Theory and Practice: Peter Greenaway’s “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”

The day before his new movie, Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015), was screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Peter Greenaway gave his customary speech disparaging text-based cinema at an event hosted by the British Council. I gather it’s a talk he gives pretty often, as I’d already heard him rehearse the same arguments eight years ago at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, using the selfsame examples to illustrate his points. Both times, he loudly declared on the subject of actors that “the cinema is not a playground for Sharon Stone” — a reference that was already comically out of date in 2007.

Implicit in Greenaway’s assertion that there hasn’t yet been any true cinema but merely one hundred and twenty years of “illustrated text” — a fair enough charge when leveled at Woody Allen (whom I like), but less convincing if one knows the films of Robert Bresson, Miklós Jancsó, and Kenji Mizoguchi to name a few — is that he’s just the man to give it to us, despite the fact that his own movies are all pretty talky. Indeed, part of what makes The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) such terrific fun is the way the characters use language as a weapon; in Eisenstein in Guanajuato, alas, they simply regurgitate Greenaway’s pronouncements on sex, death, and voyeurism verbatim while the camera spins around them pointlessly and still images of famous faces (Charles Chaplin, Walt Disney, etc.) flash onscreen whenever they’re mentioned in the dialogue.

Greenaway, who started his film career as an editor at the BFI, has called Sergei Eisenstein the only truly impressive filmmaker in the medium’s short history, so it’s somewhat surprising that he makes no attempt in this movie — notwithstanding his taste for non-diegetic inserts — to approximate or build upon the montage style of Soviet films of the 1920s, but instead employs a suped up version of continuity editing not fundamentally different from the commercial cinema he despises. To be sure, Greenaway has some neat ideas of his own which have nothing to do with Eisenstein (as when he uses invisible wipes to stitch together several tracking shots moving laterally from right to left, each one scanning a different side of the same room), but they lack any narrative motivation that would make them meaningful.

Ultimately, what seems to interest Greenaway most about Eisenstein (played here by Elmer Bäck) is that he had a homosexual fling with a teacher of comparative religion (Luis Alberti) in Mexico for ten days in 1931. Eisenstein’s adventures in Hollywood (synopsized in a lengthy, frenetic monologue) and the shooting of ¡Que viva México! are relevant to the plot only insofar as they provide an excuse for bringing him briefly to Guanajuato and then sending him away when his investors put the kibosh on filming. The movie tells us virtually nothing about the film Eisenstein wanted to make, suggesting that Greenaway is totally uninterested in it, and when we see brief clips of Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1928), they’re either cropped to fit the ‘Scope frame, obscured by an orchestra, or shown three at a time in a Gance-like triptych. In short, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is an essentially conventional biopic about the private life of a public figure, which just goes to show that it’s easier to talk about true cinema than it is to make it.


The Time That Remains: Tayla Lavie’s “Zero Motivation”

Tayla Lavie’s Zero Motivation (2014) begins with two female NCOs walking back to a remote base in the south of Israel after a weekend furlough. When Daffi (Nelly Tagar) refuses to go on, saying she can’t face another week, her friend Zohar (Dana Ivgy) tries to encourage her by saying they’ll set a new record for minesweeping. Only later do we learn that both women work in the personnel department and the only minesweeping they ever do is on the office computers. Periodically, their commanding officer, Rama (Shani Klein), scolds them for their laziness at a time when others are dying for their country, but that’s the closest anyone comes to even mentioning the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in what is essentially an office comedy.

For reasons that are never spelled out, Daffi has her heart set on being transferred to a base in Tel Aviv (even though her family lives in Haifa), so when an unfamiliar young woman, Tehila (Yonit Tobi), turns up at the base, Daffi jumps to the conclusion that she’s been sent to replace her. Only after Tehila is unmasked as an impostor does Daffi discover that Zohar never mailed the countless letters they wrote together requesting a transfer — partly to spare Daffi the embarrassment of having them read by anyone, but also because Daffi would be helpless without her (her only useful skill is her ability to operate a paper shredder), and because Zohar has no other friends in the department, which is full of passive-aggressive skanks.

There are some real laughs in the film, but for the most part, the story is a little too serious to ever be very funny. We eventually learn that Tehila’s purpose in sneaking onto the base is to see Eitan (Moshe Askenazi), a soldier whom she had a one night stand with four months earlier and has been hung-up on ever since. But while there’s a hint of farce in a scene where Eitan tries to conceal a female officer in his room when Tehila barges in in the middle of the night, her heartbreak when Eitan finally disillusions her is too real to be laughed at, and in a particularly gruesome sequence, she attempts to remove a commemorative tattoo from her belly with an Exacto knife. The movie’s least convincing scenes are its few forays into out-and-out hilarity, such as the improbable happy ending in which Daffi and Zohar make up and all their dreams magically come true, as if by divine intervention.

Unlike war movies made in the United States, the few Israeli films I’ve seen about the military don’t have much recruitment flavor — maybe because national service is mandatory there so there’s no need (or appetite) for movies that try to sell young people on enlisting. (In this film, the IDF’s macho culture is treated simply as a fact of life rather than a problem to be solved.) At the same time, the movie is conspicuously silent on the Palestinian question, which is alluded to only in passing, as when Zohar puts up posters commemorating every war Israel has fought since 1948. The impression I get from the film is that most Israelis are too busy with their own lives to worry about political issues that don’t directly concern them, and instead of giving recruits a sense of mission, military service is a meaningless obligation they’re forced to endure whether they like it or not.