“And a curious use of side-stepping metaphor and associative poetry is involved and embraced – all of which I came later to understand as characteristics of montage, the cinema of comparison – film by association – an ‘only-connect’ – cinema, cinema at long last not a slave of prosaic narrative but hopping and skipping about with serious purpose to run like the human imagination runs, making everything associative till everything past, present and future, old and new, both sides of the wall – like Cubism – which so influenced the contemporary Russian avant-garde in painting – though Malevich said that Eisenstein could never join the Russian avant-garde, he was ‘too real’. Amazing! I had found my first cinema hero.”–Peter Greenaway on Sergei Eisenstein (from director’s notes to Eisenstein in Guanajuato)
FEATURING: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti
PLOT: In 1931, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potempkin) is in Mexico, gathering material for a new movie. While there, Eisenstein, a closeted homosexual, falls in love with his Mexican guide. He becomes more interested in the romance than the movie, but when his American financiers back out and Stalin calls him home, the director must abandon his first true love.
- Eisenstein in Guanajuato begins from a real life episode. In the 1920s Sergei Eisenstein made three film in Russia—Strike, Battleship Potempkin, and October [AKA Ten Days That Shook the World]—that were globally regarded as classics, especially for their revolutionary kinetic editing. In 1928, Eisenstein was allowed to leave the Soviet Union as a sort of artistic goodwill ambassador. He toured Europe and North America, lecturing on Soviet film while learning the techniques used in other countries (specifically, the new technology of synchronizing sound to film). While abroad, the writer Upton Sinclair and his wife Mary agreed to fund Eisenstein with $25,000 to make a film in Mexico. Stalin worried that Eisenstein might defect and called him home, while the director simultaneously quarreled with his American backers over his extravagant expenses. The feature film, which would have been titled ¡Que viva México!, was never completed, although the Sinclairs edited some of the reported 250 miles (!) of film Eisenstein shot into three shorts. Eisenstein was never able to obtain the footage to edit himself.
- Based on diary entries and homoerotic sketches he made, Eisenstein is widely believed to have been gay, and his marriage to Pera Atasheva a platonic one. There is no hard evidence he ever acted on these inclinations—although of course if he did he would have taken pains to hide the evidence, since under Stalin homosexual activity was punishable by five to ten years of hard labor in a prison camp.
- Peter Greenaway originally planned the film as a documentary.
- Try as he might, Greenaway could not find a Russian actor of the right age and appearance who was able to speak English and Spanish convincingly and was willing to appear nude in a gay sex scene. Elmer Bäck is a Finnish actor previously seen only on Finnish television.
- Greenaway has announced a prequel, Eisenstein in Hollywood, intended to be completed by 2017.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Probably, the image that sticks in your mind will come from the sex scene centerpiece—one of the most explicit gay romps in a mainstream film, and one in which the lovers discuss colonialism and syphilis as Eisenstein is anally deflowered. We don’t want to ruin the, er, unusual climax where Palomino storms Eisenstein’s Winter Palace for you, however.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Looming desperadoes; shower phone; animated angel porn
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This lurid and delirious biopic of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein plays like
Original trailer for Eisenstein in Guanajuato
COMMENTS: It’s fair to say Eisenstein in Guanajuato is Peter Greenaway’s Ken Russell movie: an erotically charged imaginary biography of an artist in the throes of passion, and a salacious sneer at the very concept of good taste. Characters spend their days smoking cigarettes, sneaking seductive glances, and speaking of love and death (which they unabashedly call “Thanatos” and “Eros”), unconcerned with the possibility of being charged with homosexuality or pretentiousness. Historical accuracy is spat upon. Like Russell, Greenaway favors an expressionistic mythologizing that he feels more truthfully imparts Eisenstein’s revolutionary importance to cinema. Style gives substance a righteous thrashing, then stands over its battered corpse, taunting it.
At the center of this madhouse is Eisenstein himself, portrayed by newcomer Elmer Bäck as a kind of hybrid between Oscar Wilde, Yakov Smirnoff and “Larry” from the Three Stooges. This Eisenstein is flamboyant (and used here, that’s not a euphemism for “gay”), dominating every conversation with his motormouth wit. His unruly Jewish-afro hairstyle calls attention to itself; Eisenstein chooses to play the clown. When he walks in on an orchestra practicing their rendition of Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” to accompany a screening his own Potempkin, he jumps up on the stage and hops around, mock conducting. He’s ashamed of his body, which he feels is unattractive, but he’s not afraid to use it as a weapon by talking business with his financiers while his pants are off. He can hardly stand still, dancing around the patio furniture while dropping anecdotes about his acquaintances among the intelligentsia: Upton Sinclair, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, , Douglas Fairbanks, , Man Ray, Dos Pasos, , James Joyce, Abel Gance, , Al Jolson, , Rin Tin Tin… Even in private, he stays in caricature, lecturing his disobedient penis in the shower. I’m not sure that Bäck‘s cartoonish performance is the most technically proficient, but I can say it meshes beautifully with Greenaway’s mad vision.
Sex and death are Greenaway’s themes, and although the latter makes its way into conversation (Eisenstein and his guide Palomino recite a roll call of the famously deceased), is constantly recalled by the Day of the Dead masks (which the couple wear while lounging around naked), and is even encountered in person when Eisenstein investigates a local mudslide, it’s the former that dominates the director’s mind. Eisenstein, we are told, is an improbable virgin at 33. He loses his virginity in the exact middle of the film’s running time. Sex is the center: the center of the movie, and the central turning point in Eisenstein’s life. There are not actually a lot of sex scenes—although there is abundant male full-frontal nudity, and obscene animations—but the one coupling we do see is a doozy. Not only is it explicit—we see why Eisenstein’s guide’s name, Palomino, is so appropriate—it is also ridiculous, in that the loquacious Eisenstein and his Mexican host can’t shut up during the act. As the Mexican invades the Russian, Palomino fashions a typically verbose reverse-colonialism hypothesis.
Greenaway is clearly inspired by Eisenstein’s character and historic importance, but he doesn’t mimic his editing style (which, once revolutionary, is now classical). Eisenstein is firmly in the opulent Greenaway tradition, with enormously detailed and colorful sets and extensive application of post-production magic. If anything, Greenaway’s formalism, which sometimes approaches the mechanical, is less disciplined here, a looseness that suits the character of his mercurial subject. He is fond of using a triptych split screen, an apparent nod to Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon. Superimposed images show up frequently. Distorting lenses make a mosaic-laden silent theater bend and warp into a mescaline geometry. Three broad-brimmed banditos, who look like mustachioed extras from a silent Western, lurk on the periphery, waiting to abduct foreigners. The glass floor of the bedroom Eisenstein shares with Palomino appear to glow. In one bravura scene, the camera pans left past a series of columns in an infinitely expanding restaurant as an exasperated Eisenstein goes on a defensive rant about his finances, with the characters reconfiguring themselves in impossible ways with each invisible wipe. Greenaway directs in a creative frenzy, throwing out visual ideas as flippantly as Eisenstein tosses out quips.
The lack of directorial discipline creates energy, but it also hides a paucity of serious reflection. This film is like the rambling conversations between the two lovers, not like a rigorous or insightful biography. The film’s Eisenstein quotes Freud as holding that men have five essential needs—-health, work, money, sex, and love—which must be balanced to find sustainable happiness. Freud’s theory of sublimation would argue that Eisenstein’s repression of his homosexuality drove his early work, and that once his sexual desires are satisfied in such a sudden torrent of pleasure, work on his current project, ¡Que viva México!, is no longer necessary for his psychic satisfaction. He no longer has to sublimate his sexual drive into his art; and indeed, we see very little of Eisenstein working on the film within the film. Greenaway does not follow this particular path, however, other than implicitly suggesting it. He says that Eisenstein’s sexual awakening changed his art by making his post-Guanajuato films more humanistic, but he only makes that claim in the supplemental material, not in the movie itself. Watching this movie, the casual viewer would be forgiven for concluding that Eisenstein’s filmmaking career ends in Mexico, in despair, rather than with the triumphant Ivan the Terrible fifteen years later. Greenaway tells us that the Guanajuato adventure comprised “ten days that shook Eisenstein,” but we never see the ultimate results of the upheaval onscreen. Eisenstein rides off the scene in melancholy, wearing a death mask, his film in shambles, leaving heaven behind, presumably for good.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Not since Ken Russell’s screen biographies of painters and composers (‘The Music Lovers’) has a director deconstructed the myth of the heroic creator with such merciless delight. In ‘Eisenstein in Guanajuato,’ Mr. Greenaway (‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’) goes to lunatic extremes Russell himself rarely approached.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Eisenstein in Guanajuato is far from a subtle picture, and hardly what you’d call to everyone’s taste, but it certainly doesn’t lack for enthusiasm, vision or style.”–Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian (contemporaneous)
Eisenstein in Guanajuato | Strand Releasing – The American distributor’s page has basic information, stills, the trailer, a downloadable poster, and the press kit
IMDB LINK: Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Eisenstein in Guanajuato | Press Conference Highlights | Berlinale 2015 – Greenaway and Luis Alberti answer questions from the press at the Berlin Film Festival; Greenaway disses realism and drops lots of F-bombs
New Eisenstein Biopic: Greenaway Goes Loco in Guanajuato – Film historian David Robinson rants about the movie’s historical inaccuracies
Holiday romance: Peter Greenaway on his new film about Sergei Eisenstein’s secret affair – From “The Calvert Journal,” a discussion of how the homosexual themes in Eisenstein in Guanajuato offend Russians who revere Eisenstein but stigmatize homosexuality
DVD INFO: Aside from the feature presentation, the Strand Releasing DVD (buy) contains trailers and a twenty-five minute interview with actors Elmer Bäck and Luis Alberti.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato is not available on Blu-ray at the time of this writing, but it is available for download or rental on-demand (buy or rent).