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the subject of actors that “the cinema is not a playground for Sharon Stone” — a reference that was already comically out of date in 2007.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.