Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sergei Parajanov and Dodo Abashidze | Ashug-Karibi (Ashik Kerib)

1001 days on the road
by Douglas Messerli

Gia Badridze (scenario, based on a story by Mikhail Lermontov), Sergei Parajanov and Dodo Abashidze (directors) Ashug-Karibi (Ashik Kerib) / 1988

Soviet-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s last film, Ashik Kerib, is one of his most joyous films and is representative of his directorial style.

     The story, based on an Azerbaijani folk tale, is an utterly simple one. A young man, Ashik Kerib (Yuri Mgoyan) is determined to marry his beloved, Magal (Sofiko Chiaureli). The man and his mother celebrate the potential betrothal with a ritual bath, flower petals and pomegranates (all standard emblems in Parajanov’s work), while the young couple wile away the time, like any young couple, counting the petals, “He loves me, he loves me not.” Soon after he and the mother meet with the girl’s father, bearing him a basket of flowers. Upon receiving the itinerant young man, however, the father is outraged. Who can dare to receive the hand of his “daughter from heaven” with a basket of flowers instead of money. The vagabond is cast from his house, while Magal swears she will wait 1001 days for Ashik’s return as he begins the long voyage in search of his fortune.

    Strangely, little of his presumed adventures are represented in Parajanov’s film.  His rival for Magal, Kushud-Bek tricks him as he attempts to cross a river, stealing his clothing and returning home to declare Ashik dead, announcing his intentions to marry Magul.

     Old woman retrieve Ashik’s lute from the river and return it to him. Another minstrel, now an old man, dying in his home town, receives Ashik’s music and attentions, as the young man returns him to the road (“minstrel’s must die on the road,” declares Ashik) where numerous camels are passing; the old man dies as Ashik pours pomegranate juice over his lips and buries him with the small treasures tossed to the minstrels from the caravan.

     Guardian angels, both blowing upon conch shells, summon him to play at a wedding for the blind—at which he joyfully performs—and, soon after, call him to the wedding of the deaf and dumb—at which he again joyfully performs.

     At another point he meets up with a wild band of thickly mustachioed men; Ashik himself steals a man’s mustache and beard (glued on his face) and enters the house wherein the chief’s harem sit shooting machine guns. When commanded to perform, he finds himself unable to play and is sentenced to be fed to the lion, a large paper-Mache beast with a spinning head. The evening before, however, he spends in the harem, enjoying their sexual pleasures.

      Escaping doom, Ashik is given a magic steed to ride through the skies, arriving back in his hometown in time for the 1001th day! He still has no money, but wins the bride’s hand by magically returning his mother’s eyesight with the sweat of his stead.

      The brief story I have recounted, however, can hardly give one of sense of the wonderment of Parajanov’s work. For as in his earlier masterwork, The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov reveals these brief adventures through a long series of tableaux vivants, brightly colored ‘scenes” that portray everything from beautifully carved Azerbaijani bowls and chalices and other vessels, paintings, rugs, mosaic tiles, holy books, and drawings, as well as his highly and often outrageously costumed characters. Although these often hint at original Azerbaijani dress, they are, at heart, almost campy theatrical dresses in which the characters, also highly painted, dance, gesture, and gesticulate in a manner related to Kabuki theater, gay camp comedy, and puppetry. Most often filmed head-on, Parajanov’s frames represent a kind of delightful, child-like story-telling that makes its own artifice absolutely apparent. And while these iconic objects and costumes often make reference to the culture, they are very seldom “symbolic” in the way Andrei Tarkovsky’s—Parajanov’s close friend to whom this film is dedicated—natural images, artworks, and household possessions are. Entering a Parajanov scene is more like drifting through the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan, where cultures and their stories are lovingly revealed while simultaneously being made fun of.

Only Parajanov, who spent five years in Soviet prisons, tried for both his art and his homosexuality, could have created these stunning pastiches—dark worlds with glittering jewels at their heart—and there is nothing like his films anywhere else. Lionized in France and elsewhere in Europe, little is known about this great director in the US. I can only hope that with time that utterly changes: for it is American audiences who are missing all the fun.

Los Angeles, October 22, 2012


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