Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture

By Chris Robé | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Eisenstein in America
THE ¡Que Viva México! DEBATES AND
EMERGENT POPULAR FRONT U.S.
FILM THEORY AND CRITICISM

In the early 1930s, a group of U.S. Left film theorists and critics banked their hopes on the mass distribution of Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva México! within the United States in order to prove once and for all that modernism was not the sole province of cultural elites but could serve both political and aesthetic revolutionary ends for mainstream audiences. The film’s use of radical montage to expose the relations between the political and the personal, between the individual and his or her socioeconomic context, served as a corrective to the conservative ideology and reified representations of many Hollywood films. Yet as these theorists and critics promoted Eisenstein’s film, they became increasingly aware of Hollywood’s stranglehold on all channels of mass distribution, especially when producers demanded that Eisenstein’s film be reedited in a style that was in more accord with the forms of classical Hollywood cinema. Widespread debates arose in the critical community about the problem of mass distribution in the United States, about the ability of montage to address both social issues and character psychology, and about whether film should shock audiences into intellectual engagement or use emotional identification with characters to prevent viewers from becoming completely alienated from the subject matter. By examining the influence of Eisenstein’s theoretical articles on U.S. Left film theorists and critics, and these theorists’ and critics’ failed attempts to mass-distribute ¡Que Viva México! we can observe a shift in U.S. Left film theory and criticism from a radical position that was often skeptical of Hollywood’s formal conventions to an emergent Popular Front stance that acknowledged the need of Left films to adopt some commercial conventions in order to gain access to the mass audiences that Hollywood had carefully guarded.

Additionally, this chapter argues that Eisenstein’s Mexican footage reveals how montage could be used to show that political equality depended directly on a radical transformation of gender roles. Although one does not want to underestimate the difficulty of theorizing about such a tentative, incomplete film project, a careful analysis of Eisenstein’s script,

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