Eisenstein had a 6-month contract with Paramount starting in May 1930. Although unable to have any project green-lighted, he experimented with applying the idea of inner monologue to his scenario for An American Tragedy. U.S. Left critics published excerpts from that in the film journal, Close Up.
Urged by Charlie Chaplin to approach Upton Sinclair for backing for his Mexican project, Eisenstein received an initial $25,000 from the backers that persuaded Sinclair to invest in the picture. The project was doomed from the start. Eisenstein severely miscalculated expenses and eventually had to request an additional $28,000, which still didn’t allow for completing shooting. Also, Sinclair sent his brother-in-law, Hunter Kimbrough, to supervise production—a man who had no experience in film production and seemed to strongly distrust Eisenstein.
The Russians in Mexico. Eisenstein sits center. Tisse stands left, Alexandrov center.
Eisenstein identified strongly with Mexico and its people.
"... it was not that my consciousness and emotions absorbed the blood and sand of the gory corrida, the heady sensuality of the tropics . . . On the contrary, the whole complex of emotions and traits that characterize me extended infinitely beyond me to become an entire, vast country with mountains, forests, cathedrals, people, fruit, wild animals, breakers, herds... ” (Eisenstein's journal)
Internationally and in the U.S, Left film critics defended Eisenstein’s Mexican film. Experimental Cinema, offered one of the strongest and most sustained defenses of Eisenstein’s film. It featured the film on its 1933 cover.
Within the same issue, Experimental Cinema published multiple stills from the film. Interestingly, this still of Maria following her new husband is nowhere to be found in the actual footage of the film's various versions.
A 1934 issue of Experimental Cinema dedicated to Que Viva Mexico! offered the complete synopsis of the film...
... and more stills from the film. Of particular importance, is the shot of Maria framed by an upside-down “U,” a recurrent symbol throughout the film that suggests both patriarchal oppression and class exploitation.
Within the same issue, the editors juxtapose an U.S. film, Hell’s Highway, and a Soviet one, In Old Siberia, to expose how each frame’s composition represents the masses differently. For Hell’s Highway, “Masses scattered. No design of individual units.” For Old Siberia, “Shapes, masses and stress, dramatically organizes.” Although both films use montage-within-the-shot, In Old Siberia exposes how the frame’s formal qualities reveal a progressive representation of the people, whereas the U.S. film creates a distrustful representation of the people as a chaotic crowd. In this way, U.S. Left film critics used montage theory to analyze divergent ideological implications.
U.S. Left film critics found Thunder Over Mexico's ending “fascist," glorifying the Mexican military, ...
... police, and footballers.
The critics also felt Thunder's ending undercut Eisenstein’s intention to represent the Catholic church negatively, linked with death, by having the “new,” reformed Mexico seeming to result from a girl’s prayers. Clearly, Eisenstein’s montage-within-the-shot is critical towards the church.
Another extremely powerful shot shows how the Catholic church makes human crucifixes of its followers. The man with a saguaro cactus lashed to his arms seems to become engulfed by the church’s edifice, holding its entire structure on his back.
Yet Eisenstein’s Mexican footage does not simply offer a negative reading of religion as a whole. Scenes show the power of native people appropriating Catholic imagery for their own purposes.
A peasant dressed in a “pagan” religious outfit appropriates the Virgin Mary into his head-dress.
The film also repeatedly uses the symbol of the trinity for regeneration, as in this final “Sanduga”sequence.
by Chris Robé
Ian Christie aptly notes in his 1993 introduction for Eisenstein Rediscovered,
Twelve years have passed since Christie’s observation, yet relatively little scholarly work has been advanced on the study of Eisenstein’s Mexican footage. With the exception of Marie Seton, Thomas Waugh, and Harry M. Benshoff, film scholars have largely regarded Que Viva Mexico! as an interesting experiment but resistant to thorough close-analysis due to its fragmentary and incomplete nature. Although one does not want to underestimate the difficulty in theorizing about such a tentative film project, a careful analysis of Eisenstein’s script, working notes, outlines, and the reconstructions of the film by his student Jay Leyda in the 1950s and his assistant Grigory Alexandrov in the 1970s suggest that Que Viva Mexico! might have become one of Eisenstein’s most sophisticated works to investigate gender’s relation to radical political transformation. More than any other of his films (with the exception perhaps being Old and New, 1929), Eisenstein’s Mexican footage interrogates the ways in which montage could be used to show how political revolution was directly dependent upon a radical transformation of gender roles.
Eisenstein’s notion of “overtonal” montage serves as a useful conceptual tool in analyzing the Mexican footage since it draws attention to the importance of evaluating the dominant and residual montage elements operating both within each shot as well as those operating between them. As Vladimir Nizhny, Jacques Aumont, and David Bordwell suggest, mise-en-scène and mise-en-shot (montage-within-the-shot) become central in Eisenstein’s teaching. This is indicated by his lesson in filming one scene from Crime and Punishment without any cuts, done after his experience filming Que Viva Mexico!, which suggests that these elements were also important when he was working on this film. The incomplete Mexican footage provides ample evidence of mise-en-shot. When analyzed in conjunction with Eisenstein’s and his contemporaries’ writings on the film, that footage allows one to make some inferences about the overall montage structure that his film might have taken if Eisenstein had completed filming and edited the film.
Yet in addition to the footage’s thematic importance within Eisenstein’s oeuvre and Soviet silent cinema, Que Viva Mexico! holds historical importance for 1930s U.S. Left film criticism. The failure of Eisenstein to complete Que Viva Mexico! invoked one of the most intense debates within domestic and international Left film journals and columns. In particular, U.S. Left film critics were finally forced to recognize the impossibility of mass-distributing radical films within the United States. They had to re-evaluate how more mainstream cinematic techniques must be used within their politically progressive films if they ever wanted them to reach mass audiences.
Since I have recounted this history elsewhere, I would like to focus here on how an analysis of gender’s thematic function within Eisenstein’s Mexican footage helps elucidate the ways in which 1930s U.S. Left film critics tended to marginalize gender issues within their own columns on Eisenstein’s film (and its Hollywood release version, Thunder Over Mexico, assembled from outtakes taken by Edward Tisse and Eisenstein, and edited by Hollywood producer Sol Lesser). In accord with such feminist scholars as Deborah Rosenfelt, Paula Rabinowitz, and Nan Enstad, who examine the problematic relations held by the historic, U.S. male Left towards gender politics and women’s liberation, my essay exposes how most 1930s, male, U.S. Left film critics used gender, at best, as a metaphor in their columns to help explain Hollywood’s monopolistic control of mass-distribution within the United States and the subsequent censorship of Eisenstein’s film.
Rarely do they note the central importance that gender had in structuring Que Viva Mexico! This occurred despite all of them having access to Eisenstein’s written film scenario and some of them gaining privileged access to interview Eisenstein both on and off location and to view his outtakes. Although one can rightfully claim that limited viewing access and the film's incomplete nature limited some U.S. Left film critics’ ability to identify gender as a central theme, I argue that their marginalization of gender arose from two more pervasive sources: 1) There was a political strategy that primarily viewed the championing of female desire and agency as nothing more than a consumption-based rhetoric that jeopardized class solidarity and collective action. 2) There was a male fear at how the Depression’s economic instability and 1930s consumerist discourses challenged their own “masculine” identities and privilege. This essay’s purpose, however, is not to discredit 1930s U.S. Left film critics but instead to identify some of the complex and divergent attitudes held by the cultural Left towards the imbrication of gender and politics.
Eisenstein and 30s U.S. Left film theory
Before engaging in a close analysis of Que Viva Mexico! and critics’ response to it, I first want to briefly address the context that made Eisenstein a significant figure for 1930s U.S. Left film theory. Eisenstein held significant prominence for U.S. Left film critics in the early 1930s. Not only had much of his theoretical work appeared in international film journals like Close Up and Experimental Cinema that U.S. Left film critics read, but during the summer of 1930 Eisenstein came to the United States to work for Paramount studios. While working within the bastion of capitalist cinema, Eisenstein wrote a scenario for a filmic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which the studio rejected as too political. But despite An American Tragedy’s consignment to only a written scenario, Left film critics circulated information about it in their columns, seeing it as a model of what a radical director could potentially achieve within Hollywood had he/she only been given the freedom by producers to pursue his/her plans. Eisenstein, in other words, represented for U.S. Left film critics the most sophisticated theoretical stance taken by a Left director with regards to filmmaking and studying film. Critics appreciated his desire to explore the radical potential held within modernist aesthetics like montage and internal monologue, willingness to explore how radical film might be employed within a studio system, and ability to explore cinema’s links with other artistic mediums like writing, theater, and painting.
Yet it was Eisenstein’s next venture—Que Viva Mexico!—that U.S. Left film critics and writers held with great expectations. Despite the failure of An American Tragedy, Left film critics felt that Eisenstein would be able to utilize some of the new techniques he learned within Hollywood in Que Viva Mexico!’s structure, since its independent funding supposedly freed it from studio control. In a February 1931 issue of Experimental Cinema, Seymour Stern writes, “The picture that Eisenstein brings with him from Mexico will no doubt make history enough for our Hollywood-ridden hemisphere,” since the completed film would expose the genius that Hollywood denied. Similarly, Adolfo Best-Maugard, the Mexican censor who helped Eisenstein location scout, states in Theatre Arts Monthly in 1932,
And after viewing the film’s raw footage, Edmund Wilson claimed “that Eisenstein is indeed in the process of creating the, to date, supreme masterpiece of the moving pictures.” Because Que Viva Mexico! was held in such high esteem by such critics and writers, its subsequent failure to be completed created unanimous outrage among domestic and international Left film communities.
Ultimately, multiple factors prevented Eisenstein from completing the film: his political and aesthetic disagreements over the film’s composition with the film’s main backer, Upton Sinclair; his unfamiliarity with Mexico as a whole; the difficulty of gaining mass-distribution for the film; and Stalin’s belief that Eisenstein’s extended stay in Mexico signaled Eisenstein’s desire to desert the Soviet Union. Eisenstein had only shot five out of the six episodes of Que Viva Mexico!, all of which he eventually shipped to Upton Sinclair. Despite Eisenstein’s subsequent pleas to gain access to the footage in order to edit it, Sinclair refused, believing that Eisenstein might try to smuggle this footage abroad, never to be seen again. Instead, Sinclair hired Hollywood producer Sol Lesser to take Eisenstein’s raw footage and condense it down to an hour and a half, resulting in the commercial film known as Thunder Over Mexico.
Thunder Over Mexico
Before the widespread release of Thunder Over Mexico in September 1933, Left film critics created one of the most organized campaigns against it and for Que Viva Mexico! Two main issues were at stake: 1) Que Viva Mexico! represented the potential to mass-distribute a radical film in the United States for the first time ever and thus to challenge the hegemonic hold Hollywood had upon theaters and audiences; and 2) Que Viva Mexico!’s illustrated montage’s superiority to the Hollywood cutting found in Thunder Over Mexico. In regards to the first issue, Left film critics believed that the prominence of Upton Sinclair as producer and Sergei Eisenstein as director would encourage Hollywood to distribute and exhibit Que Viva Mexico! since their fame would guarantee box-office draw no matter how experimental or political the film was in nature. As a result, Hollywood’s rejection of the film would force Left film critics to realize that mass-distribution of a radical film in the United States was impossible. In order to forestall such a conclusion, U.S. Left film critics spent column after column trying to create large-scale public protest against Thunder Over Mexico.
The second issue was a culmination of debates that began in 1927 in English language film journals about the importance of montage to cinema. Montage served as a central concept in structuring the debates of emerging Left film theory during the late 1920s for two main reasons: 1) It was a pliable enough term so that Left film critics could use it to pursue ideological analysis of a wide variety of films: Soviet, Hollywood, avant-garde, and independent. And 2) its emphasis on the inextricable links between film form and content not only provided a sophisticated method in analyzing the overall structure of specific films, but also in exploring cinema’s ability to offer spectators a more coherent vision of modernity’s fragmenting socio-economic processes and to explore how spectators could alter such processes in more humane and egalitarian directions. Regardless of the different ways in which the concept of montage was employed by Left film critics, it revealed the interpenetration of aesthetics and politics. For example, Victor Turin highlights the importance of material factors in establishing the advent of Soviet montage cinema:
Similarly, two years later, B.G. Bravermann addresses montage’s importance in all directors’ works:
Such comments reinforce Tom Brandon’s own observations about the 1930s U.S. Left film movement, which he was a part of:
But the centrality of montage within their film columns did not simply translate into U.S. Left film critics solely praising Soviet films and rejecting Hollywood ones. Harry Alan Potamkin, by far one of the most sophisticated Marxist critics during the early 1930s, writes in 1929,
By 1933, however, with the imminent release of Thunder Over Mexico, Left film critics’ discussion of montage became decidedly more polemical in its defense of Eisenstein’s Mexican footage against Sol Lesser’s Hollywood version of the film. Time and again, U.S. Left film critics establish the critical difference between Hollywood cutting and Soviet montage so that readers might see how Thunder’s very construction is at odds with Eisenstein’s intentions. Seymour Stern elaborates upon the differences found between the two types of editing within his article, “Hollywood and Montage.” The main problem with Hollywood cutting, for Stern, was that it was both too spectacular in its use of mise-en-scène and too realistic in its narrative construction. Individual shots must emphasize scenic backgrounds and/or the actor’s beauty while Hollywood continuity dictates that the narrative be simplified so that viewers could easily follow its trajectory.
Montage, on the other hand, for Stern, serves a diametrically opposite approach: to integrate all its visual elements within the film’s overall theme(s), and to create a narrative structured around the filmed material and the director’s intentions, not based upon the viewer-friendly constraints of Hollywood “realism.” Film content and style must be interconnected to maintain the integrity of the film. Montage, as a result, challenges audience members’ perceptions and thoughts not only by presenting radical content, but by presenting it in a new way that challenges “realism’s” limited ability to understand the socio-economic processes that structure our daily lives.
Stern illustrates the two different approaches to film construction by showing how Hollywood defines “excess footage” as any shot that is not related directly to character or the film’s narrative action. But footage that is “excess” to Hollywood is necessary for Soviet montage since it is needed to create subtle associational links that build up the film’s complex dynamic that challenges spectators’ naturalistic way of viewing the world.
Stern’s comments about “excess footage” are particularly germane in grasping U.S. Left film critics’ problems with Thunder Over Mexico. Eisenstein originally intended Que Viva Mexico! to be comprised of six episodes, each chronicling a different epoch of Mexican history. He described the structure of the film to be like that of a Mexican serape:
But the film’s very lack of a singular plot or story, which Eisenstein saw as a cinematic breakthrough, prevented Hollywood executives from picking the film up for mass-distribution. Upton Sinclair explained the Hollywood point-of-view to Eisenstein in a letter:
Without a singular story running throughout the film, Hollywood viewed the entire project as nothing more than “excess footage,” a “travelogue,” to use their euphemism, all of which Stern warned about in his column. As a result, when Sol Lesser became charged with transforming Eisenstein’s Mexican footage into a Hollywood film, he centered the story on Que Viva Mexico!’s most dramatic episode, “Maguey.” That episode shows the execution of Sebastian, a peon, and his friends who revolt against a hacendado after Sebastian’s wife, Maria, is raped by one of the hacendado’s men. As Marie Seton explains,
U.S. Left film critics were well aware that “Maguey” was only one of six episodes of the film since the journal Experimental Cinema, as well as other Left film journals and columns, had been chronicling the developments of Eisenstein’s film since its inception in 1931 and published Eisenstein’s written scenario (among other pieces on the film) in February 1934. As a result, Sol Lesser’s Thunder Over Mexico seemed nothing less than a “hack job” of Eisenstein’s original Mexican footage. In a manifesto in defense of Que Viva Mexico!, the editors of Experimental Cinema clearly laid out their problems with Thunder Over Mexico:
By eliminating three of the six episodes and not allowing Eisenstein to edit the film, Thunder Over Mexico, according to U.S. Left film critics, lost all thematic unity and development.