Speaking of “worth the trip,” I once made the trek from L.A. to San Francisco and stayed there for a week just to be able to watch The Color of Pomegranates several times at a Mission District movie theatre. Why didn’t I just watch it on video? Because it wasn’t available at the time. I was so knocked out by the movie the first time I saw it circa 1979 (at a special screening at the University of Southern California) that I wanted to write about it. When the film was finally distributed in the U.S. by Kino International, it was booked for a screening at the Roxie. Wanting to see it again, and wring an article out of the experience, I thought that traveling the almost 400 miles to get there was a bargain.
The Color of Pomegranates remains one of the most unusual films that I’ve ever seen. Ostensibly about the life of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (c. 1712-1795), the movie isn’t a standard biopic but a series of presentational tableaux and pantomime, which does little more than hint at the events transpiring on the screen. Writer-director Parajanov (like Sayat-Nova, an ethnic Armenian born in Soviet Georgia) cloaks these cinematic happenings in colorful and intricately designed costumes that dazzle the eye. In the late 1970s, most Americans, including myself, didn’t think of Soviet culture beyond the gray tones of Moscow: the existence of all these other ethnic cultures beyond Russia (Armenian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, etc.) was off our radars. To see a Soviet culture brought so stunningly and enigmatically to life was nothing short of a revelation to me.
However, The Color of Pomegranates wasn’t the first Parajanov film that I had seen. That distinction — and what a distinction it is! — goes to his Ukrainian production Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків, 1964), which I first saw on my local Washington P.B.S. station in the mid-’70s (although it took me a while to realize that the two films had the same director). Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was another disorienting blast of noise and color, one that pinned me to my chair in front of the TV and wouldn’t let go. If Parajanov could direct two such stunning films, he was definitely someone I wanted to write an article about.
Here is a link to the article that I wrote about Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, the article that I went to San Francisco to write (my article uses the Russified Romanization of the director’s name: Paradzhanov — and for some reason, the periodical captions the stills from the film with the alternate title, Pomegranate Red). The version of The Color of Pomegranates that I saw was the Russian cut that had been made after Parajanov’s Armenian edit had been taken out of his hands. The Russian version was the only cut of the film available for viewing in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Parajanov’s original Armenian version became available again. The Russian cut of The Color of Pomegranates possesses some aspects that I like, such as the division of the events into chapters that can be followed more easily, and I like the ending imagery of the Russian version better than the Armenian version. But it’s still good to finally see Parajanov’s original vision (which I first viewed at a Los Angeles film festival in the mid-1990s). And here is a link to film critic Tony Rayns’s explanatory article on The Color of Pomegranates, which helped me a great deal in writing my own. (Here is also a link to the Russian version of The Color of Pomegranates on YouTube.)
One of the great tragedies of cinema is that Parajanov was persecuted by the Soviet authorities for most of his career. After he found his voice with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, he wasn’t allowed to make another feature film until 1985 with The Legend of Suram Fortress (ამბავი სურამის ციხისა) in Georgia. He only completed one more feature, Ashik Kerib (აშიკი ქერიბი, 1988). While shooting The Confession (Խոստովանանք) in 1990, he took ill, and The Confession remained uncompleted when Parajanov died later that year. The mind staggers to contemplate all of the visionary films that Parajanov wasn’t allowed to make. At least the Green Integer Press in 1998 printed a small paperback of seven of Parajanov’s film treatments, SevenVisions, which can give us a small glimpse into the splendors of the screen that might have been.