Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sergei Paradjanov | Sayat-Nova (The Color of Pomegranates)

sing! die!
by Douglas Messerli
Sergei Paradjanov (scenario and director) Սայաթ-Նովա (Sayat-Nova) (The Color of Pomegranates) / 1968

Fast upon the end of the post-Stalinian thaw in 1964, a time when suddenly Paradjanov’s previously beloved Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and his concept of “poetic cinema” were beginning to be condemned, Sergei Paradjanov began filming his scenario, Kiev Frescoes, a documentary of the painter Hakob Hovnatanian of Tblissi. After only the few first scenes, shooting was interrupted, and the director was unable to obtain the authorization to continue. Returning to Erevan, despairing of not being able to accomplish another film, Paradjanov quickly began shooting Sayat-Nova, a film about the life and work of the great 18th century Armenian poet. The editor of Paradjanov’s Seven Visions (translated from French into English and published by my own Green Integer press in 1998), Galia Ackerman, writes of the vicissitudes of this period:

                   But the noose was tightening around his neck. In the Ukraine
                   where he had signed letters in support of dissidents, he—an
                   Armenian from Tblissi—was accused of “Ukrainian nationalism.”
                   His film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, was pulled from the
                   screens. The shooting of Kiev Frescoes was indefinitely
                   blocked on grounds of “bourgeois subjectivism and mysticism,”
                   and “ideological deviation.” The reels of test footage were seized
                   by the authorities and shredded. Preserved in that state, they were
                   returned to him twenty years later. The few tests that remained
                   intact were to be shown at the 6th Munich International Film
                   Festival. Intermezzo, another feature length film whose scenario
                   he wrote…was immediately banned.

     In Erevan, shooting of Sayat-Nova was constantly delayed, changes demanded. Frustrated by local authorities, Paradjanov wrote his now famous epistle to authorities:

                    I was thirty-nine when a series of sad circumstances forced me
                    to come to Erevan. I am now forty-two… It’s hot. Peaches are
                    two rubles a kilo.I’m suffocating in schemes and poorly ventilated
                    hotel rooms, keeping company with cockroaches. I strongly
                    urge that Sayat-Nova be banned and that I be sent back to Kiev.
                    I am willing to abandon the cinema. Kiev Frescoes and the
                    repression of Tarkovsky are more than enough for me.

Indeed, Paradjanov did ultimately renounce his great film after it was cut by some twenty minutes. Yet today it remains his masterwork, a film that illuminates and defines his overall achievement. That such a loving and often witty work could be accomplished in such bleak conditions is almost unthinkable.

     Like all of his mature films, Sayat-Nova or The Color of Pomegranates, is a legendary tale presented in a series of static tableau, whose visual elements determine any narrative embedded in them. Even Paradjanov admitted that this film, more than any of his others, would likely be unable to be comprehended by any but an Armenian audience, but also declared that his people “are going to this picture as to a holiday.”

       Despite the apparent obscurity of its narrative and images, however, the cinematic effect of the various tableaus is absolutely stunning, highly theatrical, and, as Paradjanov’s works often are, reverently comic. Early on the film portrays the young “poet of song’s” (played by female actress, Sofiko Chiaureli) childhood discovery of sexuality through peering into a Turkish bath where he observes both naked men and women, the breast of one appearing to him as a giant conch shell, a scene replayed over and over again throughout the work. Born the son of a wool dyer, the poet, Aruthin Sayadian, watches as the dyers throw the colored wool clumps, the colors of the national flag, from the vats. The juice of pomegranates leaks out a pattern of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. The Catholics are buried, the poet falls in love and is married, the poet enters a monastery and dies. Lace veils, drying books, rice, bread, and coffee beans, roosters, peacock tails, dancers playing out a bawdy story, young singers sprouting elk horns, and numerous other symbolic and talismanic objects play out a growing narrative that is simultaneously completely subjective and yet, in Jungian terms, universal. Even if the audience cannot precisely say what each tableau depicts, its powerful beauty “suggests,” like the Armenian miniatures upon which they were based, complex layers of meaning, some of which leaks through in each successive scene.

      Below I have reprinted a short scene from Paradjanov’s scenario which may help to give the reader a sense of the screen action, this miniature depicting Sayat-Nova’s budding love for the Princess:

                              The Princess is Making Lace

       The palace of Irakli, the princess’ apartments.
             Anna’s young hands making lace…
             Sayat’s young hands strumming strings. He was singing the love of Majnûn
          Glorifying Laïla’s beauty, he nodded his head, his eyes closed…
             Anna slowly fixed her eyes on Sayat… Her fingers mechanically worked
       the thread….
             In the recesses of the room, Anna’s young friends portrayed sexual pleasure,
             sadness and
             They embraced a llama.
             Peacocks fanned their tails…
             Boys imitated nightingales…
             Sayat sang Majnûn’s love and glorified Laïla’s beauty!

     The Color of Pomegranates, accordingly, is not a movie of immediate revelation, but a work that requires several viewings, much in the way the culture itself might have read the original collections of visual miniatures or the way children read, again and again, their most treasured books.

      In a world of quick and sudden consumption such as ours, Paradjanov’s films, particularly this one, asks us to enter each frame as we might a poem, delighting in each tableau the way we might take joy over the richness of a poet’s language. The Color of Pomegranates, moreover, is a work about language, beginning with the poet’s words—“I am the man whose life and soul are torture”—and ending in the recognition that his role has been, all along, to “Sing!” and “Die!”

     I first watched this film that demands such a close “reading” with Guy Bennett, who introduced me to Paradjanov sometime in 1996 or 1997. And I have treated myself to its beauties many times since. Watching it again the other day, although I felt that the Kino recording had lost the richness of the colors I had first witnessed, I was again struck with the absolute wonderment of the director’s tableaux vivants. And I can’t wait to visit them soon again. This is a film you will want to own, to put away in your library, and take it out to see year after year. Too bad it isn’t shown at American movie theaters in the same way!

     Like his subject, Paradjanov must have felt, even during the film’s making, “In the healthy and beautiful life my share has been nothing but suffering.” On December 17, 1973, Paradjanov was arrested in Kiev, accused of numerous petty acts of criminal behavior and, finally, charged with homosexuality, which was a very serious crime for repeat offenders. He was sentenced to five years of heavy labor, unable to make a film again until 1985.

Los Angeles, October 27, 2012


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