- In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein's Mexico
In The Originality of the Avant-Garde (1985), Rosalind Krauss denounced the scholarly practice of approaching avant-garde artists as singular exceptions, disconnected from the cultural milieu in which they had created their works. Krauss also noted that scholars gave priority to male artists, paying little attention to women artists. Masha Salazkina overcomes these problems by looking at Sergei Eisenstein´s ¡Que Viva México! as a work drawing from a complex net of intertwined international connections of Soviet, U.S., and Mexican artists. In addition to establishing links between Eisenstein and Mexican U.S. anthropology of the early to mid-1920s, Salazkina deepens our understanding of Eisenstein's connection to Mexican artistic practices, including that of Adolfo Best Maugard, and to the government's discourse on the importance of indigenous peoples to a national identity.
This book features key women intellectuals and artists of the 1920s working on projects similar to Eisenstein's. While the importance of the ideas of anthropologist Anita Brenner have been pointed out by Aurelio de los Reyes in El nacimiento de ¡Que viva México! (2006), Salazkina takes that relationship a step further by suggesting that Brenner was Eisenstein's interlocutor. The author also highlights women artists who were working on issues similar to the ones included in ¡Que viva Mexico! For instance, Katherine Anne Porter's Hacienda (1931) takes on the harsh life of peons at maguey plantations, as Eisenstein's novella "Maguey" does, and gives it a critical edge. Furthermore, Salazkina's work convincingly demonstrates that although Eisenstein includes women characters in his film, he does not create them as subjects. [End Page 583]
The book's most important contribution, however, is to provide a solid ground from which to read ¡Que viva Mexico! as a complex modernist text that combines elements from vernacular and avant-garde modernism. Salazkina examines the way in which Eisenstein combines the premodern (the primitive, pre-Columbian cultures) with the ultramodern (the shock of modernization, movement, industrial technology). In particular, she looks at the tension generated by their interaction.
The structure of the book, however, does not contribute to Salazkina's overall clever, well-sustained analysis. She explains that her four chapters (Prologue, Sandunga, Fiesta Maguey, and Epilogue) follow Eisenstein's film script, since the sequential order of the novellas was important for Eisenstein's theoretical work. While this claim may be true, the order misleads the reader into thinking that the author is attempting an interpretation of Eisenstein's work, and not an exploration of Eisenstein's cultural field. And most importantly, it undermines her insightful goal of illustrating the unresolved tension between the ultramodern and the premodern. The script's sequential order suggests the idea of progression and resolution, whereas Salazkina's overarching project is to stress unresolved tension, not resolution.
One aspect that deserves special attention is Salazkina's approach to the tension in Eisenstein's project through an examination of the sensorial experience of the body of the spectator. Salazkina defends the position that tension surfaces in the film as excess specifically related to the baroque aesthetic. The baroque, on the one hand, comes from Eisenstein's preference for the overdone, and, on the other, from his use of Mexican architecture. The combination of the two results in a film that directly affects the senses of the spectator, and not just the intellect. Salazkina claims that "the very excess evident in !Que Viva México! can serve as a governing metaphor in Eisenstein's cinematic theory and practice at large" (p. 3). For Salazkina, excess can also mean waste. Taken in this sense, Salazkina finds support for her claim about Eisenstein's excess in Upton Sinclair's accusation that there were "thousands of feet of pure wasted film" (p. 3). I remain unpersuaded that Eisenstein practiced an excess manifested in his waste of film and resources. Salazkina says that Eisenstein shot "over 200,000 feet of film rushes" (p. 1), which is an overestimation. As Harry M. Geduld...