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Sergei Eisenstein: Mexican Fantasy

If Orson Welles is one of the cinema's great expositors of the moving camera, then Sergei Eisenstein is the avatar of editing. His famously attention-grabbing editing tricks gave the Soviet director the image of a cold-blooded propagandist, but his prospective film Que Viva Mexico!, like Welles' It's All True, showed a different side to the master of montage, a side that embraced the warmth and sensuality of Latin culture. The production history of the never completed Que Viva Mexico! is a typical Hollywood heartbreaker. Lured to Hollywood by Paramount in the early '30s, the master of propaganda formed a financial alliance with Upton Sinclair, the writer and failed socialist candidate for political office. Eisenstein planted himself in Tetlapayac with his cinematographer Edouard Tisse, where he spent some 14 months writing, drawing, and shooting. But in short order the project turned disastrous. Among other things, changes in the Soviet film industry put Eisenstein's stature at risk, and Stalin summoned him back. Sinclair promised to ship the footage to the USSR, but he never did. A glimpse of what Que Viva Mexico! might have been is available in Sergei Eisenstein: Mexican Fantasy. Compiled and released in 1998 by Oleg Kovalov — something of an Eisenstein devotee who has also issued a documentary about the director's life — the film is, like the 1993 It's All True, a theory as to what the finished film might have been like. Unfortunately, Kovalov has seen to augment his already corrupted enterprise with unnecessary doodlings on Tisse's images, and to add vulgar, crude sound effects of a sort that would find a happy home in a gross-out teen comedy. Kovalov's audio and visual "emendations" to Eisenstein's footage are about as necessary as adding closed-captioning to a strip-tease act. The narrative Kovalov has contrived from the surviving footage is a succession of unfleshed out nonsense scenes. There's a funeral; there are some flirting lovers ; there's a toreador; there's a Day of the Dead celebration. This film's sole interest coincides with the use of the freeze-frame button. There, Tisse's beautiful images can be studied and appreciated in all their frozen glory, freed from the tyranny of Kovalov's imposed "meaning." The full-frame transfer on Image Entertainment's DVD release is surprisingly clean, but still bears some markings, scratches, and other signs of wear. The audio is monaural, but that doesn't matter, as the wise viewer will watch this film with the television muted to mask the unnecessary and insulting sound effects. No extras; the static menu offers 15-chapter scene-selection. Snap-case.
—D.K. Holm

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