Thursday, December 05, 2019

The Colour of Pomegranates

There is a whole story to be written about Serge Daney and Soviet cinema. He was proud that critics of his generations helped with the recognition of filmmakers like Boris Barnet, spent a lot of time writing on Soviet filmmakers during the Cold War and even "discovered" Artavazd Peleshian. Sergei Parajanov's The Colours of Pomegranates must have meant something special for Daney. He put a picture from the film on the front cover of his second book, Ciné-journal. The back cover has a picture of Daney's hands, assembling the page with his review of the film for Libération.


The Colour of Pomegranates*  
It’s a shame that Parajanov is now an “ex-filmmaker”. He should have been allowed to continue. By whom? You guessed it. All we have left is the discovery, thirteen years later, of this dazzling meteorite: The Colour of Pomegranates.  
In 1924, when he is born of Armenian parents in Tbilisi (Georgia), his name is Sarkis Paradjaniants. In 1965, known as Sergei Parajanov, he becomes famous with a single film: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. On December 17th, 1973, when he is arrested by the Soviet authorities, he becomes the “Parajanov case”. Incarcerated in a hard-labour camp (in Dnipropetrovsk), we know he is vulnerable, sick, at risk of blindness, some say he has committed suicide, we believe him to be dead. In the Western world, “Parajanov committees” are formed. At the turn of the 80s, we learn that he has been freed. Parajanov is, for the authorities of his country, an ex-filmmaker, a status that condemns him to the near-mendicity of a “social parasite”. Little by little, Parajanov has become nobody. One of the most talented Soviet filmmaker of his generation (the generation of Tarkovsky and Iosseliani) is a “noble cause” over here and an “ex-filmmaker” over there. Oblivion threatens. We forget that he is also a filmmaker, one of the most complete auteur (painter, poet, musician, director) of his films.  
It's a good thing therefore that thirteen years later, Cosmos Films release Parajanov’s other film, The Colour of Pomegranates, his second and last full-length feature. Not such a long feature by the way since the version shown in Paris is not the one edited in the USSR in 1969 (and quickly removed from the screens) but the one re-edited in 1971 by the witness-of-all-trade of Soviet cinema: Sergei Yutkevich. Result: cut down by 20 minutes.  
Parajanov’s crimes? Innumerable: “trafficking of icons and art objects”, “currency trafficking”, “homosexuality”, “spreading venereal diseases”, “incitement to suicide”. I’m not making this up. Parajanov likes beautiful things, art works, and is an expert: a crime. He knows how to place them in front of the camera in such a way that this beauty becomes dazzling: a crime. Parajanov is the least Russian filmmakers: he has worked for a long time in Kiev on Ukrainian-language films and The Colours of Pomegranates is at a historical crossing between Georgia and Armenia: a crime. His film craft has nothing to do with the folkloric productions from the Soviet provinces designed for fairs and festivals. His films superbly ignore (to say the least) everything else and the capital city of this everything else: Moscow and the great Russian pompous art: a crime. The auteur of The Colour of Pomegranates is clearly Paradjaniants.  
The Colour of Pomegranates is one of these increasingly rare films that are unlike anything else. Parajanov is one of these even rarer filmmakers who act as if no one had ever filmed before them. Hence this fortunate impression of “first time” that is a true sign of great film-making.  Gutsy and precious. This is why the first thing not to do with The Colour of Pomegranates is to offer a user guide. We should let it unfold, let us be affected and drop our desire to understand everything instantly, discourage a lecture that tries to decipher and those that always want to put everything into context. There will always be time after to show off as the one who knows everything about 18th century Armenia or the ashik art, to pretend a long familiarity with what we ignored seventy-three minutes earlier (the actual duration of The Colours of Pomegranates). Some films are turnkey, some are not. So one must become a locksmith.  
And we can start with: this is a poet’s film, which, like poetry, cannot be summed up. Take it or leave it. Let’s take two “scenes” (or shall we say shots, paintings, images, icons? No word fits): the first and the last. Three pomegranates on a white bed sheet and a light red liquid that slowly oozes. We are told that in the first version, the stain created took the shape of the ancient and unified Armenia: the pomegranate juice “became” a blood map. A man dies, lying on the floor of an empty church. On the floor, around him, a forest of burning candles, and then, catapulted from off-screen, a white flock of decapitated chickens who in their agony knock off and extinguish the candles. Death of the poet and end of the film. Isn’t not seeing anymore the same as death?  
Everybody is going to say “The Colours of Pomegranates is a jungle of symbols: beautiful but not for us; we’re getting lost in it”. So what? What’s interesting in cinema is never the symbol, but how it’s made, the symbolic potential of any object. How do pomegranate juice, headless chickens, a stained bed sheet or an extinguished candle become symbols? Or a vase, a red fabric, a colour, public baths, sheep or belly-dancing? And how long does it take for the audience to derive pleasure from these symbols?  
Nothing stranger than the dispositif in The Colour of Pomegranates. Nothing more unsettling. In this suite of “icon-sequences”, an image doesn’t succeed another, it replaces it. No camera movements whatsoever in this film. No continuity between the images. Their unique commonality is us. Using tennis as metaphor, I would say that The Colour of Pomegranates is to be stuck on the baseline of our visual field and, from there, to be returning images like tennis balls, one after another. The image becomes a fetish (Parajanov is the ultimate fetishist) and very quickly we are experiencing the boomerang-gaze. The film “characters” seem to be serving images (like in tennis) while vaguely worried about double faults. Beautiful and made-up, they look at us fixedly, often at a distance, with an enduring slowness, revealing object-symbols with short and repetitive gestures or a stroboscopic clumsiness. As if they were demonstrating that the image in which they feature was really an animated image. They are living rebuses, charades in the flesh.  
The effects of this dispositif are either strange, hypnotic, comic, boring or lousy. And a bit of all that. It’s as if cinema had just been invented and the actors, wearing their best clothes, were still learning how to move in this unknown element of the filmed space - the camera field -, economical with gestures, but generous with gazes. Of course, all this is coming from elsewhere and from a long time ago: from the art of icons and from a conception of religion where an image has to be offered, to God, to the audience, to both. Strangely, although Parajanov had assembled many Armenian art treasures, to the point of making The Colours of the Pomegranates a real museum in celluloid, he does the opposite of what all worldly nouveaux-riches do (to zoom, to devour): he exhibits these treasures in ascetic fixed shots, he restores them as fetishes whose fate is to shine from a distance.  
It’s a real shame that Parajanov/Paradjaniants stopped making films, that he was so discouraged, abused, beaten. Because in this film made as an ex-filmmaker there is perhaps something that has only ever existed in Soviet cinema (and that one can find again today in a film like Stalker): a material imaginary. The art of staying as close as possible to the elements, to matter, to textures and colours. There is, for example, a peculiar presence of water in The Colours of Pomegranates, not Tarkovsky’s black and stagnating water but a light red household water, the water of the dyer or from the butcher’s stall, water that drips (the film is shot silent with surges of music and rough sound effects).  
How could one forget the image of the child Sayat Nova, no taller than the giant books mysteriously filled with water that dry on a roof and whose pages are turned by the wind?  
This material imaginary (probably linked to a religious tradition from the Orthodox dogma) is a path that cinema is seemingly abandoning. Cinema is no longer diverse enough. The global triumph of the model of the American tele-film has left few opportunities for other dispositifs of sounds and images. The American have pushed very far the study of continuous movement, speed and the convergence line. It’s the movement that empties the image of its weight, of its matter, the movement of a weightless body. Kubrick is the one that best told this story. By going through the scanner that is television, cinema has lost a layer of matter, a coat of paint. In Europe, even in the USSR, at the risk of marginalising themselves into inexistence, some are taking the luxury of questioning movement from its other side: slow and discontinuous. Parajanov, Tarkovsky (and before them Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Barnet) watched matter accumulate and congest, a geology of the elements, of rubbish or treasures, in slow motion. They are making the cinema of the Soviet ice age, this immobile empire, whether it likes it or not.  
I must say a couple of words of the story of The Colour of the Pomegranates or people will get upset. The film tells the story in a few scenes of the life of a famous (akish) minstrel called Sayat Nova. We see him as a child, then as a young poet at the court of the king of Georgia, and then as a monk retired in a convent. He dies during the ransacking of Tbilisi. The story takes place in 1795.  
* The French title of the film and of the article is Sayat Nova, the 18th century Armenian poet whose life is the topic of the film. [Translator's note]

First published in Libération, 29 January 1982. Also found in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

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