Peter Greenaway comes to Espoo with story of queer Eisenstein in Mexico

Donna M. Roberts

The British auteur, Peter Greenaway, will be this year’s major red carpet figure at the Espoo Ciné film festival (21-30.08.2015) with his latest venture about the iconic Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. First screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Greenaway’s film is a characteristically creative interpretation of the short period Eisenstein spent in Guanajuato in 1931 during a tour of Mexico, and stars a number of Finnish actors, including Elmer Bäck as the wild-haired Eisenstein.

Greenaway’s films are largely considered an acquired taste, and the director is known for his unashamed delight in theatricality, visual spectacle, and lush cinematography, as well as his relish for unabashed sexuality – which seems to infuse his films with the bawdy spirit of the historical paintings of his adopted country of residence, the Netherlands. Eisenstein in Guanajuato is no exception. Greenaway has chosen to focus on two aspects of the Soviet director’s life and oeuvre that are perhaps least well known – his journey in Mexico and his homosexuality. The film tells the story of the ten days Eisenstein stayed in Guanajuato, according to Greenaway largely engaged in a passionate physical relationship with his guide, the anthropologist Jorge Palomino Cañedo. In one erotic scene, Cañedo is depicted deflowering Eisenstein on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, after which he comically inserts the Red Flag into the director’s ravaged posterior. The interlude in Guanajuato was part of Eisenstein’s fourteen-month adventure in Mexico, during which he filmed over 250 miles of reel for an ultimately unfinished project titled Que Viva México! Greenaway distills into his film something of the spirit that so engaged Eisenstein in his experiences of Mexican festivals and rituals, giving us a taste of how the famous Guanajuatense tradition of the Day of the Dead celebrations might have looked in November 1931.

Although some critics have already rejected Greenaway’s rather buffoonish and naive image of the Soviet director – who Greenaway claims as his idol and ‘the greatest cinematic practitioner we have ever seen’ – the film has garnered much praise for its visual appeal, its raucous character, and for drawing attention to a little known and yet significant period in Eisenstein’s life and work. Greenaway may well over-simplify Eisenstein’s experiences in Mexico, but he essentially uses the passion of Eisenstein’s affair with Cañedo to symbolize what he sees as the enormous impact the journey through Mexico had on his work from the mid-1930s onwards. For Greenaway, this impact came through Eisenstein’s experience of the sensual, communal, and participatory nature of life in Mexico as he saw it.

Eisenstein’s journey to the Americas makes for a fairly surreal tale. (For those interested in reading further, a good account of it is detailed in Masha Salazkina’s In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico). After a failed attempt to make a film in Hollywood on the promise of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Eisenstein – through the assistance of Charles Chaplin – was offered financial backing by a socialist author, Upton Sinclair, for a Mexican project which was underwritten by Lenin and ended abruptly in late 1931 on the orders of Stalin, who feared the great director might be deserting his homeland. Beginning his travels in December 1930, Eisenstein first encountered the extraordinary festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City and shortly after filmed scenes of devastation in the wake of an enormous earthquake in Oaxaca. The sections he filmed for Que Viva México! included scenes of marriage and funeral in ancient and traditional communities, ceremonies of love and death, and terrible sacrifices consistent with his view of Mexico as ‘lyrical and tender, but also brutal’. No doubt also influenced by his friendship with Diego Rivera (another native of Guanajuato) and Frida Kahlo, Eisenstein constructed an image of Mexico that is no doubt still familiar to many who visit the country, including Greenaway: one in which the ancient and the modern, the lyrical and the violent co-exist in a stunning balance.

Interpreting Eisenstein’s Mexico experiences as pivotal in a humanist shift in the director’s work, Greenaway offers the theory that while Eisenstein’s pre-Mexico films were largely about ideology, his post-Mexico work was about people. It was in Mexico, according to Greenaway, that Eisenstein ‘learned about sex and death; he became humanized’. Again, although critics have opposed Greenway’s over-emphasis on Eisenstein’s sexual adventure in Mexico – some arguing that Eisenstein’s diaries tell of a far more worldly and sexually experienced life prior to his journey – Greenaway’s intention is to provide a sense of the reinvigoration and renewal that Eisenstein underwent in the Americas. At one point in the film Greenaway has Elmer Bäck pronounce this experience of revelation with a witty reference to Eisenstein’s 1927 film October: Ten Days that Shook the World, saying of his stay in Guanajuato: ‘I will consider these ten days that shook Eisenstein’.

On a personal and artistic level, Greenaway, born in Wales in 1942 and a resident of Amsterdam since the mid-1990s, clearly identifies with Eisenstein’s experiences as a cosmopolitan figure influenced by the differences in social and sexual mores often encountered when living abroad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film has provoked the ire of the Russian film foundation for its focus on the homosexuality of this most iconic of Soviet directors. Greenaway, no doubt, is thoroughly enjoying this provocation of Putin’s imposition of current official Russian homophobia, which he has described as ‘a political and social phenomenon invented by a man who’s scared and wants to be in control’.

Significant from the Finnish perspective is that Greenaway’s film is partly funded by the Finnish production company Edith Film, and stars the three founders of the Finnish-Swedish theatre group based in Berlin, Nya Rampen: the lead actor Elmer Bäck, Rasmus Slätis who plays Grigori Alexandrov (Eisenstein’s assistant director who finally released a version of Que Viva México! in 1979), and Jacob Ohrman who plays Edouard Tisse (Eisenstein’s cinematographer).

Given Espoo Ciné’s long tradition in screening films about gay and lesbian relationships, the participation of Greenaway and the screening of his film at the close of the festival is not only a mark of the festival’s exceptional international profile, but is also another committed gesture from the organizers to the support of queer narratives in cinema.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato is screened at the Tapioloasali in Espoo Ciné on Sunday 30.08.2015 at 20.00. Tickets 8.00€. The film is in English and Spanish with Finnish and Swedish subtitles.

More details about the Espoo Ciné programme can be found at http://www.espoocine.fi/2015/en/programme#400

Official Trailer for Eisenstein in Guanajuato can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fb364B6u1XE

All Greenaway quotes taken from article published in The Guardian 30 March 2015 by Carmen Gray titled ‘Greenaway offends Russia with film about Soviet director’s gay love affair’.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/30/peter-greenaway-sergei-eisenstein-in-guanajuato

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Finland, where heads never roll

Donna M. Roberts

I’m constantly amazed at how regularly Finnish MPs pop into media limelight with comments of such reckless bigotry that in other countries would end their political careers. I can’t work out if it’s a defense of political ‘honesty’, a back-slapping indulgence for plain-speaking ‘old boys’, or a lack of critical bite in the media that enables men like Olli Sademies to retain public office, in his case for provocatively proposing the sterilization of African men in Finland.

Sademies’ comments reflected the old strategy of couching racism in terms of administrative pragmatism – a rationale that in extremis has arisen with ignorance and inadequacy and ended in genocide. They revealed a return of a Lutheran repressed, associating African men with the kinds of sexual excess that, driven by ‘the white man’s burden’, Finnish missionaries had attempted to ‘tame’ at the end of the nineteenth century. While such grotesque atavisms are defended in the name of freedom of speech, a puffed-up right rounds clamorously on anyone defending the red-green bubble. Some are more free to speak than others, it seems.

And yet, although the relationship between media and politics in Finland seems a fairly absorbent testing ground for casual extremism, it does also appear to allow for a sense of measure and debate about sensitive issues that is often lacking in more mature democracies, such as the UK, for example, where political heads roll for far less pernicious comments than those of Sademies. Last year, a high-ranking Labour MP, Emily Thornberry, was forced to resign after tweeting a photo of a house draped in flags of St George and West Ham football club, with a white van parked in the drive. Although the tweet carried the laconic comment ‘Image from Rochester’, the muted codification was enough. The tweet came on the day of a by-election in the town that would elect the anti-immigrant party UKIP. The implication: English flags equal English racists, West Ham flag equals English hooliganism, white van equals working-class tabloid-reading English racist. Coming from a former barrister who lives in a £3 million London home, the tweet was seized by the media as a mark of snobbery and by nightfall Thornberry was history.

Relative to Sademies’ howler, Thornberry’s tweet was a smirk. Had it not been grasped by a voracious media all too receptive to its dead-pan semiotics, the people of Rochester would not have raised an eyebrow. By apparently defending the politically marginalized identity of the white working-class, the media exposed how relatively little it really cares about embattled indigenous identities compared to the vicious pleasures of a swift political scalping via social media.

This British tendency towards trial by media has claimed many politicians, for better or for worse. In contrast, Finns do seem to reward honesty and conviction and tolerate provocation to a level that exceeds what the British media, if not necessarily the public, will support. The question is, now it has power, will the Finnish right grant others the tolerance it has been afforded, and will the Finnish media demand it of them?

Published in Voima, July 2015

Maa, jossa päät eivät putoile

Ällistyn toistuvasti suomalaisten kansanedustajien tavasta pölähdellä parrasvaloihin vastuuttomilla kiihkoiluilla, jotka miltei missä tahansa muualla panisivat heidän poliittiselle uralleen pisteen. En osaa päättää, onko kyse nurinkurisesta änkyrärehellisyyden puolustamisesta, hyvä-veli-henkisestä selkääntaputtelusta vai vain median kriittisestä hampaattomuudesta, kun Olli Sademiehen kaltaiset ajattelijat saavat pitää eduskuntapaikkansa. Taannoin Helsingin perussuomalainen varavaltuutettu esimerkiksi toivoi julkisesti, että Suomeen ”nussimaan” muuttavat afrikkalaismiehet tulisi sterilisoida. Saman puolueen edustaja Olli Immonen poseeraa julkisesti äärioikeistolaisten kanssa ja esittää natsihenkisiä unelmiaan puhtaasta suomalaisesta rodusta. Brittiläisessä systeemissä vastaavia päästellyt pää olisi pudonnut kolisten.

Sademiehen ja Immosen kommentit heijastelevat vanhaa, hallinnolliseksi käytännöllisyydeksi naamioitua muukalaisvihaa. Rasistinen rationalisointi pohjaa toisaalta tietämättömyyteen ja toisaalta riittämättömyyden tunteisiin ja on, kuten tunnettua, äärimmillään johtanut kansanmurhiin. Samalla kun moisia groteskiuksia suvaitaan ja suojellaan sananvapauden nimissä, huomattavasti asiallisemman vastakritiikin kimppuun hyökätään verenhimoisen sakinhivutuksen tyyliin.

Suomalaisen median ja politiikan välinen suhde näyttää sallivan varsin railakkaan rajojen testauksen ääriajattelijoille; mutta se myös mahdollistaa aroista aiheista väittelyn, joka ei usein vanhemmissa demokratioissa kuten Yhdistyneessä kuningaskunnassa onnistuisi. Viime vuonna työväenpuolueen kansanedustaja Emily Thornberry joutui eroamaan tviitattuaan kuvan jalkapalloliigojen lipuin koristellusta talosta, jonka edustalla näkyi valkoinen pakettiauto. Vaikka tviitti sisälsi vain lakonisen kommentin ”Kuva Rochesterista”, tulkinnat tehtiin välittömästi: West Ham -lippu edusti englantilaista rasismia ja huliganismia ja valkoinen paku tyypillistä englantilaista muukalaisvihaajaa. Kun kuvan tviittasi vaalien alla kolmen millin kartanossa elelevä lakimies-kansanedustaja, lehdistö leimasi hänet ylemmyydentuntoiseksi snobiksi ja potkut tulivat ennen iltaa.

Toisin kuin Sademiehen möläytys, Thornberryn tviitti oli tarkoitettu ilkikuriseksi virnistykseksi. Jos saaliinhimoinen brittimedia ei olisi hyökännyt erittelemättä sen kimppuun, UKIP-kannattajien asuttaman Rochesterin asukkaat olisivat tuskin kohottaneet kulmakarvaansa. Muka puolustaessaan ”parjattua valkoista työväenluokkaa” lehdistö tuli itse asiassa paljastaneeksi, miten paljon enemmän se rakastaa poliittisia pikateurastuksia kuin vaikeuksissa olevia väestönosia.

Brittien taipumus värikkäisiin mediaoikeudenkäynteihin on pannut lukuisia poliitikkoja tilille sanoistaan ja teoistaan, niin hyvässä kuin pahassa. Suomessa taas näytetään haluavan palkita ”rehellisyys” ja ”tinkimättömyys” ja suvaita provokaatioita häkellyttävän pitkälle. Kysymys kuuluu: nyt kun perusporvarihallituksella on valta, aikovatko sen edustajat tarjota muille samaa suvaitsevaisuutta kuin mitä he ovat itseään kohtaan niin äänekkäästi vaatineet? Ja mitä suomalainen media vaatii heiltä?

Englannista suomentanut Tuuve Aro