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Kent Parker

Kent Parker

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Born to a well-to-do Armenian family, Paradzhanov played violin and studied in the music conservatory before enrolling in the directing department of VGIK (All-Union Institute of Cinematography), from which he graduated in 1951. Beginning in 1949, he worked as an assistant director, then director at the Kiev film studios. Paradzhanov's first feature as a director, "Andriesh" (1955), co-directed with Y. Bazelyan, was noteworthy for its unusual use of surrealistic elements. In 1957 Paradzhanov made three shorts: "Dumka," "Golden Hands" and "Ataliva Uzhvii," followed by several undistinguished comedies and melodramas of the socialist-realist type: "The First Lad" (1959), "Ukrainian Rhapsody" (1961), "Flower on the Stone" (1963).In 1964 Paradzhanov completed "Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors," a striking departure from his previous work as well from all of postwar Soviet cinema. With this film, Paradzhanov and his cameraman Yuri Ilyenko, soon to become a leading director himself, recovered and developed the tradition of Ukrainian poetic cinema rooted in the work of Alexander Dovzhenko. Based on turn-of-the-century Ukrainian writer Kotzyubinsky's stories and on Carpathian folklore, the film...

Born to a well-to-do Armenian family, Paradzhanov played violin and studied in the music conservatory before enrolling in the directing department of VGIK (All-Union Institute of Cinematography), from which he graduated in 1951. Beginning in 1949, he worked as an assistant director, then director at the Kiev film studios. Paradzhanov's first feature as a director, "Andriesh" (1955), co-directed with Y. Bazelyan, was noteworthy for its unusual use of surrealistic elements. In 1957 Paradzhanov made three shorts: "Dumka," "Golden Hands" and "Ataliva Uzhvii," followed by several undistinguished comedies and melodramas of the socialist-realist type: "The First Lad" (1959), "Ukrainian Rhapsody" (1961), "Flower on the Stone" (1963).

In 1964 Paradzhanov completed "Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors," a striking departure from his previous work as well from all of postwar Soviet cinema. With this film, Paradzhanov and his cameraman Yuri Ilyenko, soon to become a leading director himself, recovered and developed the tradition of Ukrainian poetic cinema rooted in the work of Alexander Dovzhenko. Based on turn-of-the-century Ukrainian writer Kotzyubinsky's stories and on Carpathian folklore, the film significantly contributed to film language by its use of color and camera to convey complex psychological states of the heroes, by its bold rejection of conventional narrative, and by its director's lyricism, mysticism and ecstatic emotionalism. These characteristics were all but revolutionary and invited comparison not only with Dovzhenko but with Sergei Eisenstein. Although "Shadows" won over a dozen international awards, Paradzhanov was not allowed to accompany the film abroad.

After the success of "Shadows," Paradzhanov's Kiev apartment became an intellectual center; to the great displeasure of the authorities he was visited by people from all over the country, as well as foreigners. Moreover, the outspoken Paradzhanov took part in human rights campaigns of the late 1960s, signing letters of protest and sending angry telegrams to Moscow. Soon, a number of his projects submitted to Dovzhenov studios were rejected. He did manage to make a film in Armenia, "Sayat Nova" (1969), the story of an 18th-century Armenian monk, poet and national hero killed by the invading Persians for his refusal to renounce Christ. However, "Sayat Nova" was no conventional biopic; it was an attempt to convey the visual equivalent of Sayat Nova's poetry embodying the beauty and tragedy of the ancient Armenian culture, history and landscape. A series of tableaux composed like Oriental miniatures, it is far from static: there is constant movement of the image within each frame.

"Sayat Nova" was an even greater triumph than "Shadows," although its impact was not immediately felt. The film was not seen abroad until 1977, when the screening of a 16mm bootleg print was arranged in Paris. In 1980 it was shown at the New York Film Festival and proclaimed by many critics the best Soviet film of the postwar period. Such belated international acclaim for "Sayat Nova" was due to drastic political and cultural changes in the USSR around 1968. To screen the film in Armenia upon its initial release was permissible, but for it to be shown all over the country, authorities insisted it be cut to become "understandable to the people." Paradzhanov refused to butcher his film, and it was edited by another filmmaker. Finally, it was released in the Soviet Union in 1972 as "The Color of Pomegranates," although in limited distribution.

By that time Paradzhanov had had other serious confrontations with the regime. His situation became especially precarious when his next project, "Kievan Frescos," containing some footage on destruction of Christian monuments, was shelved. In January 1974, while Paradzhanov was working on a TV film on Hans Christian Andersen, he was arrested and accused of homosexuality, hard currency dealing, distributing pornography and trafficking in art objects. Most of the charges were fabricated; as for homosexuality, considered a crime according to Soviet law, Paradzhanov had never concealed his sexual preferences and it was never an issue with the authorities until he became politically active. Paradzhanov was sentenced to five years of hard labor, and his films and mention of his name in print was banned for ten years. Due to an unprecedented international campaign in his defense (virtually all European filmmakers of renown signed petitions on his behalf), he was released a year early.

A sick and broken man, Paradzhanov moved into his parents' house in Tbilisi. He was not allowed to return to cinema, so he wrote scripts and stories based on his prison experiences, creating surrealistic collages, assemblages and drawings, which he claims he started making in prison out of junk. In 1982 Paradzhanov was arrested again, and only an appeal from the French government saved him from a prison sentence of five years. Fortunately, the Brezhnev regime had come to an end, and shortly after this ordeal Paradzhanov could return to filmmaking. Perhaps as a final act of mistrust he was assigned a co-director, the famous Georgian actor Dodo Abashidze.

Paradzhanov made his next three films at the Georgia Film studios in Tbilisi: "The Legend of Suram Fortress" (1984), the short "Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme" (1985) and "Ashik Kerib" (1988). "Suram Fortress," based on an ancient Georgian legend, demonstrated Paradzhanov's unique ability to create a true national art deeply rooted in folklore. The film, a pictorial spectacle, presents a series of exquisite tableaux with a wonderful sense of color, line and composition, all shot with a static camera but with an enormous visual power and metaphoric richness.

With his last film, "Ashik Kerib," Paradzhanov revealed his enchantment not only with the two Christian civilizations of the Caucasus--Armenian and Georgian--but also with the Muslim. Based on Lermontov's Oriental tale, Paradzhanov's film considerably enhances its fantastic, grotesque potential. With its medieval and modern props, its kitschy makeup and cumbersome mise-en-scene, the film could be seen as homage to Georges Melies. It is also filled with quotations from Paradzhanov's own films, as if he was evoking his earlier achievements and presenting them as self-parody to say goodbye to a certain kind of filmmaking he had been practicing for over 20 years. The film ends with an image of a dove sitting on the movie camera. The inscription says, "Dedicated to the memory of Andrei Tarkovsky." Both the late Tarkovsky and Paradzhanov could be viewed as symbolic "Ashik Kerib," or "traveling artists."

Unlike Paradzhanov's other films, "Kerib" has a happy ending: the wanderer returns home after prevailing over his enemies. "Ashik Kerib" was shown at the 1988 New York Film Festival and Paradzhanov was allowed for the first time to come to the US to attend the premiere. Back home, he started working on a long-delayed project, the autobiographical "Confession," but was hospitalized with lung cancer. Ilyenko's film based on Paradzhanov's prison stories, "Swan Lake--The Zone" had its international debut two months before Paradzhanov's death in 1990.

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