EISENSTEIN'S MEXICAN DREAM
"It is no pleasure to me to be put in the light of a capitalist promoter."
As 1931 started, they flew to Oaxaca, which had just suffered an earthquake, and shot scenes of the disaster, with the idea of scooping the newsreels - it didn't pan out, and the footage hasn't survived. Back in Mexico City, Eisenstein spent hours in the Archaeological Museum, studying the pre-Columbian civilizations. He spent some time with Diego Rivera, staying with him and his wife, Frida Kahlo, at their house in Coyoacan. Kahlo's dreamlike paintings astonished him, as did Rivera's great murals depicting the Spanish conquest. He was also influenced by another work - a fresco by David Siqueiros called "Burial of a Worker" - with its intense close-up of the faces of workers carrying the coffin of a slain comrade. The design is echoed in the Mayan funeral scene at the end of the prologue. Rivera also introduced him to Anita Brenner's Idols Behind Altars, a book which influenced the ideas in Qué Viva Mexico. Two of the book's principal theses - that the ancient Indian religion survived hidden behind the forms of Catholicism, and that Mexican mythology sought to triumph over death by laughing at it - are prominent in the film.
If there were any illusions remaining that the picture could be completed in four months, it was dispelled by now. It had taken Eisenstein two months just to get accustomed enough to his new surroundings before he could start developing an outline. By mutual agreement the $25 thousand figure was doubled to $50 thousand, with the idea that a higher-budgeted film would reap a much higher profit. Much of the Sinclairs' time would be taken up with raising funds from various friends and acquaintances, a task which turned out to be more difficult than expected, because of the deepening impact of the Depression. Of the additional $25 thousand, $15 thousand was earmarked for sound synchronization and music after shooting was done, which left $35 thousand for Eisenstein to spend in Mexico. All the footage was sent to California to be developed, which put the director in the curious position of not being able to see any of the film that he shot. It was economically infeasible to develop the film in Mexico (in addition, Tisse's written instructions were in Russian, and the U.S. lab had someone who knew the language) - but the arrangement was a handicap to Eisenstein, since watching the "rushes" shows a director what needs to be reshot, and helps him form ideas about the film's further development.
When, in January, Sinclair showed some of the early footage to a select group in L.A., it caused a minor clash with Eisenstein. He didn't like any film being screened publicly that had not been edited. Sinclair agreed and promised not to do it again, but it indicates the problem inherent in the separation between the director and the material, and it was a portent of things to come. In February they went by train to Tehuantepec, in the western Mexican isthmus, where they shot much of what was to be "Sandunga." The Indians were wary of the camera, but the payment of a few pesos won them over. It was here in the tropics that the structure of the film - a series of episodes symbolizing different aspects of the life of Mexico - began to take shape in the director's mind. Each episode would have a different style, with different plants and animals and music, and different aspects of Mexican history and culture, ranging from the ancient Mayan through the present day.
In March they went to Merida in the Yucatan. Eisenstein became fascinated with the church services and the bullfights. "During the same Sunday celebration," he later wrote, "the blood of Christ from the morning Mass in the cathedral is mixed with the torrents of bull's blood in the afternoon bullfight." He intended to draw this parallel in the "Fiesta" episode. In Merida they shot the sequences featuring the young matador David Liceaga. The bullfights became something of an obsession with Eisenstein. He continued to shoot more and more footage of the "corridas" throughout the Mexican trip, to the eventual consternation of Kimbrough and Sinclair. It was in fact quite difficult to integrate the actual bullfight footage with staged close-up shots of the matadors and picadors, but it seems as if Eisenstein was looking for something else as well, a palpable connection between sacred and secular that never comes across in the film as we have it.
In April they were in Chichen Itza, filming the Mayan ruins for the film's prologue. Eisenstein's geometrical composition within the shots became more deliberate here. There is a still which shows him shooting the profile of an Indian woman against the background of the pyramid. The shot in the film looks like a beautiful superimposition, but the still shows that there were no special effects - the woman simply leans her head into the frame, with the focus amazingly crisp in both foreground and background.
Filming was delayed by rain, cloudy days, and sickness - in short, the things one would normally expect on a location shoot. Qué Viva Mexico is in fact composed almost entirely of exterior shots, which gives it a spacious and open-ended look unusual for its time. It also made filming long and laborious, particularly since Eisenstein was a very slow and careful director to begin with. The scenario was growing and taking shape, the idea of the film becoming grander in the director's mind, a development which was as natural to the artist as it was dangerous to the limits of the budget. Much time was spent in travel - by train, bus or car, sometimes by donkey or even oxcart - checking out a town or other location that would often be a dead end, working in oppressive heat or mugginess or dust. Through it all Eisenstein was focused on the work, leaving Kimbrough to handle the money and most of the correspondence with Sinclair.
Something seemed to change in him. He began to draw. He drew incessantly, with an energy he had not had since childhood. He filled books with his sketches, mostly in pencil, which flowed from his unconscious, helping him to visualize aspects of the film as he went along. In themselves they are remarkable works of art. The figures of peasant women, bullfighters, Indians, priests, animals, and many others, were drawn with a clear line in a flowing, abstract style which verges on the surreal. They pulse with energy - some of them have an erotic content which seems both refreshingly innocent and charged with archetypal meaning. The sketches on religious themes - madonnas and crucified Christs - have a curious, pagan boldness. Eisenstein was tapping into a deeper part of himself in Mexico. His dream was taking over.
A group of peons stand against a wall, their expressions firm and impassive. Peasants carefully suck the juice from a huge maguey cactus. Riding over the desert expanse, against a bright and immense sky, is a young man with his fiancee.We are in part three of the film: "Maguey." It is a story of the powerful crushing the powerless. The tone is weary, yet majestic, and deeply sad. The time is prior to the revolution, in the days of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Sebastian, the young man, brings Maria, his bride-to-be, to the hacienda, for the traditional approval bestowed by the rich landlord. Sebastian must wait at the foot of the steps while Maria is led to the great balcony where the landlord entertains his guests, who ogle her. The landlord's daughter then arrives in a carriage, and in the hubbub, the forgotten Maria begins to leave. But one of the guests, a drunkard, accosts her and pulls her into a room. When she emerges later she is crying.The impatient Sebastian climbs the steps and sees the drunken man laughing over the prostrate girl. He starts to fight, but is overpowered and ejected from the hacienda, while Maria is kept imprisoned there. He then plots vengeance with three of his friends, and they mount an attack with gunfire. The brave attempt is repulsed, and they flee, pursued by the hired soldiers of the landlord, along with the landlord's daughter, eager for excitement. There is a vicious gun battle among the maguey on the plain, and the landlord's daughter is killed. Three of the rebels, including Sebastian, are captured, while the fourth, wounded, hides among the cacti. The daughter's body is brought back to the hacienda among shouts of grief.
The three young men are tied up, led out to the desert, and in full view of the fourth man - still hiding, weeping as he watches, they are forced to dig holes and are then buried up to their shoulders in the earth.The armed men ride over the prisoners on their horses, forward and backward, trampling them to death. Later, Maria is set free. She walks out to the desert, sees the mangled half-buried body of her lover, then falls to the ground.
The film's sense of space is never more rigorous than in "Maguey." The hacienda towers over the peons - they look at what seems an unattainable mountain of power. The contrast between the expanse of the desert and the cramped feeling of the sequence in the hacienda puts into visual terms the gulf between the lives and the values of the peasants and that of their corrupt lords. (We are treated to a cruder form of political symbolism with an image of the pigs drinking the beer during the landlord's party.) In this section Eisenstein also achieves striking visual effects - the peasants crossing in a line along the horizon, the early image of one of Sebastian's friends putting the "torito" (a bull's head mask that shoots firecrackers) over his head and imitating the bull fight - an echo of "Fiesta" and a foreshadowing of the rebels' fate.
In the sequence of the execution we see once again the figure of three - the three men, hands bound and stripped to the waist, arranged against the cloudy sky like the image of the three crucified. Their faces express stony defiance, resignation, and fear, but it is also as if they have gone beyond their individual selves into a mythic dimension - a statuary of grim suffering and injustice. After they are buried to their shoulders, and the horses run over them (an illusion which is achieved fairly well, considering the state of special effects at that time), the film achieves a kind of tragic contemplation, an image of anguish which is starkly beautiful, horrifying, and primal. It is one of the most powerful sequences in Eisenstein's career, and it alone raises Qué Viva Mexico to greatness.
If the story of "Maguey" on paper smacks of melodrama, with its reliance on the motif of men fighting to protect their women, and the old theme of the "droit du seigneur," the carrying out of the story on film has the simplicity of heart, and the elemental political sense to make it work. Eisenstein portrays class struggle, but he doesn't lose sight of the actual people involved. His attention to formal composition and detail unites the personal and the universal. These are individuals who suffer and witness what occurs, not some vague general mass. Eisenstein's concern with form is therefore humanistic, because it implies a reverence for the unique, the individual, which can also serve as the archetypal. He was willing to look at the personal tragedy without dressing it up with slogans or heroism or victory, and this gives "Maguey" a truthfulness which sets it apart from mere propaganda.
Finally, there is something that has been evident since the prologue, but which still must be said. Qué Viva Mexico, as we have it, is essentially a silent film. It was not meant to be, but it is hard to imagine now how the spoken word would have been synchronized with these images. The movie has a total focus on the image which is characteristic of the last phase of the silent era, and not at all of the emerging talkies. The reconstruction has a musical soundtrack, indeed (and the music Alexandrov chose for "Maguey" - a sad, martial theme with guitars - is just right for once), and a narration, most of which could have been dispensed with, and there are no intertitles. But at heart it is silent all the same. It is ironic that Eisenstein's trip to the west, supposedly to learn about the sound film, resulted in this strange visual poem for which speech is almost completely unnecessary.
The moment he arrived at Tetlapayac in May, Eisenstein later said, he knew it was the place he had been looking for all his life. The hacienda was a beautiful building, with high towers and coral pink walls. It had been built by the conquistadors. He felt that the ghosts of history haunted the place. The residents of the town, not only the people he paid to act in the film, seemed to take to him immediately as if he was a lost brother. For Eisenstein, whose habit of disregarding social niceties usually left him isolated, the love and acceptance he felt there was a liberating experience.
The "Maguey" shoot, however, was not so easy. The rainy season had begun, and filming ended up being restricted to just a few hours a week. Originally planned for eight weeks, the hacienda section dragged on for twice that long. In June, Eisenstein made it known to Sinclair that he would need $15 thousand more to complete the movie - the amount that had been reserved for synchronization. More money would have to be sought, but from where? This was, of course, unwelcome tidings for Sinclair. His wife had experienced exhaustion and ill health, which he partly blamed on the strain of raising money for the film. They had been unable to come up with enough to reach $50 thousand, and had therefore ended up borrowing on their mortgage. Now Eisenstein needed more. The backers were expressing doubts about whether the film would pay off.
It is understandable, therefore, that Sinclair's patience would begin to wear thin. Throughout the process he had been in touch with Amkino, the Russian film distribution service in America, apprising them of Eisenstein's progress. In mid-June he wrote Amkino's representative, L. I. Monosson, to ask if Moscow would be willing to invest $25 thousand in the picture, offering a share in the profits and the donation of a certain quantity of his books to the Soviet Union for its libraries. Around the same time he attempted to sell the project outright to certain parties, which indicates a feeling that he'd gotten into something too big to handle. But there were no takers who could offer enough to recoup most of the Sinclairs' losses. It also took some effort to get the Russians' visas extended again.
Some of the frustration was evident from Sinclair's comments on the footage: "Is this man mad?" he asked, as he watched repeat after repeat of the same shots. He simply didn't understand that it was normal to shoot that much for a film of feature length, or that 125,000 feet was comparable to other exterior shoots such as those for Murnau's Tabu.
In July one of the young men acting in "Maguey" stole a pistol from Tisse, and playing with it, accidentally killed his sister. Panicked, he ran into the Maguey fields pursued by horsemen. He was captured by the same man who played his capturer in the film. After the man was charged with manslaughter, Eisenstein, with a dedication to the work that seems more than a little cold-blooded, managed to get him released under police guard for a few days - so that he could complete his part in the picture.
Eisenstein filmed the festival of Corpus Christi at Tetlapayac, with the idea of interspersing scenes from it with the sequence of the execution. It was to be the most complex piece of montage in the film, according to his notes, with an intended link between the ceremony of the Sacrament - the body and blood of Christ - and the literal trampling of bodies and shedding of blood in the execution. But this cross-editing was never done, and the footage has been lost. Eisenstein's increasing interest in religious symbolism is unusual for a Soviet director. His use of religion in the film has an admittedly ironic tone, but the effect is not that of a critique so much as an acknowledgment of the significance of religious imagery in relation to actual political conflict and suffering.
Eisenstein was becoming attuned to a visual language that went beyond Soviet typology. When he first shot the sequence of the bound men standing and waiting for their fate, he discovered that they posed in the figure of the triangle without any direction from him. To him, this meant that the motif of three - man, world, God - was inherent in the work rather than something projected onto it. He was elated by this realization.
His mood would darken after a letter from Sinclair in late August. Although Sinclair knew that the Mexican film was intended as an alternative to the conventional Hollywood model, he had come to believe that the film's episodic structure, with no single narrative thread, would prevent it from gaining any further financial backing. He therefore proposed that "Maguey" be made as a separate picture - it was a clear-cut story with beginning, middle and end, the kind of story that could be sold to American audiences - and the profits from this separate film could get them back on their feet financially so that Eisenstein could go back to Mexico to finish his greater vision. Nothing could have been further from Eisenstein's own conception of the work. "You cannot take out of 'Hamlet' the scene of the death of Polonius," he replied, "make another drama of it and then use 'the rest' for another one....Our picture is a strict Mexican 'Menu' and cannot be sold 'a la carte.'" He suggested attempting a co-production deal with a studio - perhaps they could try Laemmle at Universal. Meanwhile, relations with Kimbrough were deteriorating. He was impatient with the continued footage of bullfights and fiestas, and was advising Sinclair to clamp down and order the film completed by a deadline.
In the midst of this darkness came a ray of light in early Septemer. Monosson informed Sinclair that Amkino was agreeing to participate with $25,000, with the condition that this was the absolute limit of funding, and that the film could not be continued once that limit was reached. Once again, $15 thousand would be kept in reserve for post-shooting synchronization, with $10 thousand to go to filming in progress. But with a caution that illustrated Sinclair's growing mistrust, this development was kept a secret from Eisenstein, with only $5 thousand sent for the time being, in the fear that he would insist on using the earmarked $15 thousand as he had before.
On September 12, Mrs. Sinclair became ill with ptomaine poisoning. A few days later, Sinclair himself collapsed and was hospitalized. He was diagnosed with a hernia and a kidney infection, complicated by nervous strain and overwork. The exciting project of 1930 had turned into a crushing burden in '31, and after he got out of the hospital, Sinclair was focused only on getting the film completed as quickly as possible, with less and less attention paid to Eisenstein's objections. Eisenstein was still focused on his dream, his grand vision, with little regard for practical consideration or compromise. Blindness and intransigence on both sides were leading to ruin.