In Excess of the Cut: Peter Greenaway’s “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”

By David A. GerstnerApril 15, 2016

In Excess of the Cut: Peter Greenaway’s “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”
ONE OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS about Sergei Eisenstein is Léon Moussinac’s Sergei Eisenstein: An Investigation Into His Films and Philosophy. When I read it, my love for French cinema and my admiration for Eisenstein were fully rewarded. Eisenstein was revealed as a figure not only reserved for the Soviet Boy’s Club and their dedication to montage; instead, Moussinac introduced me to an Eisenstein who, like me, reveled in the wide-ranging pleasures that the French arts offer: Balzac, Surrealism, Jean Cocteau, Blaise Cendrars, “the old houses, pregnant with their own histories” in the Marais, and the gilded halls of Versailles and Fontainebleau. Most importantly, Moussinac introduced me to an Eisenstein who “danced happily” with sailors while traveling in Saint-Tropez.

What a find this book was for a gay graduate student in film and literature studies when, in the early 1990s, a vibrant dialogue in queer studies commingled with leftist debates that focused on the pro-choice movement and AIDS activism. Indeed, as I completed the work for my masters, concluding with a thesis dedicated to Derek Jarman’s The Garden (1990), the intellectual and political air at the State University of New York at Buffalo was thick with modernist dreams in which aesthetics and politics furiously mixed. Jarman’s aesthetic energies from this period (The Last of England [1987], War Requiem [1989], The Garden) coincided with those of another British auteur and art-school filmmaker, Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover [1989] and Prospero’s Books [1991]). In the same year that I finished my masters, Peter Wollen observed of the two filmmakers and the political climate that, “although they did not confront Thatcherism head on,” their “strong visual style” gave way to “a less explicit artistic position within which their political anti-Thatcherism emerged.”

Although many reviewers compared the two, Jarman did not shy away from biting commentary about Greenaway’s work. Jarman was particularly bothered by what Wollen refers to as Greenaway’s “antiquarian extravaganza.” This is a charge that Greenaway strongly contested; and as I saw it, The Cook ultimately broke with the “antiquarian” settings for which Greenaway was so often criticized, elaborating a grotesque rendering of Thatcherite consumerist ideology. On whatever side one fell, however, the Jarman-Greenaway debates — aesthetically and politically — served graduate students well during the post-Reagan era.

If Jarman’s and Greenaway’s filmmaking raised the ante on aesthetics in response to political conservatism, my colleagues and I also brought Eisenstein into the cinematic challenge that both British filmmakers offered. With the Soviet filmmaker/theorist we discovered more direct rhetoric to help us think through the relationship between theory and practice. With the anti-choice movement pressing down, and friends and lovers dying every day, Eisenstein offered us ways we could get our heads around the aesthetic-political dynamic that we hoped would transform events in the late 20th century.

Although we eagerly sought the same ideological ends, the films made by these three filmmakers held our attention through very different aesthetic and political means. As I reflect on it now as a gay film studies professor, I can see that the hotly contested debates that first animated Pudovkin’s, Vertov’s, and Eisenstein’s commitment to montage were mirrored in the debates that I was part of in graduate school. Theories of montage, and the aesthetic distinctions embedded in these theories, invigorated us at every turn.

Yet, as the gay boy in that 1990s seminar room, I remained haunted by something particular and sentient about Eisenstein’s theories of montage. We all concurred that Eisenstein was the king (certainly for me, the queen) of montage. My friends, however, were invested in montage at the level of the cut. They were convinced that the cut was crucial for the “shock” it leveled upon the spectator. Montage-as-cut prompted the viewer to direct political action. But, as became clear, montage was something more than the cut for Eisenstein — something homosexual.

Indeed, I could not help but be erotically mesmerized by the images within the frame, images so intricately constructed by Eisenstein, and on which he demanded we concentrate. His tightly framed, muscular and chiseled young men in Strike (1925) not only lead the proletariat in protest against their not-so attractive bourgeois factory owners, they also jump naked into the sea to avoid the smarmy-looking spies who have been hired to rat on their political activities. The youthful vigor, yet sweet innocence, that give life to the sailors’ faces in Battleship Potemkin (1925) are so determinedly etched into Eisenstein’s frame that there is absolutely no question that they would ever be caught dead wearing the cursed pince-nez that belongs to the ship’s malevolent doctor.

Beyond the sensualized bodies of the male proletariat, Eisenstein showcases the precision with which he approaches mise-en-scène. The excessive opulence that fills the halls of the Winter Palace in October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), for instance, forces a counterpoint to the hearty and dusty proletariat. In other words, he trained his camera lens on body and place. By doing so, he signaled the interdependence between image and cut. While my friends directed their attention toward Eisenstein’s cut to secure a definition for montage, I, instead, zeroed in on his homoerotic and ultra-aestheticized mise-en-scène. Needless to say, one cannot do without the other.

This excess, in fact, is precisely “the area of magic as metaphor for the homosexual situation” that, in 1985, Derek Jarman astutely identified in Eisenstein’s filmmaking. Peter Greenaway’s latest film, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, “Ten Days That Shook Eisenstein,” takes it upon itself to give cinematic expression to Jarman’s phrase insofar as Greenaway’s cinema aestheticizes Eisenstein’s montage, broadly conceived, by concretizing Eisenstein’s “homosexual situation.” Folding cuts into mise-en-scène and mise-en-scène into cuts, Greenaway rewrites Eisenstein’s “montage of collision” as the “montage of penetration.” In short, he homosexualizes Eisensteinian montage.


Between 1930 and 1931, Eisenstein traveled to Mexico where he, along with cinematographer Eduard Tisse, shot truly magnificent images of the Mexican people and landscape, footage that would be come the unfinished film ¡Que Viva México!. But Eisenstein in Guanajuato is not about the making of that film; rather it concentrates on the 10-day period in Guanajuato when Eisenstein rethought the crucial relationship between cinematic montage and sexual desire. In Guanajuato, Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) meets and falls in love with his Mexican guide, a comparative religion professor named Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). “On October 25, 1931,” Greenaway tells us, “the exact day of the 14th anniversary of the Russian Revolution,” Eisenstein lost his virginity to Palomino. “And maybe it is no accident,” he continues, “that his Guanajuato experiences take place in October, a month that sees the Mexicans celebrate their Day of the Dead, and a month that supplies the title of Eisenstein’s most expensive film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World.” Through the intermingling of events — falling in love, losing his virginity, rethinking the possibilities for cinematic form — the short visit to Guanajuato was nothing less than the “ten days that shook Eisenstein.” The implications were tremendous.

If we are to believe Marie Seton, Eisenstein’s biographer, the Russian filmmaker grew weary of montage as the be-all and end-all of cinema, especially once he traveled abroad. It seems clear that Eisenstein’s travels to Europe, the United States, and Mexico provided him fresh perspectives on art and life. As Greenaway sees it, “I always felt Eisenstein’s first three films were very different from the last three — why? I think the answer to that is, when you go abroad, you become a different person.” To be sure, outside of his professional lectures at venues such as the London Film Society, Eisenstein chatted up friends in pubs and cafés where it was reported that he “cynically” referred to his theories of montage as those that “he and his Russian colleagues had merely invented […] to cover up the fact that half the time they didn’t know what they were doing when they were obliged to work with short ends of film.”

If the rigors of montage were a “cover up” for Eisenstein, were they only prompted by the limitations of film stock? Or, is it possible that montage as a “cover up,” was Eisenstein’s “epistemology of the closet?” What masks did Eisenstein feel compelled to wear, as he became the international spokesperson for montage? It is well known, and many commentators have acknowledged as much, that Eisenstein was gay. Life in Paris and other queer European capitals certainly put at odds the masculinist “creative impulse” that drove his Soviet colleagues’ theories of montage. Hence, while coming to terms with his sexuality, Eisenstein reworked his theories of montage. The coincidental linkage between montage and homosexuality should not be overlooked. It is critical to how we understand Greenaway’s approach to making Eisenstein in Guanajuato.

While in London, Eisenstein informed Hans Richter that he had outgrown films, and with sound technology knocking on the historical door, Eisenstein recognized that montage must continually be revised to keep the cinematic experience alive. Montage, in other words, did not exist in a “vacuum.” In Europe, at the same time, and to disguise his homosexuality from the prying eyes of the press, Eisenstein took refuge in what his Parisian friend, the filmmaker and theorist Jean Mitry, called “make believe.” Eisenstein told Mitry, for instance, that he was married and that he was well versed in the social skills of the brothel. His dramatic anecdotes, however warmly received by his French companions, were considered overenthusiastic performances that in turn led his listeners to firmly believe that he “lived like a priest.”

Two distinct points are worth noting as we further contextualize and draw together — thanks to Jarman and Greenaway — the connection between Eisensteinian montage and Eisenstein’s homosexuality. First, Eisenstein put a stress on “picturization” as a critical component to montage. Throughout his writings, he emphasized the synthesis of/between image and cut. Camera angles, mise-en-scène, actor-“types,” the masks worn in Japanese Nō Theater, the use of new technology, and other arts are the essential mechanics to Eisensteinian montage. If we are to understand montage comprehensively, it must be grasped as a multidisciplinary and multi-mediated concept.

Second, by declaring in no uncertain terms that Eisenstein’s homosexuality coincides with his theories of montage, Greenaway vitally intervenes in the canon of film studies. By theatricalizing Eisensteinian montage as a cinematic theory that served as a “cover up” for the filmmaker’s homosexuality, Greenaway reveals the Eisensteinian “magical aura” as a concept of montage in excess of the cut.


Like Eisenstein, Greenaway sees the cinema as a great experiment. It is a medium through which a multi-mediated “synthesis” occurs. And like their cinematic idol, Greenaway’s and Jarman’s involvement with other arts (painting, opera, installations, theater) makes for a cinema whose very aesthetic complexity challenges critics and audiences. The Eisensteinian triangle — Eisenstein, Greenaway, Jarman — is thus the queer-aesthetic catalyst that impels Eisenstein in Guanajuato because Eisenstein’s theories of montage cannot be separated from homosexual desire. As Peter Debruge in Variety suggestively puts forth in his review of Eisenstein in Guanajuato: “It’s a lot to take in.”

But “take it in” we must. Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato finally and homosexually penetrates the past of an adored, if not sacred, figure as well as the major concept with which he is directly associated. In this way, Greenaway’s revision of Eisensteinian montage challenges the homophobia that has for so long circulated around Eisenstein as homosexual in film studies. Greenaway is firm on this point. When Eisenstein in Guanajuato was banned in Russia, he called out the homophobia that remains in place in the 21st century: “Putin,” he unapologetically declared in his interview with Carmen Gray, “has encouraged homophobia.” Yet, as he joyfully reminds us, Potemkin is a “delight” for queer theorists. And with his “typically transgressive irreverence” (to borrow Gray’s terms), Greenaway’s hyperaestheticized deflowering of Eisenstein brings home montage precisely as homosexual penetration.

In the press release for Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Greenaway insists, “We are not in any way remaking a version of ¡Que Viva México! but we have been only too aware of the significance of editing.” The director, “only too aware of the significance of editing,” makes clear that to make a film whose subject is Sergei Eisenstein is to make a film whose subject is montage. But if Greenaway is “only too aware” that a film about Eisenstein is necessarily a film about montage, and if Eisensteinian montage is expansive rather than enclosing, what formal direction does Greenaway take to fold back the “cover up” that is no less than an open secret? How, in fact, does he homosexualize Eisensteinian montage?

Greenaway is equally aware that Eisensteinian montage cannot be divorced from Eros and Thanatos (a running theme in his own cinema). To rend montage from the clutches of the edit as such so as to enlarge the concept — aesthetically, cinematically, and homosexually — Greenaway “concentrated,” as he says, “on making the editing vocabulary noticeable in the service of everything else a film needs.” With 21st century technology at hand, and “long hours in the cutting room,” Eisenstein in Guanajuato displays a panoply of neo-Eisensteinian technique: fast cutting sequences “to parallel Eisenstein’s sometime manic desire to communicate,” slow sequences to match the “languor of emotional pathos,” still photographs paired with “very architecturally wide dioramas”; 360-degree pans, creating a “cinemascope triptych” to provide generous screen space for side-by-side images, “a great deal of both ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ green screening” in unexpected places, while, at the same time, “complying with Eisenstein’s demand for under-lighting and back-lighting with the use of grids and perforated shadows and deliberated ‘moving-paintings.’” Indeed, it’s a lot to take in. But there is more.

The cinematography and the editing are, it is important to recall, “in the service of everything else a film needs.” Greenaway is clear that the terms in this film for Eros and Thanatos are directly linked to “Fucking and Death.” They are “the two non-negotiables,” Eisenstein asserts. And if this non-negotiable pairing holds true, Eisenstein’s awakening to the non-negotiablity of “Fucking and Death” occurs precisely because Palomino homosexually fucks him in Mexico — the land that lovers embrace as the place of the living dead. In Mexico, Eisenstein learns, at the behest of Palomino, to “follow his cock” while on his death drive through Mexico, realizing both the making of a film and his sexual desire. (It is worth noting the unmistakable metaphor for this drive that opens and closes the film: Eisenstein enters and departs Guanajuato in a car.)

The scene in which Palomino penetrates Eisenstein is placed squarely midpoint in the film. Although filmed in a mix of shots, the sequence is predominantly shown in long take and in long shot. In avoiding a clichéd rapid montage that would pay awkward homage to the filmmaker, the long shot fully “picturizes” the bed on which Eisenstein fully and finally encounters fucking and death. The handful of close-ups that Greenaway inserts include those such as the “pure virgin olive oil” that Palomino pilfers from the restaurant where he and Eisenstein just dined. Once in the ultra-aestheticized bedroom, Palomino slowly and deliberately pours the elegantly lit oil down the director’s back so that it gently pours through the crevice that divides Eisenstein’s ass. Then, purposefully, Eisenstein’s “guide” penetrates his lover. While doing so, Palomino discourses on the history of the “New” and “Old” Worlds. He regales Eisenstein with details about the impact of global migration and the origins of syphilis. He reminds his lover that like the Russian he now homosexually penetrates, Russia itself had lost its virginity through a bloody revolution in overly decadent surroundings. Here, in Mexico, and in luxurious long take, Palomino’s cock provides the most significant cut for Eisenstein. Eisenstein bleeds. And as he penetrates his lover, Palomino remarks that, yes of course, his cock severs the “capillaries in the sensitive anal interior sphincter.” The cut, demonstrated in long take, reveals “what matters,” to recall a phrase from Mitry: what matters “is the actual association, not the method by which that association is achieved.” Eisensteinian montage and homosexual desire are folded into one another.

At this vital moment in film history, the emphasis on the Eisensteinian cut is now enveloped into Greenaway’s deliberate long take. At age 33 — the age when Christ and Alexander the Great died — Eisenstein is cut at a critical moment in his life, cut on his body, and cut from the strictures of montage that have forbidden homosexual desire. The penetrative long take illuminates “the two non-negotiables.” Life, body, and cinema in the land of aestheticized Eros and Thanatos are now broadened and commingled in their conceptual possibilities.

In the final sequences of Eisenstein in Guanajuato, in the moments when Eisenstein is forced to depart those he has come to love (Palomino and Mexico itself), a parade of death masks takes place. Palomino and his family (he is married with two children) prepare for Eisenstein’s exit. The singing children who walk alongside figures dressed in skeleton costumes bid farewell to Eisenstein. In reckoning with the death drive, with tears in his eyes, he tells his driver: “Drive away. This is the Day of the Dead. I’m a dead man. Drive slowly to the edge of town. This is a funeral cortège. And when you reach the edge of town, drive like the devil. I need to leave heaven in a hurry.” Anticipating his slow yet ultimate rush toward death, Eisenstein places a death mask over his face, and the car pulls away from the pleasures heaven has given him.

In uncovering montage as something more than the cut, Greenaway transforms a crucial aspect of film theory. Eros and Thanatos — homosexual Fucking and Death — release Eisenstein, if only for a short time, from the great montage “cover up.” But as things happen, one cover up leads to another. Eisenstein invariably puts on a new mask. Nonetheless, it will be difficult to return to theories of montage as nothing more than the straight cut. With Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Eisensteinian montage is made to bleed.


David A. Gerstner is Professor of Cinema Studies at the City University of New York. His most recent book, co-authored with Julien Nahmias, is Christophe Honoré: A Critical Introduction (Wayne State University Press).

LARB Contributor

David A. Gerstner is a professor of cinema studies at CUNY. He is the author of Queer Imaginings: On Writing and Cinematic Friendship (2023).


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