by Chris Dashiell

"Mexico - lyrical and tender, but also brutal." -- Sergei M. Eisenstein

The film opens with a shot of a massive pyramid, one of the great Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan. We hear slow, unearthly electronic music. Cut to other shots of the pyramid and temples, of strangely beautiful stone faces, the faces of ancient gods. The narrator speaks. He is speaking in Russian.

"The time of the prologue is eternity. It might be today. Or twenty years ago. Or it might as well be a thousand." We look upward, always upward, at the structures towering above us. Quick shots of the ruined monuments, different angles and aspects like pieces of a puzzle. Then we see people sitting next to the statuary, their faces as solemn and distant as the gods. A lone figure, seen from the side, climbs the steps of the pyramid which continue up and off the screen into infinity. Again there are shots of various people, standing and sitting in the midst of the awesome stone figures. The faces, dark Indian faces, closely resemble the statues. A man stands stiff and upright, a serape pulled around him, at the temple of Quetzalcoatl. His eyes are closed, his expression serene as if in a sacred trance. To his right is a giant figure of carved rock, in which one can trace an inhuman visage - the eyes and mouth of the plumed god. And then, most startling - a long shot of a pyramid with a close-up of a woman's face in profile bending over it, each element in complete focus, with an effect of weird, dreamlike beauty.

Finally we see an old Mayan funeral ceremony. A coffin is on the ground, with three small bowls placed on top of it. Through the open upper end we can see the face of the dead man. Sitting on the ground around the deceased are six people, three men on one side, three women on the other. The men are staring fixedly towards the foot of the coffin, the women towards the head. Their faces are as impassive as that of the dead man. In another shot we see the three men, with their faces still set in an otherworldly gaze, carrying the coffin away feet first. In an eternal stillness, death and life are as one.

The film, like the pyramid at Chichen Itza, is a ruin. It is Sergei Eisenstein's Qué Viva Mexico, a picture that was never completed, never edited by its creator, never molded into the form he had intended. The closest we can come to this ruin is through the version we are watching now - a reconstruction by assistant director Grigori Alexandrov, released in 1979, almost fifty years after the shoot. Alexandrov was a talented artist, but he was not a genius like Eisenstein. We'll never know how the film would have looked and sounded like with its director in control.

For example, the music - Eisenstein's notes for this prologue call for Mayan drums and a high-toned chant. The synthesizer music in the reconstruction has an eerie quality, but it's hardly Indian or Mexican in its feeling. Another example - some of the notes indicate a segue from the funeral sequence into the next section of the picture - with a young woman floating down the river to a tryst with her lover, symbol of vibrant rebirth after the grave. Watching Qué Viva Mexico is like walking through a temple that has been rebuilt from its pieces. We recognize the beauty of the fragments while knowing that the temple, the vision of its creator, was far greater than we can see. Behind these fragments is a story. The story of one of the most famous failed enterprises in the history of movies.

Why would Eisenstein, a Russian director famous for films with Soviet political themes, want to make a film about Mexico? You might think it was because Mexico also went through a revolution, just a few years before Russia. But in fact his interest was personal. At twenty-two years old he had designed and helped direct a stage adaptation of a Jack London story, The Mexican.It was at this time that he first studied the rituals, costumes and masks of Mexico, and there was something in these images that touched memories of childhood and visits to the circus. Two years after this production he was captivated by The Mark of Zorro, directed by Fred Niblo and starring Douglas Fairbanks. In the early 1920s, Soviet filmmakers were closely studying American films in order to advance their own technique. The Mark of Zorro was an example of Hollywood innovation and exuberance, but it also had a Mexican flavor, however fanciful. Eisenstein got to meet Fairbanks and Mary Pickford on their 1926 visit to Moscow. Fairbanks promised to arrange for him to make a film with United Artists, and the star couple returned home with a print of Eisenstein's new film, The Battleship Potemkin, to be introduced to an astonished America.

In the same year the great Mexican painter Diego Rivera also visited the Soviet Union. He and Eisenstein became friends, and Rivera spoke often about Mexican history, architecture and art. He believed that it was important for a country to preserve and draw from its cultural past, remarking at one point that it was a mistake for the Soviets to condemn their tradition of icon painting. This kind of thing went against the grain, and by the time Rivera left a year later, he was out of favor and sharply critical of Soviet ideology.

His influence on Eisenstein was profound. The young filmmaker's interest in Mexican culture now became an obsession, and for the first time the idea came to him of doing a film about Mexico. Mexico seems to have represented something vital and exciting to Eisenstein. Perhaps it symbolized a freedom that he had not felt since childhood. The call of Mexico might have been in part the call of parts of himself - imaginative, sensual, spiritual - that he had denied and that was denied validity in the new revolutionary culture. He was apparently not aware of any of these implications, but he continued to dream.

Because of Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein had become the leading figure in a group of young artists who were breaking new ground in cinematic technique. They were part of a larger avant-garde movement which fervently believed in the promise of Soviet art. Idealists of literature, painting, theater and film saw the revolution as an opportunity for experiment, innovation, radical freedom of expression. Just as the overthrow of the old regime meant the liberation of the people, so these artists sought to overthrow old cultural restrictions, while creating completely new forms and theories which would open up the arts to the enterprise and spirit of the people.

Lenin saw it differently. He despised the avant-garde and thought that art was only valuable as propaganda. The rise of Stalin only intensified this instinctive hostility towards the artist. "Realism" in Soviet doctrine meant positive depictions of happy, industrious workers, of a society where there was no oppression and nothing to rebel against except the foreign imperialists. Over the years it also meant an increasing glorification, practically a deification, of Stalin himself as the embodiment of this society. This numbing, simple-minded recipe, nothing less than an attempt at mass brainwashing, could only be achieved by the eradication of all concern for form and style in art. There were many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important was the basic distrust of the despot for anything subtle or ambiguous. The artist's concern with style is inherently ambiguous, since style deals with the way things are presented more than with what is presented in terms of content. When an ideology, a doctrine of mass political utility, is the only consideration in art, then not only style but metaphor itself is suspect. The fact that Eisenstein's October, surely one of the most overtly propagandistic films ever made, was criticized for its formal abstraction, demonstrates how far the Soviets would go to squash anything experimental, no matter how well-intentioned. Imagination was too dangerous to be tolerated because it presupposed an intelligent and therefore critical mind instead of a lumpen mass.

The brash young film directors of the 20s were to discover this, to their dismay. Kuleshov, Vertov, Pudovkin - all were accused of "formalism" or "ideological deficiencies" at one time or another. Dovzhenko, after several triumphs, was condemned as "counter-revolutionary" and "defeatist" in 1930 for his masterpiece Earth, which to our modern eyes appears as an unabashedly pro-Soviet film. Artists were censored, prevented from working, humiliated by Party condemnation, imprisoned and executed. If they were lucky they managed to leave the country. Eisenstein's own mentor, the poet and dramatist Mayakovsky, killed himself while under arrest.

Eisenstein himself was a most self-assured and assertive young man. With his wide grin, high forehead and curly hair, he looked like an impish, overgrown child. He was a brilliant conversationalist, and if he warmed to a person he was kind and friendly to a fault. But he also made a point of ignoring status and rank; he could be sharp and dismissive with his comments, and brazen with his jokes, which rubbed some people the wrong way. His film style was audacious to the extreme, carrying the theory of montage as far as it could go, which seemed much too far to the cultural commissars. Yet he remained immune to serious political pressure longer than anyone else in the Soviet film movement. The reason was the international success of Potemkin, which lent prestige to the Soviet film industry. Because of that movie, Eisenstein was one of the most famous directors in the world, so for the time being he was tolerated.

But he had enemies, and his most determined enemy was Boris Shumyatsky, a film authority who never made a film, a man who thought that the technique of montage was nothing but "bourgeois trickery." Story-telling was all that mattered, according to him, and for that you needed simple scripts with characters who represented the vices and virtues of the warring classes. Shumyatsky seemed to have a personal animus against the irreverent and flamboyant Eisenstein - it was he that spearheaded the attacks on October and Old and New.

It is important to remember one fact about Eisenstein. He was a true believer in the revolution. He never questioned the basic tenets of socialism, nor that capitalism was the enemy of freedom, nor the idea of class struggle as the basis for understanding society and history. One might speculate, as some have, that he felt guilty about his affluent origins (his parents had been moderately wealthy) and therefore stayed loyal to Soviet ideology longer than the other avant-gardists. But I don't see any reason to doubt that his views were based on strong intellectual convictions that were wholly in keeping with his character. Eisenstein's struggle as an artist was not as a dissident against communism, but as a communist whose ways of expressing himself, as well as a certain openness in his attitude and variety in his beliefs, were constantly being challenged by the authorities. At any rate, he was at the peak of his confidence and fame in the late 1920s, and when a reason eventually presented itself for the U.S.S.R. to send someone to the west to make movies, he was the obvious choice.

The first section of Qué Viva Mexico, following the prologue, is called "Sandunga," which is the name of a slow Oaxacan folk song which was to have accompanied it on the soundtrack. It takes place in a village located in a lush tropical forest at the southern tip of Mexico, near the Pacific. We see palm trees, monkeys, parrots, alligators gliding in the water. A young Indian woman, bare-breasted, lazily paddles a boat down the winding river. There are shots of a happily indolent couple lounging in a hammock. The narration speaks of an ancient, sensual paradise.

Gradually the episode focuses on a young girl of the village who wishes to be married. It is the custom of her people that a girl must complete a necklace of gold coins, which she earns by working and saving her whole life - the necklace will be her dowry. At last she sells enough bananas to gain her final coin. We meet her fiancé, a quiet smiling young man. We see the old women of the village examining the bride's necklace, testing the gold with their teeth. Finally comes the day of the ceremony. The wedding pair walk happily from the small church. There is a lively dance, very simple and festive, and we see a little lamb wandering among the dancers. Eventually we fade to the tropical forest again, the parrots and monkeys, and we see the husband walking out of the thick jungle to a clearing. It is two years later. His wife and son are waiting for him, and they laugh and play contentedly together. Everything in this section is so soft and blissful, so full of romance, that it's hard to believe it was shot by Eisenstein. For the first time in his film career he indulges in a feast of the senses. There seems to be no political stance here. Neither the camera nor the narrator indicate any judgment.

If anything, "Sandunga" is guilty of idealizing and even exoticizing its subjects. Some of the shots are very pretty, and there are examples of the geometric visual composition - a face in the foreground with three figures in the back, for instance - that is so characteristic of the film as a whole. Nevertheless this first section of Alexandrov's reconstruction is by far the weakest. It lacks purpose and forcefulness. At times it seems not much more than a bland travelogue, the kind you might see in a short newsreel of the period. Alexandrov's choice of music is quite unfortunate - instead of the Oaxacan song accompanied by guitar we hear an overly sweet Spanish-tinged melody played by syrupy strings with a bit of harpsichord. It sounds like something you used to hear in an elevator or a dentist's office. I imagine that Eisenstein would have turned "Sandunga" into something more interesting in the cutting room, injected his usual sense of rhythm and sharp visual contrast. But as it is, it still indicates something new for him - a resurfacing of an aspect of himself that had long been repressed.

The romantic artist in him had been put aside during his years in the Red Army, and there was little sign of him in the great polemical films of the 1920s. But in Mexico this side of him was awakened. There is a feeling of essential goodness, love of life, and a love for the young women and matriarchs in "Sandunga," perhaps reflecting his strong bond with his own mother. We see also a respect for the Indian peoples who have maintained many traditional ways in the face of modern encroachment. This was somewhat heretical in Soviet terms, since dogma would usually view the Indians as a primitive stage of historical development which required education and modernization in order to achieve freedom. Yet in all this Eisenstein still seems like a naive outsider, his vision of tropical life owing more to the idyllic imaginings of his youth than to the everyday reality he saw before him. It is like a gentle dream about a foreign country, which in its very foreignness symbolizes the home he longs for and to which he can never return.


©1998 Chris Dashiell