EISENSTEIN'S MEXICAN DREAM


by Chris Dashiell

"Non-Mexicans probably ought not to laugh at death. Whoever dares to laugh is punished by the terrible goddess Coatlicue, whom I have accidentally kicked in the ribs."
-- Sergei M. Eisenstein


The film is suddenly interrupted, and we see Alexandrov himself, in color, watching the picture in his screening room. He turns to us and explains that the next section was to be called "Soldadera." It would depict the women who accompanied the Revolutionary Army in 1910, going ahead to villages to gather food and supplies for the soldiers, feeding and caring for the wounded, and burying the dead. This episode was to be the culmination of all that had gone before - a vision of the people rising up to win their freedom, enduring immense suffering and privation, triumphing over the despotism that had been portrayed so vividly in "Maguey."

The story concerns a woman named Pancha who is first married to a federalist soldier who is killed in battle. She then marries a Zapatista and follows Zapata's army into war. When the troops take a military train, she and the other soldaderas get on board with them. During the long ride she gives birth to a child. The train stops, the soldiers go off to battle, her husband does not return. When the guns are quiet she goes out to the battlefield, finds the body, and buries it with her own hands. Soon after, the Revolution is victorious, and she can finally rest from her labors with hopes for a new life, both for her family and her country.

It was fitting, and perhaps inevitable, that the film would climax on a political note. The contract had actually stipulated that the film would not be political, but it was easy to get around that - this was all about events that had happened two decades earlier. There was no overt criticism of the present Mexican regime, as indeed there couldn't be, since all the rushes were reviewed by the Mexican Consul to make sure that nothing "defamatory" to Mexico had been filmed. But Eisenstein believed in revolution, and "Soldadera" was to dramatize the eruption of the people's will against tyranny. That it was to be shown through the point of view of women was a bold stroke. Instead of the usual stories of women staying at home, worrying and grieving, "Soldadera" was to show women as a vital, active part of the fighting.

"Imagine!" wrote Eisenstein. "500 women in an endless cactus desert, dragging through clouds of dust household goods, beds, their children, their wounded, their dead, and the white-clad peasant soldiers in straw hats follow them. We show them march into Mexico City....with the cathedral bells ringing the victory of the first revolution..."

Alexandrov, in a voice of casual resignation, explains to us that "Soldadera" was never shot. They ran out of money and time, he says, so they had to go home without finishing the film. Thus, with a shrug of his shoulders, he disposes of all the conflict and controversy that ended Qué Viva Mexico, as if to say, "Ah, that was over forty years ago. Eisenstein and Sinclair are dead. Why stir anything up again? Let us forget all that and just let it be."

It has never been uncommon for the costs of making a film to exceed the original budget, if only because the original conception in the director's mind will expand as the actual work of the film progresses. A producer, therefore, will usually be prepared to put more money into a picture if it promises to be a good one. But Eisenstein's producer didn't have cash reserves. Any expansion of the creative idea meant further strain on Upton Sinclair's energy and resources. In October of 1931, Eisenstein was asking for an additional $20-25 thousand to complete the film. Sinclair countered that the picture had to be finished with $10 thousand, with "Soldadera" and the bullfight story ("Fiesta") to be completed as quickly as possible. It was with some justice that he argued that Eisenstein was looking for a formal perfection that was not possible within the parameters of the original agreement.

At the same time, he was bargaining with Amkino, trying to get them to agree to allow more of their money to be allocated to filming in Mexico rather than synchronization in L.A. But they wouldn't budge, and Monosson insisted on a definite budget and schedule from Eisenstein as well. The director went to the Pacific coast to shoot tropical footage for "Sandunga," promising to be back in a few days. He was gone for two weeks instead, cabling Kimbrough for money at regular intervals. The latter expressed his feelings about Eisenstein in a letter to Sinclair: "He has wasted many days when it was not necessary. He acts like a dictator. He demands money immediately, again and again and again....He is thinking only of his artistic triumph.He will squeeze every nickel possible from you, then threaten that the picture will not be marketable unless completed properly....He is a super egotist. And many people, including myself, think he is some kind of a pervert." Another letter from Kimbrough after Eisenstein's return to Mexico City is revealing: "I am a little rough with him these days....He is like a negro. Kind words and consideration are not enough. It just goes over his head." None of this was calculated to ease Sinclair's fears. In an angry letter he told Eisenstein that he did not know a single person, including his wife, who did not think Sinclair was crazy for standing by Eisenstein this long. Indeed, Mary Sinclair had completely given up on the Mexican project, and she wanted the whole thing over with - which must have been a considerable source of pressure on Sinclair throughout the ordeal.

Eisenstein knew that $10 thousand would not be enough. He could not hurry the process, he had to go at his own pace. "I want you to understand," he wrote, "that the shooting of a picture is going on different parts of it at the same time." The episodes needed to be rounded out in order to fit into the whole. He said that costs could be cut in the musical aspects later, that music wasn't as important a factor in this case. "I also want to point out that the very small production cost difference which exists between a 'smashed' picture and a picture worked up to perfection, make an enormous income difference in the box office." It is a testament not only to Eisenstein's powers of persuasion, but also to Sinclair's continued belief in the picture, that at this late date, after the $10 thousand ultimatum and the conflicts with Kimbrough, Eisenstein's funding was extended to $16 thousand! It would be necessary to persuade Amkino to allow more of its $25 thousand to go towards filming, or else find other investors.

Eisenstein set to work filming Day of the Dead festivities in early November while Sinclair tried to raise more cash. The Day of the Dead shoot went beautifully. Critics who were allowed to see some of the film by Sinclair, including Edmund Wilson, were publicly effusive about its merit. Eisenstein had even submitted a schedule and budget which fell within the $16 thousand limit. With cautious optimism, Sinclair instructed the director to shoot the remaining scenes from the other episodes first, so that they would then have an idea of how much money was available to make "Soldadera." Unfortunately, the bad feelings between Kimbrough and Eisenstein came to the fore again, with Eisenstein writing to accuse Sinclair's brother-in-law of drunkenness and antisemitic comments. It is difficult to ascertain how much truth there was, if any, in Eisenstein's claim that Kimbrough was disrupting the shoot by drinking, not being able to get out of bed, and so forth. The fact is that Kimbrough always denied it, Sinclair believed him, and this only reinforced his distrust of Eisenstein. It is evident that Eisenstein's real complaint concerned the heavy-handed manner in which Kimbrough supervised the project, which became more and more difficult for the proud Russian to endure.

As yet, however, there was no money from Amkino. Unbeknownst to Sinclair, political schemes were afoot. Shumyatsky recalled Monosson to Moscow and replaced him with Victor Smirnov, one of his toadies. This was the first step in a process by which Shumyatsky and others were planning to humiliate Eisenstein. It was impossible for Sinclair to imagine the political climate in the Soviet Union at the time. The era of the "Great Purges" was beginning - a time of terror and deadly infighting, when no lie was too outlandish to be employed in destroying those within the Party who were perceived as being in the way of "progress." Eisenstein's prolonged absence was the perfect excuse for Shumyatsky to hang his enemy out to dry. Disturbing rumors reached Sinclair in late November. There was said to be talk in Russia of Eisenstein being a traitor.

Then came the thunderbolt - a telegram from Joseph Stalin himself: EISENSTEIN LOOSE (sic) HIS COMRADES CONFIDENCE IN SOVIET UNION STOP HE IS THOUGHT TO BE DESERTER WHO BROKE OFF WITH HIS OWN COUNTRY STOP AM AFRAID THE PEOPLE WOULD HAVE NO INTEREST IN HIM SOON. The message was as shifty and enigmatic as most pronouncements from the Great Leader (saying "the people" would have no interest in Eisenstein, for instance, when it was Stalin himself who obviously had the final say concerning who was out of favor) but the meaning was clear. Eisenstein was in trouble and was expected to return home soon.

To his credit, Sinclair in his reply vigorously defended Eisenstein from any charges of disloyalty. According to Smirnov, there was confusion in Soviet cinematic circles about why it was taking so long for Eisenstein to finish his Mexican film. He wrote Sinclair that Eisenstein had never had official permission to prolong his stay, but that Eisenstein had written saying that it was Sinclair who was preventing him from returning to Russia. This was nothing less than trickery on the part of Smirnov - the Soviets had always had the power to order Eisenstein home at any time, and Sinclair had been in full communication with Amkino from the start. It is clear that Shumyatsky was deliberately sowing discord between Sinclair and Eisenstein.

The ax fell on December 5: A telegraph from Amkino stated that they were "delaying" the spending of money on the picture. In other words, they were threatening to withdraw from their agreement with Sinclair. Naturally, Sinclair was astonished and indignant. "The contract with me is a valid one," he wrote Smirnov, "both legally and morally, and it is binding upon Amkino....It seems to me that it is a breach of faith even to propose repudiating it." All the plans and schedules had been set with the assumption that $25 thousand would be forthcoming. Other investors had been encouraged to support the film on the strength of this promise. Negotiations continued frantically through the end of the year.

Meanwhile Kimbrough had returned to California, telling Sinclair that Eisenstein was a liar, and not to believe anything he said. It was decided that Kimbrough would be given full authority to supervise any shooting, and to keep the director to a strict economy. Sinclair's frustration blinded him to the fact that the relationship between Kimbrough and Eisenstein was beyond repair. When the former returned to Mexico City in January 1932, Eisenstein would not even speak to him. Repeated attempts by Sinclair to negotiate an understanding with Amkino met with a wall of silence, and he simply had to recognize that the Soviets had reneged on their agreement. The only way to force them to honor their words would be to sue them, but since that would mean a public rift between the famous socialist writer and the Soviet Union he had done so much to support, he would not even consider that step. (Perhaps this is exactly what Shumyatsky had counted on.) That crushing disappointment, combined with another emphatic refusal by Eisenstein to work under Kimbrough's supervision, caused Sinclair to finally give up. On January 21, he ordered all filming to stop and for everyone to return to the U.S.

Excerpts from a letter of Eisenstein to his friend Salka Viertel, a scenarist for MGM, paint a picture of his state of mind: "Kimbrough...poisons our existence and creates an atmosphere in which it is impossible to work. I wrote this to Sinclair, whereupon he abruptly halted our work. The last part of my film, containing all the elements of a fifth act, is ruthlessly ripped out, and you know what this means. It's as if Ophelia were ripped out from Hamlet... Without this sequence the film loses its meaning, unity, and its final dramatic impact: it becomes a display of unintegrated episodes. Each of these episodes now points towards this end and this resolution....We have 500 soldiers, which the Mexican Army has given us for 30 days, 10,000 guns and 50 cannons, all for nothing. We have discovered an incredible location and have brilliantly solved the whole event in our scenario. We need only $7,000 or $8,000 to finish it, which we could do in a month....Sinclair stopped the production and intends to throw before the people a truncated stump with the heart ripped out!...A film is not a sausage which tastes the same if you eat three quarters of it."

He desperately pleaded with Sinclair, promised to work under Kimbrough without complaining, if only "Soldadera" could be shot. He cabled Moscow, requesting leave to finish the film, claiming that Kimbrough's authority was not binding, since it was imposed on him by force, and that the Mexican government wanted "Soldadera" completed. He received no response, but Smirnov, still carefully pitting one side against the other, informed Sinclair of the telegram. It became Sinclair's conviction for the rest of his life that Eisenstein hated Russia and wanted to stay in Mexico indefinitely to avoid returning, perhaps searching for some way to claim asylum in another country. He came to believe that the director's vision of a six-part epic was a ruse to keep him in Mexico, that in fact he was making six separate films which could not possibly be made into one movie, and concealing this fact from Sinclair. Much of this proved to be incorrect if not delusional. But it is an interesting question - was Eisenstein planning to defect? It seems unlikely, given his political convictions and his bad experiences in the west. But he certainly had reasons, other than the film, to delay his homecoming. He must have known something of the purges that were going on. Returning could be dangerous, perhaps even fatal. And in addition, he had come to love Mexico very deeply. The heartfelt joy and the awakening of hitherto repressed creative energies during his Mexican trip would have to seem preferable to the ominous rumblings from Russia.

The battle was over, and the three Russians traveled north to the border in February, where they were delayed for over three weeks because the Immigration service refused to admit them. It was decided not to renew their visas, but to merely allow them a temporary permit to drive to New York from Laredo, and then sail to Russia. Meanwhile Sinclair had proposed to ship a positive print to Moscow, to be edited by Eisenstein in two months, with all film to be returned to Hollywood thereafter for synchronization. The negatives would remain with Sinclair. Eisenstein's despair and fury compelled him to an action which turned out to be one of his worst mistakes. He packed a trunk of unwanted things and sent it to Sinclair, who had to claim it at the Customs Office. When the trunk was opened in Sinclair's presence, scattered on top of the belongings was a series of homoerotic sketches.

Eisenstein had sought to deliberately embarrass "that Puritan," as he called him, and he succeeded far too well. The Customs officials wanted to confiscate the trunk, and needed persuasion to allow it in the country. The drawings were "not a work of art nor anything of that sort," wrote Sinclair later, but "plain smut," and Eisenstein was a "sexual pervert" who hung around with "homos." From then on, he refused all communications from Eisenstein or his supporters. When Eisenstein took seventeen days to travel from Laredo to New York, stopping at various places along the way, Sinclair took it as a final confirmation of his indifference to returning to Russia, and to Sinclair's own reputation with the Soviets. In his anger, he reversed himself and declared that Eisenstein would not be allowed to cut the picture at all. When he discovered that Eisenstein had actually viewed some of the rushes in New York, he was livid, and demanded the immediate return of the positives. Amkino dragged its feet and Sinclair brought out his lawyers, a quite unprecedented move for him. The print was returned, and Eisenstein set sail in mid-April, never to see his film again. Thus ended, in a storm of ugliness and recrimination, a project and a partnership which had begun with hope, high ideals, and an artist's passionate dream.

We find ourselves in a world of carnival, a time that seems bizarre and unreal. The face of death is grinning everywhere. People wear skull masks, eat candy in the shape of skulls, dance and laugh with skeleton puppets. It is the film's epilogue, the Day of the Dead, when the people honor their departed ones, their ancestors, and celebrate the unity of life and death. The extraordinary rhythm of this section seems closest to what Eisenstein would have wanted. The montage rushes forward briskly, with clowns and drummers, glittering costumes, children playing. A ferris wheel turns, and in the foreground we see skulls arranged in figures of three and four. The festival whirls faster and faster, in a cascade of images which both exhilarates and disorients the senses. "This is not a cult of death," says the narrator, "but man's triumph over death through the mockery of it." The film began with the ancient past, and a Mayan funeral. It comes full circle now in the modern day - with a life-affirming exuberance, a spirit that defies all grief or despair. Eisenstein fills the frame with these strangely attractive figures in costume.

As the pace increases, the people remove their skull masks one by one, and we see smiling faces, many of them children. Then a startling image: a figure removes its mask, and underneath we see - a real skull. The skeletons are dressed in military uniforms, and in the top hats and black coats of the capitalists. "Here are the corpses of a doomed class." In one last dig at the censors, Eisenstein makes a statement. Mexico is the common people, the oppressors will not survive. It is a great ending for the picture, a glimpse of the mysterious beauty and vitality which Eisenstein envisioned, the Qué Viva Mexico that might have been. The final image is of a smiling boy, chewing a piece of sugar skull. He is the new Mexico, the Mexico of the future.

Sinclair supervised the editing of the "Maguey" section into a feature film which was called Thunder Over Mexico. It was released in 1933. The film met with opposition from Communists, and others who supported Eisenstein. There was a bitter war of words in the newspapers. The picture did not do well. More than that, it damaged Sinclair's reputation in the American left. He was seen as the betrayer of a great artist's vision, a phony socialist whose only real concern was making money. Consequently, he moved more to the center, and even won the Democratic nomination for Governor in '34. He almost won, but to the mainstream politicians of his day, including the Democratic party machine, he was still a dangerous radical. Among the forces that played a part in the scare tactics that led to his defeat were the Hollywood studios. Sinclair was a survivor, though. Although he never again achieved the popularity he had enjoyed in the 20s, his books still sold, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for Dragon's Teeth.

Pieces of the Mexican film turned up in other productions. The epilogue was made into a short called Death Day. Some of the bullfight scenes could be seen in certain Paramount films. Bell & Howell made documentary shorts using "Sandunga" and "Fiesta" footage. Other scenes were pieced together for a 1940 film called Time in the Sun. Critical appraisal was negative, popular reaction nil.

Eisenstein mourned his Mexican film for the rest of his life. For five years after his return to Russia he did not make a film, concentrating on his theoretical writings. Bezhin Meadow ('37) was suppressed. Alexander Nevsky ('38) marked his return to favor, with a brief period of disfavor during the non-aggression pact with Hitler. His last work, Ivan the Terrible (1945-46), was first honored, then condemned after Part Two revealed the old Czar as uncomfortably similar to the paranoid, tyrannical Stalin. Eisenstein died in January 1948. He was only fifty years old. In his last days he began to talk about Mexico again. The resentment and the hurt were still there - he never seemed to have accepted his part of the blame for what happened. But there was also a wistful nostalgia, and a recognition that Mexico had changed his life as an artist for the better, despite all the dire consequences for his career. And to the end, he drew sketches of things he had seen in Mexico.

Sinclair turned the remaining footage over to the Museum of Modern Art in 1954. He died in 1968 at the age of 90. Towards the end he had offered no objection to Alexandrov's idea of reconstructng the film. A year after his death, MOMA exchanged several thousand feet of Qué Viva Mexico for several Soviet films. Alexandrov's reconstruction is probably the closest we'll ever get to seeing the picture in its intended form. It is a gorgeous work, yet the absence of "Soldadera," and the hand of Eisenstein to edit the picture, gives it a limp quality at times. The film attains greatness during moments of the prologue, the early part of "Fiesta," and for most of "Maguey" and the epilogue. Its beauty is that of a ruin, tempered with the sadness of what is lost.

It is a remarkable story. The brilliant director, who came to fame infusing propaganda with the fire of art, came to a land he had dreamed of since youth, and found there a new dimension in himself - a warmth, humor, sensuality, and a kind of spirituality as well .The little Mexican movie grew into his most ambitious and imaginative effort. But there were other forces at work, forces we all must deal with - the exigencies of money, politics and its power struggles, the very necessity to compromise with others in order to achieve one's vision. Eisenstein was inexperienced in all these areas, and it cost him dearly. It is the old story of the genius who founders on the demands of the day-to-day. There are plenty of others to blame, but there is also no escaping the fact that Eisenstein's own character flaws - his lack of openness, his isolation from practical matters, his disregard for the needs of others in the pursuance of his goal - helped to doom his beloved film. The Mexican dream was a beautiful romance. It was also a tragedy.


SOURCES:

QUÉ VIVA MEXICO. IFEX International Video, 1979. Soviet Cinema Today series.
Bergan, Ronald. Eisenstein: a life in conflict. London: Little, Brown and Co., 1997.
Bordwell, David. The cinema of Eisenstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Eisenstein, Sergei M. Immoral memories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Geduld, Harry M. and Ronald Gottesman, eds. Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
Goodwin, James. Eisenstein, cinema and history. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Karetnikova, Inga. Mexico according to Eisenstein. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
Montagu, Ivor. With Eisenstein in Hollywood. New York: International Publishers, 1967.
Seton, Marie. Sergei M. Eisenstein. London: Dennis Dobson, 1978.
Swallow, Norman. Eisenstein: a documentary portrait. New York: Dutton, 1977.

Qué Viva Mexico is available from KINO VIDEO

 

©1998 Chris Dashiell
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