Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
When the results of the once-a-decade British Film Institute poll of world film experts about history’s best films were announced in 2012, the change that attracted the most notice was at the top of the list. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which back in the day was considered a mere commercial entertainment like many another, jumped to the number one spot, displacing Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” which had occupied it for a half-century and seemed like it might forever. But the change that startled this voter the most came a bit further down, where Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” knocked Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” out of the top ten altogether.
While many factors may have contributed to these and other changes in the latest poll, it was hard to escape the impression that an important one was the decline in the teaching of film history, something that many of us who’ve taught cinema studies at universities have observed. In 2012, for the first time, the BFI included in its poll not just critics but also programmers, curators and others whose understandings no doubt have been shaped by the academic de-emphasis on film history in favor of the kind of topical trendiness that may see the cheeky “experimentalism” of “Man with a Movie Camera” as more crucial than the symphonic grandeur of “Potemkin.”
Defenders of these latter-day decisions might well say that tastes change from decade to decade. Which they do. But if supposed film experts no longer have a firm grasp of Eisenstein’s importance, what of ordinary filmgoers, even cinephiles? That was the question, surely, faced by Peter Greenaway when he set out to make a film about the Russian director’s journey to Mexico in 1930 to make the ill-fated, never completed “Que Viva Mexico!” And it was perhaps crucial in Greenaway’s decision to downplay or ignore various of this potentially fascinating subject’s intellectual, cultural, political, artistic and psychological aspects in order to propose that the really important thing about Eisenstein’s trip was the chance it gave him to lose his virginity as a gay man at the age of 33.
Greenaway, the British painter turned filmmaker who turned out a number of impressive experimental films before springing on the art-film world with the witty provocations of early features including “The Draughtsman’s Contract” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” hasn’t made a really good film in a quarter-century, so the disappointments of “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” come as no surprise. Neither does the sense that Greenaway, still trapped in that cultural moment when “post-modern” meant unwavering whimsicality, unfortunately can’t muster a degree of seriousness even when the subject cries out for it. He’s now like Ken Russell on laughing gas, and his latest indeed comes off as “The Music Lovers” replayed not as tragedy but as farce.