EISENSTEIN'S MEXICAN DREAM
"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."
Why this sudden change in policy? Because of that great new cinematic phenomenon - the sound film. Hollywood's commitment to talking pictures began in earnest in 1927-28, but the rest of the world was slow to catch up. Although Russia began development of sound systems in '29, they were nowhere near ready. It became clear to the officials at Sovkino, and to the Soviet film industry in general, that it would be necessary to learn more about sound technology from the western countries, or risk staying backward and behind the times. Part of their plan was to have a Soviet artist make a sound film in the west, preferably the U.S., and therefore get hands-on experience that would be teachable to others. It was a foregone conclusion that Eisenstein, the only Soviet director who was truly famous outside of Russia, would be that artist.
The original plan called for him to work for six months in Hollywood, return to Russia to work for six months on a sound project, then go back to Hollywood to complete his film for Paramount. The studio was not doing anything unusual in signing Eisenstein, or so they thought. Foreign directors and stars had been avidly sought for years to bring some spice and sophistication to American film audiences - Ernst Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich had been wooed from Germany to join Paramount, for example. Production manager Jesse Lasky happened to be planning a trip to Europe when he heard that Eisenstein was in Paris, so he stopped there and made him an offer. By the next month, Eisenstein was in New York, to be followed by Tisse and Alexandrov afterwards. The ever-curious Eisenstein spent some time in New York, Boston and Chicago before finally arriving at Hollywood in June of 1930. He was lionized there for a time, and got to meet some of his heroes, such as D.W. Griffith, King Vidor, and Charlie Chaplin. He and Chaplin became friends and spent a lot of time together.
Eisenstein liked to confound people by going unshaven, wearing simple work clothes at sophisticated dinner parties, and making provocative statements about the American film industry. When it was time to get down to making a movie, he ended up being the one who was confounded. With hindsight it seems obvious that the iconoclastic left-wing director would clash with the cautious and conservative strategies of the studio system. Lasky thought that the fame of Potemkin would reap big profits for an American film by the same artist. But most of the studio's proposals - such as an account of the Jesuit priests who converted the Indians of the southwest to Christianity - were obviously ill-suited to Eisenstein, who rejected them.
His proposals included "Sutter's Gold," an adaptation of a novel by Blaise Cendrars, for which Eisenstein wrote a screenplay draft. The studio didn't like its anti-money message. But their next idea, a version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, met with Eisenstein's approval. He had met Dreiser in Russia, and he loved the book, a tragic story about a poor young man whose obsession with rising to a higher class leads to disaster. He proceeded to write a full screenplay, and some of the preliminaries began for production. However, the director refused to employ any stars or professional actors in the film - he wanted only non-professionals, in order to achieve the naturalism he saw as essential to the story. This was a mistake. He should have known perfectly well that a Hollywood production company would insist on using their stars and actors in one of their pictures. It was simply the way the system worked. Eisenstein could have made a fine movie with Paramount actors - such as the ones who eventually starred in Josef von Sternberg's version of the novel - Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes. But more importantly than this issue, the studio was unhappy with the screenplay. They of course wanted the focus to be on the personal drama, while Eisenstein's script was faithful to Dreiser's wider vision of social injustice. (One wonders what might have happened if Eisenstein had signed with Warner Brothers instead, where Daryl Zanuck was making hard-hitting social melodramas at the time.)
Further complications arose because of a public campaign to drive Eisenstein out of the country, headed by an an anticommunist and antisemite crackpot named Major Frank Pease. This man reflected a reactionary strain in U.S. (and especially California) politics. The idea of an alliance between Jews and Bolsheviks to undermine the American way of life was an old one, and it had been used to flog Hollywood before, as it would be again. (Eisenstein was a communist, part Jewish, and - unbeknownst to most people - almost certainly homosexual, which means he was Major Pease's worst nightmare.) All of this frightened the conservative studio heads, who became very concerned for Paramount's public image. The upshot was that they canceled An American Tragedy, and after Eisenstein refused their next proposal, they voided his contract.
The Hollywood episode prefigures in some ways the failure of Qué Viva Mexico. Eisenstein's difficulty in understanding the methods of the Hollywood system was abetted by Hollywood's naivete concerning his radical views, both political and artistic. Similar clashes of sensibility and attitude, concerning money and the motivations for film-making, were to plague the Mexican adventure.
The next section of the film is "Fiesta." It opens with scenes from the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. We see revelers in glittering costumes, and masks that look like the faces of medieval Spanish knights, playing with toy swords. Many people gather in the city square, carrying gifts to the Virgin. The narrator remarks that behind their devotion may lie a cult of a much more ancient goddess. This is one of the film's principal ideas, that there is a continuity of Mexican myth and culture from precolumbian times to the present, surviving in essence while taking on different forms during successive stages of colonialism. Eisenstein was also fascinated by the artifice of mask and ritual, and the way it expresses an attitude which both accepts and mocks the roles people play in society.
In "Fiesta," however, the most arresting images are of the priests and monks. They act as leaders of the procession, and we see them in their black robes and hoods like images of doom in counterpoint to the colorful costumes of the people. In a brilliant sequence, their imposing presence is associated with skulls, which some of them hold in their hands like talismans. In the foreground of one shot are three skulls; in the mid-range stand four solemn monks, two on each side of the skulls. In the gap between them we see in the background four children in monkish dress holding a cross. Eisenstein uses the triangle, figures of three, and the cross throughout the film, in a deliberate and abstract sense of balance within the frame. The triangle motif is quite prominent in "Fiesta." It relates to the pyramid, the serape, the sombrero, the three women who traditionally guard the cross at Easter. There is also the Catholic idea of the Trinity, and as we shall see, the three men crucified. Despite his obviously anti-clerical outlook, Eisenstein taps into religious symbolism here. The film affirms the people's religious belief as a vital part of them, while depicting the priesthood as a dark cult of death-in-life, committed to channeling or suppressing the people's spirituality. One must wonder if he realized how genuinely attached most Mexicans were to the priests, to the degree that any revolution that tried to abolish them would certainly fail. In any case, it is ironic that the images of the hooded monks with skulls in "Fiesta" are among the most beautiful in the film, lingering in the memory far more than, for instance, the idyllic images of "Sandunga."
In terms of technique, it is here that Eisenstein begins to realize the equal importance of placement within the frame to the relation between shots, or "montage." This awareness was to affect all his later films, lending them more depth and balance than the admittedly brilliant but also oppressive style of earlier efforts such as October. In the first part of "Fiesta" several religious events are conflated into one. In addition to the Feast of the Virgin, we witness the Easter ceremony of the Stations of the Cross - the three men portraying Christ and the thieves with crosses tied to their backs, especially painful because the crosses are saguaro cacti. Intercut with this are shots of the Penitente procession, a huge line of pilgrims crawling on their knees up the thousands of steps to a great monastery which used to be a pyramid temple. In the climax of this sequence we see the triangle once again in the figures of the three crucified men - a dreadful and awesome image set against a clear, unobstructed sky and distant horizon.
"Fiesta" concludes with a long sequence depicting a bullfight, a secular ritual to follow a religious one. We meet the bullfighter David Liceago, and are shown his elaborate preparations for the day, being dressed in the traditional outfit, going to see his aged mother before the event. The footage of the bullfight is obviously not staged - the danger is real, as is the wild enthusiasm of the crowd as Liceago finally dispatches the beast. Eisenstein saw a real connection between the Christian mythos of the crucifixion, and the profane ritual of the bull's death in the ring. The bullfight scenes were also to exemplify the way death is accepted as a part of life, the inevitable reality of our end reenacted and celebrated by this bloody rite. The sequence as we have it in Alexandrov's reconstruction is, however, limp and mostly uninvolving. We are back to a plodding newsreel style - the footage has not been shaped to a rhythm, the action seems expository rather than revealing in any deeper sense, and all this is abetted by the commonplaces of the narration. The viewer may be forgiven for yawning once in a while, because despite some good visual ideas, the film seems to lose its way here between form and meaning. The sections which lift Qué Viva Mexico to a certain greatness are yet to come.
After Eisenstein's contract with Paramount was terminated, it was evident that he had failed in the purpose for which his government had allowed him to go to America. He could have given up and gone home (the studio had already bought him a ticket), but at that moment the old idea of making a movie about Mexico came back to him. The border was only a few miles away. If only he could find someone to back the project, he could persuade the film trust to let him stay longer. None of the studios would touch it, of course. The backer would have to be independent.
It was Charles Chaplin who suggested that Eisenstein approach the famous writer Upton Sinclair. (But why wouldn't Chaplin himself finance the picture? Perhaps this Hollywood liberal, arguably the most famous man in the world, was wary of his own right-wing enemies, and thus hesitated to associate his name with the production of a film by a communist.) Sinclair seemed, on the surface, to be the perfect choice. He was the preeminent American socialist of that time. After the great success of his novel The Jungle in 1906, he produced a series of muckraking nonfiction books which attacked everything from the press to organized religion. His topical novels of the late 20s were even more successful. His star has waned since then, so it is not well known how important a figure he once was. Sinclair was more widely translated than any living American writer at the time, and he was especially popular in the Soviet Union. A committed socialist who believed in the Russian revolution, he was also, it so happened, very much interested in the cinema, and had been involved in attempts to adapt his novels to film. It could be expected that Sinclair would have enough clout to influence Soviet attitudes towards Eisenstein's project, and that his known left-wing politics would make him agreeable to an association with the Russian director.
Sinclair had loved Potemkin, and was honored to meet its director. He responded enthusiastically to the Mexican idea, as did his wife Mary, who shared in her husband's political work. Eisenstein's stellar reputation inspired a sense of confidence in Sinclair that sponsoring one of his films would be a relatively easy, successful venture. A contract was drawn up and signed in early November of 1930. The Sinclairs would finance the movie, both with their own funds and with money raised from friends and associates. Eisenstein, Tisse and Alexandrov were to go to Mexico for 3-4 months and shoot the film. The budget would be $25,000. The finished product would be the property of the Sinclairs, with 10% of eventual sales to go to Eisenstein. The Soviet government would be allowed to exhibit the film in Russia at no cost. "This agreement," said the contract, "is made upon the basis of Eisenstein's desire to be free to direct the making of a picture according to his own ideas."
Eisenstein in his enthusiasm must have focused a lot of his expectations on that one sentence. Indeed, the impression one gets from this transaction is that he was in a great hurry to get going, so that any sense of caution or practical consideration was brushed aside. There was always the chance that Moscow would abruptly demand his return - so it was imperative that he get started immediately so that he had a tangible rationale for extending his stay in the west.
Eisenstein had never had to worry about the financial aspects of his films. The state supported film agencies, in his case Sovkino, handled production matters. Eisenstein just wrote, directed and edited. This partly explains his naivete in signing the contract. There was no explicit clause giving him the sole right to edit the film. He must have assumed that "free to direct the making of a picture" included the editing. He also ignored the fact that the sole ownership of the film by the Sinclairs meant that they could "market the material in any manner" they desired. He was so bent on attaining his dream that he did not stop to anticipate any trouble from his backers.
To make matters worse, Sinclair was a complete amateur. He had little idea of what was involved in the actual making of a film. Neither of them thought of consulting professionals in the industry to help them with production details. When Eisenstein was asked by Sinclair to estimate the cost, he went to a bookseller in Hollywood that he knew, a man who had fought with Villa, and asked him how much it would cost to make a reasonably priced documentary about Mexico. That's how they came up with the ridiculously low figure of $25,000. Why couldn't he have asked someone more knowledgeable, such as Chaplin, for an estimate? Was he afraid that Sinclair would balk at a higher figure? In that case, he could have gone to Dreiser, who had demonstrated his belief in Eisenstein during the controversy over An American Tragedy. And then there is the matter of the "3-4 months" provided for the shoot. Sinclair's ignorance is forgivable in this case, but Eisenstein surely must have known better. It had taken seven months to shoot Potemkin, and that was with a full crew and government cooperation. He couldn't have believed that in a foreign country, with limited resources and no shooting script, nor even yet a clear idea of what the movie would be about, he could produce anything worthwhile in a mere four months. It's no wonder that Sinclair later believed him to be deliberately deceptive on this point - it seems possible that Eisenstein at some level knew that he would have to extend his time in Mexico, thinking that once he was there no one could curtail him. It is as if he was motivated wholly by the fear of the Mexican dream slipping from his grasp if he hesitated.
Sinclair also made the error of assigning his wife's brother, Hunter Kimbrough, to go with Eisenstein to Mexico in the capacity of business manager. Kimbrough was a capable man who had proven trustworthy in managing some of Sinclair's book deals. But he had no knowledge or even appreciation of film - the business manager needed to at least have an understanding of the process in order to succeed. Kimbrough was also a Southerner with conservative attitudes and a dislike for other races and nationalities. He was not particularly amenable to radical ideas, and he was a heavy drinker too, whereas Eisenstein never drank and distrusted people who did. Sinclair (also a teetotaller) even instructed his brother-in-law to refrain from drinking while in Mexico so as to avoid a conflict with Eisenstein.
Finally, it is evident that, despite the superficial affinity between a socialist American writer and a Soviet director, Sinclair and Eisenstein were practically opposed in their natures. The 52- year-old writer, although courageous in his political efforts, was more conventional in his aesthetics than Eisenstein, who was 20 years his junior.His novels were naturalist in style, and he stuck to traditional narrative forms. He was cautious, organized his affairs strictly, and was prudish about sex. Eisenstein was rash and impulsive, impractical in his daily affairs, a free spirit in sexual matters (although not too openly so), and was every inch an experimenter and a futurist when it came to art. The business partnership between Upton Sinclair and Sergei Eisenstein was a mismatch that would end up doing them both a lot of harm.
Moscow was surprisingly pliant about extending Eisenstein's leave. The benign explanation is that the film trust believed that his project would enhance Russia's position in world cinema. But another factor was at work. A few months after Eisenstein's departure for Hollywood, a new man was appointed head of the Soviet film industry - Boris Shumyatsky, his arch-enemy. Shumyatsky probably reasoned that the longer Eisenstein stayed away from home, with no way to defend himself, the more his political position would erode.
Blissfully unaware of any storm clouds on the horizon, Eisenstein only looked ahead to visiting the land that had captivated his imagination for so long. In December of 1930 he, along with Tisse, Alexandrov and Kimbrough, left by train for the border. Upton Sinclair was on the platform waving goodbye. It was the last time the two men would ever see each other.