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Sergei Eisenstein: Mexican Fantasy

Image Entertainment

Written by Sergei Eisenstein
Directed by Oleg Kovalov

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

At the height of his universal appeal, in the middle of the last century, the famous director went to Hollywood. There, this master of moviemaking became fascinated by all things south of the border. He decided to make an epic film, half documentary, half magical realism, about the land and its people. Shooting hours upon hours of material, he amassed enough footage for several movies. But then, other factors intervened, and the director had to abandon the project. Then the footage was taken away from him. The reels lay hostage to the director's talent, and he died years later never able to revisit the project or complete his film. In the twilight days of the 20th Century, restorers finally assembled the footage. With no script, plan, or guidelines from the now deceased director to go by, the assembled footage was pieced together, but ended up being neither fish nor fowl, neither the original vision nor a plausible recreation of the director's intentions.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you are probably thinking of Orson Welles and his corrupted quasi-documentary It's All True, footage for which was shot between Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but never completed (a compilation of the footage received a form of release in 1993). But the same scenario also occurred to another famous movie director. 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! showed a different side to the master of montage, a side that embraced the warmth and sensuality of Latin culture.

The production history of Que Viva Mexico! is a typical Hollywood heartbreaker. Lured to Hollywood by Paramount in the early '30s, the master of propaganda eventually ended up associated with Upton Sinclair, the writer and failed socialist candidate for political office, who helped gather financing for a prospective film about Mexico, focusing primarily on its history of rebellion and the nature of its people. Urged on by both Charles Chaplin and documentarian Robert Flaherty — whose own work, a blend of real people enacting fictional stories that Que Viva Mexico! would resemble — Eisenstein formed an alliance with the Sinclair. In Eisenstein's prospectus for the film, he described six individual segments, each dedicated to a Mexican or Spanish artist, and each exploring an aspect of Mexico's past and present, from the bloody creation of the pyramids to the rituals of the Day of the Dead. 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. Sinclair's brother-in-law was assigned the task of monitoring the budget, but he had no film experience. Sinclair ceased financing the film. 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 Eisenstein did not receive it. Sinclair sold or lent the footage to filmmakers who used it in such movies as Thunder Over Mexico, Death Day, Eisenstein in Mexico, and Time in the Sun. To make matters worse, Mexican authorities searched Eisenstein's property and discovered reams upon reams of pornographic gay images drawn by the rebellious director, which helped turn the puritanical Sinclair against his former partner.

The gay drawings are a measure of Eisenstein's more sensual approach and the more explicitly sexual content of his Mexican film. A glimpse of what Que Viva Mexico! might have been is available in Sergei Eisenstein: Mexican Fantasy (Sergei Eisenstein: Mexikanskaya Fantasiya), released on DVD via Image Entertainment. Compiled and released theatrically 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. The audio track is also unduly loud. When a peasant takes a spit, the fluid goes kaplunk like a bombshell falling into Lake Michigan. The compiler has also seen fit to overlay scratched-out words of helpful information onto the images. Kovalov's audio and visual "emendations" to Eisenstein's footage are about as necessary as adding closed-captioning to a strip-tease act. The bad foley work is the moral equivalent of Ted Turner colorizing Casablanca.

The folly of Sergei Eisenstein: Mexican Fantasy is on a level with someone trying to complete Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood: It's a lose-lose situation. The narrative Kovalov has contrived from the surviving footage is a succession of unfleshed out nonsense scenes. There's a funeral; there are some lovers flirting with each other; there is a toreador preparing to face a bull; there are modern day Mexicans posed in profile beside the carvings of their ancestors; and there are some citizens joyously celebrating the Day of the Dead, drinking out of skull cups. This film's sole interest coincides with the freeze-frame button. There, Tisse's images, under the supervision of an Eisenstein who was moving away from montage toward composing in the film frame, can be studied and appreciated in all their frozen glory, freed from the tyranny of Kovalov's imposed "meaning."

And Tisse's images are gripping. They have an otherworldly glow. The beautiful black and white photography is also wonderfully composed, perhaps even a little over composed. Tisse's stark, stunning imagery, which tends to isolate the subjects from their backgrounds and shoot up at them from a low, ennobling angle, puts the viewer in mind of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's prime propagandist in such films as Olympia and Triumph of the Will. Perhaps it is fitting that the visual styles of filmmakers from tyrannous regimes that are otherwise ideologically in opposition should nevertheless resemble each other.

The full-frame transfer on this DVD is surprisingly clean, but it still bears some markings, scratches, and other signs of wear. The audio is monaral, 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. Shockingly, or perhaps sentimentally, the Berlin International Film Festival gave its 1998 C.I.C.A.E. Award to Oleg Kovalov. Additionally, there are no extras, such as a documentary about the making of this or Eisenstein's film, or any packaged material that explains such fundamental things as how the footage from the film got from America to Kovalov in the first place.

— D. K. Holm

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