Monday, 8 March 2010
The BFI should be warmly congratulated for their excellent Paradjanov (or Paradzhanov) retrospective. Saturday an excellent symposium was held at the NFT with a whole list of guests including the Ukrainian-Armenian director and friend of Paradjanov Roman Balayan, the film historian and curator Ian Christie, the film-maker and producer Patrick Cazals, the Georgian photographer Yuri Mechitov, the writer, lecturer and broadcaster John Riley and others. The Symposium was full of different 'takes on Paradjanov from the scholarly to the often hilarious personal recollections of Roman Balayan. Ian Christie entitled his introductory piece A Fortunate Man which is a rather strange thing to say about a film director who spent years in the prisons of the Soviet Union. He went on, however, to justify his argument by saying how this might be true. Fortunate to belong to a generation of directors and to have such great opportunities at studying under the great masters in the Soviet Union's State Cinematography Institute (in the workshop of Savchenko where Marlen Khutsiev also studied), fortunate in being the recipient of a powerful international solidarity campaign when he was jailed and being eventually granted his release, fortunate in the ability to create such unique masterpieces which in the conditions of the Soviet Union could still be made if left on the shelf (and would probably never get the funding in the West for such esoteric films). Ian Christie explained how he had begun his filmmaking career in the deadening atmosphere of the late Stalin period. VGIK was at that time a refuge for the greats of Soviet cinema who had been left almost unemployed by the film famine years at the end of Stalin's life.
The consensus is that there was two periods in Paradjanov's film career. He himself would have pointed to his viewing of Tarkovsky's 'Ivan's Childhood' as the dividing point. For Christie the earlier film by Kalatozov 'The Cranes are Flying' was also a significant moment. Yet a viewing even of some of his early films suggest that Paradjanov was able to express stunning visual effects in his films with their rather conventional Socialist Realist plot lines (my viewing of Flower on the Stone convinced me of his superb ability to deal even with black and white and his use of chiaroscuro to maximum effect). His Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors had a fantastically wide distribution and success both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Its use of folklore, its stunning use of colour and his unique way of using music and dance (which was his original orientation, Ian Christie reminds us) makes the viewing of this film a rare and unforgettable experience. Yet in 1965 he was to move even further along the route of being a uniquely visual filmmaker and the remaining rushes of Kiev Frescoes (totalling about 13 minutes) indicate that narrative was to be subordinate to the need to make every frame painterly and artistic.
Layla Alexander-Garrett who was the initiator and organiser of this festival and who had worked with Tarkovsky, contrasted the two artists who had become such close friends. It was, according both to her and Ian Christie, a meeting of opposites. Tarkovsky personified almost absolute restraint and Paradjanov a heady exhuberance. What some believe to be Paradjanov's masterpiece - Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates) was to be made in the most difficult period to work in- the late sixties when so many films were banned. Ian Christie stated that it is a mystery how he actually came to make a film like this at all. The answer, it seems, is that it was made in Armenia (the more distant from the centre one was, the less the iron-grip of control by film bureaucrats) and although it was reedited by Yutkevich most participants agreed that Yutkevich simply wished to preserve the film and was a strong champion of the film (who was according to one speaker the film's only champion at the time). Ian Christie spent some time talking about the international campaign in Paradjanov's defence (after being jailed on a veritable cocktail of charges) by filmmakers and argued that a lot of the campaign came through western Communist Parties and Louis Aragon's intervention with Brezhnev as well as the involvement of those film-makers such as Fellini and Bunuel who played a significant part in his final release from prison. The world cinema tradition that speakers placed Paradjanov in were alongside film-makers such as Pasolini and Jarman in terms of a queer sensibility, but Fellini was also mentioned.
Nouritza Matossian argued powerfully to place Paradjanov within an Armenian perspective (and she posited similarities with Arshile Gorky). His belonging to the Armenian community of Tbilisi also influenced him as did the naif art of Pirosmani (although it was hotly disputed whether one could call Paradjanov a naif or primitive artist). She also emphasised how his idea of epic narrative was what distinguished his style from any remnant of socialist realism. She argued that there were always elements of surrealism in medieval Armenian art and that the major aspect of Armenian art that distinguished Paradjanov from other film directors was his frontality (something that also linked him to Cezanne as well as the reliefs of the Armenian churches). He also used a double language of symbols and builds up a kind of ark of symbols in his work which makes his films so rich in meaning.
For Yuri Mechitov Paradjanov was the first successful post-modernist. Roman Balayan was a great racconteur of Paradjanov tales. Balayan as he said wanted to prove that a genius was also a human being. He explained Paradjanov's love of inventing stories (believing that the truth was too boring), his absolute need for spectators and suggested that he would have made a wonderful circus clown. He told the story of how when Tonino Guerra visited Paradjanov and told him that he was a genius, Paradjanov replied that there was no need to tell him because he already knew and that Tonino Guerra should shout out loud in Italian to his neighbours from the balcony that Paradjanov was a genius. Paradjanov was not satisfied with Tonino Guerra's first attempt and told him to shout louder which poor Tonino Guerra consented to do. Balayan emphasised Paradjanov's love of company. He stated that Paradjanov had not a book in his house but loved going to the opera and although he never generally watched films he went to see a film by Pasolini (Oedipus Rex, I believe) 17 times. Yet Paradjanov's lack of books ignored the fact that he had written 20 wonderful scripts that it was hoped would be translated into English one day.
Elisabetta Fabrizi noted that Paradjanov's central goal was to achieve in film what visual artists had achieved with the flat surface of canvas. She points out his links to both Pasolini and Fellini and argued that Paradjanov was the most complete example of art giving shape in filmic language. She also explained how he created a different kind of temporality in his films and his use of the visual allowed him to transcend reality. She also tried to place the influence of the Russian icon on the film. How icon art was about abstraction and frontal and not like Renaissance Art an imitation of life. In Paradjanov's films each object brings its own reality to the film and is a protagonist for what it represents. She also tried to show how it reflected Persian miniatures in his construction of space in the film. Actors in his films represent type and not real characters. It was emphasised how Paradjanov worked consistently with Sofiko Chiaureli who might play up to six roles in the same film.
John Riley showed Paradjanov in the context of the collage art of Dadaism, Surrealism and Pop Art and the use of found materials. He also relates this to musical influences (of a mainly western orientation) but emphasises the notion of polystylism which was, for Riley, a part of the aesthetic style of the time. He gives the examples of collage films like Romm's 'And nevertheless I believe' with its found footage as well as Khrzhanovsky's 'Glass Harmonica'. He then talks about how Paradjanov uses the idea of asynchronicity that was first trumpeted in the joint statement on sound by Pudovkin, Eisenstein and others. The influence of Eisenstein the participants argued was a very important but undocumented influence.
Other interventions by Patrick Cazals on the bestiary of Paradjanov and Daniel Bird on the state of copies of Paradjanov's films. Alas, Bird's contribution highlighted some worrying facts about how badly preserved these copies are and how little cooperation there has been between film archives and studios in different parts of the former Soviet Union. Paradjanov's dispersal was illustrated in the form of a joke about why he was imprisoned. He stated that he was an Armenian born in Georgian who was jailed by the Russians for being a Ukrainian nationalist!