- Eisenstein in America:The Qué Viva México! Debates and the Emergent Popular Front in U.S. Film Theory and Criticism
In the early 1930s a group of American film critics banked their hopes on the mass distribution of Sergei Eisenstein's Qué Viva México! within the United States to prove once and for all that modernism was not the sole province of cultural elites but could serve both political and aesthetic revolutionary ends for mainstream audiences. The film's use of radical montage to expose the relations between the political and the personal, the individual and his or her socioeconomic context served as a corrective to many Hollywood films' conservative ideology that reified individuals' relations to one another and their surroundings. Yet as these critics attempted to release Eisenstein's film, they became increasingly aware of Hollywood's stranglehold on all channels of mass distribution, which demanded that Eisenstein's film be reedited in a style that was more in accord with the forms of classical Hollywood cinema. Wide debates arose in the critical community about issues of mass distribution in America, the ability of montage to address both social issues and character psychology, and the need for film to either shock audiences into intellectual engagement or rely on emotional identification with characters in order to prevent complete alienation between spectator and film. By examining the influence of Eisenstein's theoretical articles upon leftist film critics and these critics' failed attempts to mass distribute Qué Viva México! we observe how their debates on politics, film form, and mass culture indicated a gradual shift from a radical stance on film that critiqued most Hollywood conventions to an emergent Popular Front attitude that realized the need to adopt some commercial styles within leftist films in order to gain accessibility to the mass audiences that Hollywood carefully guarded.
Not only was Eisenstein a prolific writer, but American critics of the period felt that much of his theory and film work represented the most advanced stage of leftist cultural work on and in film. The avant-garde journal Close Up published nine translations of Eisenstein essays between 1929 and 1933. The radical film journal Experimental Cinema, which only ran for five issues, published fifteen articles by or about Eisenstein from 1930 to 1934. The debates concerning his uncompleted film Qué Viva México!—perhaps the most written about film of the 1930s—forced leftist film critics like William Troy, Pare Lorentz, Leo Hurwitz, and Ralph Steiner to revise their beliefs that they could simply ignore Hollywood and its practices in order to promote an alternative independent and avant-garde cinema.1 As a result of Qué Viva México!'s troubled production, most American leftist film critics began to abandon their defense of a radical film aesthetics and politics for a more accommodating and liberal film theory that examined both how Hollywood could be influenced in politically progressive directions and how commercial film approaches could be used within independent films in order to reach larger audiences.2 By considering Eisenstein's importance to such debates, we can begin to see both the theoretical sophistication and blind spots of American leftist film theorists and critics of the late 1920s and early 1930s.3
By the early 1930s Eisenstein had significantly revised his filmic strategy of the early 1920s, which focused on portraying the masses as hero and forsaking any concern with character psychology. By 1929 he had gradually become more interested in the individual's relation to the masses, as seen in The General Line's focus upon a peasant woman's struggle to form a cooperative [End Page 18] in her village. Furthermore, his experience reading James Joyce's Ulysses in early 1928 encouraged Eisenstein to contemplate using Joyce's notion of internal monologue within a Marxist cinema. By the time of his six-month stay at Paramount studios in the summer of 1930, Eisenstein finally had the opportunity to create a project that used internal monologue to develop character psychology while still situating individuals within broader socioeconomic contexts. His scenario for Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy provided a model for American leftist film critics on how...