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From Paris to Mexico: The anthropological Gaze of Eisenstein (1929-32)

22 June 2016
San Francesco - Via della Quarquonia 1 (Classroom 1 )
Sergei M. Eisenstein’s visit to Paris between November 1929 and May 1930. In that period, both the intellectual and the personal vicissitudes of Eisenstein intertwine with the group of anthropologists behind the journal Documents. One clearly identifies the methodological ground, a conflictual dialectic of concrete forms, shared by Eisenstein and the heterodox surrealists. Eisenstein’s idea of conflictual montage was formulated in three essays of 1929, while an equally radical principle of “conflictual montage of texts and images is also foregrounded on the pages of Documents in 1929-1930. However, the crucial feature of the comparison focalized in this paper concerns Eisenstein’s ethnographic inclination in the 1930s vis-à-vis the surrealist ethnography permeating Documents in this same period. To demonstrate this relationship I consider both the books acquired by Eisenstein during his Parisian stay––for instance, Lévy-Bruhl’s Primitive Mentality (1922) that became influential in his American journey, especially during the shooting of Que viva Mexico! (1931-1932)––, and the correspondence with Jean Painlevé, kept at the Jean Painlevé archives (Les Documents cinématographiques, Paris). The meeting between the two directors dates back to Eisenstein’s visit to Paris between 1929 and 1930. Shortly after their meeting, Eisenstein and Painlevé form a friendship, as evidenced by correspondence that they maintain during all of Eisenstein’s travels throughout the United States, then Mexico (1930-32), until the return of the latter to the Soviet Union. This correspondence allows us to grasp, on the one hand, the influence of Painlevé’s scientific documentaries on the anthropological thinking of Eisenstein during the 1930’s, and on the other hand, to rethink Eisenstein’s trip to Paris and his exchanges with prominent figures in “heterodox” Surrealism who were close to Bataille (Painlevé included), as a decisive moment in the intellectual and biographical trajectory of the Soviet director. One could, in fact, advance the hypothesis that some of Painlevé’s scientific films––like the documentary entitled Mouvement du protoplasme d’elodea canadensis (1928)––have been the inspiration for Eisenstein’s “protoplasm” theory, based on the idea that primordial organisms, which had not yet achieved a stable form, were in such a state that permitted them to assume all possible forms through a continuous series of transformations and metamorphoses. That idea, which is the focus of Eisenstein’s essay on Walt Disney, edited on several occasions during the 1940’s, becomes part of his reflections contained in Metod, a fundamental work which remained unpublished until 2002, and is today in the process of being translated into German and Italian.
Rebecchi, Marie