If Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Peter Greenaway’s farcical biopic of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, were a child, its parents would pour fistfuls of Adderall down its throat with a NyQuil chaser. Eisenstein, helmer of acclaimed early 20th-century films such as Battleship Potemkin, was a crusader in “montage,” which at the time didn’t mean a patched-together time-lapse series of former wallflowers trying on prom dresses or new couples romping on the beach. It referred, at its most basic, to editing—assembling shots from, say, different perspectives to produce a single scene.
Greenaway, whose last film of note was 1996’s The Pillow Book, borrows this idea like a kid who discovered 64 Crayolas next to a pot of coffee. Within the first five minutes of the film, which tells of the Soviet director’s time exploring Mexico to shoot a movie, your head will be spinning—just as the scenes themselves often do. Literally: In one scene the background revolves as a static character speaks; and in another, the camera follows someone else as she ceaselessly circles a grand bed while addressing the person in it.
More prevalent, though, are three-paneled scenes, with the panels hyperactively switching shots or repeating the end of a line. To wit: Eisenstein (an insufferable Elmer Bäck) tells his guide, Palomino (Luis Alberti), that Russians “believe most of the time that ‘abroad’ does not really exist. Does not really exist. Does not really exist.” Black-and-white close-ups of flies are also popular.
Viewers should also be prepared to see a lot of ass and cock. Eisenstein, a pallid gay man with Don King hair, seems obsessed with his derrière, mooning people or just dropping trou in company to get comfortable or be dramatic. He carries around photos of naked sculptures and other nudes in art. In the film’s most intolerable scene, though, the effects of Mexican water hit him while he’s in an alley. I’ll leave it to your imagination.
As Eisenstein and Palomino walk around Guanajuato, the visitor won’t shut the fuck up. His storytelling is manic and incomprehensible, and often inconsequential. At one point, the two go on at length about how the Grim Reaper shows up in their respective countries. (Drunk, sober, dressed in rags, friend, foe, etc.) They also list a bunch of famous dead people: “Pancho Villa, dead,” Palomino says. “George Washington is dead,” Eisenstein counters.
Remarkably, there are eventually a couple of funny moments, including a conversation that’s an extended homosexual metaphor and, um, a small flag planted between someone’s buttocks. But these come way too late to win you over. The end is another mystery; it’s unclear whether it’s intentionally somber or facetiously dramatic.
The real Eisenstein referred to montage as “the nerve of cinema,” which makes this film a significantly exposed one. If you’re still on the fence about whether to see it, let me be clear that should you buy a ticket, you’ll soon be wishing that this film didn’t really exist. Didn’t really exist. Didn’t really exist.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato opens Friday at Angelika Pop-Up.