Friday, October 26, 2012

Que Viva México! - Sergei Eisenstein, 1932

It's almost time for the Day of the Dead celebration so I thought I'd pre-celebrate by visiting Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico!, the ambitious, unfinished film that Hollywood paid for and short-changed. Ultimately, Paramount hiring the brilliant Russian inventor of the propagandist montage (see Battleship Potemkin) was not in keeping with the usual Hollywood studio-system way.

After Eisenstein returned from a two-month shoot in Mexico with his crew consisting of Eduard Tisse and Grigory Alexandrov, all of their film reels were warehoused and the production was scrapped. The DVD available of the film is a composite put together with narration and music by Eisenstein's producer, Alexandrov, using original storyboards and notes by Eisenstein. In keeping with his revolutionary fervor, there is a building thread of workers rising up against tyrants, although the Mexican Revolution sequence was never filmed once funding stopped.

What's left and what I find most interesting is Eisenstein's genuine attempt at trying to grasp the idea of Mexico—its cultural history as well as political. In the opening sequence, set in the Yucatan peninsula, he muses on how ancient ancestors, carved in stone, completely resemble the modern people of Mexico. This is true. If you travel around the country, as I did in the mid-80s for a few months, you will meet people who look very much like those carved in rock more than a thousand years ago. You will meet people wearing hand-embroidered garments that are patterned after centuries of tradition. You will find yourself in towns that were completely built in the colonial style of 15th-century Spain. There are cathedrals so baroque, full of lovingly-dressed icons and bloody-suffering Christ figures alongside religions who sacrifice chickens, making use of eggs and bottles of Coca Cola in their rituals, that you may find yourself rather overwhelmed by it all.

Even if you come from a Mexican-American background, as I do, you will be awash with the pageantry and sorrow of a conquered world where indigenous beliefs still thrive. Imagine how it was for Eisenstein. Eisenstein was lucky to be escorted around the country by the ultimate travel team of genius muralists Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco. How I wish there was a guidebook based on this extended and amazing group outing. Still, it could take a lifetime to even begin to comprehend all the facets of Mexico—its blend of ancient, modern and everything in between—the tragic, the ecstatic, the artistic.

Frida Kahlo, second from left, with her husband Diego Rivera. Eisenstein is on the far right, about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

And now:

If you visit the ruins of Mexico, there's much to see. Eisenstein obviously thought so in these classically composed tableau.

A funeral and a wedding bracket idyllic romanticized views of indigenous life. The half-naked girls in hammocks were probably more wishful thinking than reality. I've left them out for modesty's sake (sorry, Internet).

Eisenstein jumps abruptly to a bullfight without explaining that Mexico is geographically huge and that bullfights are generally regional in nature. The Spanish invasion is given much symbolic weight as a precursor of death and cultural genocide, which it was. But the film doesn't take into account the blood sacrifice of civilizations that existed long before the Spanish came. Or how ancient spiritual beliefs have blended with Catholicism throughout the centuries.

A sequence of brutal events would have led to a cinematic revolutionary conflict if budget-cuts hadn't halted filming. These downtrodden peasants-versus-wicked landowner scenes are the most "Eisensteinian" of the film. I have no doubt that Eisenstein's artist guides were key in developing these ideas as well. The 30s were a rich time for artistic/political collaboration.

And then there's Dia de los Muertos—ancestor worship as celebration. It might look bizarre but it makes perfect sense to me.

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