The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: November 25 - December 2, 1999

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Living collage

Sergei Paradjanov's film fever

by Chris Fujiwara

Collage For Tbilisi-born Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1990), film is a space of unveiling and plenitude. Objects -- man-made or natural, or the person or animal as object -- are fully present in the world of Paradjanov: they confront the camera directly, and they lack duplicity. Even at their most arcane and inscrutable, Paradjanov's films make an unnuanced assertion of the primacy of what's in front of the camera. The radicalness of this assertion is readily apparent if you consider that in most films, things on screen exist only secondarily, because something else exists -- such as reality. In Paradjanov, things on screen exist because he photographs them. And he photographs them for reasons that are absolutely his own: because they fill him with enjoyment or wonder.

The Harvard Film Archive's Paradjanov retrospective, presented in conjunction with an amazing exhibition of artworks by the filmmaker at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown (through December 17; call 926-2562), includes five features, some rare short films, and several documentaries about Paradjanov. If you see only one film, let it be Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964; November 26 at 7 p.m. and November 28 at 8 p.m.), his breakthrough. Set in a remote Carpathian village in the 19th century, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors deals with the Romeo and Juliet-like passion of a young couple, Ivan and Marichka. When Marichka accidentally drowns, Ivan goes into mourning, and his eventual marriage turns out to be a continuation of that mourning by other means. The film is all layered, richly colored images. The camera peers through webs of tree branches; it darts, spins, reframes, sometimes violently, sometimes with ravishing smoothness. A funeral and a processional dance are whirls of camera movement. There's a constant reminder of the presence of earth, wood, and sky.

Like Paradjanov's later films, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors has the feel of a small, close, personal film despite its multitude of incident and numerous characters: it's made in a way that looks impoverished, but with prodigious attention to all the contents of the frame: the actors' expressions and gestures, the costumes, the decor, the light, the slant of landscapes, the textures and appearances of things. The construction of scenes can be startling, as when people, horses, and cows run through a windstorm and lightning freezes the images and stains them red and yellow. A tavern scene is strangely abstract: with all the bustling but self-conscious and stylized activity against fresh white walls, everything seems not so much to recede from the wide-angle lens as to slant toward it, eager to be noticed.

Although it clearly leaves Socialist Realism in the dust, Shadows still has a legible narrative and traces of naturalism. It's one of the finest works in a tradition from which Paradjanov later moved away (but which he arguably never abandoned): the tradition of folk-poetry cinema stemming from Alexander Dovzhenko (Zvenigora, Earth), a filmmaker under whom he studied.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969; December 3 at 8:30 p.m. and December 8 at 9 p.m.) is the life story of 18th-century Armenian poet-troubadour Sayat Nova, told in allegorical, symbolic images presumably drawn from his poems. The early scenes show him as a child learning about life from books, watching craftsmen at work, or peering in through the windows of a bathhouse. Then he is a young court musician: he and his beloved face the camera in alternating shots, performing a series of precisely choreographed movements -- a dialogue of souls. Then he is a monk, having been banished to a monastery for his illicit love.

Every shot of Pomegranates is precisely envisioned and constructed for the camera. The images are not simple, but the principles of their construction are: architectural and human form and the movement of lines (which gives the images the graphic quality of Gothic art and Blake). Stillness prevails behind the actors' carefully considered movements and beneath the almost constant, constantly changing music. Collage replaces montage; even the relationship of foreground and background in a single chamber set-up is collage-like. The cuts are disjunctive: each image posits a world that is simply juxtaposed with the next, and each has an equal ontological status and an equal right to our attention. The riotously secular, the sacred, and the natural (soil, water, rock, the blood of the pomegranates) mingle throughout.

The soundtrack of Pomegranates is extraordinary: fragments of music and voice set off the rarefied, pageant-like shots, bringing them into greater relief and heightening the constant sense that they had their origin in a dense texture of worldly experience, from which the film has extracted them. Sounds are vividly musical: the pages of a multitude of open books turn noisily in the wind; water clatters in tin plates onto which men drop fabrics soaked in dye. A hubbub of disembodied voices in a public bathhouse evokes the timelessness of this enclosed space.

Paradjanov's chronic problems with the authorities came to a head after Pomegranates, which was banned in its original version and released only in a drastically shortened form (the film has since been restored). After four years during which all his projects were either rejected or approved and then halted, in 1974 Paradjanov was sentenced to five years in a prison camp on charges of trafficking in art objects, homosexuality, incitement to suicide, and black-marketeering. Worldwide pressure led to his early release in 1978, but he remained on a blacklist and was not allowed to make another film until 1984.

During the 15-year-long interruption of his activity as a film director, Paradjanov turned to other plastic media. The artworks now on display at the Armenian Library and Museum are fascinating and delightful, and not just for the connections between them and the films -- in fact, those unfamiliar with, or hostile to, the films may well find the artworks compelling. Paradjanov's collages of paper, fabric, costume jewelry, metal, dried flowers, and tile bring to mind the collage-like visual quality of his films; the unabashed ostentation, the emphasis on texture, and the painstaking miniaturism of his artworks -- along with their Christian imagery -- are all continuous with his film work.

His return to filmmaking, The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984; November 27 at 7 p.m. and November 30 at 8:30 p.m.), is based on a Georgian legend about a fortress that keeps crumbling until, to fulfill a soothsayer's prophecy, a young man volunteers to be walled up inside it. Elliptical and excessive, The Legend of Suram Fortress is, in its way, as original a creation as The Color of Pomegranates: an epic in miniature, in which sweeping long shots of galloping horses give way to stylized, static, camera-aimed groupings, and the forbidding stances and symbols of legend become signs of an irreducible presence.

In Paradjanov's last film, Ashik Kerib (December 7 at 9 p.m.), the narrative impulse that's subordinated in Pomegranates and thwarted in Suram Fortress reasserts itself; the film is a limpid retelling of a tale by Lermontov. A minstrel, Ashik Kerib, loves a rich man's daughter. After her father rejects his suit because of his poverty, Ashik goes off to earn money. His rival steals his clothes while he is crossing a river, then gives it out in the village that Ashik is dead. Compassionate strangers help Ashik, who goes through a series of adventures before returning to his village to claim his beloved.

Ashik is a loud, music-filled film, as much an overload for the ear as for the eye. Any lover of Middle Eastern music should consider it a must-see. Ashik immerses the viewer in a universe of fantasy, where people express their attitudes toward fate and toward each other in song and dance. Paradjanov grounds his film in a fairy-tale reality with which he takes endless imaginative liberties, using poverty of means as a spur to invention. The sight of a costume tiger causes the hero to fall backward into the frame; the evocation of Ashik "flying" with an angel on horseback back to his village is worthy of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.

Such inventions demonstrate Paradjanov's commitment to film as "the truth as I perceive it," as he says in the interview that forms the basis of Ron Holloway's Paradjanov: A Requiem (1994; November 26 at 9 p.m. and November 28 at 6:30 p.m.). The documentary incorporates footage from some early Paradjanov films that are almost entirely unknown in the West; one of them, his first feature, the fairy tale Andriesh, will be shown at Harvard on December 1 at 8:30 p.m. Although Paradjanov seems to have disowned these early works, saying that they "vividly expressed an absence of experience, craftsmanship, and good taste," the clips in the documentary suggest a strange, appealing mixture of typical Khrushchev-era Soviet film style and Paradjanovian romanticism and stylization.

Also notable in the Harvard series is the American premiere of another documentary, Don Askarian's Paradjanov (1998; December 3 at 7 p.m. and December 4 at 4 p.m.), and a special free program of short films provided by the Paradjanov Museum in Yerevan (December 5 at 4 p.m.). The free program may sound like an affair for specialists, but few filmmakers rival Paradjanov in the capacity to arouse passionate admiration, and with so many inducements on hand in the next two weeks, many who are now uninitiated may well find themselves queuing up with the cultists.

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