Friday, July 8, 2016
Peter Greenaway | Eisenstein in Guanajuato
the lonely russian
by Douglas Messerli
Peter Greenaway (writer and director) Eisenstein in Guanajuato / 2015, USA limited release 2016
After purposely watching a series of 5 movies about young gays, most of which dealt with the problems of coming to terms with their early sexuality—all of which I not only felt sympathetically attuned and even as a cinema critic, enjoyed—I determined it was time to turn my attention to other subjects, and decided, accordingly, to view Peter Greenaway’s film of 2015 (released for a brief period in the USA in 2016), Eisenstein in Guanajuato.
Having just recently reviewed Eisenstein’s October (Ten Days That Shook the World) it seemed an interesting topic to explore in order to discover what Eisenstein found in his brief Mexican idyll. I expected, of course, an appearance of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo and other figures who had supported the great Russian filmmaker. And there they were, the great Mexican artists—for a few seconds—as well as Upton Sinclair’s wife, who had helped support Eisenstein’s trip to Mexico and his proposed film, ¡Que Viva México! —a work he never completed. Although I had watched many of Eisenstein’s films, I’d never read much biographical material, and hadn’t even imagined—although given his iconic male images in Potemkin and other films, I should have perceived—that he was a homosexual artist.
Yet, Greenaway’s film—the director having long admired the Russian filmmaker—is not simply another gay-oriented film, but proposes, with no evidence provided, that the director lost his gay virginity, at the age of 33, in Mexico to a mild-mannered Professor of Comparative Religion, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti).
Greenaway’s films have never been concerned with realism, and I was willing to accept his imaginative conclusions, that Mexico offered the repressed Russian the opportunity to discover a new world and, more importantly, new love. And I’m willing to go along with the director’s always over-the-top images and narrative projection to imagine that Eisenstein, who himself declared his Mexican experience was transformative, did truly come to a totally new perspective of art through his experiences in a culture so different from his own.
Yet this film, starring the Finnish actor Elmer Bäck as Eisenstein, who gives it his all, is an outlandish mess of a film, hardly revealing anything about Eisenstein the artist, and certainly not exploring anything about his filmmaking techniques or his cinematic achievements in Mexico, as it stubbornly pours all of its most assertive energies on simply exploring how, as a virgin, he was deflowered by the pan-sexual Palomino—a seemingly gentle heterosexual with two children of his own—within a culture so different from the homophobic (even today), repressive culture of Stalin. Although it takes a long time to get to its central image, Greenaway’s film moves in immediately to Eisenstein speaking to his own penis before it gradually circles in on the quite graphic depiction of his actual rape, during which the seemingly mild Mexican hero is required to spout Marxist statements before planting his erect cock and, later, a Mexican flag into Eisenstein’s bloody asshole—after which jacking him off. So convincing was the action that one almost has to wonder whether or not they really fucked. Well this is Greenaway, I thought to myself; he has never sighed away from sexuality—or, for that matter the representation of any bodily fluids.
For what purpose I have to ask? The director seems to have no purpose at all except to provide us with a glimpse of what Eisenstein might have perceived from a culture devoted, so he proposes, to Eros and Thanatos. Yes, the visions he shows of us the the Guanajuato Mummies are quite powerful, at least as tourist-like visual images, and the scenes he portrays of the celebrations of the “Day of the Dead” are memorable. But, Greenaway never narratively connects these up. Instead he artfully (and somewhat clumsily) gives us triptychs of actual black-and-white images of the historical figures as he attempts to portray them on the screen. But his cinematic figures are merely that, film representations of much more interesting beings in real life. His film figures merely spout pronouncements instead of true dialogue.
As fascinating as the seducer, named after the breed of noted wild Palomino horses, is (one must recall that Roy Roger’s Trigger was just such a horse), we get absolutely no information on him as a male human being. He simply seduces the Russian filmmaker through a siesta, and later forces him, despite Eisenstein’s protests, into sex. Palomino’s wife later explains it away by saying that the foreigner was simply “lonely.”
And despite Greenaway’s many beautiful images and stunning camera gestures, the film maintains an absurdist quality that is not truly enchanting, nor profound. His assumption, ultimately, is a historically unprovable improvisation, suggesting that the great Eisenstein came out to himself sexually in Mexico. Big deal.
Ultimately, what I first perceived was yet another gay movie was, in reality, merely an intrusion into an artistic life that has no basis in fact and little significance even had it actually occurred. In the end, this is movie about the director’s masturbatory imagination, and at his age of 73 do we really care?
And yes, it’s very pretty and often quite pleasing to the eye. But so too are many porno movies, and this was not even a good porno film, sorry to say.
Los Angeles, July 8, 2016