First Thoughts: Eisenstein in Guanajuato

I’ll admit it: I was incredibly worried about this film when I first saw the trailer. I’ve had spotty experiences with Peter Greenaway’s prior work, and the trailer made me a bit apprehensive about the possibility that  Eisenstein in Guanajuato might be disrespectful to the legacy of one of my favorite filmmakers and theorists. This fear was not so much in regards to the portrayal of his still mysterious sexual preferences, but of the trailer making it seem like they might make one of the most brilliant minds in cinematic history seem like a fool. Rest assured, however, that Eisenstein in Guanajuato does not tarnish the legacy of the Soviet Filmmaker, but rather uses its more fantastical elements to provide a scintillating mediation on how we approach our idols. I’m sure the historic merit of this film will be continually debated, but I’m doubly sure that that, in fact, is a part of the main aim of the film. In fact, it seems to be completely the opposite of the rigid and bland modern biopic, relishing in the fact that it draws a fantasy from a less documented portion of the Soviet’s life rather than a textbook. This, in fact, is one of the reasons I enjoyed the film so much; it is so singular and unique in what it aims to do, and how it aims to take part in the discourse on how we approach historical figures’ lives. Anybody who comes out of this film offended by Greenaway’s choices or angry at the historically liberal choices it makes in its representation is surely missing the point of Eisenstein in Guanajuato as well as film in general.

While artistic intent is far too debatable a matter to ever truly get into, I’m sure Greenaway was very aware of the fact that the historical subject hails from a country with a less than stellar LGBT rights track record, and that portraying one of Russia’s icons as a homosexual was not necessarily going to result in good sales. I also believe this is a part of the film central conceit; Greenaway takes one of the few, very short moments of Eisenstein’s life that was off the record and transforms it into a bacchanalian feast of debauchery that gives personality to someone almost completely defined by his theory and technical accomplishments. Pervasive across the film is a sense that the dignified old photos we characterize our icons by are just stuffy, staged moments that, while fulfilling our desires as fans, don’t truly represent the personality of the actual man. It might be the desire of a more homophobic homeland audience or even just a modern reader to view the filmmaker as a straight laced theorist, but this does not necessarily represent the man so much as our envisioning of the man. What we lose in marketable and easy portrayals of historic figures is gained back in Eisenstein in Guanajuato. This is shown in the repeated fashion in which the film will split screen a historic photo of either Eisenstein, another name dropped icon, or some combination of the two with whatsoever is passing on screen. In one instance towards the end, Eisenstein is laying down on a brightly lit floor, musing on the phone with his Russian contact about his experiences with his gay lover, while holding a fake skull. As this at least semi-fictional event takes place, a historic photo Eisenstein holding the skull appears on screen. The message in this case is clear: what was once a lifeless, prosaic photo of a man has now seen life breathed into it through both its dynamic set pieces and the vivid contextualization of the backstory. Most likely, this was not the exact happenstance of that photo, but it has just as much merit as any dignified response we also might provide while actually providing the protagonist a discernible background. Perhaps, in this sense, the argument of the film, if you will, is that both biopics and us, who idolize these figures, are so reverent of their subjects that they forget to give them actual personality. To approach these figures in the way Greenaway does is not to disrespect them, or their brilliances, but to merely associate them with the colorful life they deserve. Of course, one instance would be an outlier, so I must stress that this is used so many times; in addition to specific events, many of the characters get this treatment as well. When Upton Sinclair’s relatives are on screen, they are matched with pictures of their historic counterparts. When Eisenstein’s lover, Canedo, first appears on screen he is accompanied by a figure. The film is merely filling in the blanks of what happened after and during these photos in a more colorful manner than we are used to. Even the opening sequence abides by this, slowly transitioning from black and white to a fully colorized outburst that transports the viewer from prior representations of the past to Greenaway’s fantasy of the icon’s experiences.

Beyond this, the film is also incredibly interesting in the way it relentlessly draws attention to its artifice as if to constantly remind that this is a fantastic world. Several wide angle shots make the backgrounds seem utterly fake and the characters completely distorted; in another instance Eisenstein and Canedo stand outside a colorful gate, yet the wide angle allows for the frame to also show the less pretty surroundings. Is this another instance of the film, perhaps, making a statement on what we see and what we choose to see in representations of our favorite historical figures? Probably. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the film, however, is that it stays true in spirit to Eisenstein while taking liberty with rumors that may or may not be true through the repeated use of the directors montage techniques. While everything that is on film may not be a perfect copy of the directors life, it pays homage to him even stylistically. On a slightly less insightful note, I’d like to briefly note that the fantasy world of Greenaway is accompanied by what is probably the most visually dynamic cinematography I’ve seen in a film this year; in addition to being constantly entertaining on a narrative level, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a feast for the eyes.

Whether the narrative of Eisenstein in Guanajuato is true doesn’t matter in the slightest. It’s an incredibly quirky, raunchy and entertaining characterization of the filmmaker that makes him seem more approachable and human. Its excess merely brings an old theorist back down to earth and portrays him as the indulgent human, rather than prosaic writer, that he was when he wasn’t making his equally brilliant contributions to cinematic history. This film is an absolute delight stylistically and narratively, with rich, underlying thematic content, some of which I’ve dived into and other parts of which I’m sure I’ll return to for later analysis. I’m writing this a few hours removed from seeing the film, and already more and more ideas are springing to my mind about how this film works and what it accomplishes, and I honestly can’t wait to have the chance to see it again.

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