JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The resurrection symbolizes progressive political revolt, as in “Maguey”'s ending,...

...and potential liberation, here in the Day of the Dead sequence.

Cans of Que Viva Mexico! that Alexandrov used in 1979 to reconstruct the film.

Alexandrov stands behind the film cans. He tried to reconstruct it according to Eisenstein’s intentions—a bold but dubious task.

Eisenstein’s script and thousands of his Mexican drawings guided this reconstruction effort.

This drawing represents “Sanduga” and the matriarchs at work.

The peons' collective vision that ends “Maguey.”

The upside-down “U” is linked with the Mexican conquest within “Fiesta,” which either precedes “Maguey,” according to Alexandrov, or immediately follows “Maguey,” according to Jay Leyda’s version.

An Aztec warrior holds the upside-down “U” before the conquistadors...

...and submits to their rule.

Phallic landscape and symbolism is unique to the episode, “Maguey."

The hacendado puts Maria on display for his men.

According to patriarchal looking-relations, she must look away in submission as he observes her.

“Maguey” consistently emphasizes the exchange of women between men. Jay Leyda’s reconstruction is particularly revealing in the way it highlights Maria’s parents giving her away to her new husband. The image makes patriarchal hierarchy visible, with Maria’s father on the burrow leading the way, followed by his wife and Maria.

The new husband Sebastian observes the hierarchy. He first kisses her father’s hand, then her mother’s, and then bows to Maria.

As the parents leave, we see Maria’s mother picks up dropped kindling for the home, as her husband rides before her. The scene exposes how women are not free from domestic work even when not at home.

Just as Maria submissively looks down when displayed before the hacendado, we see her already exhibiting the same look before her husband. The patriarchal looking relations of the hacienda also constitute the looking-relations of the home. Eisenstein’s footage repeatedly shows how the political and personal are inextricably intertwined.

Sebastian might be resisting such looking relations by placing Maria on the burrow before him, in direct contrast with her father’s attitude towards his wife. Or he may be elevating her as an empty symbol of “purity,” much like the Catholic church uses the Virgin Mary as symbol while denying real women access to its organizational structure.

While Maria is on display in the hacienda, we get a “cock-shot” of the man who eventually rapes her. The film self-consciously and critically marks male, heterosexual desire as the main factor of women’s oppressed position.

The film clearly links sexual exploitation with the class exploitation of the Porfiriato. The hacendado’s man salutes Diaz’s portrait.

The sunlight of an upside-down “U” frames Maria, suggesting how the class and sexual economy traps her and will eventually lead to her rape and her husband’s death.

 

 

The "Maguey" episode   

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]

Que Viva Mexico! and
Eisenstein's other work

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]

(Continued: Que Viva Mexico! and gender)


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