In light of the reputation of Parajanov as one of the giants of late Soviet cinema, and the canonical status of at least two of his most well-known works, the previous lack of an English-language study of his work was hard to fathom. In France Patrick Cazals published a study over two decades ago, but the Anglo-Saxon world has had to wait much longer for James Steffen’s masterful new study, which reveals a hitherto relatively unknown Parajanov. Delving into a wealth of unexplored archival sources, it reveals much that is new about the Soviet film industry and Parajanov’s dealings with it. Steffen also researches the amazing string of cross-cultural and transnational artistic traditions influencing the filmmaker, forming him as the versatile and globally important artist that he became. Not only does Steffen offer close readings of Parajanov’s acknowledged masterpieces, he also explores the films that might have been made (but were stopped in various stages of production), explaining their significance in his development as artist and filmmaker. Finally, Steffen weaves into his scholarly fabric a clear sense of those figures in world cinema with whom Parajanov can be compared.
The book is divided into eight main chapters. Some are mainly devoted to single films – either those considered his masterpieces (Tini zabutykh predkiv [Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1964]; Sayat Nova [The Colour of Pomegranates, 1968]; Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa [The Legend of Suram Fortress, 1984] and Ashug-Karibi [Ashik-Kerib, 1988] all get a single chapter), or those such as Kiev Frescoes (started in mid career but stopped in production) which for Steffen represent pivotal moments marking clear transitions in Parajanov’s career. Other chapters describe Parajanov’s early period – generally seen as devoid of interest (Steffen does not substantially challenge this accepted view) (1) – or later periods of unemployment which yielded many scripts of tantalising potential. Another chapter describes his arrest, imprisonment and the ultimately successful international campaign for his release after four years in prison. (2) An introduction sets out the wide scope of the book, emphasizing the major themes in Parajanov’s work: his particular brand of poetic cinema; his views on nationality; his own persona (which some saw as attention-seeking, while for others he was irreverent and rebellious); his status as a sexual outsider and his personal entanglement in Ukrainian politics. (3) The film chapters abound with superb film analysis, which are attentive to the many national cultures with which Parajanov was conversant, while weaving his extraordinary Transcaucasian visions. Indeed, it is Parajanov’s intimate and profound knowledge of so many national cultures that has made it so difficult for Western scholars to delve into his work in the profound way that Steffen has achieved. As well as his interest in Transcaucasian culture and his knowledge of Persian and Turkish art, Parajanov’s long tenure in Ukraine made the complexities for a Parajanov scholar all the more impenetrable. (4) A further difficulty is that of sorting through the innumerable (often legendary) tales associated with Parajanov’s colourful personality. (5)
Parajanov’s first large-scale critical success, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (6), was preceded by a long period of relative failures rarely reclaimed by critics. Steffen concurs with the general view, stating:
there may be some truth to the Ukrainian director Alexander Muratov’s recollection that Parajanov was known as the “worst director at the [Kiev Dovzhenko] studio.” […] He would have remained just one among many Soviet directors consigned to oblivion if he had produced only the early films and more works like them. (p. 55)
However Steffen finds saving graces in the visual style of these films, and lays much of the responsibility for failure at the feet of their scriptwriters. Steffen pinpoints moments of typical Parajanovian irreverence, although he remains hesitant to suggest that they were as deliberate and daring as in later films. Certainly, however, Parajanov was always at odds with his time. During the Thaw period he did not take advantage of the increasing tolerance of narrative freedom that fellow students of Igor Savchenko (7) like Kulidzhanov, Khutsiev, Alov and Naumov did. Parajanov was to forge his poetic and visual assault on Socialist Realism just as the Thaw ended. This didn’t come under the banner of narrative sincerity but was a forerunner to the short-lived yet influential “Poetic School”, closely associated with film studios in the peripheral nations of the USSR. Arguably, only Tarkovsky in Russia sought as radical a release from narrative-based (or prosaic) cinema. (8) Parajanov had generated his early artistic vision by concentrating on genres abandoned by the shestidisiatniki (the sixties generation): fairy tales, musical comedies, melodrama and even the propagandistic anti-religious drama. Curiously, it is in one of Parajanov’s unknown early documentaries, Zolotye ruki (Golden Hands, 1957), that Steffen finds the strongest indication that Parajanov had discovered the kind of aesthetic breakthrough perfected in later full-length films, one where narrative flow would be supplanted by more original filmic techniques (pp. 42-45).
The breakthrough in Parajanov’s career came with Shadows. As Steffen points out, this film has been particularly well-served in terms of English-language scholarship (p. 62). Shadows was an early intimation of the Poetic School in the Soviet periphery. This school’s influence was nowhere more keenly felt than in Ukraine, and in addition to the cinematographer Yuri Illienko (9)a whole school of Poetic Cinema filmmakers would soon emerge in Kiev. They would leave behind them a small but original body of work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Filmmakers like Illienko and Osyka as well as the lead actor of Shadows, Ivan Mycholaichuk (later a director), along with the scriptwriter Ivan Drach, would forge a new cinema coming out of Parajanov’s “overcoat” (pp. 83-87). This path, though, became an increasingly difficult one to tread due both to ideological retrenchment and the banishment of the liberal Party chief Petro Shelest. Steffen highlights another consideration: the new Soviet film boss, Filipp Yermash, was as profit-driven and as suspicious of artistic experimentation as any Hollywood producer.
What makes Shadows such an innovative film is not merely the “extraordinary stylistic range” and the extensive “variety of techniques” (p. 62), or its “inventive and expressive use of sound” (p. 67), but its original and revolutionary overturning of a staid, folkloristic exploration of national cultures in Soviet art. Nonetheless, James Steffen is keen to emphasise that this film encountered no serious obstacles from the authorities. It was both an official Soviet and an international success, granting Parajanov a certain amount of official prestige, and arguably delaying his legal persecution. It also gained the support of many of those who looked to promote a Ukrainian cultural renaissance – indeed, one showing became the venue for a protest by Ukrainian nationalists. As Steffen points out, Parajanov joined protests against the repression of Ukrainian nationalists by prominently putting his signature to appeals to release political prisoners. If Parajanov (given his Armenian roots) was something of an ethnic outsider in Kiev he nonetheless became a key member of the Ukrainian cultural intelligentsia (p. 81). (10)
Shadows has presumably received the bulk of attention from film critics because Parajanov’s subsequent experiments were linked to cultural realities far outside the competence of many a Western scholar. Not only did he work in more distant Soviet republics, but he also built upon a knowledge of Transcaucasian art rarely within the scope of a single film scholar. Thankfully, Steffen has produced an account of the late films based on a superlative exploration of original sources and some fine film analysis, which is unlikely to be surpassed for some time. Yet the author discovers the aesthetic source of Parajanov’s later films in a film that might have been: Kiev Frescoes. The extant screen tests provide an insight into the film Parajanov had in mind. As Kiev Frescoes went through a number of stages before its “liquidation” by film bureaucrats, Steffen gives a detailed description of what the film may have been like, analysing the screen tests which Parajanov “used to explore the parameters of his new directorial style” (p. 103). Ostensibly filmed to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, Parajanov moved far from accepted limits. Indeed, one is astounded that Parajanov’s film actually made it to the screen tests. The film was reimagined under the influence of Fellini’s confessional, semi-autobiographical Otto e mezzo (8½, 1962). Analysing the literary scenario and the shooting script, Steffen provides a revealing analysis of the screen tests, explaining features which fully emerged in The Colour of Pomegranates. These include frontally staged tableaux; the picture frame as a compositional device and decorative motif; still-life compositions; tripartite compositions within individual shots; abstraction of the mise en scène; and pantomime and experimentation with actors’ movement. Thematically the film anticipates later works by pinpointing the role of the artist in society (something it shared not just with Fellini’s film but also with Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev  and Pasolini’s La Ricotta ). The existence of a frontal nude in the screen tests (a detail not indicated in his shooting script) was also likely to cause controversy, probably contributing to the project’s suppression (p. 108). Parajanov made naive tactical errors by failing to play the system to his advantage.
The film poem The Colour of Pomegranates was a highly unusual, cryptic miracle, highlighting how an experimental film inconceivable in Hollywood could be made for the Soviet film industry (underground filmmakers would never have been privy to the kind of resources available to Parajanov). This film, while subject to both censorship and re-editing, was seen by a million viewers upon its release. Steffen points out that, due to the particular set up of the Soviet film industry, the more peripherally a film studio was situated, the more potential autonomy and scope for experimentation there was. Parajanov moved to Armenia partly because his position in Ukraine had become untenable and the film studios in Erevan had an interest in attracting the director of Shadows.It was willing to shower him with considerable resources and grant him considerable autonomy, especially given the rather lacklustre state the studio was in at the time (p. 117). Discovering the end result, however, the studio’s reaction was one of shock:
Parajanov’s deliberately archaic, radically stylized cinematic language […] encompasses such disparate influences as the visual style of medieval Armenian and Persian miniatures, the editing and narrative style of early filmmakers such as Georges Melies, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s fascination with the material culture of the ancient past and his tendency to stage shots as portraits or tableaux, and the decidedly modernistic technique of jump cuts. For good measure, Parajanov tosses in an abundance of oblique, metaphoric imagery and private jokes, some of them gleefully obscene if one digs just a little below the surface. (p. 116)
Sayat Nova, the 18th-century Armenia ashugh poet, was portrayed as a poet of all Transcaucasia, with an emphasis placed on Sayat Nova’s universality. Parajanov “attempted, in his own peculiar way, to construct a version of Sayat Nova that had at least some points of correspondence with official ideology.” (p. 123) Steffen points to how the film is conceived of in poetic terms, with Parajanov employing “symbols, metaphors, repetition, and rhyme as basic tools of his craft” but also emphasises the often unappreciated novelty of “its rigorously constructed soundtrack.”
A fully integrated musical composition employing sound effects, newly composed musical passages, performances of Sayat-Nova’s songs, other folk songs, field recordings of church liturgy and hymns and even deliberately placed passages of silence. (p. 139)
Sexuality, desire and androgyny were also foregrounded in this film (though much of the full-frontal nudity, often appearing in dream sequences, was discarded in the outtakes). The film received rare reviews: Mikhail Bleiman used his to attack the school of Poetic Cinema as a whole, decrying its “laconism”, its use of allegories or parables, and its static visual style with a “predilection for ethnographic, exotic-historical material”. Bleiman’s accusation of “archaism” was a catch-all term, damning the school for suffering from a “lack of compositional unity” (Bleiman, cited p. 155). Another reviewer, Rizaev, was full of praise for the painterly visual style and Parajanov’s “poetry in composition and light”. However, even after Yutkevich’s reediting, the Soviet authorities still limited distribution and refused permission for foreign screenings (although the film was exported as a bootleg print during Parajanov’s imprisonment).
Silence and Imprisonment
For almost fifteen years Parajanov would either be unemployable or in prison, though he was far from idle in this period. Scripts abounded, giving us a hint of the Parajanov films that might have been. Of these, Steffen singles out the autobiographical Confession for highest praise:
The richness of invention, densely layered imagery, and autobiographical resonance that run throughout Confessionmake the ultimate failure of his lifetime dream to realize this project all the more regrettable (p. 162).
The late 1960s were not a time of total marginalization for Parajanov, and some projects were initially given a green light. Another Kotsiubynsky adaptation, Intermezzo (11), was to be worked on, though the project would be buried by Parajanov’s old nemesis, Mikhail Bleiman. Parajanov would also work with the great Soviet scriptwriter, critic and theorist, Victor Shklovsky, who had agreed to collaborate on a script for a film based on Hans Christian Andersen entitled A Miracle in Odense. The project secured approval just before Parajanov’s arrest in December 1973. Steffen provides many details of Parajanov’s legal persecution, linking it to a speech in Minsk denouncing the creative bankruptcy of Soviet cinema and poking fun at the authorities. Though made two years prior to his arrest, it contributed considerably to Parajanov’s persecution. Steffen also details the large international campaign to release Parajanov and explores the art Parajanov created in prison.
Resurrection and Afterlife
It was only in 1982 that Parajanov could start work again on new film projects. He returned to another Transcaucasian work, this time a Georgian one. The Legend of Suram Fortress was to prove that Parajanov’s originality had not vanished. Steffen gives a fine account of the classic, comparing Parajanov’s film with a previous one by an unjustly neglected Georgian Soviet director: Ivan Perestiani. Parajanov’s film adopts Persian and Turkish imagery and decorative motifs to playful effect, demonstrating the director’s fascination with pantomime and highlighting its subversive potential. Parajanov fully subverts representational conventions of realism, introducing “campy, sexually ambiguous and homoerotic elements into the film” (p. 208). The tableau style is less in evidence and Parajanov employs more pans and tracking shots, lending the film greater narrative clarity. Two major critical essays by Miron Chernenko and renowned semiotician Jurij Lotman revealed Parajanov as a filmmaker laying a new path in cinema by combining the archaic with the modern. A Parajanov short, Arabeski Pirosmanis temaze (Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, 1985), foregrounds “in a systematic and sophisticated manner, the process of cinema representation” (p. 217). Steffen takes several pages to explain the manner in which Parajanov’s artworks are “intimately connected with his filmmaking aesthetics” (both in terms of stylistic inspiration and themes) and sees Parajanov’s use of Soviet kitsch as being in keeping with the “Sots Art” movement of Komar and Melamid.
Steffen emphasises how bitterness and conflict plagued Parajanov in his final years. This time, however, the cause of his trouble was the emerging nationalisms. His 1987 film project The Passion of Sushanik was abandoned due to the fury of Georgian intellectuals at his unorthodox interpretation. Not even the support of the great Georgian actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, managed to placate nationalist fury. Parajanov’s Armenian origins were the cause of further problems with Ashik Kerib, shot in Azerbaijan. While the filmmaker benefitted from the increasing political freedoms of glasnost, he still found his non-nationalistic vision of Transcaucasian culture under fire in post-Soviet times. Moreover, his use of homosexual and androgynous motifs antagonised many cultural nationalists, whose notion of homogenised nations fitted well with the fundamental tenets of the patriarchal order.
In retrospect, perhaps our greatest loss is Parajanov’s long-cherished project The Confession; never completed, all that is left of the film is footage from the its first three days of shooting. In an œuvre strewn with projects which might have been, it is only now that we can, with the aid of James Steffen’s patiently reconstructed account, fully appreciate Parajanov’s significance. Embodying the many contradictions and complex realities of Soviet film while transcending them, Parajanov’s genius was facilitated by the Soviet film industry – which provided him with significant resources and training – at the same time as its bureaucracy attempted to destroy him, an artist who transcended the sometimes flexible but all too-often rigorous boundaries of Socialist Realism. Post-Soviet realities would prove just as contradictory, giving him more apparent freedom while thwarting his cosmopolitan vision and limiting resources. Parajanov today has a tremendously complex legacy and no likely successors; those influenced by the director have been unable to extend the boundaries he set. Steffen argues in his concluding chapter that Parajanov’s influence has reached beyond film into new art forms such as the music video. His films demanded new modes of spectatorship, which could not be entirely contained within the cinema.
Steffen’s study of Parajanov is based on a painstaking analysis, and shows extraordinary cross-cultural scholarly stamina. Supplying plentiful biographical information, he concentrates on Parajanov the artist, as well as the various contexts in which he worked, while downplaying the colourful tales that abound about him. By revealing rather than mythologising Parajanov, Steffen’s book is a godsend for people teaching or studying film, as well as those who have come away from watching Parajanov inspired and intrigued, but also overwhelmed by the wealth of elements in his films seemingly never to be fully understood or contextualised. As a result of this meticulous study, his films can now be discussed with sufficient contextual knowledge. Steffen lucidly depicts a Parajanov deeply rooted in his own time and place, at the same time as transcending these parameters, and prefiguring new cinematic possibilities hitherto undreamt of. He makes the case for Parajanov as an artist of tremendous global significance, and elucidates the ways the filmmaker broke down the boundaries of national cultures and forged a form of cosmopolitanism relevant to periphery nations such as those of Transcaucasia.
James Steffen, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).
1. Nor for that matter did Parajanov. He once referred to an early film as The Turd on the Stone instead of The Flower on the Stone. Parajanov only completed this film because the previous director had been imprisoned for his negligence in the death of the lead actress (pp. 51-2).
2. There was also a first run-in with the law in Tblisi, in the summer of 1948, when Parajanov and others were charged with homosexuality (made into a criminal offense in the Stalin period and not decriminalised until 1993). Curiously, this occurred a year before the first prosecution of Pier Paolo Pasolini – who was to face thirty three trials in his own lifetime (even though, unlike Parajanov, he was never to serve time). Steffen mentions two Pasolini films that influenced Parajanov (the short La Ricotta  and Il vangelo secondo Matteo [The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964]) but fails to mention the oft-repeated story of Parajanov visiting the movie theatre in Tbilisi at least seven times to watch Pasolini’s Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex, 1967).
3. Steffen carries out some fine detective work here (through archival research and interviews). He traces the events and pinpoints the individuals involved in Parajanov’s arrest, trial and imprisonment. He emphasises the extent to which Parajanov’s irreverence and undoubted political courage led to the Soviet state’s decision to isolate him and attempt to destroy him. Steffen reveals, too, the forces protecting Parajanov (including Ukraine’s Communist Party boss, Shelest, until ousted by conservatives), and highlights the essentially political nature of the trial. Parajanov’s status as a sexual outsider was more a pretext for his arrest than the cause.
4. One should not forget to mention the very first film he made – his diploma film at VGIK, the Soviet Union’s main film school – was entitled A Moldovan Fairy Tale.
5. Given the wealth of often-contradictory tales about Parajanov which former friends and acquaintances recount, a writer on Parajanov is dealt a very difficult hand. The truth is often to be found lurking in the accounts somewhere, but the embellishments often seem to be the main point of the telling. This fact is very much in keeping with Parajanov’s own persona.
6. Parajanov’s most popular success during his lifetime was the sport-themed musical comedy The Top Guy (1958) selling more tickets than all his other films put together, with 21.7 million admissions. Shadows, while gaining critical and official recognition, only managed 6.5 million admissions. (Kudriavtsev, cited p. 42).
7. The significance of Igor Savchenko has been altogether totally ignored in the West. Having been active only in the Stalin years between 1937 and 1950, Savchenko never had the freedom of other generations. However, Savchenko’s Romantic sensibility left its mark on his students. His early attempt at a musical comedy, Garmon (The Accordion, 1934), surely deserves rediscovery.
8. The post-war experiments of Kalatozov and Urusevsky attempted to merge narrative and cinematic poetry while foregrounding formal experiments in cinematic expression. The furthest they went in this regard was Soy Cuba (1964).
9. As with the Urusevsky/Kalatozov collaborations, Illienko’s role here makes it difficult not to see the film as a joint Parajanov/Illienko work. This film differs from Parajanov’s later films as a happy marriage of opposites (Parajanov’s tableau style with Illienko’s whirlpool “Urusevsky camera-style pyrotechnics” (p. 61). The relationship between the two was said to be highly conflictual at times.
10. This did not stop some Ukrainian nationalists attacking him with vitriol. Valentyn Moroz accused Parajanov of exploiting the riches of Ukrainian culture for artistic ends without understanding it, and even denounced Parajanov for stealing items of Ukrainian religious art. He denied Parajanov’s directorial skills, calling him a “talented impresario” who managed to recruit the most necessary people (all Ukrainians) around him (p. 82).
11. Kotsiubynsky was, of course, the original author of Shadows so, for Parajanov, it would have meant a return to an author bringing him considerable critical fortune and official favour.