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The Films of Sergei Paradjanov

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / The Color of Pomegranates / The Legend of Suram Fortress / Ashik Kerib
Director: Sergei Paragjanov
Cast: Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori

(US DVD: 5 Feb 2008)

Paradjanov Box Set: A Four Part Review


Part 1. The Main Show: The Color of Pomegranates
Alright, I’m sure my admittance of this will cause me to lose any number of bets, but I believe I have finally discovered a special feature that adds to my enjoyment and understanding of a film. In a film distribution climate in which technophilic making-of’s and indulgent memoirs are crammed together with every feature, short, and other product featured on a DVD, I am dumbstruck at the quality of the extra content of Paradjanov: A Requiem bundled with Sergei Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. I am so impressed that I might even retract my disparaging remarks about the superfluity of the disc medium.


First, however, we must be sure not to overlook the centerpiece of this disc, Paradjnov’s feature The Color of Pomegranates. Although formally aberrant and often difficult to follow, Pomegranates doesn’t just channel the cinematographic muses, it bridles them and rides them through the streets. Palette, framing, composition: throw any number of exaggerated superlatives you want in front of any of those words and you have a modest evaluation of the piece.


There is no camera movement within the 60-some odd minutes that make up the film and the aspect ratio is nearly square. Both, though, are in the service of the prevailing aesthetic of the film which is the filmic emulation of bas reliefs and medieval paintings. Through ambiguously-faced actors and an exaggerated, gesture-based schema of movement, Paradjanov translates from medium to medium without compare.


This may prompt the question, “That is an interesting experiment, but why would anyone want to undermine the temporally dynamic essence of film by trying to ape a still format?” Truthfully, I wondered the same thing. Even though the film is beautiful enough to choke up most anyone, there seems to be no real justification for such an avant-garde form. One could argue that the relief aspect captures an ethos of mythic immortality, or that the style summons emotion commonly evoked from etched stone and painted rock. However, both seem unsatisfactory and the film pushes me dangerously close to conferring the “art for art’s sake” label.


This held true only until I watched the extra feature, Requiem. This 50-minute documentary trades visual appeal for content, a welcome exchange after the feature film with vigorously does just the opposite. For most of the duration we are seated across from husky, white-bearded Paradjanov himself, as the man speaks about his experiences. Couched as a “requiem”, it is extremely satisfying to have the formally bombastic director essentially deliver his own eulogy equally bombastically.


He recounts time in the Moscow film schools spent with the who’s-who of the Soviet avant-garde (Alov, Naumov, Dovzhenko), addresses the five years he spent in jail for not complying with the Communist mandates of thought and behavior, and condemns the filmmakers who kowtowed to Socialist Realism, “Talented directors sold their souls making such films: (Mikhail Chiaureli’s) The Vow (1946) and The Fall of Berlin (1949), were submissive works by court artists. The time has come to condemn them outright.”


A large part of the interview delves into Paradjanov’s training and career as a graphic artist. He reports that the entrance exam for the Moscow film school actually tested his ability to draw and the practice of illustration was widely shared by his contemporary filmmakers. After being asked whether he is a filmmaker or a graphic artist first, Paradjanov admits, “I’m a graphic artist and a director who seeks to shape images.” As soon as these words are out of the man’s mouth, the oblique haze shrouding Pomegranates begins to lift.


Immediately, the parade of still shots that comprise the feature film are revised from classification as movie scenes with little movement to still images infused with the life of small movement. Although the distinction may seem equivocal, rest assured that in Pomegranates it makes a world of difference. The viewer is freed from having to reconcile his conception of the motion of film with Paradjanov’s torpidity and begins to see his piece as an unlocking of the dynamism captured in the exaggerated poses of reliefs and medieval art. The craning necks of saints or the distorted bodies of suffering miscreants fully assume the energy only latent in their original medium. Furthermore, Paradjanov’s translation of such art forms to 24 frames ceases to seem like esoteric art for itself and more of a meditation on the worlds trapped under the stone and canvas of graphic art.


Also included in the disc is a revelatory early work of Paradjanov’s that approaches the style of Pomegranates but ultimately falls short. However, the attempt is worth the document so that the audience may watch the director’s aesthetic evolution. My good fortune, though, at finding a special features modest in number but prolific in content is somewhat bittersweet. Spoiled as I now am by Kino Video’s extras I look to the future with trepidation, knowing full well that as digital medium a la Blu-ray accretes more and more capacity, the ranks of substandard special features will bloat. I envision a world in a few years time in which one has to wade through 18 commentary tracks by the gaffers and handfuls of featurettes about funny set hijinks just to find the film itself.


Let Kino Video provide a model for you, present and incipient DVD/HDDVD/Blu-ray authors. Only include choice content that adds to the film rather than drowns it in index. Maybe, for instance, the next CG Garfield piece can stand on its own unless someone can unearth the tapes of the husky cat’s psychoanalysis in which his love for lasagna is finally traced back to his kitten-hood. Though, it is unlikely that distributors will ever scale back their extra features, as the public is more likely to buy Norbit in a foil case with 20 deleted scenes than any respectable film by itself. Collector’s Edition: Witless Protection here we come.


Part 2. Ashik Kerib: The Heir Apparent
If The Color of Pomegranates is readily the most polished piece and the most indicative of Paradjanov’s wonderfully strange style, Ashik Kerib is, then, the most enjoyable. Paradjanov is a frustrating director to watch as he demands a rewiring of the way we decode film visuals. While we can easily accept arch-allegory and abstraction in still medium art, Paradjanov’s films remind us how such an appreciation does not translate fluidly to the screen. It is usually not until about 30-minutes into a Parajdanov film that one realizes that the story he is trying so desperately to follow is actually being told in symbols. We do not see the young man sleep with a king’s paramours, we see an elaborate dance of sheets, women, and the protagonist. The effect, then, is films which are beautiful but exasperating as they remind the viewer of his spectatorial immaturity.


While Ashik Kerib is no different than the others in this aspect, it makes the most effort at establishing actually what is happening, its symbolic language is the most lucid. The film relates the folk tale of Ashik Kerib who must leave his home town to build a fortune so that he may afford a dowry to marry his lover. From the moment he sets out, however, he is robbed of his clothing by a maniacal horseman, thus initiating a series of hardships which Kerib must overcome.


Kerib wanders Mosaically for 1001 days searching for fortune. All of this is done without parallel in the avant-garde of film. Again the DVD overflows with essential and charming features such as two short documentaries on the film and The Minstrel’s Song featurette.


Part 3. The Legend of the Suram Fortress: Back to the Grindstone
In many ways, The Legend of the Suram Fortress feels like an exercise in form. Arguably more abstract than any of the other pieces in this collection, this film recites flawless composition, folk-tale narrative, and symbolic tableau. However, there is a distinct feeling of labor to Suram.


Relating the story of and ill-fated love that results in the victimized woman becoming an oracle and eventually demanding the son of her lover be entombed in the walls of a fortress for its safety, Paradjanov’s film both drags and sorely disorients the viewer. If this is the first of Paradjanov’s films that you see it is likely that its content will not be so grating. However, as the least inventive of films in this box set, it is almost the least bearable. Of course, it is still a magnificent piece of art, just one that invites study and reflection rather than a movie-night with friends.


Part 4. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A World Apart
This disc, like the others, is meticulous crafted and truly revolutionary. One could sit through four straight terms of World Film History and never see anything which approaches this, or any others, of Paradjanov’s films. Someone once apocryphally claimed that any frame frozen at random from a Fellini picture could stand up against most photographs exhibited in an art house across the world. While I do not think this is entirely true, the sentiment is fair. However, I can say in full confidence that every second of a Paradjanov reel features 24 negatives of unparalleled photography.


However, this aesthetic value is not what makes Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors incredible. Rather, its merit stems from the way in which it translates Paradjanov’s obscure stylistic tendencies into the most familiar narrative of the quartet. While symbolism is in no means done away with, Paradjanov’s idiosyncratically static camera becomes a free-moving and reeling perspective and representative dances and gestures are replaced by straightforward dialogue and action.


One would think that such a departure would feel alien in the context of Paradjanov’s other films but nothing of the sort is true. Rather, the viewer is left in a state of constant marvel at how a seemingly one-note virtuoso director can exhibit such latitude in this new-found comprehensibility. This disc is, without question, the one which should be put at the vanguard of anyone foray into the films of this director.


Conclusion
The Sergei Paradjanov Box Set as a whole is much like the highly emblematic first disc, The Color of Pomegranates. Too often compilations are serviced by combination alone, a studio takes several somewhat-related titles together and crams them in an overly decorative box. What is offered is little more than a bulk discount for the discs.


However, Kino Video deserves to be praised for this collection as true visionaries in their indexical film tendencies. Not only does each disc feature a wealth of source material and charming featurettes made in Paradjanov’s time (rather than cheesy Betacam interview montages), there is an internal coherence to set. The viewer is given the idiosyncratic, the polish, the esoteric, and the translation in The Color of Pomegranates,Ashik Kerib,The Legend of Suram Fortress, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors respectively. Put together, in this fashion, any viewer can get a wonderful and full sense of Paradjanov as a director.

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