Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway, 2015)
Peter Greenaway is one of the most provocative British filmmakers currently alive. From his first short movies, such as Dear Phone (1976), in which he writes a letter to a phone booth, to Drowning by Numbers (1988), where visual and spoken numbers dictate the plot, from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and His Lover (1989), that portrays brutality without censorship, to Goltzius and The Pelican Company (2012), that follows the late sixteenth-century Dutch printer and engrave, Greenaway unashamedly plays with dramatised taboo. In Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the filmmaker and painter pays a tribute to the revolutionary Russian director.
Since Greenaway was an art student in the 50s, he has been fascinated by Eisenstein. Greenaway has been to every city that Eisenstein has travelled to. Curiously, Greenaway was invited to give a series of lectures in Guanajuato where Eisenstein has spent some days shooting an unfinished movie. The Welsh filmmaker realised that that occasion could be the starting point to write and make a movie about Eisenstein’s trip to Mexico.
But our spectator must be aware that although Greenaway is a sort of expert on Eisenstein, he doesn’t usually like to be faithful to the real facts. In his words, “historians are liars. They write for convention and sometimes to entertain”. “I come from a country that has high regards for notions of realism. What the hell is realism? God has already done it. So the best you can do is use your imagination.” So, as an artist, Greenaway created his own Eisenstein, with a little help from the most talented Finnish actor Elmer Bäck.
Eisenstein visited Guanajuato in 1931. At that time, Stalin had begun persecuting artists and he did not see Eisenstein as an ally, particularly after he had released October or Ten Days That Shook The World in 1928. Eisenstein had accepted an invitation to make a picture for Paramount in Hollywood thanks to Charles Chaplin. During pre-production, Eisenstein took a quick trip to Mexico. He intended to film "¡Que Viva México!". The left-leaning author Upton Sinclair invested on the trip, crew and cast, basically formed by non-actors, but 250 miles of footage later, the filming was interrupted due to lack of money. Eisenstein in Guanajuato is essentially the story of those days.
If it was a simple story of an unfinished movie, then there would be no need for this article. The movie is obviously a conversation between the two filmmakers. Eisenstein became famous because of his groundbreaking montage style. Obviously, Greenaway tries to recreate Eisenstein’s style with the use of technology, reintroducing famous frames that the Russian shot. (See for instance the pictures below). Greenaway constantly divides the screen in three, so that content and form build a richer narrative. In another scene, Greenaway juxtaposes the Mexican hotel toilet taps with the big torpedo tubes in Battleship Potemkin (1925).
There are not many scenes of Eisenstein filming in Greenaway’s version of the historical fact. On the contrary, the filmmaker focuses on Eisenstein’s personal relationships. The Russian is scared that he is being followed by spies, or flies; so there’s always two or three funny Mexican characters staring at him, pretty much like mariachis that are about to begin to play with no instruments. The mariachis have weapons instead. And the most important relationship that Eisenstein develops in Guanajuato is with his guide and translator Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti).
It’s no secret that Greenaway believes that “sex sells”, so it is only natural that he found strange that Eisenstein was a virgin at the age of 33. This is why the midpoint of the movie is a sex scene -- a homosexual deflowering act -- between Eisenstein and Palomino Cañedo. To make it ironical, at the end of the scene, Palomino inserts a small flag into Eisenstein’s ass, which, in other words, stands for “fuck the Russian Revolution” (see picture below).
Usually, Greenaway is obsessed with symmetry and this is why his movies are like paintings with a soundtrack. Eisenstein in Guanajuato is no exception. The last scene is somewhat repeating the first; and the previous to the last scene matches the second, and the narrative proceeds with this fluid and calculated movement.
Greenaway's genius does not come primarily in his erudition, or in his knowledge of European artistic culture, but in being fully aware of where he wants to go and still leaving the windows open for the actor to create and surprise him. He surely writes the script with conscience, but Greenaway emphasizes that "It is always the actor who will surprise you". He wants precision but his final purpose is to play with the unexpected. We can see it clearly here. The performances make the movie witty and light.
At the same time that Eisenstein talks a lot, there is a great sense of physicality at sight. Words are not more important than images. That’s the first cinematic principle and it can be easily perceived in Greenaway’s choices. The cinematographers Carlos Salom and Reinier van Brummelen translated into landscapes the shock that Mexico evokes in any foreigner: from the deafening sound of the church bells to the spinning Day of the Dead parades; from a succulent cactus to a historical and original majesty of a nineteenth-century hotel façade.
Greenaway understands the Mexicans and Mexican culture. Likewise Eisenstein, he believes that the successful artist has to be an outsider in order to offer an alternative vision away from the status quo.
A third artist who self-exiled to Mexico was Malcolm Lowry, who published “Under the Volcano” in 1947 -- adapted into a film by John Houston in 1984. To fully portray Mexicans and the Mexican culture in a work of art one necessarily needs to understand that the humour is a kind of bridge between the naturalistic and the transcendental. In consequence, the artist invests his angels and demons in his art.
Those angels and demons are in fact the main movie background story. Eisenstein in Guanajuato is about the major two forces in life, Thanatos (death) and Eros (sex). The British filmmaker combines energetic acting, classical music, notions of painting and architecture and stimulating camera movements to produce a balanced film. One that manifests chaos and order equally.
At last but not at least, Greenaway has announced another movie about the Russian filmmaker. Eisenstein in Hollywood is currently in pre-production.