Feb 24, 2013

The Color of Pomegranates

Admittedly, I have next to nil interest in Armenian culture and history, yet after just viewing The Color of Pomegranates (1968) – a strikingly singular ‘Soviet’ avant-garde film of the seemingly inconspicuous ‘high-camp’ persuasion that aggressively, abstractly, and positively poetically depicts the life and poems of Armenian mystical troubadour Sayat-Nova aka “King of Song” (born Harutyun Sayatyan 14 June 1712, Tiflis – died 22 September 1795, Haghpat), a secular Christian known for his romantic expressionism and lyricism who was ordained as a priest in 1759 by the Armenian Apostolic Church and brutally slain in 1795 at a monastery by the invading army of Mohammad Khan Qajar, the Shah of Iran, for stoically refusing to denounce Christianity and convert to Islam – I can honestly say it is one of the most organic depictions of a national kultur ever captured on celluloid, albeit oftentimes hermetically and homoerotically so, so it is all the more ironic that it was created in an anti-nationalist communist dictatorship where “Socialist realism” (slave-morality driven works glorifying the ‘proletariat’) were en vogue and the only style of filmmaking sanctioned by the state. Directed by Sergei Parajanov (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Ashik Kerib) – A Georgian-born bisexual of ‘wise blood’ who originally started as a professional filmmaker of “Socialist realist” works in 1954, but later disowned any work he created before 1964, describing them as simply, “garbage” – The Color of Pomegranates is oftentimes regarded as the filmmaker’s cinematic masterpiece; yet due to its highly cultivated depiction of a national kultur, a romantic viewing of archaic Christianity and an enduring race of an ancient people, the film would inevitably inflame the authoritarian Soviet censor, thus resulting in the film being banned more than one time. Originally titled “Sayat Nova” after the title character, The Color of Pomegranates was assembled by Parajanov under meager conditions with a virtually nonexistent budget in 1968, but was immediately banned for its being perceived as ‘inflammatory,’ so the dedicated director reedited the footage and renamed it under its current title, only for it to be banned again in 1969. The cut of The Color of Pomegranates that exists today – Parajanov’s ‘director’s cut’ – on DVD (via Kino) that was first officially released in 1992 is the banned second cut under the present title. Soviet documentarian/cinematographer Mikhail Vartanov – a personal friend of Parajanov’s who spent his life defending his comrade and who directed the banned documentary The Color of Armenian Land (1969); a now mostly lost work, in part about the making of The Color of Pomegranates, that got the filmmaker on the KGB’s blacklist – would write quite eloquently in 1969 regarding the Armenian arthouse flick, “Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein, the world cinema has not discovered anything revolutionarily new until The Color of Pomegranates ..." Indeed, forget the acid-addled auteur pieces of self-glorifying occultnik and would-be-messiah Alejandro Jodorowsky, persecuted poofter Parajanov is the real deal and he did not have to rape a woman to get that way, or as film critic Alexei Korotyukov wrote, “Paradjanov made films not about how things are, but how they would have been had he been God,” whereas Mr. El Topo is merely the false messiah. 

 If any film provides ample evidence that historically, homosexuals get a kick out of subverting the regimes they live under – whether it be of the political right or left, or individualist or collectivist – The Color of Pomegranates, as well as virtually all of Parajanov’s cinematic works created after 1964, makes for a potent and poetic yet pleasantly peculiar example. A virtual ‘fag fascist’ in the eyes of Soviet censors due to his unrepentant ancestor-worship and respect for religion and the perennial nature of certain cultures and customs (despite the materialist communist fallacy that all people are ‘malleable’ material that can be molded into anything, especially after the eradication of their culture, religion, and castes), and lack of pontificating in regard to the perceived ‘nobility’ of penniless proletarians, Parajanov probably left his Soviet overlords in a state of complete and utter stupefaction with The Color of Pomegranates; a keenly culturally conscious yet mostly metaphysical celluloid work that is probably the greatest expression of the Armenian (or any other racial/ethnic/cultural group) collective unconscious ever cinematically concocted, despite the fact the director once admitted in a speech in Minsk that he doubted the contemporary Armenian public would understand it, but that they, “are going to this picture as to a holiday.” Indeed, an opiate-like celluloid oneiric of the sometimes vaguely ominous but always otherworldly and aesthetically rapturous, The Color of Pomegranates is a rare piece of cinematic art where none of the meticulously (yet rather unnoticeably minimalist) tableaux go to waste in a work that follows Sayat-Nova aka King of Song as he comes-of-age, discovers and falls in love with the female form, falls in love with a woman, and enters a monastery for what will be eternity after dying in an ‘anti-biopic’ of a person, as well as a people, told through aesthetic-driven esoteric rituals, glances, gestures, and pure poetry. Starring Paradjanov's very versatile muse Sofiko Chiaureli in no less than six of the roles, both male and female, including Sayat Nova as a youth, the poet’s lover, muse, and mime, as well as the ‘Angel of Resurrection,’ The Color of Pomegranates is a work featuring archetypes as ‘characters’ and in which the ‘color of pomegranates’ is symbolic of blood (which is featured in the film quite prominently) – the innate and perennial soul of people and a people’s memories – a color that ‘Red’ communists ironically wear as their official uniform, but for which they know nothing. As film critic Frank Williams wrote in the book World Film Directors Volume 2: 1945-1985 (1988), Paradjanov celebrates the survival of the Armenian people under relentless and unwavering waves of oppression (with the Armenian Genocide of 1915–1916 being relatively recent), writing, "There are specific images that are highly charged — blood-red juice spilling from a cut pomegranate into a cloth and forming a stain in the shape of the boundaries of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia; dyers lifting hanks of wool out of vats in the colours of the national flag, and so on."

Ironically, while the Soviet Union – a real-life dystopia rooted in class warfare and genocide that no one will miss – is gone, Sergei Parajanov’s films, like the culture he depicts in The Color of Pomegranates, will live on, if only cinematically so, which is good enough for me. Apparently, a longer cut of the film exists somewhere in the vaults of Armenfilm (an Armenian film studio in Yerevan), so until it is unearthed (if it is ever unearthed), the current cut of The Color of Pomegranates will work just fine as one of the most idiosyncratic works of cinema history that redefined film as an artistic medium and what it is capable of. Arrested in 1973 on dubious charges of rape, homosexuality and bribery for which he served 4 years of a 5 year sentence, and again in 1982 for bribery for which he spent less than a year in jail, Parajanov finally was able to direct two more cinematic masterpieces –The Legend of the Suram Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988) before his death from lung cancer in his homeland of Armenia on July 20, 1990 at age 66, thus leaving behind the uncompleted film The Confession. With such prestigious filmmakers like François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Andrei Tarkovsky (who was a personal friend) coming to his aid during times of persecution and influencing modern ‘arthouse’ auteur filmmakers like Theo Angelopoulos, Béla Tarr and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Parajanov will certainly be one of the least forgotten ancestors of his people as not only the greatest Armenian filmmaker to live (sorry Atom Egoyan!), but also one of the greatest cine-magicians to have ever lived, with The Color of Pomegranates being his finest performance. As the Armenian equivalent of German auteuress’ Ulrike Ottinger’s kraut-dyke-freak masterpiece Freak Orlando (1981) – a work of hermetic tableaux where the lead actress plays at least five different characters – except featuring the obsessive attention to aesthetic details and archetypical religious symbols of Kenneth Anger's Crowleyite masterwork Lucifer Rising (1972), The Color of Pomegranates is a rare cinematic work that reminds one that ancient alien cultures, including archaic Christian ones, can be aesthetically and sexually subversive, with auteur Sergei Parajanov himself being the modern-day Sayat Nova; a romantic Georgian-Armenian poet and mystic plagued by Soviet savagery (as opposed to the Islamic sort faced by his predecessor) who managed to create rather refined and transcendental pulchritude in a completely compromised climate of aesthetic banality and barbarism.

-Ty E

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