Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Three Short Films By Sergei Parajanov

It is fitting these short films directed by Georgian-Ukrainian-Soviet filmmaker Sergei Parajanov have been restored, because they themselves were largely an act of cultural preservation. One features the art of Armenian artist, while another captures imagery created by a Georgian outsider artist, and the third really shouldn’t even be a short film in the first place. Unfortunately, it was assembled from all the surviving footage of documentary about post-war Ukrainian culture the Soviet authorities abruptly canceled and subsequently did their best to destroy. Parajanov was a radical avant-garde artist working for, but really mostly censored by, a state enterprise that demanded rigid adherence to socialist realism. Freshly restored by Fixafilm, Parajanov’s Kiev Frescoes, Hakob Hovnatanyan, and Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme open virtually as a short film program this Friday in New York.

Arguably, this is a good time to re-discover and promote Parajanov’s work, because the Soviet Socialist regime used his bisexuality as a pretext for censoring his work and sentencing him to long stretches in Siberian prison camps. These three collected shorts will challenge many, because they are definitely non-narrative documentaries. Nevertheless, Parajanov’s inspired eye for composition and the striking artwork he incorporated into these collage-like films will definitely hold the interest of any patron familiar with the modernist art tradition.

Kiev Frescoes is undeniably the most fragmentary of the three short films, but that is the fault of Parajanov’s oppressors rather than his own. We will never know what the final film could have been, but the surviving studies exhibit a pronounced sense of absurdity that surely did not help the auteur’s cause. We can also see Kiev’s once-grand buildings now starting to crack and fade.

Hakob Hovnatanyan surveys the work of 19th Century Armenian portraiturist, whose subjects were by definition class enemies. Rather ironically, Parajanov takes extreme close-ups of painting details, contrasting them with stills of still-life scenes he staged himself (with a few contemporary scenes of the surreal mixed in for good measure). Throughout the Hoynatanyan film, there is a sense of morose nostalgia for a lost era of elegant refinement.

Perhaps the most accessible of the three films, Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, largely takes the approach of Hakob Hoynatannyan, applying it to Georgian “Primitivist” artist Niko Pirosmani. In fact, Pirosmani is now recognized as a Georgian master, whose work probably compares most directly to that of Rousseau (stylistically) and Chagall (stylistically and thematically). However, Pirosmani remained almost completely unknown and unheralded in his own time—a fact surely not lost on the censored and vilified Paranjanov.
Pirosmani’s visions are often simultaneously playful yet gothic. If any great modernist remains under-valued, it could well be Pirosmani. His visuals, as refracted through Parajanov’s lens, will entrance viewers sophisticated viewers.

There should be so much more Prajanov available to us, but throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Soviet government consistently shut-down his projects (when he was not performing slave labor in the gulags). That makes these short, enticing films so valuable. Highly recommended for adventurous and discerning viewers, the “Three Short Films By Sergei Paranjanov” program opens virtually this Friday (6/26), in New York.