Tuesday, July 17, 2012

¡Que Viva Mexico! (Sergei Eisenstein, 1932/1979)

¡Que Viva Mexico! marks the first time Sergei Eisenstein truly hit a wall during production, though unlike his later hassles with Stalin's censors, the director here fell prey to financial limitations and impatience of leftist Westerners whose excitement to work with the great Soviet propagandist soon dissolved with their discretionary funds. Those Westerners in question were the writer Upton Sinclair (he of The Jungle and Oil! fame) and his wife, American socialists condemned as communists in their own land but, not incorrectly, pegged as capitalists by those who wore the communist badge with pride. Eisenstein, who would soon learn the horrid truths of the system he so fervently championed, first had to put up with the feckless waffling of those who simplistically sympathized with that system from afar.*

In fairness to the Sinclairs, though, it must have been infuriating to receive an endless series of requests for more money from the director, who arrived in Mexico with no idea what he wanted to shoot and continued to greatly revise his vision of a movie well into filming. A travelogue turned into a multi-film epic of Mexico's history before shrinking back down into a one-film condensation of all those intended parts, but by then Eisenstein had 200,000 feet of film and not a drop of goodwill from any of his backers. Unable to secure more money and summoned back to the U.S.S.R. by Stalin, Eisenstein left his half-formed work behind before he even managed to film the final segment, and cut-up chunks of his stacks of reels eventually surfaced as short films. Not until 1979 did Grigori Alexandrov, one of Eisenstein's collaborators and a tag-along in the director's tour of North America, take the original footage and assemble something approaching Eisenstein's wishes. Then again, considering how Eisenstein himself seemed to have no idea what he wanted out of his Mexican travelogue, it's hard to say what his wishes were at all, much less whether they were honored.

Alexandrov introduces his cut with an individual focus on the filmmakers that seems so at odds with Eisenstein's collectivist style, which he was still in the early stages of converting to more accessible, protagonist-driven filmmaking at this time. A quick explanation of the film's layout and thematic intent rolls over still photos and shots of Alexandrov's editing bay, but for all the gentle cautions of the unfinished nature of the project, ¡Que Viva Mexico! soon proves as beautiful a work as anything the Soviet master ever made.

In contrast to the historical specificity of Eisenstein's Soviet films, the prologue of this film stresses the timelessness of Mexican society and culture. He places contemporary Mexicans against the ancient relics of the Aztec world, blurring any sense of time and emphasizing how Mexico still boasts large-scale objects that precede Western influence. Primitivism and modernity blend in such a way as to reveal the conservative impulse underneath advanced Marxist visions, the idealized revolution creating a utopian world that looks not unlike the untouched one centuries, even millennia ago.

The rest of the film moves through more definite time periods, with a clear decline in happiness and freedom as time pushes forward. The first segment, "Sandunga," generates an Eden-esque atmosphere where two lovers come together in marriage. The imagery of this section bursts with natural splendor, the shadows of palm trees falling in diagonal lines over faces beaming with unconcerned smiles. Eisenstein's written narration makes note of the matriarchal order of this society, further distinguishing it from the Western model. So effervescent is this sequence that even the crucial image of a gold necklace—itself a symbol of coming greed and used as a dowry to complicate the meaning of buying lives with money—is used apolitically, merely a token of affection, not ownership.

Subsequent temporal leaps forward, however, rapidly shed that sense of unblemished joy. A jump to post-Cortès Mexico for "Fiesta" radically shifts the visual tone, the warmly lit innocence of "Sandunga," with its free-form diversion shots of nature coexisting with man, giving way to harsh, empty space brought on by the Catholic Church's sombre takeover of the country. One particularly memorable shot shows a group of monks in sleek black overlooking the bleached skulls  of those who resisted. The reasonably populated villages of mutual support become throngs of forced converts reenacting the Passion to honor the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe. Some lash crosses made of thorny cacti to themselves and march up the agonizingly long steps up to the church that replaced some pagan temples, while the rest of the peasants are made to crawl like worms around them. "Maguey" skips yet more centuries to the pre-revolution dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, where the monks' religious control has become industrial wage enslavement as a local alcohol boss tortures his peons and even holds the love of one hostage. Mirroring "Sandunga's" fulfilled, lilting romance, this segment tears two lovers apart by feeding them into the machine of industry. In a sequence no less disturbing than Potemkin's Odessa Steps, the rebellious lover and his cohorts are buried in sand to be trampled by horses, leading to a gruesome montage that makes clear how little danger the actors themselves were in even as the emotional effect is devastating.

Yet through it all, Eisenstein highlights the ways, mostly cultural and artistic, that Mexicans refuse to be wholly consumed by all these corrupt powers. Through Eisenstein's lens, the enduring pagan imagery that infuses with Catholic iconography becomes a subtle form of protest, of refusing to completely bow to this new conqueror. It's telling that, in the same "Fiesta" segment that displays both this forced adoption and indigenous perversion of controlling culture is a straightforward replication of Spanish bullfighting. That piece of Western culture, though also foisted upon native Mexicans, carries no imperialist baggage, so the Mexicans do faithful copies of it. In the latter two sections before the epilogue, Eisenstein subsequently highlights open revolt. The tormented worker/lover of "Maguey" leads a revolt against the mill boss who holds his love captive, while Alexandrov pulls us back into the studio to explain that the unfilmed "Soldadera" was to have covered the 1910 revolution from the point of view of women soldiers. For what better symbol of total revolution is there than not only a guerrilla but a female one?

"Slumbering Mexico. Enslaved Mexico. Fermenting Mexico. And, finally, Revolutionary Mexico." So Alexandrov summarizes the film's chapters, but despite the distinct time periods and narrative changes of ¡Que Viva Mexico!'s anthology format, the initial image of Mexico as a place outside of time, of past and present as one, endures throughout. The epilogue shows a celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the present day, Eisenstein clearly impressed by this ritual of vivacious defiance through pure expression. In the director's mind, Mexican art and emotion not only combats the controlling impulses of the clergy and industry, it can even defeat death.

*Eisenstein had to hastily re-edit his previous feature, 1929's The General Line as its original pro-Trotsky storyline clashed with Stalin's sudden reversal of social opinion of the former leader of the Red Army, but Eisenstein at least had control over the re-editing process, unlike some of the changes and hindrances enforced on him later.

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