copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

Revolting women:
The role of gender in
Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!
and U.S. Depression-era Left film criticism

By Chris Robé

[Note: text version runs two pages]

Ian Christie aptly notes in his 1993 introduction for Eisenstein Rediscovered,

“Although Eisenstein was never able to edit his cherished Mexican footage, surprisingly little [scholarly] attention has been paid to what can be discerned from the mass of surviving film material.”[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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).[6] 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.[7]

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.

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.[8] 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.[9] Similarly, Adolfo Best-Maugard, the Mexican censor who helped Eisenstein location scout, states in Theatre Arts Monthly in 1932,

“Modern cinema is Viva Mexico!, a new achievement of a new technique, a more amazing technique than that of Potemkin, perhaps most adequately described, I should say, as ‘symphonic cinema.’”[10]

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.”[11] 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.[12] 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.

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.[13] 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:

“Not a single art-work that has its origin in the Soviet Union today is the metaphysical brainchild of an artist; but all artworks are based on material of actual occurrence, which forms the best foundation for any kind of creative work.”[14]

Similarly, two years later, B.G. Bravermann addresses montage’s importance in all directors’ works:

"A film director is an artist in a complete sense when he employs his tools to present a dialectic treatment of nature and man … he seeks to develop new aspects of cinematic design in time and linear patterns, and image relationships, with which to intensify artistically the deeply realistic content of his thematic material; he seeks new forms and methods not for their formal values alone but for their integration with an understanding of social phenomena…"[15]

Such comments reinforce Tom Brandon’s own observations about the 1930s U.S. Left film movement, which he was a part of:

"Form and content were inseparable. For all their concern with technique and the need to innovate, to improve, to bring film nearer to the idea of the medium of our time ought to be, they never lost sight of the place of film in society, its role as a force for reform and revolution—film was to be a weapon in changing the world."[16]

But the centrality of montage within their film columns did not solely translate into U.S. Left film critics simply 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,

“So long as montage is understood as an inclusive creative (constructing) unity, it is the valid vantage point of film aesthetics, but the moment it shifts to the mere job of cutting or, as it frequently appears in the work and utterances of the Russians, a device for effecting the spectator, without regard to the level of the theme, it is contradictory of unity.”[17]

He continues,

“The entire mind of internationalism, whether it is the large scale of the American commercial viewpoint or the propagandistic reduction of the Russians, thwarts this penetration of the intrinsic theme, and its re-making into the form of the film.”[18]

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.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21] 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:

"So striped and violently contrasting are the cultures in Mexico running next to each other and at the same time being centuries away. No plot, no whole story could run through this Serape without being false or artificial. And we took the contrasting independent adjacence of its violent colors as the motif for constructing our film: 6 episodes following each other—different in character, different in people, different in animals, trees and flowers. And still held together by the unity of the weave—a rhythmic and musical construction and an unrolling of the Mexican spirit and character."[22]

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:

"He [a man at MGM] then wanted to know the ‘story’ and pinned me down about it. He explained that a ‘story’ means one set of characters running all the way through the picture. If you haven’t that, then you have a travelogue, and there is nothing in between, from the trade point of view. I tried to explain your idea of a group of stories, and when I got through explaining, the man was absolutely cold … You are making the kind of picture that Hollywood does not want."[23]

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,

“Edited according to established Hollywood methods, the Maguey story, originally intended by Eisenstein to occupy but two reels in the total film, was spun out to six reels—seven including the Prologue and Epilogue.”[24]

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.[25] 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:

"Thus, Eisenstein’s great vision of the Mexican ethos, which he had intended to present in the form of a ‘film symphony,’ has been destroyed. Of the original conception, as revealed in the scenario and in Eisenstein’s correspondence with the editors of Experimental Cinema, nothing remains in the commercialized version except the photography, which no amount of mediocre cutting could destroy."[26]

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.

Left film critics who were familiar with Eisenstein’s scenario understood that the “Maguey” episode was supposed to represent a group of peon’s failed revolt against the economic and social injustices fostered under Porfirio Diaz’s regime. The rape of Maria would be just one form of social exploitation against the peons among many, such as the exploitation of their labor in extracting pulque and their limited access to the hacienda. But by having Thunder Over Mexico center on this episode, thereby undercutting its relation with the rest of the film’s episodes, “Maguey” lost all of its political symbolism to become nothing more than a simplistic and cliché action sequence. As The Nation film critic William Troy notes, “[W]hat little of the celebrated Eisenstein camera symbolism is retained appears totally disjointed and meaningless.”[27] As a result, Left film critics felt that Thunder Over Mexico used banal action sequences and empty stylistic effects to cover for its lack of imagination and ideas. Samuel Brody and Tom Brandon emphasize the meaninglessness and stupidity of Thunder’s focus on action in a rather lengthy plot summary of the film:

"The rape (?) of a peon’s girl by a guest of the hacendado. Attempt to save the imprisoned girl by a guest of the hacendado [actually, it is one of the peon’s who attempt this]. Failure. Chase. More chase. Still more chase. And chase again. The hacendado’s daughter is shot. The hero is captured. 'And for you, the punishment of the horses!' Burial of Sebastian and two other peons up to their necks. Soldiers on horseback trample on their heads. Grafted sound effects that might have been taken from a 'Silly Symphony.' Dark, dark skies. Composite shots of peons listlessly climbing, climbing, climbing. More composite shots. More superimpositions. More 'wipe-offs.'"[28]

Brody’s and Brandon’s choppy writing style clearly emphasizes the film’s fragmented and action-oriented style. They continue,

“[W]e are ‘wiped-off,’ ‘overlap-dissolved,’ and ‘super-imposed’ into Mr. Sol Lesser’s idea of a ‘Revolt!’ A puff of smoke, some fireworks sparkling meaninglessly in the night, and a small pile of burning straw! There is your revolution!”[29]

William Troy similarly claims, “Its [Thunder’s] appeal, based on the elements of rape, violence, and physical torture, is to the sensations rather than to the mind,” making the film into nothing more than a “sadistic melodrama.”[30]

Therefore, Thunder remains in complete opposition to Eisenstein’s intentions, which did not necessarily entail a rejection of sensational elements from the film but saw them as subsidiary to the film’s thematic impulses. Troy notes as much when he writes:

"But these things [the film’s sensationalism], we may feel confident, were not intended by Eisenstein to be offered for their own sake. Necessary to the dramatic elaboration of his theme, they would undoubtedly have been made to seem less sensational by being placed in proper relation to other elements of his subject. In Sol Lesser’s production both theme and subject are dislocated to produce a volume of selections which resembles nothing so much as a collection of “gems” from some masterpiece of literature or music …"[31]

As a result, for U.S. Left film critics, Thunder’s sensationalistic simplicity not only lost Eisenstein’s intended symbolism for the episode, but also offered both a gross simplification of Mexican history and a disempowering representation of Mexico’s lower class. For example, the editors of Experimental Cinema note,

“Eisenstein’s original prologue, which was intended to trace the sources and primitive manifestations of Mexican culture, thus projecting the most vital cultural forms among the Aztecs, Toltecs, and the Mayans, has been converted into a pseudo-travelogue.”[32]

Furthermore, because Lesser integrated material of the conquistadors within the prologue of the film, he had made it historically inaccurate. A second manifesto on the film explains,

“Apart from every other blunder committed, the false placement of these shots robs Eisenstein’s material of its cultural and ethnic authenticity.”[33]

Because the Mexican people serve more as an interesting backdrop in Lesser’s film, an interesting pictorial effect to be used for compositional effects rather than thematically centered upon whereby their history, tradition, and struggles would be emphasized and investigated in their own right, U.S. Left film critics viewed Thunder as an insult to the Mexican people as a whole. In discussing “Maguey,” Brody and Brandon write,

“[T]he peons are at all times shown as characterless ‘passive resisters’ (a direct slander against the heroic traditions of the Mexican masses!).”[34]

Thunder’s epilogue, as a result, which emphasizes Mexico’s revolutionary transformation into a land of equality and justice seemed completely unrealistic to Left film critics who felt that the emphasis on the powerlessness of the masses throughout the film in no way prepared the viewer for such an idealistic ending. William Troy writes,

“Without any sort of transition, these events [within “Maguey”] are succeeded by a tritely symbolic evocation of the new Mexico—great public buildings, men working, military parades. One has assisted at an orgy of sadistic melodrama only to be thrown a sop of old-fashioned mystical ‘progress’ at the end.”[35]

According to these critics, Thunder’s epilogue implies that a benign government suddenly emerged after the Porfiriato’s harsh regime. The editors of Experimental Cinema write that Eisenstein intended the original epilogue

“to anticipate the revolutionary urge dormant in the descendants of those ancient races … [but Lesser has converted it] into a cheerful ballyhoo about ‘a new Mexico,’ with definite fascist implication.”[36]

The “fascism” that U.S. Left film critics were referring to in Thunder was mainly due to its out and out glorification of the Mexican military and army. Thunder exemplifies Upton Sinclair’s well-known promise to the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs that “the film would not show the people of present-day Mexico as mistreated or unhappy.”[37] Herman G. Weinberg notes how such an ending undercuts Eisenstein’s original intentions by quoting a letter from Seymour Stern:

"Anyone who has seen the rushes, except the blind fools who backed the picture, could have seen at once, even without the ‘rushes’ being cut, that Eisenstein had taken the shots of the Mexican army, the Mexican police, etc., in a bitter satire, rivaling the most satirical moments of Ten Days that Shook the World! All these shots, however, have been distorted under Lesser’s idiotic supervision into a super-glorification of everything that makes present-day Mexico despicable…"[38]

Furthermore, such an ending overlooks the very real problems that still plagued working-class Mexicans. Brody and Brandon elaborate, albeit in hyperbolic terms, on some of them:

"This about the Mexico where not a foot of soil remains unstained with the blood of oppressed peons! This about the 'new Mexico' that suppresses the Communist Party and murders its heroic leaders! This about the Mexico where the feudal-reactionary Catholic Church is daily regaining its foothold thanks to the Wall Street inspired policies of the Rodriguez military dictatorship!"[39]

Therefore, according to these critics, Thunder uncritically celebrated the new Mexican state without acknowledging its still reactionary tendencies and by ignoring the importance of people’s revolutionary collective action in affecting progressive reform.

Yet Thunder’s epilogue was equally problematic for U.S. Left film critics in the way it contradicted Eisenstein’s supposed intention to have an anti-religious theme run throughout Que Viva Mexico![40] According to Seymour Stern, based on correspondences with Eisenstein, Que Viva Mexico! was supposed to represent “the tyranny of the Catholic Church of Mexico” by fusing the film’s religious imagery with the theme of death.[41] Yet as Samuel Brody and Tom Brandon note, Thunder Over Mexico makes the arrival of the “new Mexico” seem an answer to a prayer. They quote a column from the New York Times to support their point:

“In one or two scenes M. Eisenstein derides religion, but later the title writer does the reverse, for one gathers that present conditions in Mexico come, in the film, as an answer to a girl’s prayer.”[42]

 “‘Give us the strength of our fathers!’ prays the peon girl. Presto! A ‘New Mexico’ appears before your eyes, full-blown with marching men, blaring trumpets, football teams, and the dynamic rhythms of the ‘wheels of industry’ manned by former peons.”[43]

Because of such flagrant disregard of Eisenstein’s themes and structure, Brody and Brandon assert that Thunder Over Mexico represents “the conscious inversion of Eisenstein’s original intentions” to make the film possess a mainstream structure that would appeal to mass audiences and distributors and also to the current Mexican government.[44]

As one can see, armed with the uncut rushes of Eisenstein’s Mexican footage, Eisenstein’s written scenario for Que Viva Mexico!, and correspondences with the director, U.S. Left film critics felt fairly adept at identifying some of the central themes that were supposed to run throughout Que Viva Mexico!: a critique of religion, revolution, and death. Yet it strikes one as odd when examining these very same sources from a contemporary perspective that barely any U.S. Left film critics noted the thematic importance women and gender was to hold within Que Viva Mexico! Although one can argue that the footage Left film critics might have seen did not emphasize the centrality of gender issues and women, Eisenstein’s written scenario clearly suggests their centrality: two of the four main episodes focus particularly on women: “Sanduga” and “Soldadera”; and “Maguey” sets itself off by self-consciously drawing attention to its “virile” and masculine environment. Only one critic, Morris Helprin, dedicates an entire article to the importance of gender within Eisenstein’s Mexican film. Seymour Stern, on the other hand, the main person who organized the campaign against Thunder Over Mexico and by far the most intimate of all U.S. Left film critics with Sergei Eisenstein and who had seen the most rushes of the film, only mentions in passing women’s role. The rest of U.S. Left film critics remained silent about the issue altogether.

Before investigating how Helprin addresses the gender issues and women’s centrality within Eisenstein’s Mexican film, and exploring the reasons for U.S. Left film critics’ silence on such issues, I first want to explore some of the ways gender might have structured Que Viva Mexico!

I recognize the controversy in offering any analysis of Eisenstein’s Mexican footage since he ultimately did not finish shooting the film’s final episode, “Soldadera,” and was unable to edit the material he had shot. Yet, as Ian Christie points out, it is impossible for film scholars to identify any Eisenstein film as a Ur-text that represents Eisenstein’s original intentions due to the liberal ways in which silent Soviet films were constantly being re-edited due to both internal political reasons imposed by the state and the commercial mandates of creating international appeal in foreign markets.[45] Whether it be Strike’s loss of its original titling, the disappearance of the original negative of Battleship Potemkin, the Stalinized re-editing of October, Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II, and further destruction of Part III and Bezhin Meadow, the missing reel from Alexander Nevsky, and the three year gap between the initial shooting of The General Line during 1926 and its final shooting and rushed editing in 1929, renamed as The Old and New with significant differences between prints, it is impossible to identify any film in Eisenstein’s entire oeuvre as untampered with.[46]

October, usually considered Eisenstein’s most experimental work, is, according to Christie, “essentially uncompleted,” due to Stalin’s visit to the cutting room just before the film’s premiere and ordering the cut of several important scenes totaling about 3000 feet.[47] Yet the film nonetheless remains an important testament to the ways in which Eisenstein was attempting to practically implement his developing theories on montage, even though we can never ultimately determine the overall montage structure the film would have taken without Stalin’s intervention.

My point here is that Que Viva Mexico! differs in degree rather than kind from Eisenstein’s other films. It hovers between his unshot projects like An American Tragedy, Sutter’s Gold, The Glass House, Kapital, and his Haitian film, among others, and his more completed works like Strike and Nevsky. But to totally disregard the material Eisenstein had shot for Que Viva Mexico! as being too incomplete to make any inferences at all about the form the film might have finally taken strikes me to be based on incorrect assumptions of how we must approach Eisenstein’s oeuvre in particular and silent cinema as a whole. Christie rightfully notes,

“Because individual copies of films could be and were easily altered for many different reasons in the course of their circulation, it makes little sense to search for a unique original or authentic version of each production.”[48]

As a result, one must, if at all possible, contextualize the appearance of the various print versions of a film and the reasons for their appearance. In regards to Que Viva Mexico!, I take a similar stand as Harry M. Benshoff in claiming that I am not so much offering a “reading” of the film, which implies a singular textual authority that the film does not possess, as discussing “some of the visual connotations that arise from individual shots, and how these images relate to individual episodes and across the film as a whole.”[49] Furthermore, I second Benshoff’s belief that the very fact that Que Viva Mexico! had been suppressed both by the film’s backers and American mass-distribution lends credence to the belief of its intended radical structure and content—too radical in fact to be assimilated by Hollywood at all except in an extremely truncated form named, Thunder Over Mexico, where the film’s politics and perspective could be disarmed, as U.S. Left film critics at the time rightfully observed.[50]

The main sources I am relying on in analyzing Que Viva Mexico! are Alexandrov’s 1979 reconstruction of the film and Jay Leyda’s assemblage of Mexican outtakes in Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study (1955). Out of all the versions of the film, Alexandrov’s seems to come closest to Eisenstein’s written scenario. Additionally, Alexandrov worked intimately with Eisenstein during the original shooting of the film, and since his own development in film production was significantly shaped by the events of the Russian revolution, he shares a similar cultural background with Eisenstein that becomes particularly important in regards to the development of gender issues in his reconstruction since one can’t help but see the film’s gender representations as being influenced by the Bolshevik’s stance towards “the woman question” immediately following the Revolution.[51]

Leyda’s reconstruction remains important because of its singular focus on showing Eisenstein’s and Tisse’s outtakes in their entirety, which allows for the most thorough examination of montage-within-the-shot of Eisenstein’s Mexican footage. Also, Leyda’s reconstruction helps provide a viewer with a better understanding of some of the outtakes that 1930s U.S. Left film critics most likely saw and guided their assumptions when they discussed Que Viva Mexico! in their columns.[52] For the most part, I will mainly be referring to Alexandrov’s version in my analysis while weaving in certain further insights that Leyda’ footage provides, which I will announce when I do so.

As stated earlier, Eisenstein’s film held an elaborate six-part structure that offers a sophisticated representation of the multiple historical factors that eventually led to revolutionary outbreak within Mexico during 1910. The film explores both the proto-socialist tendencies in pre-conquest indigenous society that will eventually be harnessed for revolutionary action and the various types of exploitation of the lower class by the Conquest, the Church, the land owners, and the Porfirio Diaz regime that will exacerbate class tensions between the peons and the bourgeoisie. In this way Que Viva Mexico! attempts to link revolutionary action with the collective will of the people, while acknowledging the complex and diverse historical processes that lead up to it and carry on its tradition into the future. It is unlike Thunder Over Mexico, which offers an individualistic interpretation of the conflict that emerged between some peons and a hacendado, without situating their struggle within wider socio-economic processes of their time and ignoring that conflict's links with previous forms of systemic exploitation upon the Mexican people; in this way, Thunder Over Mexico decontextualizes the Mexican Revolution, making it simply a historical backdrop for a “sadistic melodrama” between the “good” workers and a “bad” landowner.

In contrast, Que Viva Mexico! provides a dialectical and historical understanding of the Revolution as being dependent upon both individual and collective action throughout multiple historical epochs. Equally important, Eisenstein’s Mexican footage represents the Revolution’s success as dependent upon radical transformations of gender hierarchies into more egalitarian structures, which clearly suggests resonances with the Bolsheviks’ own stance towards “the woman question” immediately following their revolutionary take-over in 1917 in Russia. As a result, by studying Eisenstein’s Mexican footage, we can not only gain a better understanding of how montage potentially allowed for more sophisticated representations of revolutionary action and representations of women than classical cinematic forms provided, but also see how residual elements of the Bolshevik’s radical stance towards women’s liberation, at least during its early days of coming to power, influenced Eisenstein’s representation of the Mexican Revolution.[53]

Que Viva Mexico!’s fourth and fifth episodes, “Maguey” and “Soldadera,” most centrally deal with the growth of revolutionary consciousness and its outbreak, and explore its intimate relationship with gender issues. As mentioned before, “Maguey” concerns the exploitation of the peons by the hacendados (the landowners) during the time of the Porfirio Díaz regime (1876-1909). “Soldadera” takes place during the Revolution of 1910-1911 through the point-of-view of a woman, Pancha, who fought alongside the revolutionaries of Villa and Zapata. I would like to first focus upon “Maguey” and its relation to the film’s first episode, “Sanduga,” since these two episodes establish the primary causes for revolution— with women’s exploitation taking a central role. Then I will examine how “Soldadera” and the “Epilogue” expose how radical transformations in gender roles are necessary for successful revolutionary action.

Overall, Que Viva Mexico! situates a patriarchal male gaze as the product of a capitalist economy and class system. It thus suggests the contingent nature of such patriarchal and class-based looking relations and the potential to replace them with a more equitable and socially just ideological structure. In his script for “Maguey,” Eisenstein emphasizes, “Aggressiveness, virility, arrogance and austerity characterize this novel”—a masculine focus unlike all the other episodes that either address women’s importance in Mexican civilization or take a more gender-neutral approach.[54] The episode begins by emphasizing the predominance of the male gaze with a medium shot of a painting of Porfirio Díaz in uniform looking sternly outwards from the hacienda’s wall. There is a cut to a close-up of his face. We see in the top part of the painting’s circular frame an upside-down “U,” subtly suggesting a critique of the masculine gaze in a period of Mexican history linked with the exploitation of the Spanish Conquest. The first use of that kind of image came in earlier episode, “Fiesta,” which presents an Aztec warrior bowing in submission before Conquistadors with a ceremonial band forming an upside-down “U” in his hands. As a result, “Maguey’s” opening upside-down “U” suggests a similar violence, supplication, and oppression occurring throughout its narrative.[55]

“Maguey” reinforces the ubiquity of the male gaze not only through repetitive close-ups of Díaz’s portrait, but also when the hacendado displays the peon’s bride Maria. A long shot shows the hacendado sitting in a throne-like chair near the top of an open courtyard as Maria walks past him and stands to his right. A medium shot follows of Maria removing her kerchief so the hacendado can see her face. In close-up, the hacendado examines her body, looking her up and down. A medium shot switches to the man who will eventually rape her, as he examines her and drinks his pulque. She looks back skeptically at the man in a medium shot. A longer medium shot frames the rapist, sitting back on his chair, left leg arched as his foot rests on another chair. His crotch is in dead-center of the frame, suggesting not only the assault that will soon follow, but also how the male gaze of this episode is inextricably linked to the phallus. But this shot also deconstructs the abstract male gaze with a literal cock-shot of the rapist.

Here male, heterosexual desire is self-consciously and critically marked as the determining factor of women’s oppressed position in the narrative. Although the hacendado never touches Maria, the linking of his gaze with that of the rapist suggests that their vision of Maria is all a part of the same gender (if not class) visual economy. Furthermore, by initiating the episode with Diaz’s look, Eisenstein symbolically links the political economy that Diaz represents with the sexual economy that leads to Maria’s rape. The connection between Diaz’s look and Maria’s rape is further emphasized when she walks off-screen in this scene and stands against the hacienda’s inner wall. As the sunlight enters a buttressed doorway, its light frames an upside-down “U” around her, showing how she is a part of the political and sexual economy that frames Diaz’s portrait in the episode’s opening. [56]

By situating the male gaze within the “historically shifting economic conditions” of the Porfiriato, Eisenstein is further able to expose an alternative looking-relation at the end of the episode.[57] Sebastian, Maria’s husband, and his friends have been trampled to death. Maria is crouched down by his side. A medium shot frames her looking at her husband’s crushed body. She does not have an expression of grief or shock. She is merely taking in what has happened. From a distance in the maguey fields we see a medium close-up of a peon who has survived. The peon lowers his head, his sombrero covering his eyes as Maria lowers her face to the desert, lying beside Sebastian. After cutting back from Maria, a series of extreme close-ups follows of other peons who observe the scene clandestinely—where from, we are not entirely certain. The eyes multiply, taking in this moment of defeat under Díaz’s rule. It seems as if all of Mexico’s downtrodden observe this event since none of their gazes are linked to an identifiable place. But, now, both the peons’ and Maria’s vision are united due to their identical stoic expressions, suggesting a shared emotional state. She no longer represents a sexualized object but a person who suffers from the common oppression that plagues them all, emphasized by the scene’s mise-en-scène: her face in the lower left corner of the frame as Sebastian’s trampled torso juts out center frame against the clear sky. Maria shares the space with Sebastian, but she is not fetishized as she was with the hacendado since Sebastian’s corpse dominates the frame and our vision.

Additionally, Harry M. Benshoff explains how the episode also inverts the representations of men found in classical Hollywood cinema by presenting them “as helpless victims.”[58] Due to the scene’s religious evocation of the crucifixion with Sebastian standing in for Christ and his two friends as the thieves, Benshoff notes how it “invokes a heady mixture of sadomasochism and homoeroticism that marks so many depictions of Catholic icons/martyrs.”[59] But unlike traditional Catholic imagery where its religious connotations make the viewer unconscious of such sadomasochistic impulses,

“Eisenstein foregrounds these sadomasochistic signifiers, and in so doing, de-represses the impulses that lurk beneath the signifieds of Christianity.”[60]

As a result, one can observe how “Maguey” represents Sebastian’s fall from a privileged male subject position to that of a literal object, a corpse, whereas Maria moves from an objectified status to that of a subject by the end of the film. Yet the presence of the peons within the scene prevents it from being merely interpreted as a reversal of gender roles. Rather it is a unification of men’s and women’s looks into a collective and egalitarian observation of the tragedy that has befallen upon Sebastian, his friends, and them as a people. Furthermore, as Benshoff rightfully notes, Sebastian’s object status nonetheless transforms him into a powerful symbol for all of those who observed the tragedy:

“Sebastian has become part of the land, the land that the Spaniards have stolen, raped (both literally and metaphorically), emasculated, and trampled down.”[61]

It is this transformation and unity of vision that serves as a necessary precursor to the revolution that will take place in the next episode.

But Que Viva Mexico! goes even further than suggesting that revolution is dependent upon more equitable looking-relations in the future. It exposes how more equitable looking-relations existed in the past with its focus on female labor in the matrilineal society of “Sanduga.” The film’s focus on a “primitive” community serves as an alternative example to the patriarchal relations of “Maguey” by showing how unalienated labor and independence must be intertwined for women to gain autonomy. The episode functions in the film much like primitive communism functions in Engels’ work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels relies on the findings of ethnologist Lewis Henry Morgan to argue that matrilineal kinship relations predominated before the emergence of private property and exchange relations, which began to dominate and reconfigure such societies into patrilineal forms. Engels, however, does not use such earlier societies to argue for a return to them but in order to expose the transitory and limited existence of patriarchal, capitalist relations. Eisenstein, similarly, situates “Sanduga” near the beginning of the film to show how such a society pre-dated the Porfiriato’s patriarchal, capitalist regime, emphasized in “Fiesta” and “Maguey.” These two episodes are then book-ended by “Soldadera,” which addresses the Revolution and shows many of the ways in which it used some aspects of matrilineal culture to effect change against the Díaz regime.

“Sanduga” also dramatizes Engels’ belief that many of the tendencies of communism existed in incipient form in primitive communities. Production in these communities was tied both to the individual and the community. Items were produced for direct consumption and use. “Sanduga” shows a civilization where production is still in the hands of the producers. Concepción and the other women of Tehuantepec sell their locally grown fruits and vegetables in the market in order to obtain gold pieces for their dowry necklace. But the gold necklace does not simply represent some abstract unit of exchange whereby other commodities are measured against; instead it is subsidiary to the ultimate goals of unifying the community. The gold coins are connected to the community through lap-dissolves that link it to the “U” shape of flower necklaces and the hammock in which Concepción’s future husband lies. Furthermore, the emphasis on women’s labor in this episode suggests women’s importance in this type of society. As Engels notes,

“People whose women have to work much harder than we would consider proper often have far more real respect for women than our Europeans have for theirs.”[62]

Women’s equality depends upon their having access to the means of production, which affords either equal or superior status in the community. “Sanduga”’s focus on female labor emphasizes that the means of production are intimately connected with the more equitable looking-relations that predominate throughout the episode.

Yet “Sanduga” can also be seen as Eisenstein’s over-idealization of the two central but interrelated tenets that the Bolsheviks proposed for the emancipation of women: the abolition of private property and full integration of women into the workforce.[63] Indeed, “Sanduga” exposes both the value of communal life and the importance of women’s work, but it tends to show the men doing nothing at all except mostly lounging in hammocks. Harry Benshoff reads such gender representations in progressive ways, since it creates a homoerotic gaze for “the naked male torso” and shows respect for matriarchal society and women’s active roles, which undercuts the traditional homophobia and sexism that underlies much of classical Hollywood cinema.[64] All of this is true. Yet the episode is troubling to me in the ways that it mostly reverses gender positions by making women more active and men more passive rather than sharing more equitable positions in regards to labor.

By having the women conduct all the labor and men none, “Sanduga” resonates with the very same problems that the Bolsheviks had in creating women’s emancipation: women were introduced into the workforce, but the necessary infrastructure that was supposed to socialize domestic work away from the private sphere never materialized, therefore, creating a “double burden” of work for women.[65] Yet “Sanduga” represents this “double burden” in the most idealized of ways: smiling women who connect with one another across generations and families and gaze at beautiful male bodies while the men lay back and rest. It fails to represent the mandatory ingredient in creating equality: men contributing their own labor to the community and making it a truly communal endeavor.[66]

To be fair to Eisenstein, it must be recalled that the episode was only supposed to represent primitive communism at work, not communism proper, so one can read the episode’s very short-comings in regards to equitable labor as one of its very points. And, as we will see in my analysis of “Soldadera,” revolutionary gender roles and labor issues are represented quite differently, yet not entirely unproblematically, from those in “Sanduga.” Yet the very filming of “Sanduga,” its soft-focus, halo-like lighting, and curving, sensuous male and female bodies and faces, tends to undercut seeing the episode as anything other than as representative of a paradise fallen.

Within the film as a whole, the idealized shooting of “Sanduga” serves a more thematically significant purpose of making it jarringly contrast with the hard-focus and angular, phallic forms that dominate “Maguey.” If “Sanduga” represents primitive communism, which Engels speaks about in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and The State, “Maguey” represents its destruction by capitalism. It exposes how, with the growth of capitalism, the producers gradually lose control of their products as an exchange system begins to determine all social relations—thus alienating individuals from one another and their community. Producers no longer know what becomes of their product, “and the possibility arose that the product might some day be turned against the producers”—a possibility that “Maguey” exposes with the peons’ harvesting of pulque.[67]

Initially, most noticeable is how the female labor of “Sanduga” has been replaced by the all-male labor of pulque production, showing how the Diaz regime has removed women from the means of production, suggesting that women lost their liberty precisely when primitive communal life transformed into relations of private property. Patriarchal society alters women from being an end-in-herself to a sexual commodity for men’s desires, as my earlier analysis of “Maguey” supports. In terms of the male workers, close-ups and medium shots accentuate the peons’ intensive labor of extracting the juice from the maguey plants that is fermented into pulque. But rather than fermenting the juice themselves, they take it to the hacienda where the hacendado oversees the pulque’s production. After fermentation is complete, the pulque is sold back to the peons where, according to Eisenstein’s scenario, it “drowns sorrows, inflames passions and makes pistols fly out of their holsters.”[68]

But these sorrows and passions are often caused by the alienating production system for harvesting pulque that keeps the peons dispossessed of their land and in a constant state of abject poverty. The phrase “pistols fly out of their holsters” is a double-entendre that further emphasizes how the pulque consumed by one of the hacendado’s men encouraged his rape of Maria and led to Sebastian’s armed rebellion. “Maguey” reveals how economic and sexual exploitation are a part of the same economy. The peons’ inability to own the means of production of the pulque not only keeps the peons in a perpetually destitute state, but that allows the hacendado’s men to believe that they not only own the pulque but the laboring bodies that produce it. The commodity and the producer are conflated, making the peons a disposable product for the upper-class’s amusement. This general conflation of the human being with the commodity further explains the display of Maria before the hacendado’s men. Eisenstein’s intercutting of the hacendado’s men drinking pulque while gazing at Maria suggests the similar place that both the pulque and Maria occupy: things to be consumed either orally, visually, or sexually.

The film’s next episode, “Soldadera,” strikes me as the film’s most interesting section, with its focus on the women who fought beside the revolutionaries between 1910 and 1911. It is also most problematic to analyze. Since Eisenstein was unable to shoot this episode, we only have his written scenario and random accompanying notes on it as sources to determine what might have appeared on film. Yet, as Harry Benshoff observes,

“It is interesting to speculate whether this sequence would have proven to have been one of the earliest statements of feminist action to be seen in Soviet film.”[69]

Based on Eisenstein’s written scenario, “Soldadera” would have emphasized the revolutionary importance of women’s action and labor to enact revolutionary change. Yet rather than deeming such an outlook as “feminist,” I consider “Soldadera” to be more representative of an “anti-feminist” Bolshevik position that nonetheless acknowledged the importance of women’s liberation through class struggle. The episode represents one particular Bolshevik stance towards the woman question that dismissed “feminism” as “bourgeois feminism,” regarding it as a liability that would remove focus from the class struggle and undermine collective political action. Therefore, instead of “viewing the liberation of women as a desirable object in itself …,” this stance viewed “the mobilization of women in more instrumental terms as a potential contribution to the larger revolutionary struggle,” which is exactly what “Soldadera” seemed to set out to do.[70] Yet the scenario of “Soldadera” is interesting in the way that it predominantly focuses on the women while visually minimizing the men’s importance. So even though the episode adopts an “anti-feminist” Bolshevik position towards the woman question, its very structure would highlight the importance of the women’s actions and community in ways that usual adherents of such a position did not.

Contrasting with Maria in “Maguey,” the women of “Soldadera,” as a whole, take a more active stance by utilizing an interesting mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits to serve the Revolution. They take empty gun cartridges and allow their children to suck on them for a lack of candy.[71] They apply tortillas to the men’s wounds and fasten them with willow fibers.[72] In essence, the women take military objects (the cartridges) and domesticate them while seizing on the domestic (the tortillas) for military uses. Much like the unity of visions at the end of “Maguey” that establishes a revolutionary perception, the mixture of the domestic and the public suggests that the “masculine” and “feminine” spheres in revolutionary action are no longer mutually exclusive but must be fused for social progress to take place.

This conflation of the “masculine” and “feminine” is particularly noteworthy when one keeps in mind that Eisenstein typically “uses the crossing and blurring of traditional gender lines to caricature figures he does not like [in his films].”[73] Al LaValley cites the “masculinized” women’s death battalion in October and Efrosinia’s “mannish” features and Vladimir’s “feminine” look in Ivan the Terrible as particular examples.[74] Although some exceptions to this rule can be found, such as Marfa’s final “masculine” image in The Old and New and Fyodor’s gender-bending dress and actions in Ivan, Part II, “Soldadera” offers Eisenstein’s most sustained and nuanced focus on the need to problematize traditional “masculine” and “feminine” roles in order to foster revolutionary activity.[75] And because “Soldadera” refuses separate gender spheres, it shows how women are no longer forced to choose between either having a family or a career, as patriarchal, capitalist ideology asserts, but they can do both, once-again as we have seen in “Sanduga.”

Yet, like “Sanduga,” “Soldadera” exposes a “double burden” of work for the soldaderas by having them tend to both domestic labor and fighting in the revolution. Rather than lounging around as in “Sanduga,” men here are busy fighting. Yet, “Soldadera,” seems more aware of the “double-burden” imposed upon women than “Sanduga.” We see this in the way Eisenstein’s scenario describes Pancha, the soldadera whom the episode mainly focuses upon:

“a machine-gun ribbon hangs across her shoulder, a big sack containing household utensils weighs heavily on her back.”[76]

Pancha’s very image represents how this “double-burden” literally weighs on her back. “Soldadera” tends to emphasize hardship, privation, and suffering inflicted on the women by the revolution. This is not a fallen paradise like “Sanduga” but a transitory hell towards liberation. Yet through such suffering and pain, “Soldadera” seems to suggest how revolutionary activity nonetheless enacts important transformative changes upon traditional gender and familial roles that are necessary in creating a more egalitarian and just future.

Que Viva Mexico! ultimately aims at transcending the limited categories of “masculine” and “feminine” by exposing how the experience of ecstasy allows all individuals to move beyond their gendered, racial, and socio-economic limits. Ecstasy is a moment when the self is no longer divided from its surroundings. It is not, however, simply the incorporation of the external into one’s “I” but a dissolution of the self into its surroundings, what Kaja Silverman deems “excorporative.”[77] As many Eisenstein scholars have noted, Eisenstein primarily viewed ecstasy in religious terms, “like the saint’s loss of self in the Other.”[78] Individual control no longer exists, as the experience becomes totalistic, fusing consciousness with processes that exceed and determine the ego’s gendered, racial, and socio-economic limits.

The fiesta, for Que Viva Mexico!, becomes an important site where people as a whole can temporarily gain access to ecstasy, which is why the film ends with the Day of the Dead. The holiday highlights the Mexican “vacillada”—where the ridiculous and the sublime, the masculine and the feminine, the spiritual and the animal intermix.[79] By challenging the categories and logic of patriarchal, capitalist Mexican society, Day of the Dead provides the potential to access collective ecstasy, where people can re-envision society as a totalistic whole and where more equitable and pleasurable structures can be established out of the exploitation of the present. Octavio Paz has most clearly noted the revolutionary potential of Day of the Dead in The Labyrinth of Solitude when stating,

“It is … a sudden immersion in the formless, in pure being. By means of the fiesta society frees itself from the norms it has established. It ridicules its gods, its principles, and its laws: it denies its own self.”[80]

In Que Viva Mexico!, Day of the Dead reveals how revolutionary potential lurks in the present moment—within every sugar skull, at the bottom of every cup of pulque, in between every musical chord.[81] Although the conflation of the “masculine” and the “feminine” seen in “Soldadera” is still far from the transcendence of such categories, the episode indicates a desire to move towards a better, more equitable future. What exactly this future will look like is not entirely certain, but the film suggests that it most definitely will not resemble those class and gender positions that constituted the bulk of “Maguey.”

As we can see from my close analysis of Que Viva Mexico!, U.S. Left film critics were correct in asserting the importance of montage in their columns since it did indeed offer a more complex and radical structure for Eisenstein’s film than Hollywood continuity editing could provide. As stated before, when Upton Sinclair and Sol Lesser released Thunder Over Mexico, Left film critics denounced it as reducing the complexity of the original film into “a single unconnected romantic story” by making “Maguey” into Thunder Over Mexico’s central focus rather than having it be only one of six episodes as Eisenstein intended.[82] Although “Maguey” is a pivotal episode in Que Viva Mexico! in that it suggests the emergence of revolutionary perception and consciousness, it is still only a brief episode in the overall film. Thunder, therefore, tends to over-individuate the episode into a melodramatic structure between “good” peons and a “bad” hacendado without accounting for the wider socio-historical processes that led to the forms of exploitation that we witness. And in regards to gender issues, the male gaze that Que Viva Mexico! represents and questions is no longer understood within Thunder as historically class-contingent, but it is established as a transhistorical gendered norm. Because alternative socio-economic structures and looking-relations are not addressed (as the episodes of “Sanduga” and “Soldadera” would have done), the masculine gaze is unproblematically naturalized.

[Go to page 2 of text version of essay]


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