Eisenstein in Guanajuato ★★★½

[7]

Second viewing, and I could see a few problems I missed before. Granted, I missed them because I was having such a good time, and I can't recall the last time I would use that phrase in relation to A Peter Greenaway Film. And keep in mind, I am one of the few folks who seems to have actually found a lot to admire and yes, actually enjoy, in the first volume of The Tulse Luper Suitcases.

But before we get to the specifics of this film, there are some general remarks that are work getting out there. A lot of folks won't even deign to see this film, so convinced they are that Greenaway is washed up. For many, the man's career effectively ended with The Baby of Mâcon and his split with composer Michael Nyman. While there's no question that the Greenaway/Nyman partnership was something special, one almost gets the sense that some critics and viewers took the split as a personal offense, like a divorce in which they were forced to take sides and they chose Nyman.

Add to this the fact that Bazinian long takes are the thing these days -- that Greenaway's hyper-edited, multi-pictorial mode is deeply out of fashion. The only other "major" filmmakers working primarily as montage artists are Oliver Stone and Darren Aronofsky, neither of them exactly critical darlings. If we went back to look at some of Greenaway's acknowledged classics from the 80s and 90s -- Prospero's Books, say, or The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, or (my personal favorite) A Zed and Two Noughts -- would they seem hyperactive and fidgety, "too much like MTV"?

Note: these are not charges anyone levels at Godard.

This is a significant comparison, not because I think Greenaway is as radical an artist as Godard. In fact, many of the works that cemented Greenaway's reputation, the ones that fans look back upon as his heyday, have some aesthetic conservatism hardwired into them. (Nyman's minimalism was simple and neo-Baroque; Greenaway's taste in visuals always tended toward the 17th and 18th centuries.) But just as many of Godard's recent films and especially his video works bear the tenor of a single erudite artist at the console working through ideas all on his own, Eisenstein in Guanajuato feels like Greenaway's most personal, individual effort in a very long time.

The film begins and ends with spoken voiceover by Greenaway himself, which is unique, at least in terms of his fictional features. (His slide-lecture documentary, Rembrandt's J'Accuse, was of course guided by the director's own voice.) The director explains Eisenstein's art and significance, but not in an overdirective or pedantic way. It's more like he's sharing his love and enthusiasm for a film artist he loves, one who, it's worth observing, is also on the outs with critics. Eisenstein's Soviet montage style (and in particular the filmmaker's claims for its scientificity) tend to be dismissed as Russian propaganda these days. As Eisenstein's stock has plummeted, Dziga Vertov's has risen sharply, no doubt due to the latter's self-reflexivity.

But the point is, Greenaway sets out the project as a kind of demonstration, not unlike Godard's Histoire(s) or his video Scenarios. In this respect, when we see some of Greenaway's old tricks (multiple screens, images repeating, superimpositions, etc.), they seem a bit less like showboating, more like the work of a video artist, an animator, or a collage artist. Greenaway is moving things around, as if he's thinking on the fly. And this whimsy extends to the ecstatic, even madcap performance by Elmer Bäck as Sergei Eisenstein.

Bäck plays Eisenstein as a rambling, almost clownish intellectual, bumbling through Mexico with a sense of his own inadequacy. Quite obviously an object of Greenaway's deep affection, Eisenstein shows a childlike enthusiasm for North American plumbing (showers!), Day of the Dead rituals, and the prospect of receiving a shoeshine without labor-exploitative implications. But Eisenstein is not simply a buffoon.

What we learn is that Eisenstein is a conflicted gay man. But this is not the whole story. Greenaway and Bäck are careful to depict the director as an outsized caricature precisely because he experiences body dysphoria. He speaks to his cock as if it were an alien being, but more than this, he refers to his own body as if it were an aberration. Why should it be Mexico that allows Eisenstein to consider these feelings?

Part of the complication, and the liberation, is Eisenstein's encounter with Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), an ethnography academic and his guide in Guanajuato. The director is immediately attracted to Cañedo, and as we discover in the course of the film, the attraction is mutual. But more than this, Eisenstein has experienced his own body, and his own sexuality, as mapped by the homophobic ideology of the Soviet state. For a political philosophy designed to overcome alienation, Soviet Communism has clearly alienated Eisenstein from himself. As Greenaway shows it, Mexico and Cañedo permit the necessary "outside" to that deforming ideology, for the first time.

Now, Greenaway being Greenaway, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is not going to pass muster with every proponent of queer theory. This isn't just because it's a film about gay desire made by a heterosexual artist. It has to do with Greenaway's basic philosophical commitments, which are in part Freudian. The sex scene between Sergei and Palomino, like almost every sex scene in any Greenaway film, exhibits this filmmaker's belief in the implicit connection between Eros and Thanatos, sex and death.

This connection has uniquely problematic overtones in gay male history, particularly after the AIDS crisis. (This is elaborated in Leo Bersani's classic article "Is The Rectum a Grave?") Greenaway does not take any steps to avoid these connotations of sex, violence, and death in the Eisenstein film, but I think that is chiefly because he is an old school modernist liberal, who sees no difference on a raw physical level between heterosexual and homosexual sex. (To partake in special pleading on behalf of gay sex would be to reestablish the Soviet ideology Greenaway is out to dismantle.) We know that this liberalism, however well intentioned, only takes us so far, and has its own pitfalls.

Nevertheless, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a film in which Greenaway attempts to depict, as he remarks at both the start and end of the film, "Ten Days That Shook Eisenstein." How does a believer in a revolutionary ideology come to break with the most repressive aspects of, if not the ideology itself (Marx never addresses queerness), then its dominant instantiation? How does Eisenstein find his sexuality, and how does it change him, if at all?

There's something open-ended about Greenaway's film, for a couple of reasons. The Mexican project, Que Viva Mexico!, was never finished. So the material substrate of this awakening, apart from some salvaged scraps, is inaccessible. But even more than this, Eisenstein's return to the Soviet Union coincided with his Stalinist period, and the most conventional films of his career. So although Greenaway builds a futurity into his vision of Eisenstein, it's a radicalism that exists only as a freeze-frame. Maybe that's the only way our heroes survive.

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