Every month in the much lamented Martha Stewart publication Everyday Food, there would be a feature called Have You Tried……, spotlighting a slightly unusual (but not too unusual) ingredient. It was Martha’s way of getting Everyday Chefs to expand their repertory into slightly more exotic territory. In articles like Have You Tried Fennel?, Martha and her team would introduce the ingredient with pretty pictures and tips on how to include it in simple but delicious recipes.
It occurred to me that I might do the same with some of the outlying directors and I thought I would start with Sergei Parajanov (1924 -1990). Born in Tbilisi in then-Soviet Georgia, Parajanov’s films are deeply rooted in the folktales, art and sensibilities of the Caucasus peoples. Constantly persecuted by the Soviets, Parajanov was constantly in and out of jail on charges ranging from bribery to homosexuality. His tiny handful of masterpieces, four in all, appeared over a 22-year span, punctuated with long periods of cinematic inactivity. The four films all reflect Parajanov’s style of tableaux vivants featuring the art and culture of various cultures.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) tells a well-known Ukrainian tale of star-crossed lovers whose love survives beyond the grave. Apparently influenced by Tarkovsky’s My Name Is Ivan (Ivan’s Childhood), there is a wild dynamism in this film that becomes more reined in in his later work. The camera is in almost constant movement, even though many of the icon-like tableaux that feature in the later works are seen here.
Four years later came Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) (1968) depicting scenes from the life of Armenian poet and holy man, Sayat Nova. Hardly a conventional biopic in any sense, the film depicts key scenes from Sayat Nova’s life with several actors and actresses portraying the poet at different ages. Scenes of the poet’s childhood, life a monk, etc. are depicted with a voice-over of an actor reading from his works. There is no conventional narrative here. The highlights of his life are depicted in static scenes heavy with Armenian art and visual style. In this film we begin to see more deft use of the static compositions that will distinguish his two later films. By the end of the film we do not have a collection of biographical data. What we do have is a glimpse into a remote and ancient world, the strangeness of which is frightening and seductive at the same time.
The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) appeared sixteen years later, tells the Georgian tale of the sacrifice need to complete a fortress. The unusually (for Parajanov) linear story arc makes this probably his most accessible film and for what it’s worth, it is the film of his of which I am most fond.
Ashik Kerib (1988) is his last completed film and depicts an Azerbaijani fairy tale as told by the Russian poet and great Byronic figure, Mikhail Lermontov. Ostensibly filmed as a children’s film (really!) it has the feel of the Arabian Nights.
Some tips on encountering Parajanov’s work:
1- The closest thing to which I can compare watching a Parajanov film is watching an opera. If you are armed with a good synopsis you can watch an opera, ‘getting it’ on its own terms, allowing its story to unfold on its own terms. The actual words being sung are often besides the point. Knowing the tale behind Suram Fortress or Askik Kerib is all you really need to bring to the films. They then unfold like tales portrayed in fabulously illuminated manuscripts. The seemingly arbitrary compositions of fruit, daggers and peacocks become a cinematic counterpart of filigree work.
2- There is nothing to ‘get’ here in the sense that Parajanov is withholding a secret key to what he is doing. It is all there on the screen. The more you know about Armenian or Georgian or Azerbaijani culture the better for you, I suppose. But, Parajanov has distilled all you need to know in his magnificent, overwhelming imagery.
I have not made a great study of Parajanov’s life, so I can’t address any of the ‘charges’ of homosexualty, but I can say that some of the most stunningly beautiful men ever seen in film are featured either as main characters or decoration in his tableaux. Does this indicate a Gay sensibility? The male figures are definitely more eroticized than any of the female figures, but there does not appear to be any agenda besides the depiction of beauty – a peacock or a beautiful man are of equal value.
As far as placing him in the context of world cinema, even though he himself has confessed an indebtedness to the works of Tarkovsky, it seems to me that his true cinematic progenitor is the static nuttiness of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible.
So, now that you have had this little introduction, please make both me and Martha Stewart proud and try some Parajanov today. I eagerly await your reactions!