But First, a Bullfight: The Eisenstein Connection–Que Viva Kirstein! (& Mekas)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 3019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on February 11, 2000, grace of my father Edward Winer, who passed away  this past December 7.

NEW YORK — One evening in 1933, a young man was thrown out of the New School auditorium in Manhattan after he rose to protest a showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Thunder Over Mexico.” The man was Lincoln Kirstein, who would later co-found the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, and he was objecting because he knew that this copy of the film, a much-truncated extract from over 200 reels Eisenstein shot in Mexico, totally went against the legendary Russian filmmaker’s plan for “Que Viva Mexico!,” his panoramic history of Mexican civilization.

Kirstein had sat in a small projection room in New York with Eisenstein and his colleagues, Alexandrov and Tisse, a year earlier and listened as the three watched and commented upon 30 of these reels. In an article in the April 1932 issue of Arts Weekly (included in “By, With, To, & From: a Lincoln Kirstein Reader,” edited by Nicholas Jenkins), Kirstein had warned, “If anything should happen to ‘Que Viva Mexico!’ between now and the time it is cut and shown to rob it of Eisenstein’s final fingering, it would be a loss of staggering dimensions. There are no catalogues of the Alexandrian Library which Caesar’s fire ignited, and we have only the Rubens copy to show us what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari may have been. For us their loss would have been less crippling than this film of the heart of a consciousness, this testimony of extreme distinction.”

By early 1932, Eisenstein’s backers had pulled out, and his stop in New York, where he would try to edit the rushes, was one last attempt — as Jenkins tells it — “to retain control of his film.” From the wreckage, some smaller films were created, pale shadows of the master’s intentions. This is what had broken Kirstein’s heart. He would have been heartened, then, to be in the audience at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, for a generous four-hour showing of raw “Que Viva Mexico!” footage, assembled 45 years ago by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jay Leyda and Manfred Kirchheimer. (The footage had been donated to the museum by Upton Sinclair, who with his wife had brought together the film’s original backers.)

I should pause here to explain what Kirstein means to folks like me — i.e., the non-dancers in the dance field. If dancers have their Nijinskys and Pavlovas, their Nureyevs and Fonteyns as role models, we in the dance auxiliary identify with people like Serge Diaghilev, producer of the Ballet Russes; Kirstein; and, today, Charles Reinhart, the co-director of the American Dance Festival. As someone who was drawn to dance, and particularly ballet, not because I’m a dancer but, in part, because I love good art, Diaghilev and Kirstein have a particular appeal because of their demonstrated interest in, and support of, not just dance but the visual arts. Diaghilev not only used the leading Cubist painters in the ballets he produced; he also started his own art magazine, “The World of Art,” just before the turn-of-the-last-century. Kirstein’s interest in visual art, and particularly sculpture, is widely known. But I had no idea until my dad gave me the reader, and I learned of Kirstein’s closeness to the promotion of the Eisenstein film, of how passionate he was about this medium as well.

Last Saturday, I stumbled into a showing at the Drawing Center in Soho of a hundred or so original DRAWINGS by Eisenstein (including one of a sinuous “Harlem snake dancer”). While there, I learned that Anthology would be showing the ‘Que Viva’ footage, which Leyda assembled to summarize Eisenstein’s intentions for the epic.

So I hied myself to Jonas Mekas’s treasure of an ongoing, public film archive in the East Village to look for Kirstein. I thought that if it was important to him, it had to be important to me. What I didn’t figure on was that this material would be so obviously a matter of movement.

Much of the first half of what I saw (I only stayed for part one — hey, I’ve been Flashing three nights straight!) was almost ALL about movement. (Confession: The film was also screened without a soundtrack, testing my ADHD-challenged concentration capability.) One section is a study of a Via Delarosa march by Indians that is subtly intertwined with indigenous tradition. Hundreds of Indian men retrace Christ’s arduous road, all but the few Christ enactors within their ranks walking on their haunches; that’s right, hunched. The road, the climb seem unending. There is definitely a rhythm here. Like “Serenade” — the first ballet Balanchine created in America — there is also a story, with rites. And canon!

“Serenade” ends with the ballerina being hoisted on the shoulders of her comrades and carried offstage. The prologue of “Que Viva Mexico!”, at least what we saw, is mostly taken up with bare-chested Indian males carrying the casket of a fallen compatriot down a mountain.

But the heart of what I saw last night –and the most dancey material — deals with bull-fighting, gruesomely real and hokily imagined.

First we are shown actual footage of a real bullfight. A picador gores a bull; a bull gores a picador’s horse. The matadors (? I get the human sadists in the bull-ring mixed up) then poke the bull with banderoles (these have flowers on one end, and hooked blades on the other), which stick out of his skin as he continues to try to fight them. Then we are treated to many takes of each of various aspects of the bullfight recreated by Eisenstein. We get a bull’s eye perspective, as we view the matador from atop an obviously phony bull’s head, seeing the matador from between his horns. Truly comic fodder, as is a surprisingly modern sequence in which a dapper and obviously older, and light-skinned, male spectator, dallies with a dark-skinned younger man.

The most purely balletic section is the lengthy footage of the paso mariposa (or butterfly pass) to which, a subtitle explains, Eisenstein “planned to give…special attention,” perhaps “for its resemblance to ballet.” One can see why: The bullfighter, facing his quarry, splays his cape behind him so that he appears to have wings on either side. He flits back and forth with lots of fancy footwork, moving backwards as the bull charges, then whips the cape over the head of the animal — who also dances. It’s total ballet. (Eisenstein’s plan was to have Dmitri Shostakovich score this film, to Indian and Latin themes. One can imagine how splendidly the Russian composer would have treated this intense section.)

Indeed, in a very human sense, the footage I saw indicates that much of this film is very balletic. Prior to seeing it, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a dance film; even such a ballet monument as Lincoln Kirstein has a right to have other interests, after all. And, as a non-dancer involved in dance, it’s Kirstein’s very catholicity of passionate pursuits that appeals to me. But I don’t think it’s too much of an extrapolation to guess that, as he sat with Eisenstein and his colleagues in that small projection room in 1932, at least one of the reasons Kirstein found “Que Viva Mexico!” “an absorbing experience” was Eisenstein’s capturing of how movement expresses culture. This same belief, I would guess, would seventeen years later help convince Kirstein of the need for a New York City Ballet — for U.S. American culture to be expressed through movement as well.

But first, a Patron of the Arts: Lincoln Kirstein finally gets his due at MoMA

Moma Kirstein CadmusChampion of the eight-hour, unbutchered version of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Que Viva Mexico,” art critic and essayist, avid collector of the photographers Walker Evans and George Platt Lynes, ardent admirer of the sculptures of Elie Nadelman and Gaston Lachaise, Lincoln Kirstein was much more than the co-founder, with George Balanchine, of the School of American Ballet. A font and funder of the New York Modern Art scene, he fervently acquired Latin American art for the Modern Art Museum, notably by Antonio Berni and Raquel Forner. Now Lincoln Kirstein, Patron of the Arts is finally getting his due, in an exhibition running March 17 through June 30, 2019 at MoMA and featuring more than 200 works, including, above, Paul Cadmus (American, 1904–1999), set design for the ballet “Filling Station,” 1937. Cut-and-pasted paper, gouache, and pencil on paper, 8 × 10 7/8″ (20.3 × 27.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1941. © 2018 Estate of Paul Cadmus.