Sergei Parajanov: Myth Creator

By Susanna Harutyunyan

Sergei Parajanov was one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. According to a survey among film critics, even during the artist’s lifetime he was already among the directors of the future, i.e. of the 21st century. All of his few films, including Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv, 1964), The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova, 1969), The Legend of Suram Fortress (Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa, 1985), Ashik Kerib (Ashug-Karibi, 1988), are part of the world cultural depository. Parajanov’s poetic universe is one of those “Heracles’ pillars” marking the boundaries of cinema and film poetry. His art has significantly expanded these boundaries. On the other hand, it has also extended our understanding of expressive and poetic potential of cinema.

Parajanov was born on 9 January 1924 in Tbilisi, Georgia into and Armenian family. The history of the Armenian community in Georgia traces back to before the 1920s, when Armenia faced a variety of national fortunes and the loss of statehood. In the documentary interview Sergei Parajanov: A Portrait (Serguei Paradjanov. Un Portrait, 1988), directed by Patrick Cazals, Parajanov tells his story as follows: “My father was a Tiflis Armenian, mother a Tiflis Armenian. We had to speak Georgian to communicate with the city”.

parajanovThe city that had shaped Parajanov was indeed unique. “The theatrical city of his childhood would amaze him with its capricious play whose name is histrionics. At first sight the city would seem incredibly theatrical, ornamental, and very eclectic. But inside this city of universe mosaic was no chaos but incredible harmony of different cultures. Persian and Armenian, Georgian and Russian, Turkic and Kurdish, Greek and Jewish, French and German, Caucasian and Cossack would be neighbors, forming a striking splendor of wealth and poverty, sincerity and hypocrisy, lawlessness and equality of the wonderful Tiflis,” writes Ruben Angaladian, one of experts on Parajanov and cultural historian when describing Tbilisi of the 1920s-1930s (Angaladian 2006: 30)

After graduation from the secondary school and during the World War II, Parajanov studied in different high schools, among them two years in the vocal department of Tbilisi Conservatory. In 1945 he enrolled in the directors’ classes of the Film Institute VGIK in Moscow, in the workshop of Igor Savchenko. The polyphonic Tbilisi is superseded by Moscow—the stronghold of Stalin’s dictatorship at the time. However, “Moscow had given him an unprecedented qualitative dimension of life,” maintains Angaladian (2006: 31).

Having graduated from VGIK, Parajanov worked at Kiev film studio from 1952 onwards. Andriesh, made in cooperation with Yakov Bazelian (1954), becomes his debut. He shot his first full-length film The First Lad (Pervyi paren’) in 1959, but it was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) that makes him famous worldwide. The film won countless international awards, including the British Academy Award. However, the film was outside the canon of Soviet cinema. Parajanov himself was beyond any canon, beyond any system, and therefore the Soviet system took revenge. Parajanov was immediately blacklisted.

Since 1966 Parajanov worked in Yerevan. He filmed the short film Hakob Hovnatanyan at Yerevan documentary studio in 1967. His masterpiece, The Color of Pomegranates (aka Sayat Nova) produced at Armenfilm studio, was released in 1969; in it, the artistic merits of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are developed to perfection. However, the Ministry of Cinematography of the USSR depreciated the film and banned it, even internationally. The system started to settle scores with the artist.

In 1974 Parajanov commenced work on the film The Miracle of Odense, dedicated to the great fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. The process was cut short due to alleged and faked charges leading to a five-year prison sentence. As a result of numerous objections of prominent figures of world culture and cinema, among them Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni, Louis Aragon and others, Parajanov was released in 1977. Banned from filming until 1983, he settled in Tbilisi. However, a criminal investigation on faked evidence was launched again, and jailed for several months he awaited the trial. His last films, the feature The Legend of Suram Fortress, the short documentary Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme (Arabeskebi Pirosmanis temaze, 1985) and his last fiction film, Ashik Kerib, eventually came out in the second half of the 1980s, during Gorbachev’s perestroika.

While being banned from filming, Parajanov made collages, ceramics, graphic works, paintings, and puppets which are of immense artistic value. The first exhibition of these objects took place in the Tbilisi House of Cinema in 1985, then in Yerevan in 1988 and 1990.

Parajanov began filming The Confession at Armenfilm studio in 1989, but was unable to complete it: he died in Yerevan on 20 June 1990. The following year, the Parajanov Museum opened in Yerevan.

Myth Creation
The genetic origins of Parajanov’s creative life can be traced deep into the Great Culture of the East uniting Armenian, Georgian, Turkic, Persian and other cultures. Eastern culture gave birth to artists who would equally fit into the context of several cultures. Although purely an Armenian phenomenon, Parajanov associated himself with such artists. His genes had absorbed Armenian, Georgian, Turkic, Persian and other great cultures of the East. Having accumulated in his sub-conscious, they gave a new quality indicating a new cultural epoch. He was the elected: there can be no other explanation for the Parajanov phenomenon. Only the selected, the master, creates a myth.

pomegranatesTime and space in all of Parajanov’s films are self-contained mythological time and space extracted from the torrent of history. His time flows circularly: it has neither a beginning nor an end. The present is only a rhythmical succession of seasons, day and night, and phases of human life—from birth to death (almost all films have scenes of delivery, marriage and funeral rites). Here, death is by no means a tragic end but a beginning of something, a union with Eternity. “Water returns to the spring to flow forever”, says Osman-agha in the The Legend of Suram Fortress. The wheel of life runs evenly, independent of human will or subjective wishes; it only complies with nature’s cyclical motion. Nature has no history, but only a recurring succession of its conditions. And this austere uniformity and recurrence of natural cycles, where a human being is introduced, makes him careless of time, as he follows the predestined path.

The time of Parajanov’s films is neither biographical nor historical. It is a cycle of human destiny, organically blended into the natural cycle. The development of the action is not a narrative, but a sequence of separate parts of the life cycle (childhood, adolescence, maturity, old age) and a sequence of the hero’s lyrical states (fear, love, indifference, despair). Such a perception of time is typical for a mythological consciousness, as well as a poetic one—lacking temporal precision. Important is only what takes place at the moment, which is a synthesis of the past, present and future. It preserves memories of the past and wisely foresees the future. All instants of the past, present and future have existed and will continue to exist. This is the law of the subjective time condensed into an instant. The instant grows into eternal dimensions, while time becomes a mythological category uniting opposites (day and night, life and death).

This is exactly the time of The Legend of Suram Fortress, where an episode is titled “Time’s Run.” The slowly swinging female figure in the close-up reminds us of the swing of a pendulum; then a stop: a crossing point of past and future; the “face change”, or a metamorphosis; and again the slow swing… The young Vardo lives her life in one instant, turning into a sophisticated sage fortune-teller. It is not character development or alteration, just the “face change,” given the unchanged inner and functional essence. The same happens with the main character of The Color of Pomegranates, who has four faces, corresponding to four main phases of human life. The faces replace each other.

The circle, the circular movement, a slow swing of the pendulum (“tic-tac”)—this is a visual sign, a graphic outline of numerous expressive in-frame structures of Parajanov’s films. Besides, time runs in a circle, where the circle symbolizes Eternity. Eternity and human immortality are central themes of Parajanov’s creativity.

pomegranatesSwings from side to side as the rite the fortune-teller Vardo. Swings from side to side of the dwarf monk in The Color of Pomegranates (episode “The Poet’s Childhood”). Swings of a huge pendulum (episode “The Poet’s Dream”). The priest walks round the Catholicos’ coffin, people and camels walk in a circle in the “Caravansary” episode of the The Legend of Suram Fortress. The statuette of an angel does a round near the Poet’s Beloved, and the symbolic circular movements of her hands seem like a mysterious dance: her hands “sing”. “…And here he sees an extremely beautiful woman named Nazinik; she sang with her hands…” No, Sayat-Nova’s beloved had a different name, and the very words were written by the Armenian historian Movses Horenatsi in the 5th century A.D. But for some reason Nazinik—a famous dancer of her time—“sang” with her hands about love exactly in the way Parajanov shows it in his film.

Besides, the wedding ceremony was held only the way it is shown in Ashik Kerib, where the newly-weds are showered with rice. Incredible as it is, but such a rite did not and could not exist. In the film’s literary base, the “Turkish Tale” by Russian classical poet Mikhail Lermontov, a typical Armenian rite “Vardavar” is described. People throw water on each other during this water festivity. Parajanov reinvented the rite in his manner (substituting water for rice) and the main characters are showered with rice. Parajanov could venture into the rite, the myth.

The Color of Love and Life
The film Color of Pomegranates is one of the most recognized masterpieces by Sergei Parajanov. The film is vivid evidence of the fact that poetry becomes the material for another art: cinema. The two great artists, Sayat Nova (King of Song), the great Armenian poet of the 18th century on the one hand, and Parajanov, the great poet of the 20th century on the other hand, remain face to face with each other, outside the dimensions of a specific historical time and space. They seem to return to the motherly bosom of national art which gave birth to them; they return to the common sources that nourished them: folk art, ethnography, miniature painting and architecture. Parajanov’s cinema makes a pact with Sayat Nova’s poetry based on this only term, a pact which is a unique example of the modern interpretation of national cultural tradition. The language of Sayat Nova’s poetry is translated into cinematographic language. Along this complicated path, the young and at times frivolous muse of cinema manifests a level of maturity and wisdom which allows her not only to speak to the oldest muse on equal terms but also dictate her own terms.

In principle, Parajanov refuses to use the historical facts surrounding Sayat Nova. He is not interested in chronology and biography, which have a beginning and an end. What is important for him is the immortal poetic spirit that has stored the artistic consciousness of the nation and the spiritual experience of the people. Information pertaining to this poetic spirit is enshrined in material carriers: books, objects, furniture and works of art. Often the same books, objects and furniture are turned into art objects. Parajanov himself used to say that the film’s makers wanted to show a world where Ashug lived and the sources that his poetry fed on; hence national architecture, nature, way of life and music would play a big role in the imagery of the film to speak about the era, the people, their passions and reflections in a conventional yet unusually precise language of things. These things, often including crafted objects, clothing, rugs, jewelry, fabrics and interior decoration, made up the material face of the era. Parajanov also stressed that Sayat Nova has no clearly designed plot, and barely any dialogue. All of these are substituted by the imagery of facture that has to explain everything. Thus, an object is viewed not only as a historical exhibit and an attribute of the era, but also as a carrier of various cultural layers feeding on the same source, which also gave sustenance to Sayat Nova. And Parajanov too tries to adhere to this source. However, to get to it, he apparently has to take the road back, from the material carriers of culture to the depth, through thick layers of culture to the proto-material of the national spirit. One should examine and see the essence, see a different reality that is not “covered by the shadow of life,” as Eisenstein put it.

Thus, an object is removed from the context of daily use and becomes an element and sign of a poetic text, just like motion, posture, action and face. Here Parajanov follows the path paved by Armenian miniature painters, who in their compositions (strict, refined, static, utterly conventional and, at the same time, vivid, rich in color and “authentic” in detail) concentrate the burden of meaning upon the poetic and associative relations of postures, faces, actions, objects, pictures of animals, and masks taken out of the real environment. Martiros Saryan, one of the greatest Armenian artists of the 20th century, had a good reason to call Parajanov’s screen “a-screen-and-a-canvas.” And there is a good reason for some episodes and scenes of the film to have been called cinematic miniatures in the initial script.

The objects, faces and postures become peculiar “words” that the filmmaker uses to build visual and pictorial rhymes: a poetic text comprised of the images of Sayat-Nova’s poetry. For instance, the “rhyme” sprouts up in the following frames, turning into a picture of flowing water: water pours down stone walls that have books in their niches, and, under the pressure, gushes out through the books, pours in colorful torrents onto silver trays filled with dyed wool, escapes from under the feet of women washing rugs, trickles like milk and glitters on a woman’s breast like a drop of mother-of-pearl... In Color of Pomegranates Parajanov leads the poetic chains into different directions and along different axes. Thus, the yarn becomes a thread of lace that the Poet’s beloved woman is knitting, and the mother-of-pearl, associated in poetry (specifically, in the works of Sayat Nova) with the Yin, turns into a shower of mother-of-pearl pouring down on the Poet’s musical instrument.

All these threads and chains make a tight knot named Love. This is the core of Sayat-Nova’s poetic world and Parajanov’s film. Curiously, the Poet and his Love are endowed with the same face in one episode of the film, in a precise match with the eastern tradition embodied in the Persian rugs of the 18th century, where the lovers were depicted with an “identical face.” However, Love and Death too have an “identical face” in the film. For Sayat Nova love is his immortal soul, and the loss of love is death. Parajanov uses the colors of Sayat Nova’s poetry (white is immortality and the soul, black is death, the red is life and love) to construct the film’s color dramaturgy, which expresses the main idea of the film in the most generalized way, and is perhaps the axis on which separate and quite independent episodes of the film are set: “The Poet’s Childhood,” “The Poet in Monastery,” “The Poet in the Court of the Georgian King,” “The Burial of the Poet,” “The Poet’s Dream,” etc.

The assertion of the color red in the epilogue (not by chance is the film called Color of Pomegranates) is the assertion of life. In the final episode the white angels take the poet—dressed in black—not to paradise but to the world, to life. So, there is no end, and there is no beginning: things come to full circle, time flows in circles, and there is only the rhythmic shift of the seasons and the day and night, and the sequence of the phases of human life from birth to death. There is a wise proportion of the natural cycle into which man enters, passing the path destined for him.

However, when the film was screened forty years ago, it was no success among the viewers; many people simply did not understand it. A few advocates insisted that the film would be understood in around forty years’ time. Today we have neared the end of that period, yet the film still remains a mystery to the majority. Meanwhile, Color of Pomegranates has joined the flesh and blood of Armenian national culture and spread in the form of quotes, like Sayat Nova’s poetry itself. Color of Pomegranates has gained a life of its own in the everlasting cycle of Armenian national culture, returning our intellectual wealth to us over and over, and sustaining the dignity of our soul.

Parajanov’s last completed film is Ashik Kerib, a confirmation of his mission as a great artist of the East. The film grew out of a chapter of a large scenario based on Lermontov’s romantic poetry. It is based on a Turkish tale and was filmed by an Armenian director and Armenian cameraman in Sheki, Azerbaijan, with funds from the Georgian studio Gruziyafilm and a Georgian crew. The film represents the unity of Russian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Turkic cultures. All these cultures had a stable presence in Parajanov’s poetic mindset.

parajanovHowever, the perestroika period of the late 1980s and the fermented history—Parajanov had always been indifferent about it—put a classical collision ahead of him: already at the filming stage the plot faced dramatically contradictory new political realities. The shooting period of 1987–88 was the time of an unsettled political situation that triggered national liberation movements both in Armenia and in the region. It led to ethnic and religious conflicts, and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Each shot of Ashik Kerib is pain and suffering going side by side with joy and rapture. His childhood tale is transformed into something very sad, autobiographical and personal. Highlighted is a sad minstrel (ashug), a tragic poet who returns to his bride, far from being rich and content—the way it goes in Lermontov’s tale. On the contrary, he has remained the way he was, and returns with what he headed for into the world. He was even banned to enter the mosque and had nothing left but to fall on his knees on a bare mountain slope and pray to the Almighty.

The final episodes “Trampled Shrine” and “God is Alone!” are especially marked in the film. Somber in color and filled with despair, they drastically differ in tone from the rest. Christian children with the icon of Saint George in hand rescue the Muslim Ashik Kerib. When he stands at the back of the Trampled Shrine surrounded by the children, with a saz [a musical string instrument] wrapped in lilac silk, he is infinitely lonely. And, this is Parajanov himself.

Nevertheless, “God is Alone!” Ashik Kerib cries in despair. And this is Parajanov’s cry. No religion or ideology has anything to do with this, as God indeed is alone and we all are brothers and sisters. Facing the fall of his life, this is the one and only commandment that the great humanist and poet Parajanov addresses to the people.

Following Ashik Kerib, Parajanov started filming his autobiographical Confession at Armenfilm studio in 1989. He managed about 300m, totaling to ten minutes—one episode named “Vera’s Funeral.” These have become the master’s last shots. At the end of “Vera’s Funeral,” we see a big boiler over a smoldering hearth. One of the filmmaker’s assistants awkwardly pours some igniter into the flame. The flame flares up and burns a child extra standing by the side. They say this had deeply upset Parajanov. He became angry with his assistants, stopped filming and….That was it. Hence he could film nothing, his health dramatically worsened; after complicated surgery followed an agonizing struggle for life…

“…But I am still alive, suffocating in the dust….suffocating and being angry that the man-sought sense and image of the beauty eludes. As a response to his acrimony the dust disperses and emerge—harps on the graveyard! That is it, that is exactly what I’ve sought! I can die! Without regret! And I am dying! How I die! That matters not… I am dying, smiling! I am happy for I have deceived myself!..” (Parajanov, Ispoved’)

“And so the Man dies—the Man seeking the Truth” (Parajanov, Ispoved’).

He died without shooting Davit of Sasoun, Ara the Beautiful, Martyrdom of Shushanik, The Demon and many of his scenarios. And of course he never completed his Confession.

This text was originally published in The Eternal Travellers For Freedom: Sergey Parajanov and Mikhail Vartanov, catalog of the Busan International Film Festival, 2012.

Susanna Harutyunyan

Works Cited
Parajanov, Sergei. Unpublished manuscript Ispoved’, Paradzhanov Museum Yerevan
Angaladian, Ruben. 2006. “Paradzhnaov: Kollazh teni i tsveta v diapazone odnogo chelovecheskogo serdtsa”, in  Armianskii avangard vnutri totalitarizma. Kniga esse. Yerevan.

Susanna Harutyunyan © 2016

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