Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sergei Eisenstein! Day 5 of our Celebration of Russian LGBTQ Pride: An Olympic Counter-Programming Event #OlympicShame #russianPride

Sergei Eisenstein, Filmmaking Legend

Sergei Eisenstein inspecting a film strip, ca. 1927, featured image on the Stanford University Film Studies Library webpage

Sergei Eisenstein was, as the Gene Siskel Film Center puts it, "one of the giants of film history."

Sergei came up with the idea of the montage, he was Russian - at the time Russia was called the Soviet Union (or USSR), so he was considered "Soviet," - and he was a gay.

Here's a clip from one of his most famous films, "Battleship Potemkin" (Bronenosets Potyomkin)

Even 89 years later, it's a remarkable piece of filmmaking that grabs me and doesn't let me go. (And it was a silent movie!)

Here's the section on Sergei from pg. 361 in the chapter, "Russia's Gay Literature and Culture: The Impact of the October Revolution" by Simon Karlinsky in "Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past" edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey, Jr.

Another major figure whom the Soviet authorities tried to keep in a lifelong closet was the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein may have internalized the homophobia of the Russian and international Communist movements, as when he told the Soviet critic Sergei Tretiakov that if it were not for Marx, Lenin, and Freud, he would have ended up as "another Oscar Wilde."

(That's footnoted as from pg 119 of Marie Seton's "Sergei M. Eisenstein," revised ed. (London: Dennis Dobson, 1978, originally published in 1952 by The Bodley Head.) Back to the paragraph on Sergei from "Hidden from History,"

But he did yield to his gay desires when visiting Berlin and Paris and even more so during his 1930-1932 stay in Mexico to make a film, where he became openly gay and almost caused an international scandal. The Soviet government blackmailed him into returning to Moscow by threatening to disclose his private life. Before he was allowed to make another film, he had to submit to that Soviet cure-all for homosexuality: marriage. His friend and assistant Pera Attasheva volunteered to go through the ceremony, though they never lived together.

I have to say I don't love that language of "yeilding to gay desires" - especially as it's a negative spin on finally stopping to pretend to be someone you are not. If Sergei was finally able to be his authentic self in Mexico, that's something to cheer.

There's another footnote to that paragraph in "Hidden From History," which lists four other sources on Sergei Eisenstein's being gay, including:

Stan Brakhage, "Film Biographies" (Berekeley: Turtle Island, 1977), pg. 98-99, where Kenneth Rexroth reports a conversation with Eisenstein in which the director admitted he was forced to return to the Soviet Union by a threat to expose his sex life;

Thomas Waugh, "A Fag-Spotter's Guide to Eisenstein," Body Politic, no. 35, July/August 1977, an excellent demonstration of homo-erotic imagery in Eisenstein's films

Sergei being gay is also cited in this film review by David Thomson in the UK paper The Guardian of "Battleship Potemkin" - which in 1958 was voted, by an international jury meeting in Brussels, as "the greatest picture ever made."

...Eisenstein was gay and bursting to get out of the closet and out of the Soviet Union. Indeed, he dreamed of going to California. In 1930, he arrived in Hollywood, but it was the start of his personal disaster. Helped by the author Upton Sinclair, he made a ravishing documentary in Mexico, but Moscow disowned the project.

Interestingly, in the footnote back in "Hidden from History," Edmund Wilson's "Eisenstein in Hollywood" in Wilson's "The American Earthquake" (New York: Doubleday, 1958) pg. 367-413 cites,

"...the role of the American pro-Communist writer Upton Sinclair in cutting off the funds for Eisenstein's Mexican film project and denouncing him to Stalin when Sinclair fournd out about the director's sex life."

While Upton Sinclair's role in outing Sergei is fascinating, the discussion being all about who Eisenstein had "sex" with sort of ignores the fact that being gay is about being a guy who can fall in love with another guy, or a gal who can fall in love with another gal.

Let's focus on Sergei falling in love with another guy when he was in Mexico, okay?

Healthy grown-up relationships can include sex, but to reduce all gay, lesbian and bi relationships to being just about sex is a misrepresentation - just as reducing all heteroSEXual relationships to being just about sex would be.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of Sergei Eisenstein being gay in this bio at the Russian Archives, nor is it mentioned in the Reuters obituary that ran in the New York Times on Feb 12, 1948.

A screen shot of the entry on Sergei Eisenstein in "Queers in History"

Happily, Sergei Eisenstein is featured on page 152 of "Queers in History," which includes the additional information that:
Eisenstein's unexpurgated diaries, published in 1984 as "Immoral Memories," record his infatuations with many young men, including his assistant, Grigori Alexandrov.
Here's a picture from 1925 of, left to right, Grigori, Sergei, Walt Disney, and Eduard Tisse, who worked with Sergei as his cinematographer.

Sergei (center left) wrote in his diaries about his crush on his assistant, Grigori (far left.)
They're pictured here with Walt Disney (center right) and Sergei's Cinematographer, Tisse (far right)

The film-focused biography of Sergei on the Gene Siskel Film Center site ends with these words:

"It is time to rediscover Sergei Eisenstein, not simply as a textbook exemplar of "Soviet Montage," but as one of film history's most spectacular and exhilarating stylists, able to mobilize the entire arsenal of cinema's resources--editing, mise-en-scène, music, documentary, and artifice--with a dazzling virtuosity that has never been surpassed."

And I think it's time to rediscover - and celebrate - Sergei Eisenstein as a gay man, too!


Add To The Celebration:

Who are the Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Trans and Queer Russians you'd like to celebrate? Tell me your favorites in comments, or by twitter, and on the final day of the Olympics, I'll run a rainbow variety-pack post with everyone's suggestions!

Please Note: Given the situation in Russia, I'm thinking we should keep it to either people who are no longer living in Russia or are historical. I'd hate to create a list that then would be used against people by a repressive, anti-LGBTQ regime.

Having said that, there is a lot of Queer Russian heritage to explore and so many LGBTQ Russians we can celebrate!



Check out this great article by Michael Regula at Advocate.com on "Why The End of Communism Didn't End AntiGay Hate In Russia"

It includes this:

“If Russia for a long time was not safe for LGBT people, it’s a bit different now that the government is actually taking steps to enshrine that homophobia in the law,” explains Morris, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based LGBT group Immigration Equality. “And I think that’s especially scary for people in Russia who are trying to get out.”

Immigration Equality works to end discrimination in U.S. immigration law, and helps win asylum for those fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. The organization’s staff has witnessed the impact of Russia’s growing political and cultural homophobia. Morris reports a “dramatically higher increase” in asylum applications from Russia in the past year. Calls to the organization’s free immigration advice hotline tripled in September alone.

Morris says Immigration Equality is currently working on 45 Russian cases."

Take Action:

Consider supporting (by raising money for, sending money to, or spreading word about) organizations that help Asylum-seekers (People fleeing Russia and other homelands where it is dangerous for them to be their authentic LGBTQ selves, who want to be able to stay in safer countries.)

The organization mentioned in the Advocate article helping LGBTQ Russians escape and stay here in the USA is Immigration Equality - they've even started a "Russia Emergency Fund."

Check it out and see what you can do to help!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Seeing how far Russia has come on the issue, it's not a great wonder why Eisenstain waited until he was safely out of the Russian sphere to let his flag fly!

(...little did he know that Stalin would actually manage to locate and assassinate Leon Trotsky in Mexico just a few years later. Yikes!)