Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Colour of Pomegranates (Paradjanov, 1968)

The opportunity to investigate the singular filmography of Sergei Paradjanov is not one that I'd ever turn down. Paradjanov's cinema has forever piqued my interest, and the self-generated hype that overwhelmed me with regards to his most acclaimed work - The Colour of Pomegranates - motivated my decision to blind-purchase an American box set of his feature films.

However, my initial reaction here was a little confusing for me: I admired this and could clearly see that it was brilliant, but I didn't feel like I'd engaged with the text at all. Paradjanov's tableaux are so vivid and exciting, and they possess such rich symbolism that's so heavily steeped in Armenian history + culture that it makes the film something of an imprenetable behemoth of breathtaking imagery - but for the ordinary Westernized viewer like myself, it's difficult to gain much more it. Or at least, that's how I felt after that first viewing.

Following the inevitable (and necessary) second viewing I saw things differently. I think my natural instinct as a film enthusiast is to decipher all these images that are put before me, as I get a kick out of participating in the whole cinematic experience, and I also like to get the most out of the films that I love. Pomegranates, saturated as it is by a culture that's quite alien to me, denies me the gratifications that I've become accustomed to as an audience member. But I feel that Paradjanov is first and foremost concerned in evoking a response on a purely visceral level here. I imagine that even a professor in 18thC Armenian symbolism would struggle, in one sitting, to fully digest the wealth of imagery with which the director confronts the viewer. And after all, Pomegranates is effectively "poetry in motion" - designed to externalize the internal life of the poet, according to the aims that are defined in the film's prologue.

Bearing that in mind, I found the film to be quite a profound experience the second time around. With Pomegranates, Paradjanov attempts to penetrate the soul of the tormented artist, and the 'character' of Sayat Nova here is really little more than an abstract concept that allows the director to channel his own insecurities and tribulations through the poet's textual presence. Thus, I think the film is permeated by a stark emotional clarity that manifests itself most notably in the numerous intertitles, all of which seem to reveal the artist's increasing despair. A typical refrain such as "In this healthy and beautiful life, my share has been nothing but suffering" suddenly becomes infused with much greater depth of meaning when one realizes this. Pomegranates is essentially a filmic embodiment of that very quote, no? The poetry that accompanies the artist's on-screen journey via the expository intertitles articulates the latter, more despondent part of the line. But Paradjanov achieves a remarkable balance between the despair which punctuates the film, and the visual content which enlivens the first half of the sentence. The director is very much attuned to the joys of life, and Pomegranate's vibrant imagery emphatically celebrates the beauty of this decidedly Armenian existence.

It's the co-existence of these two basic strands - happiness and sadness - that make the artist's suffering (and consequently, Paradjanov's achievement) all the more poignant. The former exposes the extent of the latter as I see it, and the fact that the artist's desperation prevails despite the creation of this sumptuous filmic environment strikes me as a pretty affirmative statement on the director's part. The reconciliation of Armenian culture and history with the soul of the artist is denied (until he achieves a debatable transcendence at film's end, at least), and I sense the presence of external forces in this refusal? There's a potential critique of the Soviet regime, but I'm unsure as to whether I could come up with any particular examples off the top of my head... perhaps the return to the image of the 'bleeding' pomegranates, that are apparently symbolic of fertility in Armenia? (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Although, as we've established, the content of the film is an act of defiance in itself. Moreover, I think Paradjanov astutely notes the transience of the cultural mores that he so relishes. By working with the past, he highlights the discrepancy with the present. The distinct religious/biblical imagery and the parallels that the director creates between Sayat Nova and Christ mark a concerted attempt to elevate these traditions into the realm of the timeless through the medium of film.

And that brings me onto the last issue that I wanted to discuss, which is basically the specific role of art in Paradjanov's world. I think I've already implied that Pomegranates is markedly different from anything else that I've ever seen... but how so! The director's unnervingly static camera is compensated by the visual opulence within the frame. And the 'characters' that inhabit it are almost confrontational in the way that they frequently stare directly at the audience (which distorts the privilege of our cinematic gaze somewhat). Furthermore, there's his use of sound which threatens to render the diegetic as non-diegetic?! Either way, the film strips away the cinematic language that we draw comfort from, and remoulds the essence of the medium (the visual image) into something that's at once both archaic (the use of tableaux + Christian tapestry) and thoroughly modern (had this been done before, in this style?).

There's a glorious moment in the film where a number of saz seem to be floating in mid-air, as if they've surpassed the limitations of reality and have attained the status of metaphysical objects. The saz of course, is the instrument of the kerib, and in Pomegranates this equates to the artist. The transcendence of these guitars then, is a beautiful encapsulation of the redeeming qualities of art. And that is probably the message that most resonates with me here. Sayat Nova the man may no longer be with us, but Sayat Nova the artist is immortal. The Colour of Pomegranates, imo, proves that the same is true of Sergei Paradjanov.

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