copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
The role of gender in Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!
and in U.S. Depression-era Left film criticism
[Text version, page 2]
But despite many 1930s Left film critics’ perceptive analyses of how Hollywood’s reliance upon continuity editing, spectacular mise-en-scène, and limited characterization would efface the radical politics of Que Viva Mexico!, they largely ignored the significant role gender played in the film’s structure. One might argue that 1930s U.S. Left film critics simply did not possess a theoretical outlook that would enable them to clearly articulate the ways in which patriarchal capitalism constructed “female” identities. However, as one searches through the archives of New Masses and Daily Worker, one notices women writers such as Meridel LeSueur, Josephine Herbst, Martha Millet, Mary Heaton Vorse, Rebecca Pitts, and Grace Hutchins who attempted more complex connections between gender and Marxist politics than U.S. Left film criticism implies. Ella Winter traveled to the Soviet Union and reported on the abolition of sex discrimination in her 1933 book, Red Virtue: Human Relationships in the New Russia. Grace Hutchins offered a survey of women’s labor in the United States in her 1934 book, Women Who Work, where she distinctly linked her work with that of a Marxist tradition:
"They [Marx and Engels] included in their analysis the first basic treatment of women’s status under capitalism and their statements are as true today as when they were made some eighty years ago. It remained for Lenin and the Soviet Union to point the way with inescapable clearness toward the true freedom of women in socialist society."
Meridel LeSueur reported on the travails of unemployed women within New Masses and American Mercury in the early 1930s, suggesting that the Depression has affected them as significantly as men. Such writings are important since, as Paula Rabinowitz points out, although no historic Left institution of the 1930s, whether it was the U.S. Communist Party, the AFL, or the CIO, ever emphasized a feminist program within its structure, “the early years of the decade had seen a surge of demands resonant with feminist goals …” Yet such feminist goals were entirely absent from most U.S. Left film critics’ columns at the time, suggesting either a disconnection between these critics and the, mainly women, writers who investigated gender issues more thoroughly at the time, or a failure on Left film critics’ part to see how a focus on gender might benefit their ideological analysis of film.
Rebecca Pitts’ article, “Women and Communism,” written in a 19 February 1935 issue of New Masses, is particularly remarkable in the way that its Marxist analysis of female exploitation parallels the same observations made within Que Viva Mexico! Pitts uses Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and The State to explore the importance of female labor in establishing women’s equality within the community. Similar to “Sanduga,” Pitts states,
“In primitive times, and, indeed, until shortly before the dissolution of tribal communities, women were free, productive members of the group” because exchange relations had not yet usurped use value that placed people and not profit at the center of the community.
And as “Maguey” follows “Sanduga,” Pitts likewise follows with the observation,
“It is very interesting and important to notice that women lost their liberty precisely when primitive communal life broke down and private property developed.”
Removed from the workforce and regarded now as an exchange value between men, women are seen as men’s “own property, made for his personal use and pleasure.” She continues, “From an end in herself she became a sexual commodity, a means to an end,” an observation echoed in “Maguey’s” focus on the rape of Maria. Communism, for Pitts, is the only answer to help women regain their status as an ends in themselves since it is the only political system that acknowledges that both new economic and psychological foundations need to be created in order for women to truly realize their full potential. Pitts looks to the Soviet Union not as an embodiment of communist principles but as offering “embryonic hints of the future,” just as Que Viva Mexico! looks to Day of the Dead as offering hints of a new future where both the economic and social order must change, in order for both class and gender equality to take place. In essence, Pitts’ article tracks the exact trajectory that Que Viva Mexico! takes, even though it is unclear if Pitts was even familiar with the film.
Pitts’ article is important in the way it highlights how some members of the early 1930s U.S. Left were familiar with Engels’ text and had access to a sophisticated Marxist analysis of gender, which could have served as a productive theoretical tool for analyzing the gender implications of Que Viva Mexico! Yet such analysis remains largely absent within U.S. Left film criticism on the film. Pitts’ article was published a year after the Que Viva Mexico! debates subsided, so U.S. Left film critics could not use it in their analysis of the film. However, one can safely infer that at least some women on the U.S. Left were discussing this issue prior to Pitts’ article based on the books written that concerned an analysis of gender from a Marxist point of view: Agnes Smedley, Daughter of Earth (1929), Grace Lumpkin, To Make My Bread (1932); and Tillie Olsen’s, Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Yet U.S. Left film critics show no evidence of engaging in a dialogue or even being familiar with such feminist discourses.
The closest U.S. Left film criticism comes to noticing the importance of gender in Que Viva Mexico! is Morris Helprin’s 1934 article for Experimental Cinema. Helprin actually spent several months in Mexico to observe Eisenstein, providing him with a more in-depth knowledge of the film than most other Left film critics possessed. In this article, Helprin claims that Eisenstein discovered “the importance of woman’s position in that country,” which moved the film “from [originally being] a dimensionalized fresco to the presentation of a socio-logical problem” about the role and influence of women in various Mexican epochs. Helprin cites “Sanduga” as representing female labor in a matrilineal society. Woman “tills the fields, barters in the market place and rules the home. Her husband is a procreative force and no more.”Furthermore, he notes the drastic change in gender focus in “Maguey,” “Here a phallic symbolism is engaged to emphasize the complete masculinity of the terrain” and episode. His use of the term “phallic” to describe the episode is surprising since it indicates a vague awareness that gender is not merely limited to human bodies but to milieu— that gender is a part of the environment and its ideologies as well as of the characters. Ultimately, Helprin notes that Eisenstein “has recognized the part that woman plays in the social and economic life of the country and around this has constructed his film.” Although her physical presence might not dominate all of the film’s episodes, “her influence is as subtle as the Indian’s overconquest and swallowing-up of his Spanish conqueror.”Helprin’s last statement is revealing since it connects women’s presence within the film to an anti-colonial struggle, suggesting that at least one U.S. Left film critic saw how the two themes were intertwined.
The question remains: How could other Left film critics, especially Seymour Stern, who spoke to Eisenstein more frequently than Helprin and who saw more outtakes than Helprin, barely notice the importance of gender at all? Their almost complete silence about gender within the film suggests a more systemic problem since Helprin’s article and the film’s synopsis published in Experimental Cinema in 1934 clearly showed Left film critics that gender was central to the film. One possible answer might be that many male Left film critics could only see, at best, the film’s metaphoric use of women to represent revolution, thus supporting Paula Rabinowitz’s observation in her book Labor and Desire that the 1930s male Left often considered gender issues as subsidiary to class issues. When gender was brought to the forefront by the male Left, it was usually used metaphorically to represent class conflict by juxtaposing a masculine proletariat against an effeminized bourgeoisie.
U.S. Left film criticism seems to support Rabinowitz’s general observation about the historic Left’s metaphoric use of gender, with one important difference. On the rare occasion when these critics did mention women’s importance within Eisenstein’s film, they highlighted her as a metaphor for revolution, thus inverting the traditional way in which the historic Left often associated the “masculine” with the proletariat and the “feminine” with the bourgeoisie. In other words, Eisenstein’s film provoked Left film critics to invert women’s metaphoric role, while at the same time Que Viva Mexico! failed to make the critics notice the more complex ways in which women operated non-metaphorically in the film’s episodes.
For example, in regards to “Soldadera,” Seymour Stern highlighted women’s metaphoric role by seeing its central character, Pancha, as representing the growing revolutionary consciousness of Mexico in traditional “feminine” ways. Pancha initially marries a man of Pancho Villa’s regime. But Eisenstein viewed Villa as a problematic revolutionary figure since he revolted more for his own self-interests than that of Mexico as a whole. Unable to submit his egocentrism for the Revolution, Villa warred unnecessarily against Zapata’s troops for the spoils of victory. After Pancha’s husband dies about three-quarters way through the episode, she immediately marries a Zapatista soldier and gives birth to a child. Pancha’s new marriage represents, for Eisenstein, “the conception that strength does not reside in dispute, but uniquely in the union of all the people against the forces of reaction.”  Stern emphasizes Pancha’s role as child-bearer by indicating that the climax of “Soldadera” “is the birth of a child by one of the soldadera hiding in a freight car, intercut in parallel montage with the triumph of the 1910 revolution in the desert through which the train is speeding.” Not even mentioned by name in Stern’s article, Pancha’s “motherly” role as child-bearer effaces her complex actions that challenge the mutual exclusivity of “masculine” and “feminine” realms. Because Pancha hovers between gender binaries, she occupies a liminal position that most working-class women held and the male historic Left had difficulty identifying:
“… not fully feminine because she works, neither is she a worker, because she does women’s work. Her body is a site of the dual labor of productivity and reproduction and so appears outside the divisions constituting knowledge.”
Left film critics' effacing women’s more complex roles in Que Viva Mexico! is representative of their common belief that gender must function in a traditional or in a limited metaphoric way, in order to serve class solidarity. If it became a point of investigation in itself, it risked disrupting its metaphorical use in defining social classes. Pancha must remain unnamed in Stern’s article, since to assert her individuality would de-emphasize her metaphoric role in the Revolution.
But more often than investigating the metaphoric role of gender in the film, Left film critics metaphorically gendered their own description of the film. Sol Lesser’s editing of Thunder Over Mexico was considered, “THE RAPE OF ‘QUE VIVA MEXICO!'” making Thunder Over Mexico into “an emasculated fragment of Eisenstein’s original scenario…”Reduced from a potentially “manly” status, Que Viva Mexico! had been violated to become the (ef)feminized Thunder Over Mexico. Yet other critics considered Que Viva Mexico! as originally an object of feminine beauty despoiled by Lesser’s editing. Herman G. Weinberg in a June 1933 article for The Modern Monthly believed that Que Viva Mexico! possessed “ravishing physical beauty” that “‘died of an abortion’ performed by murderous hacks.” Yet Weinberg continues to describe those “murderous hacks” as people “who had no more feeling for its [Que Viva Mexico!’s] greatness of conception than so many mercenary ‘mid-wives.’”
The various uses of “feminine” language in Weinberg’s article indicate that the “feminine” could be metaphorically applied both positively and negatively by Left film critics. The “feminine” is both violated and violator. It is the pristine object to be gazed at, but it is vulnerable to violation due to its objectified status. But if the “feminine” becomes active, it is then deemed a “mercenary mid-wife.” Within these descriptions of the film, we notice the assumptions made by many Left film critics who want to associate the “feminine” with the objectified and also see it as a threat when it takes on an active status—hence the threat of the bourgeoisie, which is deemed “feminine” by the Left yet nonetheless actively controls U.S. politics and economics.
The concern of many male Left film critics to pose the “feminine” in such limited positions suggests a desire by them to pin down “woman” and the “feminine” in reductive ways in response to the newly predominant discourses of Hollywood, fashion, and the cosmetics industry that destabilized gender identities. By asserting women’s ability to purchase a certain gendered look, these materialistic discourses undercut the older belief that gender was “naturally” connected to one’s sex. As various feminist scholars like Kathy Peiss, Janet Staiger, Nan Enstad, and Shelley Stamp have shown, women became a central focus for the new consumer culture arising between 1880 and 1920. Sarah Berry notes how Hollywood marketing became intertwined with the fashion industry in the 1930s, which “contradicted older notions that a woman’s social status was defined by her father’s or husband’s social position.” A few Left film critics were well aware how Hollywood’s growing links to other materialistic industries actually destabilized traditional representations of women on the screen. Lewis Jacobs observes in his 1939 work The Rise of the American Film how
“short skirts, boyish figures, silk stockings, step-ins, cigarettes, and drinking not only emancipated the modern girl from ‘woman’s passive role’ but freed her for masculine pursuits as well.”
Although Jacobs’ observation suggests more of a role-reversal than an ultimate destabilization of the categories themselves, he indicates how “masculine” gender positions were open to women because of consumer discourses found on the Hollywood screen. Yet, despite consumerism’s ability to emancipate women from “passive” roles, 1930s Left film critics realized that such “independence” came with a price: Self-commodification precluded collective action and a systemic understanding of capitalism’s processes as a whole.
Because they saw it as asserting individual desires over collective action, many Left film critics found the “women’s independence” asserted by consumer discourses as a conservative ideology. With a consumerist ideology, one could safely focus on individual wants and needs because such an attitude left the social processes that create such desires and the very concept of the “individual” unexamined. Yet these Left critics largely failed to see the dialectical nature at work in consumer discourses’ appeal for women. On the positive side "women’s embrace of style, fashion, romance, and mixed-sex fun could be a source of autonomy [from patriarchal familial structures] and pleasure as well as a cause of their continuing oppression.” And, in regards to working-class women, they could use aspects of commercial culture to productively inform their political practices and foster a politicized community as well as escape from addressing larger socio-economic issues.
Despite some of their legitimate ideological objections against a consumer-based practice of liberation, U.S. Left film critics were also personally unsettled by the numerous representations of powerful female figures in women-centered films that challenged their patriarchal authority and heterosexual assumptions. As a result,
the new leisure culture changed the definitions of female identity in relation to the family, superimposing the values of motherhood and domesticity with the appeals of pleasure, glamour, and eroticism.”
Mike Gold, who reported on Hollywood during the late 1930s, vented his frustration in a May 1937 column for the Daily Worker, where he critiqued the mothers who dragged their little girls to Hollywood to become the next Shirley Temple. Instead of learning proper “feminine” roles, these girls have “been taught all the worst mannerisms of a ham actress—to be consciously coquettish, vain, cute, and cunning.” Hollywood infuses these girls with a sense of “artificiality,” as Gold deems it, a knowledge about the performativity of “femininity” that Gold supposes does not exist outside the culture industry’s influence. But Gold’s real concern is not for the girls’ well-being but for the men who have to deal with them later in life. He asks:
“Will any hard-working man want to marry a wife who has graduated from such training?”
Similarly, Robert Forsythe, normally one of the more sophisticated of U.S. Left film critics, throws a veritable tantrum about Mae West in his revealingly titled article, “Mae West: A Treaty on Decay.” According to Forsythe, West’s overt sexuality represents nothing less than “the breakdown of capitalist civilization … [and] symbolizes the end of an epoch.” Forsythe does not represent female sexuality and desire as anything of value in themselves, but only representative of a decaying bourgeois age where “real” men have lost control. His column continues in an increasingly homophobic bent by seeing West’s sexuality opening the door to homosexual license. He writes,
“If I make a point at all in this respect it would be to indicate that introversion [homosexuality] is essentially a class ailment and the direct result of a sybaritic life which finally results in profound boredom for lack of any further possible stimulation or titillation.”
Therefore, anything other than heterosexual male desire is deemed as aberrant and symbolic of all that is wrong with capitalism. One can perhaps better understand, but not defend, Forsythe’s volatility when one keeps in mind that, he is writing at a time when heterosexual males feel most vulnerable and disempowered both economically and socially, at least, in terms of filmic representations. For during this time, as David Lugowski has analyzed gay representation in depression-era U.S. culture,
“Hollywood is at its most queer [in terms of filmic representations] from early 1932 to mid-1934, a period that corresponds to the worst years of the Depression.”
I highlight Gold’s and Forsythe’s articles not because I think that they are necessarily representative of U.S. Left film criticism’s attitudes towards women and gender issues as a whole. Instead, the articles represent extreme examples of a general male anxiety that permeates the columns of U.S. Left film criticism. As I have shown, there were other critics like Lewis Jacobs and Morris Helprin who held more accommodating attitudes towards the analysis of gender in their writings. Yet by juxtaposing U.S. Left film criticism with insights made by Rebecca Pitts and the representations within Eisenstein’s Mexican footage, we can see that U.S. Left film criticism never accessed more sophisticated discourses available at the time that interwove gender and class analysis.
Although U.S. Left film critics could identify the reified ways in which leisure discourses asserted women’s “independence,” their reluctance to adopt a more materialist understanding of gender might also be related to their own fears as men. At a time when many men were displaced from their traditional breadwinning positions due to mass unemployment, at a time when new consumer discourses emphasized women’s independence from home and men, at a time when Hollywood offered its most queer representations of gender within film, one cannot help but feel that the absence of gender in male Left film columns might have been an intentional silence to ignore how these historic conditions challenged their very sense of “masculinity.” And, in order to distance Eisenstein’s anti-Hollywood film from such practices, these critics might have, consciously or unconsciously, minimized in their own columns the importance of gender, and homoeroticism, found within the film’s scenario and footage.
In this article, I have tried to emphasize three distinct but interrelated points:
By juxtaposing my analysis of Que Viva Mexico!, U.S. Left film criticism, and Marxist women writers, I hope to have offered an initial understanding of how gender played a much more multivalent role in the cultural and political workings of 1930s Left than has normally been assumed. Much more work needs to be done in placing the 1930s in our historical and cultural Imaginary, as well as in developing our understanding of Eisenstein’s works from this time. Like Eisenstein’s uncompleted film, I have assembled some fragments from this rich decade into a hopefully productive assemblage in order to indicate where more in-depth scholarship might want to follow.
1. Ian Christie, “Introduction: Rediscovering Eisenstein,” in Eisenstein Rediscovered, ed. Ian Christie and Richard Taylor (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 11.
2. See Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein (New York: Grove Press, 1960); Thomas Waugh, “A Fag-Spotter’s Guide to Eisenstein,” in The Fruit Machine: Twenty Years of Writings on Queer Cinema (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000), 59-68; and Harry M. Benshoff, “Homoerotic Iconography and Anti-Catholic Marxism: Proto-Feminist Discourse in Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!” The Spectator, Fall 1990, 6-17.
3. See Segei Eisenstein, “The Fourth Dimension of Cinema,” in The Eisenstein Reader, ed. Richard Taylor, trans. Richard Taylor and William Powell (London: BFI, 1998), 111-23.
4. Vladimir Nizhny, Lessons With Eisenstein, ed. and trans. Ivor Montagu and Jay Leyda (New York: Da Capo: 1969): 19-62, 93-139; Jacques Aumont, Montage Eisenstein, trans. Lee Hildreth, Constance Penley, and Andrew Ross (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 135-37, 154-56; David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 141-45.
5. The film journals and periodicals I investigate here are all English-language ones. There were articles written on the film in Spanish-language journals, too, such as: El Mundo (Cuba), El Universal and El Nacional (Mexico), and La Nacion (Buenos Aires). The English-language film journals and periodicals I am investigating here are primarily: Close Up, Experimental Cinema, Filmfront, New Masses, Daily Worker, Modern Monthly, Theatre Arts Monthly, The Nation, The New Republic, and Theatre Arts Committee.
6. See Chris Robé, “Eisenstein in America: The Que Viva Mexico! Debates and the Emergent Popular Front in U.S. Film Theory and Criticism,” The Velvet Light Trap 54 (Fall 2004): 18-31.
7. See Deborah Rosenfelt, “From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition,” in The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen, ed. Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Huse (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 54-89; Paula Rabinowitz, Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary (London and New York: Verso, 1994); and Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
8. James Goodwin, “Eisenstein: Lessons with Hollywood,” in Eisenstein at 100, ed. Al Lavalley and Barry P. Scherr (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 91-108; Ivor Montagu, With Eisenstein in Hollywood (New York: International Publishers, 1967); and Robé, “Eisenstein in America,” 18-20.
9. Seymour Stern, “Eisenstein in America,” Experimental Cinema, February 1931, 22.
10. Adolfo Best-Maugard, “Mexico into Cinema,” Theatre Arts Monthly 16.11 (1932):926-27.
11. Greg Mitchell, “The Greatest Movie Never Made,” American Film 8.4 (1983): 53.
12. See Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein; Harry M. Geduld and Ronald Gottesman, Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair: The Making and Unmaking of Que Viva Mexico! (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970); and Mitchell, “The Greatest Movie Never Made,” 53-58, for further information about the problems with finishing Que Viva Mexico! Seton’s and Mitchell’s pieces side more with Eisenstein while Geduld’s and Gottesman’s work sympathizes more with Upton Sinclair.
13. I consider the work by Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Ben Singer, Anne Friedberg, Shelley Stamp, and Leo Charney, all of whom Ben Singer deems, “the modernity thesis” scholars, to be of the utmost importance in understanding cinema’s relation to the processes of modernity. Their work helps more thoroughly contextualize the processes of modernity that made montage theory become such a central concept within emergent Left film theory of the late 1920s. See Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” Wide Angle 8.3-4 (1986): 63-70; Gunning, “Tracing the Individual Body: Photography, Detectives, and Early Cinema,” in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1995), 15-45;Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991); Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1991); Hansen, “America, Paris, the Alps: Kracauer (and Benjamin) on Cinema and Modernity,” in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1995), 362-402; Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” in Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000), 332-50; Ben Singer, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism,” in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1995), 72-99; Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001); Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1993); Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Stamp, “An Awful Struggle Between Love and Ambition: Serial Heroines, Serial Stars and Their Female Fans,” in The Silent Cinema Reader, ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 210-225; Leo Charney, “In a Moment: Film and the Philosophy of Modernity,” in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1995), 279-94; and Charney, Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998).
14. Victor Turin, “The Problem of the New Film Language,” Experimental Cinema, February 1931, 12.
15. B.G. Bravermann, “Josef von Sternberg,” Experimental Cinema, February 1934, 18.
16. Thomas Brandon Collection, Museum of Modern Art Film Archives, Box D43.
17. Harry Alan Potamkin, “Phases of Cinema Unity III,” 5.3 (Sept. 1929): 178-9.
18. Ibid., 179.
19. Seymour Stern, “Hollywood and Montage,” Experimental Cinema, February 1933, 48-49.
20. Ibid., 51-52.
21. Ibid., 49.
22. Sergei Eisenstein, “First Outline of Que Viva Mexico!,” in The Film Sense, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda (San Diego, New York, and London: HBJ, 1947), 251.
23. Geduld and Gottesman, 127-28.
24. Seton, 265.
25. See Stern, “Eisenstein in Mexico,” Experimental Cinema, February 1931, 22; Adolfo Best-Maugard, “Mexico Into Cinema,” Theatre Arts Monthly 16.11 (1932): 926-33;Augustin Aragon Leiva, “Eisenstein’s Film On Mexico,” Experimental Cinema, February 1933, 5-6; Morris Helprin, “Que Viva Mexico,” Experimental Cinema, February 1933, 13-14; Experimental Cinema Editors, “Manifesto on Eisenstein’s Mexican Film,” Close Up 10.2 (June 1933): 210-12; Herman G. Weinberg, “The ‘Lesser’ of Two Evils,” The Modern Monthly 7.5 (June 1933): 299-301, 311; William Troy, “The Eisenstein Muddle,” The Nation, July 19, 1933, 83-84; Seymour Stern, “Second Manifesto by the Editors of Experimental Cinema,” Close Up 10.2 (September 1933): 248-54; Sam Brody and Tom Brandon, “A Mexican Trailer,” New Masses, September 1933, 28; Seymour Stern, “The Greatest Thing Done on This Side of the Atlantic,” The Modern Monthly 7.9 (October 1933): 525-32; William Troy, “Selections from Eisenstein,” The Nation, October 4, 1933, 391-92;Pare Lorentz, “Thunder Over Mexico,” in Lorentz on Film: Movies 1927-1941 (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975): 118-120;George W. Hesse, “The Cine Analyst,” Personal Movies, November 15, 1933, 268, 285; Upton Sinclair, “Thunder Over Mexico: Mr. Upton Sinclair Defends Himself,” Close Up 10.4 (December 1933): 361-63; Lens (Sam Brody), “Flashes and Close Ups,” Daily Worker, January 18, 1934, 5; Workers Film and Photo League, “The Thunder Dies,” New Masses, January 22, 1934, 21; Irving Lerner, “Glorified Horse Opera,” New Masses, June 12, 1934, 29-30; Marie Seton, “Rev. of Thunder Over Mexico,” Film Art, Spring 1934, 21-22; Anonymous, untitled, Film Art, Spring 1934, 36; Seymour Stern, “Introduction to Que Viva Mexico!,” Experimental Cinema, February 1934, 3-4; S.M. Eisenstein and V.G. Alexandroff, “Scenario for Que Viva Mexico!,” Experimental Cinema, February 1934, 5-13; The Editors, “Manifesto on Que Viva Mexico!,” Experimental Cinema, February 1934, 14.
26. Experimental Cinema editors, “Manifesto on Eisenstein’s Mexican Film,” Close Up 10.2 (June 1933): 211.
27. William Troy, “The Eisenstein Muddle,” The Nation, July 19, 1933, 84.
28. Samuel Brody and Tom Brandon, “A Mexican Trailer,” New Masses, September 1933, 28.
29. Ibid., 28.
30. William Troy, “Selections from Eisenstein,” The Nation, October 4, 1933, 391. It is interesting to note, also, that Troy is one of the first film critics to note the sadistic impulses within Eisenstein. His ability to do so seems to be based in part because Que Viva Mexico! remains one of Eisenstein’s most sado-masochistic films (peons trampled to death by horses, cacti lashed to individuals’ bare backs, point-of-view shots from a bull about to be killed by a matador) and also because of Thunder Over Mexico’s lack of thematic development drew more attention to the film’s spectacular sadistic nature than earlier Eisenstein films had, which nonetheless contained their own forms of sadism (e.g. Stike’s hanging of a worker, dropping of a baby off a balcony, slaughter of a bull, and mass-murder of workers; Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa steps sequence; and October’s stabbing to death of a Bolshevik by umbrellas, to only name a few examples). The focus on sadism would eventually take particular importance in gay readings of Eisenstein’s films. See Tyler Parker, Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: De Capo Press, 1993 ed.); Harry M. Benshoff, “Homoerotic Iconography and Anti-Catholic Marxism: Proto-Feminist Discourse in Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!,” The Spectator 11.1 (Fall 1990): 6-17; Thomas Waugh, “A Fag-Spotters Guide to Eisenstein,” in The Fruit Machine: Twenty Years of Writing on Queer Cinema (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000): 59-68; and Al LaValley, “Maintaining, Blurring, and Transcending Gender Lines in Eisenstein,” in Eisenstein at 100: A Reconsideration (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001): 52-64.
31. Troy, “Selections,” 392.
32. Experimental Cinema editors, “Manifesto,” 211.
33. Seymour Stern, “Second Manifesto by the Editors of Experimental Cinema,” Close Up 10.2 (September 1933): 251.
34. Brody and Brandon, 28.
35. Troy, “Selections,” 391.
36. Experimental Cinema editors, 211.
37. Brody and Brandon, 28.
38. Herman G. Weinberg, “The ‘Lesser’ of Two Evils,” The Modern Monthly 7.5 (June 1933): 300.
39. Brody and Brandon, 28.
40. I have debated elsewhere the reading Que Viva Mexico! as simply an anti-religious or anti-Catholic film. It strikes me that Eisenstein approached religion, and Catholicism in particular, much more dialectically than some film scholars have assumed. I argue that although Que Viva Mexico! held a negative view towards the role of the orthodox Catholic church, it also tends to show the power of Catholic symbolism when appropriated by the people to assist in their revolutionary struggles. See Robe, “Eisenstein in America.”
41. Seymour Stern, “The Greatest Thing Done on This Side of the Atlantic,” The Modern Monthly, 7.9 (October 1933): 529.
42. Brody and Brandon, 28.
43. Ibid., 28.
44. Ibid., 28; and Weinberg, “The ‘Lesser’,” 299-300.
45. Christie, “Introduction,” 8-9.
46. Ibid., 4-14.
47. Ibid., 5-6.
48. Ibid., 8.
49. Benshoff, 16.
50. Ibid., 16.
51. Marie Seton also offered her own reconstruction of the film in 1939 with A Time in the Sun, which takes a much more conservative stance towards gender, race, and religion than the Alexandrov version by holding a rather patronizing view towards women and indigenous peoples and minimizing the critique of the later. I don’t prioritize Seton’s film in my analysis of Que Viva Mexico! for several reasons: her distance from being involved with the original project, her unfamiliarity with Mexico, the different cultural assumptions that she makes coming from an American background rather than a Russian one, and the fact that the rough cut of the film was to be previewed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood before many of the very same people who denied distribution to Que Viva Mexico!, which can’t help but lead one to believe that this must have somewhat limited the representation of radical political themes within Seton’s reconstruction. With this said, however, I must acknowledge that A Time in the Sun serves an interesting study to see how Eisenstein’s Mexican footage could be edited in less radical ways than I am suggesting for this essay.
52. The Russian director Oleg Kovalov made his own very loose reconstruction of the film during the 1990s, Sergei Eisenstein: Mexican Fantasy (1998). It doesn’t attempt to emulate Eisenstein’s intended structure, but it does provide some extra footage in regards to the “Maguey” and “Fiesta” episodes that cannot be seen in any of the other versions of the film I viewed.
53. This later point hopes to further Judith Mayne’s work in Kino and the Woman Question where she initiated a “dialogue between the woman question and cinematic narrative. Such a dialogue involves the exploration of how Soviet film narrative turns, ideologically and aesthetically, on the representation of woman, and of how the woman question is concerned, centrally and vitally, with questions of narrative” (15). Although Mayne focuses on silent cinema, her observations are still germane in analyzing Que Viva Mexico! And her 1989 observation—the changes that had occurred within women’s lives during the Russian Revolution are barely explored in relation to Soviet cinema— still holds true in much scholarship on Russian cinema (14). Therefore, I consider it important to explore how Que Viva Mexico! might have held residual elements about the woman question within its structure. See Judith Mayne, Kino and the Woman Question: Feminism and Soviet Silent Film (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989).
54. Eisenstein and Alexandroff, “Synopsis for Que Viva Mexico!,” 7.
55. Leyda’s version, even more tellingly, locates this conquest imagery at the end of “Maguey,” making the symbolic link of the upside-down “U” of the two different contexts even more apparent. Eisenstein’s scenario suggests that the conquest imagery was supposed to comprise the “Fiesta” episode. Yet in Alexadrov’s version, “Maguey” follows “Fiesta,” whereas in the scenario, “Fiesta” follows “Maguey”; therefore, Leyda’s footage might represent the transition between episodes found in Eisenstein’s scenario.
56. Leyda’s footage further emphasizes how heterosexual desire and bourgeois familial structures lead to women’s exploitation with its central focus on Maria’s family “giving away” of her to Sebastian. Maria’s father rides on a mule with Maria following him on foot and her mother walking even further behind, picking up loose sticks for kindling. Here we visually see the father’s privileged position and how the mother must still engage in domestic labor (gathering kindling) even when she is out of the domestic realm. Similarly, Maria seems to occupy a liminal gender realm: not yet full-fledged “wife” but no longer an androgynous child. In a long shot, we see the family meet Sebastian in the dessert. Sebastian follows patriarchal protocol by first kissing the father’s hand, then the mother’s, and bows to Maria. After Maria kisses her mom, she briefly kisses her father’s hand, who then immediately waves her off to Sebastian. After a quick sign of the cross, the father turns and leaves with the mother following. The cross serves as an interesting gesture, since it suggests a link between the patriarchal structure of family and church where woman’s symbolic importance as either “wife,” “mother,” “virgin,” or “saint” takes precedence over her individual presence and desires. In the family, women are made to occupy the symbolic position of “wife,” which we see occur immediately after Maria’s family leaves. After being left alone with Sebastian, Maria never directly looks at him, suggesting her submission, emulating her mother’s submission to her father. She is already taking on the role of a “good,” submissive wife, which Sebastian either challenges by placing her on the burrow he has brought, thereby offering her the position that her father denied her mother, or reinforces, if one sees this action as more representative of placing her on a proverbial pedestal, elevating her above the earth, a living symbol of his own good fortune, which is nearly identical with what the Catholic church does except it totally excludes women’s presence from its institutional workings and only uses her as a symbol, ironically, of its orthodox power. Yet, clearly, the looking relations between Sebastian and Maria are emulated in the hacienda scene between the hacendado and Maria. In both cases, Maria does not have the right to look back at the man who observes her. In both cases, an exchange of woman as object occurs: between father and husband, and husband and hacendado. The literal patriarchal position of the father is figuratively re-inscribed in the hacendado. Therefore, the male, heterosexual economy that determines both familial and work structures is exposed as a central agent in causing woman’s oppression.
It is worth noting how this critique of the family seems to offer a visual representation of the very same critique that the Bolshevik’s endorsed immediately after the Revolution. Historian Gail Warshofsky Lapidus claims that the Bolshevik’s initially did not view the family “as a bulwark of freedom and self-fulfillment but as a significant locus of exploitation, oppression, and humiliation” (Gail Warshofsky Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1978), 82. Lenin pronounced in 1919 that “petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades [the wife], chains her to the kitchen and nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery” (Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978): 378). One could also argue that Eisenstein’s gay or bi background made him particularly critical of the heterosexual family within his films, noticeable either in its absence from films like Battleship Potemkin, October, and Alexander Nevsky, or in its dysfunctional and sometimes psychopathic status in films like Que Viva Mexico!, Bezhin Meadow, Ivan the Terrible, Part I & II.
57. Jane Gaines, “Can We Enjoy Alternative Pleasure?,” in Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 79.
58. Benshoff, 14.
59. Ibid., 14.
60. Ibid., 14-15.
61. Ibid., 14.
62. Frederick Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (New York: Pathfinder, 1972), 77.
63. Mayne, 26; Mary Buckley, “Soviet Interpretations of the Woman Question,” in Soviet Sisterhood: British Feminists on Women in the U.S.S.R., ed. Mary Buckley (London: Fourth Estate, 1985): 34; and Stites, 392-406.
64. Benshoff, 9-10.
65. Lapidus, 95-122; and Stites, 406-16.
66. Abram Room’s 1927 film, Third Meshchanskaia Street (Bed and Sofa), serves as an interesting contrast to “Sanduga” in the way that it explicitly investigates women’s “double burden” and critiques men for not picking up the slack in domestic chores. Yet it was because of the film’s rather sophisticated and all too realistic representations of gender issues and domestic labor that led it to be almost unanimously denounced within the Soviet Union, suggesting that the male critics reviewing the film didn’t appreciate being reminded about their failures in achieving women’s equality. See Denise J. Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918-1936 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), 119-24.
67. Engels, 145.
68. Eisenstein and Alexandroff, “Synopsis,” 7.
69. Benshoff, 15.
70. Lapidus, 73; Buckley, 37-38.
71. Eisenstein and Alexandroff, “Synopsis,” 12.
72. Ibid., 12.
73. LaValley, 53.
74. Ibid., 56-61.
75. Ibid., 56, 59-60. LaValley also makes an interesting observation on “Fiesta,” in Que Viva Mexico!: “In David Laceaga, the young bullfighter, the film reveals little of the machismo that traditionally surrounds bullfighting, but concentrates instead on the elaborate almost feminine ritual of his dress, his parading into the ring like a dancer, and the extraordinary beauty of his near-deathly dance with the bull” (60-61).Leyda’s reconstruction of the film particularly emphasizes Eisenstein’s fascination with Laceaga’s paso mariposa, “butterfly dance,” in luring the bull to its death. Thousands of feet of film are spent in observing Laceaga’s ballet-like actions.
76. Eisenstein and Alexandroff, 12.
77. Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), 90-93.
78. LaValley, 62; Bordwell, 194; Aumont, 50-61; Håkan Lövgren, “Trauma and Ecstasy: Aesthetic Compounds in Dr. Eisenstein’s Laboratory,” in Eisenstein Revisited: A Collection of Essays, ed. Lars Kleberg and Håkan Lövgren (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1987), 93-111; and Rosamund Bartlett, “The Circle and The Line: Eisenstein, Florensky, and Russian Orthodoxy,” in Eisenstein at 100: A Reconsideration, ed. Al LaValley and Barry P. Scherr (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 73.
79. Sergei Eisenstein, Beyond The Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein, ed Richard Taylor (London: BFI, 1995), 421.
80. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1985), 57. Also, in terms of political potentialities opened up by the space of carnival, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984).
81. Similarly, montage provides an identical operation. By harnessing mundane material and reconstructing it in new ways, film allows spectators to see the revolutionary potential that structures their own lives but that they have been ideologically positioned to largely ignore. Eisenstein believes that it is the cinema’s job to offer spectators a glimpse of the social totality so that they can observe the ways in which the ossified categories that organize their daily lives and actions are merely tentative constructions that only seem “universals” because of the enormous efforts by the ruling class to maintain such illusions.
82. Experimental Cinema Editors, “Manifesto on Que Viva Mexico!,” 13.
83. See Grace Hutchins, “Feminists and the Left Wing,” New Masses, 20 November 1934, 14-15; Meridel LeSueur, “Women On The Breadlines,” New Masses, January 1932, 5-7, and “I Was Marching,” New Masses, 18 September 1934, 16-18; Martha Millet, “Last Night,” New Masses, 19 June 1934, 17; Rebecca Pitts, “Women and Communism,” New Masses, 19 February 1935, 14-18; and Mary Heaton Vorse, “Lauren Gilfillan’s Education,” New Masses, 10 April 1934, 16.
84. See Ella Winter, “Woman Freed,” in Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940, ed. Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz (New York: The Feminist Press, 1987), 228-35.
85. Grace Hutchins, “Women Under Capitalism,” in Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940, ed. Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz (New York: The Feminist Press, 1987), 329-34.
86. Meridel LeSueur, “Women on the Breadlines,” in Ripening, ed. Elaine Hedges (New York: The Feminist Press, 1982), 137-43; and Meridel LeSueur, “Women Are Hungry,” in Ripening, ed. Elaine Hedges (New York: The Feminist Press, 1982), 144-57.
87. Paula Rabinowitz, “Women and U.S. Literary Radicalism,” in Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940, ed. Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz (New York: The Feminist Press, 1987), 8.
88. Pitts, 15.
89. Ibid., 15.
90. Ibid., 16.
91. Ibid., 15.
92. Ibid., 18.
93. Ibid., 18.
94. Agnes Smedley, Daughter of Earth (New York: The Feminist Press, 1973 ed.); Grace Lumpkin, To Make My Bread (New York: Macaulay, 1932); and Tillie Olsen, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (New York: Delacorte Press, 1974).
95. Morris Helprin, “Que Viva Mexico!,” Experimental Cinema, February 1933, 14.
96. Ibid., 14.
97. Ibid., 14.
98. Ibid., 13.
99. Ibid., 14.
100. Paula Rabinowitz, Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 4.
101. Ibid., 8.
102. Seton, Sergei, 507.
103. Seymour Stern, “The Greatest Thing,” 528.
104. Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary (London and New York: Verso, 1994), 67.
105. Ibid., 525; Experimental Cinema Editors, “Manifesto,” 211.
106. Herman G. Weinberg, “The ‘Lesser’ of Two Evils,” The Modern Monthly, June 1933, 299.
107. Ibid., 299.
108. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Janet Staiger, Bad Women: Regulating Sexualiity in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995); Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); and Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon. Also see, Miriam Hansen, Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991); Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and The Postmodern (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1993); and Lauren Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998)
109. Sarah Berry, Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), xix.
110. Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film (New York: Teachers College Press, 1939), 410.
111. Peiss, 6; Enstad, 17-47.
112. Hansen, 117.
113. Mike Gold, “Movie Madness and The Child,” New Masses, May 11, 1937, 7.
114. Ibid., 7.
115. Robert Forsythe, “Mae West: A Treaty on Decay,” New Masses, October 9, 1934, 29.
116. Ibid., 29.
117. David M. Lugowski, “Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code,” Cinema Journal 38.2 (Winter 1999): 12.