Tuesday, 19 July 2011

"The Films of Sergei Paradjanov," "El Cid"

By Michael Atkinson in IFC News

A summoning of pagan energies if ever there were any in the era of television, the major features of Sergei Paradjanov have maintained a flabbergasting constancy in the Western filmhead cosmos — these prehistoric, narratively congealed Central Asian mutants have never been out of circulation in this country, as retro-able prints or video editions, and are now all available on DVD from Kino in newly restored versions, including, for the first time, his epochal international debut, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" (1964). It's intensely odd, because Paradjanov is one of the most hermetic, arcane and completely original artists in cinema history, and his films do not resemble those made anywhere else, by anyone. Perhaps their sui generis freakiness is their saving grace — and thus a sign of hope for the survival of adventurous film culture in this country. It's not too much to say that no effort at understanding the outer reaches of filmic sorcery can be complete without a confrontation with Paradjanov's world — a timeless meta-past of living icons, bristling fairy tale tableaux, stylistic extremities and culture shock.

Paradjanov was Georgian-Armenian by birth, cursed by fate to make films within a Soviet system that condemned him as a decadent and a "surrealist." He spent time in the gulag (released thanks to international outcry in 1978), but the Politburo wasn't wrong; Paradjanov was nothing if not a catapulting folklorist, recreating the primitive pre-Soviet era as it might've been dreamt of in the opium-befogged skull of Omar Khayyám. There could hardly have been a more oppositive reply to Socialist Realism. The films — "Shadows," "The Color of Pomegranates" (1969), "The Legend of Suram Fortress" (1984) and "Ashik Kerib" (1988) — are all based on folk tales and ancient history (Ukranian, Armenian and Georgian), but only "Shadows" is centered on narrative. It's also the most visually dynamic; unfolding a tribal tale of star-crossed love and familial vengeance in the Carpathian mountains, the movie is one of the most restless and explosive pieces of camerawork from the so-called Art Film era, shot in authentic outlands with distorting lenses and superhuman capacity, and imbued with a grainy, primal grit.

Utterly convincing as a manifestation of pre-civilized will and superstition, "Shadows" was still only a suggestion of the netherworlds Paradjanov would then call home. The next three films, separated by years of censorship battling and imprisonment, are barely narratives at all, but rather medieval art and life conjured up as a lurid, iconic, wax museum image parade, bursting with native art, doves, peacocks, Byzantine design, brass work, hookahs, ancient ritual, cathedral filigree, symbolic surrealities, ad infinitum. This is not a universe where quantities like acting and pace are issues; Paradjanov's vision can be read as the dynamiting of an entire cultural store closet of things. "Pomegranates" traipses through the life of 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, "Fortress" revives an age-old Georgian war legend and "Ashik Kerib" adapts an "Arabian Nights"-style tale retold by Mikhail Lermontov. Together, they represent one of the most unique usages cinema has ever been put to, employing the full range of native textures (scrambling Russian traditionalism with Turkish, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Rom) and ending up, for all of their stasis and ornate compositions, with a party-hearty-Marty celebration of traditional culture and life in the unruly wilderness of Asian societies rarely if ever visible to American filmgoers. The four DVDs come with an array of background/profile docs, an impressionistic portrait comparing/contrasting Paradjanov with buddy Andrei Tarkovsky, and, best of all, several rare Paradjanov shorts. ...

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