was thrown practically into Eisenstein’s lap. There is hardly anything in the country not at his disposal.

Toiling in the sun from early in the morning, through the noon that is characteristically Mexican with its burning heat, until the landscape began to cool, we dragged Christ from the church to lie, pathetically unaware of Eisenstein, staring at the blue bowl that is Heaven, while a machine recorded its image on revolving celluloid. Poor Father who art not in Eisenstein’s heaven, hallowed be thy name now, for who knows how you will be used eventually in this record of living Mexico!

A fine Christ the largest statue was. Brought from Spain with blood painted beautifully down his sides and a slot, like openings into which one inserts nickels, carefully chiseled in the thinnish chest. And the beard, fine pictorially, stylized into a Grecian combing with decorative loops. The whole, sprinkled with the dusts of decades that have filtered beneath the crevices of the glass covering, lay on purple silk in the open courtyard, while the populace of Los Remedios gathered in appropriate awe — awe and reverence in spite of the boy who ordinarily pulled the bell ropes in the steeple, but who now insisted on passing wind against a nearby tombstone and who mingled his derisive laughter with the reverberations of his gaseous intestine.

And the padre, inducing a member of his flock to shed a pearly tear on the statue as the camera ground on. And the two little girls who sold votive candles who were recruited for the scene but who fled at the last minute, showing up later on the roof, beshawled and still timid before this Frankenstein monster.

“Perhaps,” says the padre, “we could have some enlarged pictures of this for the members of my parish?”

And Eisenstein assenting a too-ready “yes.”

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No food for us during the day’s work except a bottle of warm beer that was as quickly spat out at the flies.

No rest while Eisenstein sees light in the skies. After eleven months of it he is as active in his picture-making as during the first days. What significance fatigue, when this will be the first film made on the American Continent worth preserving for its sociological import? What are the dangers of jungle, mountain, or sea, when you coincidentally explore human nature?

How can men like Carleton Beales, Stuart Chase, and the like live and travel in a country for months, years, without sensing what the Russian grasped in so short a while? How can writers who have lived decades in Mexico publish learned and boring works on the country without so much as nodding in the direction of certain Mexican fundamentals? Chase regurgitates a literary catalogue that tells about an isolated community, hardly representative of Mexico, which, because its bandstand is like a bandstand of another township, is labeled the “Middletown” of Mexico. He wonders naively about silk stockings, radios and autos. Beales’ connection with Mexican officialdom would never permit an undistorted view of conditions as they exist.

Yet Eisenstein walks in and senses the basic force that motivates Mexican life and that will eventually be the prompting means of securing freedom. He has recognized the part that woman plays in the social and economic life of the country and around this has constructed his film.

As an admirer of the work of Rivera, the Diego Rivera who is now accepting fabulous sums for painting frescoes in America, his cinematic work was first influenced by that painter’s representations. The fiesta, the flowers, the color and the action were of prime importance in the early stages of filming, but one wonders, after hearing of the change, whether or not Eisenstein’s film will not more closely resemble the lower-keyed work of Orozco whose sympathies are more clearly defined, less prettified with paint, and hardly sentimental journeys in line.

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Eisenstein, the newcomer, the enthusiast, has tried to make the most of a beauty and a glory that are rarely matched elsewhere on the face of the globe. As his work progressed his story developed and he made the discovery that served as a thread upon which he has hung his episodes.

This discovery, namely, Eisenstein’s recognition of the importance of woman’s position in that country as in no other in the world, converted his film from a dimensionalized fresco to the presentation of a sociological problem as old itself as Mexico and as important as its breath of life. In reality, woman makes no appearance in the film except in a few secluded instances. But her influence is as subtle as the Indian’s over-conquest and swallowing-up of his Spanish conqueror.

The peon is ruled by his wife, the soldier goes to war but refuses to fight unless his wife is with him. There particularly is woman important, for sometimes she is the advance guard, going forward to prepare a town for the force’s comfort, sometimes, when there is fighting, bringing up the rear with consolation and ministering presence.

Mexico City politicians are frequently judged by their mistresses. It is common practice there to have both a wife and a mistress, each with complete knowledge of the other.

In Tehuantepec the woman is absolute, not only ruling, but doing the heavy work as well, while the husband dozes at home, happy for the first time to be unleashed from the fetters of responsibility.

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With the female’s importance in mind and the physical beauty of the country to consider on the other hand, a beauty bewildering in its variety, ranging from tropical to frigid country, Eisenstein had to combine the elements into a whole that would appeal in subject matter as well as pictorial beauty. Eisenstein’s secret is his universality — his appeal to the man in the street as well as the man of letters.

He therefore divided his picture into five irregular parts. The fifth and last episode will also serve as an epilogue. There is a prologue as well. All this will be included in a single film of nine or ten reels.

The first part he may call “Tehuantepec: Paradise.” It is here, a tropical province of coconut palms, verdant fields, and easy living, that woman is absolute. She tills the fields, barters in the market place and rules the home. Her husband is a procreative force and no more.

The matchless carriage of the Tehuantepec woman, together with her beauty of form, due to the heavy objects she has carried on her head for generations, is a pictorial poem in itself. A supple body with strong conical breasts and a straightness of limb ascribed only to the ancients. Such characters pervade the reels.

The second episode is “Maguey.” In it Eisenstein has stressed man’s supremacy, but indicated his reliance upon his female counterpart. The entire sequence occurs on a farm, which in virility of landscape is in complete contrast with that of the preceding chapter. Here a phallic symbolism is engaged to emphasize the complete masculinity of the terrain. He accents the stem of the maguey, the upright stripes of the peon’s zarape (the shawl-overcoat-blanket of the native), the unmistakable masculine strength of the land where a living is wrested by force only.

Sergei Eisenstein with some phallic symbolism of his own, probably during an extended peyote trip

Sergei Eisenstein with some phallic symbolism of his own, probably during an extended peyote trip

With the maguey plant, which sometimes rises to ten-foot heights, as a thematic runner, his drama is enacted against a background of twin volcanoes. The cruel charros, attired in their silver-bangled vests, swinging henaquen lassoes, ride their prancing mounts over the head of the boy who has been planted alive, chin deep, on a flat-topped mound.

The third part may be called “Romance,” the lull before the storm. In this part Eisenstein’s satirical thrusts will penetrate and puncture a pretty affair about a bull fighter and his love for another man’s wife. It is the interlude in preparation for the ensuing drama which is a turgid, seething account of revolution — all revolution — not alone of Mexico, but extending through the ages in which man has arisen from his stocks to brandish the torch. It is laid in Mexico, but its import is much more universal.

And following this is a promise of a perfect Mexico — one without strife, want, incipient bloodshed. This is a sort of liqueur. You take it or leave it. You can always ignore the dessert.

Whether purposely or not, Eisenstein has so completely covered Mexico that it will be difficult for another movie director to enter the country and make a scene without repeating. The locales are so varied as to permit any form of life and existence and, taking full advantage, the Russian runs the gamut. Mexico harbors romance and glamor, and cruelty and privation. There are tropics, mountains, deserts, jungles. The director has traversed it from one section to another. All this is in the picture, pieced together, as only Eisenstein can do it.

This man with two others, one of whom grinds a simple camera, has completely thrown off the fetters of the Hollywood system of picture-making, and has exploited Mexico thoroughly in a manner never done before, having been aided on all sides because this time the exploitation is all to Mexico’s advantage.

Comparative working costs are interesting to note. The day’s work at Los Remedios cost but very few dollars. His equipment consisted of a 400-foot load French-made camera, two gilded reflectors and five actors, each earning one peso (38 cents at the current rate). Transportation cost a few more pesos. Add to this the incidental developing, printing and negative costs together with the cutting and final duplication, and the sum total is surprisingly small. Naturally, there are days when hundreds of persons will be engaged for scenes and the costs soar accordingly, but for the most part the expenses are negligible.

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In Hollywood the same business would have entailed transportation for the stars and directors; two or three cameras, artificial illumination if necessary, overhead at the studio that covers a multitude of such sins as publicity, props, advertising, costumes, etc., etc. Somebody’s system is basically at fault.

Eisenstein says that the cinema is the representative art of today as painting was of yesterday. He has already buried painting. He explains the growth in attendance at art exhibits as a result of publicity and additional newspapers devoting more space to them, and not as a manifestation of a naturally stimulated life. He says he knows how to do nothing but work at motion pictures.

But he forgets for the moment the monastic seclusion into which he retires on occasion to work on his volume of aesthetics, which will devote a sufficient amount of space to the heretofore sorrowfully neglected cinema.

He also forgets his interest in mathematics (that day as Los Remedios when he had to wait ten minutes for something, he drew out of his pocket a paper-backed Russian volume on higher mathematics and in a moment was lost in its intricacies, while perched in the cabin of a truck). He forgets the papers he writes tirelessly for every advanced journal on the cinema, mostly free. The cinema may be his profession, but his high, broad forehead sees beyond its technical limitations into a meaning that may exploit or advance life, the living, the helpless. Directing a scene, turning a crank, cutting a film, he considers but the cog in a huge wheel that is beginning to turn with tremendous speed.

Eisenstein may return to the Soviet Union next month (March) with his comrades, Aleksandrov and Tisse, to film a document in celebration of the fifteenth Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Que Viva Mexico! may or may not stir an eddy of interest. Because of the flooded book marts that sag with volumes on tourist Mexico, there is a tremendous curiosity about the country. Even now everyone there is planning for the influx of Americans tired of the transatlantic crossing. Because of a universal undercurrent of unrest, the message of the film may stir a reaction. Because of its pictorial beauty it will be something to look at. Because of its mature outlook it will merit serious consideration. Who knows what it may do for Mexico?

Сергей Эйзенштейн. Мексиканская фантазия (1998) Sergeï-Eisenstein-and-Grigori-Alexandrov-on-the-set-of-¡Que-viva-México-circa-1930–1932

5 thoughts on ““¡Que viva Mexico!” Eisenstein in North America (1931)

  1. Thanks for the public service! Yesterday I thrifted a copy of Documenting The Documentary, which contains a piece entitled, “Paradise Regained: Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! as Ethnography”, which, if I had a scanner handy, I would post and add a link, although I’ve yet to read it, Looking forward to Peter Greenaway’s take on this period, which may already be in selected theaters. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGNq_Fe1NkQ

  2. Nice reading. Seen Peter Greenaway’s view: fun, and rightfully pointing to the fact, that sexuality is all in life for pioneers like Eisenstein. From your blog, surprise came that he actually took time to film as well. A pity, though, he didn’t came to the Sea at Ponte d’Allure and perhaps spend to much time in the Theatre de Dirulice.
    says Drager Meurtant

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