The decades-long process of attrition, neglect and outright persecution by which Soviet authorities destroyed the career of one of Soviet Russia's greatest artists, the Georgian-Ukrainian-Armenian filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1990), can be mapped out in the succession of spurious charges that were laid against him: "secretism," "decadent aestheticism," "ideological deviation," "bourgeois subjectivism and mysticism," "an excessive cult of the past," and "latent anti-Sovietism." Paradjanov was certainly innocent of the trumped-up allegations — including homosexuality, rape of a Communist Party member, and the spreading of venereal disease — that landed him in a brutal Ukrainian labor camp for four years in the 1970s. To his eternal credit, however, when it came to the aesthetic crimes the state laid at his door, Paradjanov was guilty, guilty, guilty.
This was not necessarily the result of political dissidence; Paradjanov was a pure, unceasingly active, creatively incontinent artist who simply couldn't be something other than what he was. As his widow, Svetlana Sherbatiuk, has said, "He awarded himself the luxury of being free in a country that was not free." Even when they put Paradjanov in the gulag, he still drew on scraps of paper and made beautiful dolls from mailbag sacking. He couldn't stop the flow of ideas and images that poured from his innately visual mind; but the state tried its best, destroying his health and ensuring that he completed only four features in the last 26 years of his life, which should have been his creative prime.
These four movies are the primary focus of LACMA's welcome retrospective of Paradjanov's breathtaking mature work. The addition of two earlier movies — Andriesh and The First Lad, which did not buck the cultural system — lends a sense of context and definition to his later achievements, though Paradjanov deemed everything he made before 1964's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors to be "garbage."
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Shadows, which took inspiration from the visionary achievement of Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (Paradjanov considered Tarkovsky, 10 years his junior, to be his mentor and comrade in artistic suffering), was a leap in the dark like none other in Soviet film history, and a slap in the face of the officially sanctioned and artistically vacuous school of Socialist Realism. The story of the thwarted love between two children from feuding families, the film is a startling combination of ethnography, Carpathian folk-myth and fairy-tale logic that sears the retina with its beauty, energy and ceaselessly inventive filmmaking. It opens with the camera attached to a tree that falls 70 feet and kills the young hero's brother, and almost every shot is equally bold and exhilarating. When one man kills another with an ax-blow to the head, red paint runs down the lens before an astonishing flash-cut to a scarlet-dyed silhouette of a horse leaping over the camera (a sure sign for Socialist Realists that this is deeply unfamiliar ground).
Shadows drew the attention of Paradjanov's enemies, and four years passed before he was able to make Sayat Nova, a madly beautiful, often straight-up-bonkers meditation on the life of its eponymous Armenian-Azeri balladeer and poet. Instead of moving the camera as he did in Shadows, in The Color of Pomegranates (the unsatisfying English title which Sayat Nova was given) Paradjanov conducts an insanely intense interrogation of the possibilities of the stationary frame. He consciously evokes the density of Byzantine iconography by striving for absolute flatness and two-dimensionality, then packs the frame with people, animals (lots of sheep and horses, visual motifs in all his movies), textured fabrics and costumes and objects, all under natural light. Each image is reminiscent of a Joseph Cornell box-assemblage crossed with a Brueghelesque crowd scene (some critics have also noted a kinship with '60s camp-iconoclast Jack Smith) and, although a familiarity with the bald facts of Sayat Nova's biography partly illuminates the narrative that holds the film together, the succession of images is so compelling that narrative coherence is scarcely an issue.
Paradjanov's postincarceration works, The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988), are almost comparable achievements. In short, here is a pantheon-level filmmaker, a unique creative sensibility let loose on celluloid whose work has lost none of its audacity and zest. Throughout his movies, the viewer will hear him- or herself inwardly saying, "I literally cannot believe what I am seeing," and that is a rare phenomenon at any time. Do not miss it.
SIX FILMS BY SERGEI PARADJANOV | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Through Fri., Feb. 29 | (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org