Notable Blu-rays of 2014

This list is oriented toward older films which have either been neglected or greatly benefit from the new perspective that the Blu-ray edition in question provides. It is admittedly partial–there are many significant Blu-ray editions that I was not able to look at this year for various reasons. The Borowczyk box set is a clear first choice, otherwise the list is not ranked.

Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection (Arrow Video, UK, Region B; two discs are all-region)

Borowczyk

One of the great virtues of the home video medium is that it gives us the opportunity to systematically explore the work of new and neglected artists. The hugely talented, at times problematic Walerian Borowczyk has often been classified as an “arty pornographer,” in part because he indeed produced and was fascinated by erotica for much of his later career. But he started out as a major figure in animation (who influenced Terry Gilliam, among others) and had an authentic Surrealist eye for bizarre details and objects.

This lovingly produced and curated limited edition box set, already sold out and hard to come by, contains a collection of Borowczyk’s animation and his most important early features up to the still-shocking The Beast. You can still buy all of the films on Blu-ray individually, but you will no longer be able to obtain the astounding collection of Borowczyk’s short stories that came packaged with the set. If you are limited to Region A (North American) Blu-ray playback, at least pick up the collection of shorts and Blanche, which are all-region. Blanche is still one of the richest cinematic visions of the Middle Ages that you will ever find.

 

The Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion Collection, US, Region A)

Demy

Many people listed the Jacques Tati (Criterion Collection) and Werner Herzog (BFI) Blu-ray box sets as their favorites, but I am casting my vote for the Demy set as #2 after the Borowczyk. Before this I had not seen Demy’s Donkey Skin, and I loved the vibrant colors of the restoration. The great revelation of the set for me was Une Chambre en ville, possibly my favorite Demy musical now; it even takes on the dimensions of verismo opera in its tragic handling of a worker’s strike.

The only disappointment in the set is the French restoration of Lola, which looks like a smeary mess. Although the film’s camera negative no longer survives and apparently the surviving print materials are compromised, it looks like the restorers went overboard with digital clean-up tools. I think the restoration needs to be done over from scratch. Despite this major limitation, I am including the set on the list because the rest of it is so very good.

 

Vincent Price in Six Gothic Tales by Edgar Allan Poe (Arrow, Region B)

Poe Gothic

If Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe were alive in 2014, I would have urged them to run off and get married in California. They may have had different personalities, but they complemented each other. This set includes Arrow’s existing Blu-Rays, which are technically superior to the US releases by Shout! Factory. The visual quality of the film elements vary due to the production circumstances of the films, but at their best they really pop. The wonderful hardcover book included with the set contains reprints of the comic book adaptations of three films. The one major gap is Masque of the Red Death, which Shout! Factory has released in the US as part of their Vincent Price Blu-ray collection.

 

The Gang’s All Here (Masters of Cinema, UK, Region B)

Gang's All Here

Busby Berkeley, Carmen Miranada and Technicolor are just about more than anyone can handle in a single film. Too many organ grinders and monkeys! My God, those giant bananas! Too many polka dots! The disembodied head of Eugene Pallette! If you think you can watch this film without a babysitter then you are sorely mistaken, and the eye-popping color on this Blu-ray will only make the peak that much more intense. You have been warned.

 

Portrait of Jason (Milestone, US, Region A)

Portrait of jason

This restoration of Portrait of Jason looks and sounds great, and Shirley Clarke’s documentary is as fascinating, challenging, and relevant as ever. The disc also has a wealth of audio and video supplements.

 

Possession (Mondo Vision, US, Region A/B/C)

Possession

For several years Mondo Vision has been releasing lovingly packaged editions of Andrzej Zulawski’s films, but this Blu-ray raises their work to a new level. This marital psychodrama and horror film still has the capacity to disturb and provoke, and it looks marvelously film-like in this new director-approved master.

 

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Fox, US, Region A)

Good Bad Ugly

The new Cineteca di Bologna restoration of Sergio Leone’s epic Western received controversial reviews because of its yellow filtering, based on an original Italian release print. I think the restoration allows us to see the film—literally—in a different light. It’s a huge improvement over the first US Blu-ray.

 

L’Avventura or L’Eclisse (Criterion Collection, US, Region A)

L'Avventura L'Eclisse

I had a difficult time choosing which Antonioni Blu-ray to select, because they both look excellent. I might give an edge to L’Avventura, if forced to make a choice. More than many directors, Michelangelo Antonioni benefits from the added resolution of Blu-ray, especially viewed on larger screens. (Ideally, you should see his films in the theater and in 35mm if possible.) This is because the added detail and texture add depth to the image and enable you to appreciate his peerless mastery of mise-en-scène—especially how he uses spatial relations to express the characters’ emotional relationships to each other, and to the landscapes they inhabit. How far we have come from the days when I first saw L’Avventura and L’Eclisse on abysmal VHS tapes purchased from a certain mail-order foreign film outlet in Chicago!

 

La Dolce Vita (Criterion Collection, US, Region A)

La Dolce vita

More ageless, visually brilliant 1960s Italian cinema. The grayscale is especially good in this new 4K restoration of Fellini’s film.

 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Masters of Cinema, UK or Kino, US)

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

I was lucky to see the restoration of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at last summer’s (2014) Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. To be honest, it has always been a film that I admired more than loved. This new 4K restoration, which mainly uses the film’s surviving camera negative, is nothing less than a revelation. As I noted in an earlier blog entry on Bologna, “It truly brought out the beauty and craftsmanship of the film’s cinematography—not always apparent in previously available versions—to say nothing of many subtle facial expressions in the performances. For me, even the film’s notorious painted sets revealed a stylistic variety that I hadn’t appreciated before; Wiene’s film in fact functions partly as an homage to modernist painting circa 1920.

Other reviewers have noted the slight technical superiority of the Region B Masters of Cinema disc compared to the Region A Kino disc, but I have the Kino edition and am perfectly happy with it. Either way, this restoration is a must see.

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The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2014

Cinema of Sergei Parajanov - cover

In the January 2015 issue of Choice, my book The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013) has been selected as an “Outstanding Academic Title” for 2014 in Film.

Choice is a publication of the Association of College & Research Libraries and the American Library Association. Every year, the editorial board selects about 10% of the titles reviewed in Choice for inclusion in a list of Outstanding Academic Titles. For more about the editorial board’s criteria for selecting the annual list of Outstanding Academic Titles, read here. For more about Choice as a publication, read here.

In the June 2014 issue of Choice, S. Liebman wrote: “This superbly researched book, the first in English about the late Russian filmmaker, is written by a prodigiously well-informed historian of Soviet cinema. Steffen […] offers a vibrant, probing biography of Parajanov through his works. […] [T]his lucid study is a must for all students of Russian and Soviet cinema.”

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Garrick Ohlsson at the Schwartz Center

At this point Garrick Ohlsson surely must be one of the best all-around pianists performing today, if not the very best. He is not just a virtuoso, but a complete musician. His touch displays incredible control even in the most delicate passages, with impeccable voicing and phrasing, and judicious rubato–especially in Chopin. He is not prone to interpretive eccentricities, but he always plays thoughtfully and with style. All of these things serve to communicate the ideas behind the music and to engage the listener emotionally.

Last year I saw Ohlsson perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That interpretation was astonishingly perfect in its execution, but if anything I enjoy Ohlsson even more as a solo artist. This is because it enables one to focus more on the subtleties in his playing, which can potentially get buried under an orchestra. His encore performance of Debussy’s Claire de lune at the same ASO concert was easily the most captivating and magical version of that piece I have ever heard.

Friday night’s concert at Emory’s Schwartz Center did not disappoint my expectations. In the first half he performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30, Op. 109 (one of my favorites), followed by Chopin’s Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 7, No. 2 and Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. The Beethoven was assured and satisfying, especially the final theme-and-variations movement, but his playing really came alive with the Chopin. In fact, the Chopin sonata was the clear highlight of the evening. Compared to Ohlsson’s earlier (very good) recording of the same sonata that is part of his big Chopin CD box set, this performance was superior in the way it encompassed Chopin’s large-scale musical structures. The audience even applauded at the end of the long and complex first movement, and not without justification. The third movement, the Largo, was appropriately majestic and contemplative, causing me to wonder whether the piece might have been an influence on Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude. Tempos for the Beethoven and Chopin were relaxed in a way that enabled Ohlsson to savor the details in the music without, thankfully, losing a sense of momentum. It is gratifying to see Ohlsson continue to grow as a Chopin interpreter, and I hope he does some new recordings of Chopin in the future—especially the two great sonatas. Afterwards one of my friends compared Ohlsson’s playing to Pollini and commented that the concert easily could have ended with the Chopin sonata.

Yet the concert did not end with the Chopin, but rather with a selection of Alexander Scriabin pieces from various stages in the composer’s career. After an opening piece (Désir, Op. 57, No. 1), Ohlsson offered a witty introduction to Scriabin’s work and personality. The pieces included a pair early Etudes (Op. 8, Nos. 10 and 11), the more harmonically and formally adventurous middle period (the Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; Fragilité, Op. 51, No. 1) and the virtually atonal Sonata No. 7., Op. 64. The later compositions especially can be challenging for the performer and listener alike, but he made them engaging and full of dazzling color. I hope that Ohlsson continues to perform and record more of Scriabin in the future as well.

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The Color of Pomegranates Restored

DVD frame capture

At the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, The Film Foundation/World Cinema Project premiered a new 4k digital restoration of Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Currently it is screening at various film festivals around the world, and one hopes that it will see a Blu-ray/DVD release at some point in the future. I had the opportunity to view the restoration this summer at two different festivals: Il Cinema Ritrovato (Bologna) and the Golden Apricot International Film Festival (Yerevan). Accordingly, I would like to offer some thoughts on the significance of the restoration and the results.

(Disclosure: I served as an informal historical consultant behind the scenes on the restoration, though I did not participate in the actual restoration process. The program notes I wrote for Il Cinema Ritrovato can be found here, on pages 175-176)

As I discuss in my 2013 book, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, the film survives in two distinct versions. The original 1969 theatrical release in Armenia ran at 77 minutes under the title Nran guyne (loosely, “The Color of Pomegranates”) and had Armenian-language credits and intertitles. The other version, intended for Soviet-wide and later international distribution, was reedited by the filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich and runs at 73 minutes, with Russian-language credits and intertitles. (The Russian-language title is Tsvet granata, which also translates loosely as “The Color of Pomegranates.”) The Film Foundation/World Cinema Project wisely has preserved and restored both versions, though the Armenian version is the one currently being distributed for exhibition via DCP.

The Armenian Version

The Armenian release version is of particular value because it has been screened much less than the Yutkevich cut. More importantly, its editing is closer to Parajanov’s intentions. If we think of the film as a poem, the Armenian version better conveys Parajanov’s thought processes, especially his more playful and eccentric impulses. One sequence which I have always loved in particular is when the aging Sayat-Nova, now a monk at the Haghpat monastery, savors the beauty of spring. He embraces a young lamb then removes his robe to bask under the sun, and the other monks follow suit. During this sequence Parajanov builds on this basic underlying idea so that it achieves great emotional power. Yutkevich’s reedited version removes several striking shots and fundamentally changes Parajanov’s associative logic, ultimately robbing the sequence of some of its poignancy.

However, even the Armenian version is not without its complexities and compromises. It was already the product of an extended censorship battle both with Goskino USSR in Moscow and the local authorities in Armenia. The most damaging change that the Armenian officials required was to remove almost all references to the poet Sayat-Nova, the main subject and inspiration for the film. In fact, the project was originally entitled Sayat-Nova, though admittedly it is common for film titles to change before release for various reasons, in the USSR, Hollywood and elsewhere. Parajanov is said to have liked the new title.

The greatest harm arguably resulted from the requirement to change the chapter titles. Parajanov’s chapter titles in his original script described the contents of each scene in a relatively straightforward manner, inspired by the principles of illustrations or miniature painting. For example, one chapter in the script reads:

How Sayat-Nova, the sacristan of Haghpat Monastery, found in the women’s monastery the very best shroud for the body of Ghazaros, and saw a nun who resembled the princess.

Parajanov’s chapter title makes the main thrust of the episode clear to viewers, so that they can enjoy how this idea is developed visually during the episode.

Largely as a result of the censors’ demands, the noted writer Hrant Matevosyan was brought in to write new chapter titles for the Armenian release version. They reflected the emotional tone of each chapter but did not describe the contents. His chapter title for the corresponding episode reads:

I asked for a shroud to wrap the dead body; instead, they showed the frenzied convulsions of their living bodies. Where can I find selfless love?

In fact, Matevosyan’s title fits the underlying meaning and tone of the episode fairly well, as do most of his other chapter titles. They are often quite perceptive. The problem is that when combined with the film’s cryptic imagery and extensive use of pantomime, they make things unnecessarily difficult for the viewer. More difficult than Parajanov wanted, arguably.

Although I do not have hard evidence for this, I suspect that the other main alteration in the Armenian version was the soundtrack. The film contains several extended silent passages–much more than Parajanov’s other films and, indeed, more than most modern sound feature films. In some cases it appears that Parajanov intended individual shots to be silent, as part of an overall dialectic of sound versus silence. However, some of the silences are very long indeed, and it is difficult to imagine that Parajanov wanted quite so much silence.

My own (unsubstantiated) theory is that at least some of the silences indicate places where Sayat-Nova’s name was spoken on the soundtrack and were simply cut out at the last minute to appease the censors. The clearest example of this is at the end of the film, where the mason says “Sing!” (“Yerki!”) and “Die! (“Meri!”). If one looks at his lips closely, it appears that he originally said “Sayat-Nova, yerki” and “Sayat-Nova, meri,” which matches the dialogue in Parajanov’s script.

As I note elsewhere, Alexei Romanov, the chair of Goskino, disliked the film and initially refused distribution outside of Armenia. Sergei Yutkevich resolved the impasse with Moscow by introducing new, simplified chapter titles that made the film easier to understand, and he even re-introduced some of Sayat-Nova’s poetry. He further trimmed a couple minutes of footage and rearranged some sequences. In fact some scholars I know actually prefer the Yutkevich version, because they have grown up with it and find it easier and more enjoyable to watch. I personally feel that the Armenian version is superior for a variety of reasons, but I do not consider the Yutkevich version to be a travesty by any means. I have shown it to students and in public on a number of occasions because the color and detail on prints for this version have always looked superior. This is because Yutkevich cut the camera negative to conform to his edit of the film, whereas the Armenian version only survives in a problematic duplicate negative.

To sum up: the Armenian release version is not without its problems, though it does represent the original theatrical release version of the film. Thus, it is significant from a historical perspective. In terms of editing, it is far closer to Parajanov’s intentions than the Yutkevich version. Ultimately, I feel that it does a better job of conveying Parajanov’s creative vision.

The 2014 Restoration

During Il Cinema Ritrovato, I had the opportunity to meet Cecilia Cenciarelli, the Archival and Restoration Manager for the World Cinema Project, and discuss some of the specifics behind the restoration. I will do my best to summarize some of her comments and observations below.

As the Cinema Ritrovato program notes indicate, the restoration was conducted by the Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrova and the Film Foundation/World Cinema Project. It was derived from multiple picture and sound elements. The camera negative held at Gosfilmofond of Russia was scanned in 4k, as was the duplicate negative of the Armenian version held at National Cinema Centre of Armenia. For a color reference they used an early Orwocolor release print from the Harvard Film Archive.

For the soundtrack, where possible they used the original magnetic recording held at Gosfimofond, and the optical track from an Armenian print for the audio portions not present in the Yutkevich cut. The audio track on the Armenian duplicate negative apparently contained a great deal of noise and distortion, making it largely unusable. Indeed, the sound was one of the most challenging aspects of the restoration and it pushed the limits of currently available technology. (I should note here that L’Immagine Ritrovata has one of the world’s leading sound restoration facilities.)

The important thing to keep in mind is that restorations such as this ideally adhere to commonly accepted standards and protocols in the archival community. One basic principle is that restorations should be philological—that is, any decisions should be based on a solid understanding of a film’s textual considerations (such as different versions) and surviving historical documentation around it–such as studio and censorship documents. A second principle is that any restoration work is reversible; in other words, the film should not be altered in such a way that work on it cannot be undone. A third principle is that any interventions should be documented. For digital restorations, as is the case with The Color of Pomegranates, this means partly that the work is saved and documented at each stage (raw 4k scan, digital removal of damage and dirt, color correction, etc.) so that one can retrace or undo each of these steps if necessary and do further work based on the same materials in the future.

The End Result

In my opinion, on the whole this restoration looks better than anything I have seen. In places I noticed colors and details in the film that I have not seen before. At the same time, the color timing fits within the general range of the various 35mm prints I have seen, but it benefits from greater evenness. The image is also stable and free of damage.

I have long had concerns about the state of the surviving materials for the Armenian release version, based on the 35mm print I saw years ago and the poor quality video masters available in the US and France. Fortunately, this restoration was able to use the camera negative for most of the film, since there are only a couple minutes total difference in the footage between both versions. Because of the condition of the Armenian duplicate negative, it was not possible to make the footage from that element completely match the footage from the camera negative. In other words, the footage specific to the Armenian version looks slightly softer and has a slightly different color bias. Yet even that footage still looks better than what I have seen before. If anything, these visible differences are instructive from a historical perspective, because they show which shots Yutkevich cut and how the changes affected the film’s underlying poetic logic. The restored soundtrack also sounded stronger and cleaner than what I am used to hearing, including in the more problematic passages from the Armenian version.

For me, this now makes the restored Armenian release version unquestionably the version of choice to view. For those who prefer the Yutkevich version for whatever reason, with any luck that restoration will also be released on Blu-ray or DVD alongside the Armenian version. My ideal Blu-ray edition would include both.

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Notes on Il Cinema Ritrovato

Piazza Maggiore

The outdoor screen at the Piazza Maggiore. It is much larger than it looks in this photo!

This year I finally had the opportunity to attend–and participate in–the annual Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy. Hosted by the Cineteca di Bologna, the festival features a truly global range of newly restored films, retrospectives and curated glimpses into forgotten avenues of film history. Screenings take place in the Cineteca’s screening rooms and the nearby Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas, to say nothing of nightly public screenings on the city’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore. Attendees at the festival regularly include film archivists and historians, distributors, critics and journalists. Thanks to the festival’s congenial atmosphere, it offers excellent networking opportunities for people working in those areas.

In fact the festival offers far more screenings and other events than one person can possibly take in, requiring difficult choices. One of the festival’s regular sidebars is entitled “One Hundred Years Ago” (“Cento anni fa”); it is now moving into the first major feature films. This year’s edition of the festival (2014) included a screening of Giovanni Pastrone’s groundbreaking 1914 feature Cabiria with a live orchestra. For those specializing in American cinema, this year there were sections on restored James Dean films and “William Wellman: Before Silent and Sound.”

For me, arguably the most exciting program this year was “Riccardo Freda: A Master of Popular Cinema.” I’ve long admired Italian popular cinema, especially the horror films of Mario Bava, and have seen a couple of Freda’s horror films, but this series filled an important gap in my understanding of Italian cinema of the postwar era. Black Eagle/Aquila Nera(1946) is a sumptuously mounted, exciting adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s story “Dubrovsky.” I Miserabili (1948), Freda’s ambitious two-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, may not displace Raymond Bernard’s 1934 5-hour French version as the definitive screen version of the novel, but it holds up surprisingly well and has a strong lead performance by Gino Cervi. Theodora, the Slave Empress/Teadora Imperatrice di Bisanzio (1953) represents studio filmmaking at its most entertaining, with taut pacing and strong lead performances. Georges Marchal as Justinian is a dimwitted hothead, while Gianna Maria Canale as Theodora is beautiful, crafty and wise. The climax, in which leopards and other big cats are unleashed upon soldiers, transforms into a deliriously stylized montage. Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock/L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock (1962) is still one of the most atmospheric and perverse Italian Gothic horrors, although the only print available for screening was badly worn. Not one of these films by Freda is officially available on DVD with English subtitles, which is precisely why festivals such as Il Cinema Ritrovato are so valuable for film scholars. Another section that I attended heavily was “The Golden ’50s: India’s Endangered Classics, ” which included a rare (and severely worn) CinemaScope print of Guru Dutt’s magnificent Kaagaz ke Phool/Paper Flowers (1959), the first widescreen film made in India, Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958) and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Also of interest was “Polish New Wave and CinemaScope,” which included rare 35mm prints of Andrzej Munk’s The Passenger (1963) and Sergei Yutkevich’s Lenin in Poland (1966). (Some of the same Polish films will screen in restored DCPs at Emory University this fall, as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents/Milestone Films touring retrospective entitled Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.)

One of the festival’s most important roles is to showcase film restoration work. In that regard, the great revelation for me was Murnau Stiftung and Cineteca di Bologna’s latest digital restoration of Robert Wiene’s Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which used the surviving camera negative extensively. It truly brought out the beauty and craftsmanship of the film’s cinematography—not always apparent in previously available versions—to say nothing of many subtle facial expressions in the performances. For me, even the film’s notorious painted sets revealed a stylistic variety that I hadn’t appreciated before; Wiene’s film in fact functions partly as an homage to modernist painting circa 1920. During one of the festival’s numerous educational programs, Anke Wilkening from the Murnau Stiftung outlined the film’s complex restoration history and discussed the methodology behind this latest attempt. Other restoration highlights included Raymond Bernard’s classic antiwar film Wooden Crosses (1932), Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (1964) and King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967). Roundtables and lectures on restoration included Ned Price (Warner Brothers), Grover Crisp (Columbia) and Schawn Belston (20th Century Fox).

My own participation in the festival was connected with the Film Foundation/World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna’s newly completed restoration of Sergei Parajanov’s masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates/Nran guyne (1969). (I served as a historical consultant on the film’s production and censorship history, wrote a text for the program catalog, and helped introduce the June 28 screening of the film.) Olivia Harrison, through George Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation, had graciously funded the restoration and mentioned during her introductory remarks how Martin Scorsese, who is a great admirer of Parajanov, had sparked her interest in the director by giving her a DVD box set of his films. Although I have seen the film many times on various 35mm prints and on DVD, this was my first time seeing the new restoration of the Armenian release version. They restored both the Armenian release version and the re-edited Yutkevich version, though they selected the Armenian version for theatrical exhibition. Most of the restoration comes from a 4k scan of the camera negative, and I can say that it on the whole it looks better and more consistent than I have ever seen it. I even spotted colors and details that I had never noticed before in a number of shots. (I will write more about it in a separate blog entry.)

Madonna di San Luca

The long ascent to the Madonna di San Luca, on a hill overlooking Bologna

It is worth taking extra time to explore the city of Bologna, a fascinating destination in its own right. The city center is based on a medieval walled city, and although it was heavily bombed during World War II, a large number of original structures still remain. For me one of the most fascinating places was the Basilica di Santo Stefano complex, parts of which back to the 5th century. If you are in good physical condition, I recommend following the very long arched walkway from the Porta di Saragozza up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The city is also home to one of the world’s oldest universities and benefits from a thriving student culture and progressive political outlook; its annual LGBT pride parade and festival took place at the same time as Il Cinema Ritrovato. And of course Bologna is known for outstanding food, including hand-rolled pasta and many varieties of hams and salamis. Perhaps what I enjoyed most was the presence of so many people out on the street socializing, even late at night. The Italians know how to live.

(Originally published on the Woodruff Library Blog, July 29, 2014, with some minor changes added.)

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Art exhibit in New York: Sergei Parajanov, the Creator

Parajanov_Mona_Lisa_in_Hell

“Mona Lisa in Hell” (1988). Courtesy of the Sergei Parajanov Museum, Yerevan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At long last an exhibit of Parajanov’s artworks from the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan has come to New York City. Entitled Sergei Parajanov: The Creator, the exhibit runs through June 30, 2014 at Gilbert Albert, 43 West 57th Street, in the 2nd floor gallery space.

Sponsored by the Russian American Foundation and IBEF, Inc., this exhibit consists of 35 pieces, including several of the main highlights of the Parajanov Museum collection. They include paintings, sketches, collages, assemblages, dolls, and hats, ranging from the 1950s to the end of his life.

Below is the text that I wrote for the exhibition catalog (reproduced with permission):

Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990) unquestionably has played a major role in global film culture, thanks to such dazzling and stylistically innovative works as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Ukraine, 1965), The Color of Pomegranates (Armenia, 1969), The Legend of the Surami Fortress (Georgia, 1984), and Ashik-Kerib (Georgia and Azerbaijan, 1988). He was also a prolific and accomplished artist in other media. By far the largest and richest collection of Parajanov’s artworks is housed at the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan. This represents the first exhibition from the Parajanov Museum collection in New York, a signal event in the realms of both art and cinema.

Parajanov’s drawings, collages, and assemblages not only shed light on the creative process and underlying thematic concerns in his films, but they also demand attention on their own terms. While a number of other filmmakers have created artworks as an avocation, Parajanov offers a unique case both in terms of the sheer quantity of works that he created and their overall artistic achievement.

Coming from the sizable Armenian community in Tbilisi, Georgia, Parajanov grew up immersed in the rich cultural environment of the South Caucasus. His father, Iosif Parajanov, ran a commission shop for antiques and thus imparted a lifelong fascination with antiques and art objects in the young boy. His mother Siran played the piano. Thus, it is not surprising that from the start Parajanov displayed an aptitude for the arts. Before enrolling in Igor Savchenko’s film directing workshop at the VGIK (the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography), he studied voice at the Tbilisi Conservatory, as well as violin and dance. During his years at the VGIK (1945-1952) he studied art history and drawing as part of the curriculum; his earliest surviving artworks date from that period or slightly later.

Over time, artworks occupied an increasingly significant place in Parajanov’s creative imagination. During the 1970s and early 1980s—when he was designated persona non grata by the Soviet authorities, imprisoned in Ukraine (1973-1977), and denied the opportunity to make films—drawings, collages, and assemblages became his primary outlet. If in a very real sense glasnost originated in Georgia with the production of Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance (1984, released 1987) and Parajanov’s return to filmmaking with The Legend of the Surami Fortress (1984, released 1985), perhaps another sign of it was the first public exhibition of Parajanov’s artworks, which took place in Tbilisi in January 1985. Armenia also hosted an exhibition in 1988 at the Museum of Folk Art in Yerevan, leading to the construction of the Sergei Parajanov Museum in that city.

By turns whimsical, provocative and surreal, these pieces reflect Parajanov’s free spirit, his gift for caricature, and his penchant for transforming mundane objects and situations into something magical. They further recall some of his primary artistic influences, which range from Armenian and Persian miniatures (often “quoted” as fragments in his collages), religious icons, folk art, painters from the South Caucasus such as Pirosmani and Hakob Hovnatanyan, and the Italian Renaissance. Of special note is a series of collages that radically transform the Mona Lisa. Besides paintings, drawings, collages and assemblages, Parajanov created a large number of dolls and hats. In their cheeky appropriation of found objects and reproductions, his collages and assemblages express a distinctly postmodern sensibility. They also offer a glimpse into his private memories and the people he knew and admired.

When friends and strangers alike visited Parajanov’s family home in Tbilisi, which was crammed with his own creations, he liked to transform it into a space for Andy Warhol-style “happenings.” As a visitor to this exhibition, you are invited to join in his games.

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How I Discovered Parajanov

During my November 18 author talk at Emory University for my book The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, someone asked how I got interested in Parajanov’s work. Here is the story in more detail.

I first learned of Parajanov in 1987, when Alan Stanbrook published an article about The Legend of the Surami Fortress for the magazine Sight & Sound. I was intrigued by his description of Parajanov’s films, especially their striking use of color. In 1988, during a course in film analysis taught by Jean Decock at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, we watched excerpts from the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in class and I was completely stunned; it looked like nothing I had seen before, it opened up an entire world.

That same semester, Yuri Illienko visited Las Vegas on his way to screen an unsubtitled print of his long-banned film A Well for the Thirsty (1966) at the San Francisco Film Festival. He was friends with the composer Virko Baley, who was at time the Artistic Director of the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and who composed the score for Illienko’s Swan Lake: the Zone (1989). Illienko spoke to the film analysis class and Baley arranged a for a special screening that evening of A Well for the Thirsty and the first few reels of The Eve of Ivan Kupalo (1968) at the movie theater located inside the Gold Coast casino. Illienko’s films likewise left a tremendous impression.

Later, I saw Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in its entirety in a course on Soviet cinema, and a few years after that I arranged for a special screening of the Armenian release version (the so-called “director’s cut”) of The Color of Pomegranates at the Huntridge Theater with the support of Hart Wegner, the chair of the film department at UNLV. (The screening also would not have happened without the help and encouragement of my late friend, Bruce Ireland.)

Even though Parajanov was recognized as a major figure in world cinema and obviously lived a colorful and dramatic life, at that time there was almost nothing published about him in English, so I decided to enroll in graduate school and devote myself to studying his life and work. I ended up choosing Emory University at the suggestion of David Cook, the chair of their film studies program at that time; he visited UNLV to lecture on Central Asian cinema around the time that I was organizing the screening of The Color of Pomegranates. It has proved quite an adventure, learning multiple languages over the years, doing research in Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia, and meeting many fascinating people as a result.

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Philip Glass and Tim Fain at the Schwartz Center

 

This Friday’s concert (September 27, 2013) at the Schwartz Center at Emory University revealed both Philip Glass’s continuing growth as a composer and an inspiring new collaboration with the extraordinarily talented violinist Tim Fain.

The centerpiece of the concert was unquestionably Glass’s Chaconne which, as he explained, combined two movements in his 2011 Partita for Solo violin. Here Glass obviously has in mind the expansive Chaconne from the J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2. Considering that this is the single most sublime work ever composed for solo violin, Glass risks an unforgiving comparison. But Glass’s Chaconne is also sublime. Many of its chord progressions and arpeggiations are recognizably in the Glass style, yet I feel that he has achieved an entirely new level mastery in tonal composition with this work. It weaves an intense spell for twenty minutes as it explores the full range of the violin, and Fain’s execution of it left me and my colleague literally gaping with amazement. Fain drew a heartbreakingly rich tone from his 1717 Gobetti violin; if anything it sounded even better than the excerpt in the above video clip performed in April 2012. I cannot wait to hear Fain perform the entire work live someday.

For his solo pieces, Glass performed Mad Rush, Metamorphosis No. 4 and Etude No.  2. His keyboard music is no doubt more difficult to perform than it might seem at first glance, because its transparent structures immediately expose any imperfections in the playing. Glass is a very capable (though perhaps not great) pianist, and it was a treat watching him perform is own works. Mad Rush in particular is lovely, though over time these solo keyboard works tend to display a certain sameness in texture. I think his piano accompaniment for the Allen Ginsberg poem Wichita Vortex Sutra (which he performed as part of the program) is actually more effective as a piano composition. It is in fact one of his more moving pieces, the clear highlight of the chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox (1993). In this context, hearing a recording of the late poet’s voice over live piano accompaniment created a distancing effect that slightly hampered the work’s emotional impact, though the piece itself is undeniably fine.

Fain’s duets with Glass (selections from The Screens and an arrangement of Pendulum) were beguiling; again Fain’s affinity for Glass’s music and his expressive freedom showed off these compositions to full advantage. At the end of the concert Glass beamed with pride as he watched Fain play an encore, the virtuosic Knee Play No. 2 from Einstein on the Beach, and it is not difficult to see why. Any composer would be delighted to have such a gifted exponent of one’s work.

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Parajanov sings in Ukrainian

During the past couple months I have been busy correcting the proofs and preparing the index for the Parajanov book.

While I am waiting for copies to arrive from the printer, here is a YouTube video of Parajanov singing “Verbova doshchechka,” one of the many Ukrainian folk songs used on the soundtrack in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  (You can hear it during the scene of Ivan and Palagna’s wedding.) Thanks to Mary Kalyna from Philadelphia for drawing my attention to this video.

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Kiss of the Damned

Kiss of the Vampire

After a one-week engagement at the Landmark Midtown, Xan Cassavetes’ film Kiss of the Damned has returned to Atlanta’s Plaza Theater. A love letter to the 1970s erotic horror films of directors such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, it mines the same vein of oneiric, melancholy poetry, but with a somewhat bigger budget and somewhat better cinematography, script and actors.

A vampire living in a country house outside of New York, Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) encounters the handsome mortal Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), but rebuffs his advances since she does not wish to harm him. However, Paolo is thoroughly smitten and insists on a romantic relationship with her even after he learns the truth. Djuna introduces him to the nighttime world of vampirism, but their romance is threatened by the arrival of Djuna’s unscrupulous sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida).

I admire Xan Cassavetes for taking the material seriously. It would be altogether too easy to approach the genre through  camp or snarky parody. Thankfully, she doesn’t wink at the audience like Quentin Tarantino does when he makes his Seventies references. The dialogue at times seems vaguely stilted, but it is clear that this, combined with the heavily accented lead actresses, is part of the aesthetic that Xan Cassavetes wants to evoke. The cast is attractive and the sex scenes generate real erotic heat. While the film focuses more on mood and character relationships more than horrific thrills, the nighttime hunting scenes are tense and well-executed.

Ultimately, one could argue that Kiss of the Damed lacks the perverse flights of imagination that give the films of Franco and Rollin their distinctive personality. For instance, Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) goes much further in the direction of surrealism and Rollin’s Lips of Blood (1975) reveals deeper psychological insights. Still, is is the best vampire film I have seen in some time. This is Xan Cassavetes’ first feature film–previously she directed the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)–but I am eager to see what she does next.

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