"You have naked bodies and genitalia, don’t you? Why are you so adolescent?": Director Peter Greenaway on "Puritan" Americans and the intense sex scenes in "Eisenstein in Guanajuato"

Salon talks to the team behind the new film about Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's time in Mexico

Published February 4, 2016 11:00PM (EST)

Elmer Bäck in "Eisenstein in Guanajuato"   (Strand Releasing)
Elmer Bäck in "Eisenstein in Guanajuato" (Strand Releasing)

Cult filmmaker Peter Greenaway wanted to be a painter, and spent four years studying in a London art school. “Painting is the supreme form of expression; you don’t need to ‘read’ painting,” he told me over the phone from Switzerland, where he is scouting locations. “Most cinema is not about images but text. Why on earth have we based cinema on text? Why can’t we break that umbilical cord? Why do we have to pollute cinema? The best painting is totally non-narrative. It doesn’t have to tell you a story.”

Greenaway’s latest extravaganza, the sensational “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” (the first of a planned trilogy) is like a moving painting. The filmmaker thinks in images and about manufacturing them. “We are bludgeoned by text text text text text,” he rages. “We need to realign our notions about the sophistication of images. You [need to] understand color and the golden section ratio. There is visual illiteracy with text-oriented films like bloody ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Lord of the Rings.’… So if that’s how I was trained—as a painter—I hope that Eisenstein thought that way too.”

“Eisenstein in Guanajuato” boasts some astonishing visuals as it chronicles Russian director Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) in 1930s Mexico, where he is trying to make a film. Instead, his seductive local guide, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), puts the make on Eisenstein. Cañedo helps the filmmaker lose his inhibitions along with his gay virginity with the help of some olive oil. (Alberti, who plays Palomino, happens to be hung like a horse.)

“Eisenstein was like Dante, going underground in the ‘Divine Comedy’ and meeting Cerberus the dog,” Greenaway observes.

Bäck and Alberti fleshed out Greenaway’s comments for me, chatting via Skype in separate interviews about working with the filmmaker and shooting “Eisenstein in Guanajuato’s” intense sex scenes.

Peter, you have a very distinct visual style, with silhouettes, fish-eye lenses, split screens, 360-degree pans, visual and aural repetitions, illustrations, film clips, and even re-creations of Eisenstein posing with a skull. Can you talk about all the wondrous imagery?

PG: There is a deliberate symmetry in the film’s images and time. The first shot is exactly like the last shot, and the second exactly like the second to last. It’s an American club sandwich. If you go to the middle of the film, the scene is of Eisenstein having the American flag shoved up his backside. There are cinematic references, from “Raging Bull”—a man talking to his prick—to Fellini with the clown, and Abel Gance with the split screens. It’s a homage to Eisenstein and all the films and filmmakers.

Peter, why make a film about Eisenstein? Is he a proxy for you?

PG: I don’t know. He’s a brilliant man. I believe he pursued a poetic metaphorical cinema. He was a poet who used images to create metaphor not literal truth. Eisenstein was a good editor. I was trained as a film editor, and I’ve no doubt that the editor is key to a film. It’s a tragedy Eisenstein was never allowed to edit the miles of film [he shot in Mexico] so we’ll never know how that film would have turned out!

When I discovered him as an art student in the late 1950s he was serious about life and death, an intellectual who believed in dialectical materialism and all that. He was the center of attention and could tell jokes, and thought of himself as a clown and a caricature. I got in trouble with the stern-faced Russians who didn’t want me to create a guy who is mortal. He wears his emotions on his body and has mucus coming out of his nose. He’s not afraid of his physicality. There are many photos of Eisenstein. I think he was quite vain, and he liked photos of him. Being a virgin at 33 is strange now, but let’s not be too high-minded about that.

Elmer, Eisenstein is a risky role. How did you find a way into his character?

EB: I have to say a big part of that is Greenaway’s writing. He was very alive. I played the real Eisenstein and Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein. That’s what made him interesting. He is childlike, and I pictured him very hypersensitive—without skin, no protection—so everything touches him. The key was the sensitivity, and the sexuality. If you never lived out your sexuality—it’s a great force, and if you try to fight it, what does that create? Energy: positive and negative, self-loathing. The nudity too, his showing himself, is self-torture. “I’m a clown,” he tells Cañedo. So I thought about the duality of that: he’s brilliant but his confidence is very low as a man and as a sexual person. It creates a tension in him.

Luis, why do you think Cañedo seduced Eisenstein?

LA: It was like falling in love, I was looking at him and listening to him. That’s what you do when you admire someone and fall in love with them. You want to know about him or her, and you listen to what they have to say. It’s not Palomino Cañedo seducing Eisenstein, it’s Eisenstein seducing Palomino. Cañedo is an innocent in a way. The decision I made was to make this the first time Cañedo falls in love with a man. I don’t know if that’s true with the real man, but I think it was. Eisenstein was a very important director and an amazing person, and his world was very rich, and enjoyable, so that’s how I approached it—falling in love, admiring. Peter talked to me that he wanted it to be like this. It would be dramatic only if Cañedo falls in love for the first time. The real Palomino Cañedo used to have sex with men, but for me it was more interesting if this was his first time.

Peter, given all the sex and nudity on display, how do you respond to the question Eisenstein is asked in the film: Are you a pornographer?

PG: Maybe we are all pornographers? Eisenstein made serious porno drawings and was stupid enough—or wise enough—to leave them in his suitcase, so the [customs] authorities would see them. They were shocked by drawings of Christ masturbating on the cross.

Why are Americans so obsessed with nudity? You have naked bodies and genitalia, don’t you? Why are you so adolescent? Puritans! I went to art school, and every Tuesday and Friday we drew the nude. If you look at Western painting, male and female nudes are in the center of every painting. It’s difficult and exciting to draw the nude. Why get so upset about this? It’s our duty to break taboos. American actors are coy. We all have pricks and cunts, or are you different from the rest of us?

Elmer, can you discuss how you prepared for all of the copious nudity and sex scenes?

EB: For me, I thought about it at first—especially when you have that amount of nudity. After a day, you don’t think about it. You get used to it. You’re not protecting it and your privacy. It’s not difficult to do. Being an actor, and putting on more pounds and then being naked in a not flattering way, was an interesting way to go into it—to be nude and not in a flattering way. The lack of vanity was freeing. I had to forget about that and just jump in. We were rehearsing—Luis, Peter, and I—and these things are difficult. It works or it doesn’t, this kind of connection. I think we all felt that we were able to play off each other. Because we had to that one intimate scene—you need to allow the other person to be close, and create intimacy—and that comes into the film. As actors, we were going quite far. It was not just for us, but for Eisenstein in that moment. We went through the same thing as actors.

Luis, what are your thoughts about being nude and performing all the sex scenes?

LA: We talked a lot about that. I tried to make three faces for Cañedo—one on the street with clothes and hat—very straight and square. The second was indoors, without a jacket and hat, and more relaxed, protected. The third is without clothes, more free, and more like a child. Each face is different; he relates to the environment. We talked about the sex scene for hours. What can we do? How do we do it and make it work? You don’t make a Peter Greenaway film bad. We had to enjoy it and make it enjoyable.

We made the decision to do the sex scene in one take. At the beginning I was concerned about being naked and having a gay sex scene and showing my penis on-screen because of my family and friends, and society—gay things are not always well received by people. This nudity and sex scenes and physicality is very dramatic. Peter Greenaway’s style is very rude about the body and nudity. Everything happens in the flesh. I got the sex scene during the casting so it was clear what was needed from me. I had to process my self-boundaries, and I made the decision to do it.

I think the difficult part of creating these scenes is to accept really wanting to do it. I lived it like this: At first it was “NO I don’t want to do this!” You get scared. But in the process, I discovered I wanted to do it, and as an actor, I always really want to go further, and be free and human and live whatever. That’s why an actor decides to do this, and play difficult, risky things. That was what I discovered. I really wanted to do it. I never thought about it before, but when it came to my decision, I thought—not about the sex thing, but in general—I want to do everything.

How was working with Peter? Was he demanding in other aspects of shooting, not just the sex scenes?

EB: He wanted a real performance—ACT! He can rein me in if I go too far. But doing the part came naturally. I was a little bit afraid of how he would be. Peter knows what he wants, but he doesn’t push you. He gives you freedom. What is great is he creates the scene—he creates paintings. The frame is clear, and the world is so alive you can be alive in it. His world is so strong you can intuitively live in it. He doesn’t direct every hand movement. It’s closer to theater—long takes that let you live in the scene. I really enjoyed it.

LA: I didn’t understand his films, but I really liked them, and what I was seeing. Fuck! Peter Greenaway! I was a fan of his composition. His films are beautiful. Working with him was very demanding. He assumes you are a professional actor and that you know how to do the work. He’s clear about what he needs from you and what he wants to see. First you read it and then he says, “I need to see this—can you do that?” He’s challenging you all the time. You can never say no! Yes, of course, I can do that. But then you do what you can. It makes it fun because you are all the time in trouble—what am I going to do?! He creates a live dynamic with you as an actor, so he doesn’t need to tell you a lot of things, or about the character’s psychology—just what he needs. All the conflict and drama is in the script. So you know what you have to do. He leaves you very free and when he doesn’t see what he wants, you have three takes. If you don’t do it, he does another scene. Thank you very much!

Peter, we’ve talked about Eisenstein. What are your observations on Cañedo?

PG: I think Luis was so good…. Cañedo says money is important. The other thing is power. If you’re a Shakespeare fan, isn’t that a way to negotiate sex and death? We can have our own choices in sex partners, but you cannot avoid birth and death. It’s the content of all religion and art. We familiarize them and if we’re more honest, we’d be far more relaxed about them.

Peter, given all your references and research, what can you say about filming a biopic, or telling a person’s history?

PG: There’s no such thing as history, only historians. That’s how we know about the past. Since Caesar, we know his historians are liars. The good writers get read. Bad history doesn’t get read. Churchill was a good writer but a bad historian. Every historian has a vested interest. “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was not about the Roman but the British empire. What price the truth?

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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