Monthly Archives: November 2020

  • The Colour of Pomegranates   Sergei Parajanov (USSR- Armenia; 1969) Sofiko Chiaureli; Medea Japaridze

    The Colour of Pomegranates   Sergei Parajanov (USSR- Armenia; 1969) Sofiko Chiaureli; Medea Japaridze

    Viewed on dvd at home, 23 November 2020

    size is important

    Some years ago I programmed Chantal Akerman’s ‘Je Tu Il Elle’ as the first film of a season of her movies.   I hadn’t previously seen it and because I wanted to introduce this season of Akerman’s films to the audience I decided first to view the dvd at home. I found watching it on a small screen was hard work.   In particular the opening sections which comprised long takes of an abstract nature. As the camera panned very slowly (in close up) across the white washed walls of Akerman’s bedroom, I looked at my watch and felt a sense of tedium. Watching on to the end of the movie I was thinking I was going to have to sit through all this again the next day. However the next day as I watched ‘Je Tu Il Elle’ on a large screen, Akerman’s images filling out the field of vision, the experience was completely different. Small scale the shots lacked detail and significance; on the large screen Akerman’s slow spacial pans opened up vistas into which I could enter and connect with her perception.

    On viewing ‘Pomegranates’ my re-action was somewhat similar, some tedium and bemusement about what I was watching. Parajanov’s film declares itself to be a symbolic rendering of the life and work of Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat-Nova. I viewed the series of static but extraordinary framed compositions – comprising carefully assembled imagery – that fed into each other and linked by intertitle texts taken from the writings of Sayat-Nova, mostly of a religious or quasi religious nature. Parajanov’s film was interpolated and invigorated by the sort of music associated with Sayat-Nova; in particular the visceral penetrating sounds of the lyre and the tambour and religious chanting. What was it about? And was this even the question? What is the Colour of Pomegranates – blood? Sayat-Nova’s blood? Probably.

    On the small screen I had watched as a series of tableaux vivants were presented and tried to understand something of what I was viewing beyond a literal itemisation of the images; how events in frame that were connected to the life of Sayat-Nova. Dissatisfied at the end of the film by not being able to engage with it, my thoughts were that this was a film that was made for projection on a large screen. To be seen as intended, Parajanov’s flow of images needed a screen that expanded out into the world and enabled a ‘seeing into’ state of mind. ‘Pomegranates’ isn’t a story; there’s no narrative pillar holding the scenario together. It’s a composition, perhaps with some resemblance to classical music, Eastern or Western, a relationship between form and cognition, form and emotion. After my viewing I could see something of how Parajanov had structured ‘Pomegranates’; but I hadn’t been able to get inside it to open myself to exposure of the contents.   Was it simply a question of system of viewing, that not being able to see ‘Pomegranates’ projected as he intended, was a betrayal of Parajanov? Or was the film in some sort of final reckoning a magnificent visual specacle but flawed or made problematic because it is simply a massive exercise in self indulgence, a film that ultimately Parajanov made for himself?

      My feeling after first viewing was that Pomegranates was a piece of visionary film making. It was like an abtruse poem; and I didn’t get it. But in that first meeting there was something glimpsed just beyond my grasp to which I needed to return to see if it was real or illusionary.

    Not being able to view ‘Pomegranates’ on a proper screen, all I could do was to revisit the film, look at it a second time. This re-viewing would be pre-informed by my first screening. Second time around ‘Pomegranates’ ’ structure would not be a surprise. I had the feeling that it was a film to which you either surrendered or resisted. On a big screen, surrender would be facilitated by scale. I hoped that my second viewing would also make some form of surrender a possible response.  

    Watching ‘Pomegranates’ a second time with a vague commitment to allow the film to absorb me, did release another level of appreciation of Parajanov’s vision. I saw many of the same things that I had seen before in his compositions: the presence of the animal kingdom, the dancing movements and moments of hands and feet, the monumental solidity of stone, the fluidity of water, the soft concealing nature of fabric, the statuesque immobility of the face, all images repeated and brought together in different combinations in the progression of the tableaux. But this second time I was able to link the elements. The movement through the film was not concerned with formal or logical progressions but moved through states of consciousness, each image calling up different states of psychic arousal, sensitising mind to respond. Parajanov’s work is a quasi-liturgical expression of the life of the poet-troubadour, presenting the audience with a series of compositional statements in relation to: birth life death the hidden the known union faith love loss.   ‘Pomegranates’ is about a particular life, that of Sayat-Nova, but it has a universal resonance. A life as liturgy. The constituent elements of the tableaux are simple: the animals, the body parts, water, the stone structures, the icons, the faces. And the faces! The very directness with which they are filmed: mostly still, without movement, without tricks. Parajanov never films the face as a means of exploiting the types of emotional manipulations inherent in the possibilities of Cinema.   The audience are simply given the face.    The faces are as icons; they look out from the film as pictorial affects which draw the audience to themselves and ask the viewer to confront complete and make their own association.

    Second viewing deepened my appreciation of ‘Pomegranates’, not just in relation to the way Parajanov assembled his symbolic exegesis of Sayat-Nova, but also for his ‘moral’ presentation of the material.  Like an Indian Raga or Chinese classical music Parajanov’s ‘Pomegranates’ there is both a cerebral engagement and possible emotional connection. As film composed of images and moods, is an extreme and magnificent act of directorial self indugence, but one in which the humanity of Parajanov, his connection to life makes possible multiple readings and multiple ways for the audience to connect with its extraordinary content. It is not a film that meets everyone’s idea of what a movie should be, but it is a film that can engage an audience prepared allow the space and time to see into what Parajanov has put onto the screen.  After my second take on Pomogranates I felt in the main pulled into its mental and cognitive associations, but only during a couple of the compositions did I feel any emotional affect from the material. One tableau featuring a series of carpets stretched out on a series of lines from beind which figures emerged and engaged in short hypnotic dances, mainly with their hands: for some reason this pulled on me.

    One observation I make about this symbolic rendering of Sayat-Nova’s life and work relates to the religious psychology expressed throughout the film, mainly through the text.   I have no knowledge of Sayat-Nova, but the film – and I only saw the shortened version – has a mono-emotio-religious text, centred about suffering. There is humour, in the strange juxtapositions and off-beat imagery but the psychic line drawn through the film is that life is suffering, a Buddhist – like Christian affirmation of life as sorrow. I had always thought that poets if they spoke of suffering would also have things to say about joy about ecstacy about passion. This one note spiritual emotional message is off-set by the extrordinary music which cuts into another dimension: perhaps that was Parajanov’s answer. 

    The original edited version of the film was over four hours and the version I saw was about 90 minutes. I would not view the long version of the film on anything other than the large screen.

    adrin neatrour







  • Billie                James Erskine (USA; 2019; Doc)

    Billie                James Erskine (USA; 2019; Doc) Based on research of Linda Kuehl

    viewed: Everyman Cinema Newcastle, 3rd Nov 2020; ticket £12.50

    white lives matter

    I found it disconcerting that James Erskine the white director of this biographical documentary about Billy Holiday should chose to embed within ‘Billie’ the story of the white journalist who provided much of the material that comprised his film. Whilst Billie Holiday’s story is painfully and uncompromisingly black Erskine’s movie feels skewed towards a white audience, empathically loaded as it is by the framing presence of its white female researcher.  

    Linda Kuehl a New York writer and journalist spent the last 5 years of her life interviewing and gathering material for a biography of Holiday. She died 1978 in Washington DC. She fell from the window of her hotel in circumstances that were never cleared up to the satisfaction of her family, who inherited her trove of research.

    My feeling about biographers is that, as for the most part their writing pitches their subjects into the foreground of public awareness, that they should choose to take their place in the background. They shouldn’t really compete with what they are writing about. There are good ethical reasons for this in relation to this type of authorship which to a greater or lesser extent comprises a calculated exploitation of another’s life and life facts.   If the subject is the motivating energising influence for the writing, then a level of humility in relation to them is appropriate. Linda Kuehl as far as we are informed by Erskine always stressed the primacy of Billie’s life in relation to her work. The importance she attached to the documenting of Billie’s life was to try and understand her as a being and in relation to the social-cultural milieu in which she lived and worked.   Linda attached importance not to herself, but to Billie. Whether Linda was or would have been able to grasp the actuality of her subject’s life as black and female is unclear from Erskine’s script.

    Erskine’s movie frames Billie’s life and death around Linda’s life and death. The film opens and closes with Linda and a parellel editing structure is used as Erskine cuts between the lives of the two women. Billie to be sure gets the most screen time, but the way that Erskine manipulates his editing schema results in the two women vieing for the interest and attention of the audience.  The intercutting is given pretext and substance by a number of observations voiced in the film that Linda’s life and circumstances might lay claim some sort of equivalence with that of Billie. Her status as a Jewish woman is cited as an example that Linda like Billie ‘experienced’ discrimination. As if, being a Jewish woman in Brooklyn or New York in the 1960’s and 70’s was a comparable discrimination to the experience of being a Black female performer on the road in the USA. Linda’s problems with men was cited, it was said that like Billie she had consistently chosen the ‘wrong’ type of guy. Fellah trouble! As if Billie’s life, a child prostitute in Atlanta and New York from the age of ten, a damaged soul, victim of vicious segregation and ripped apart by need for black male torment and heroism, can really in any way be compared with Linda’s relationship problems. This is not to belittle Linda’s unhappy experiences with men, only to say they are on a different page to that of her subject. The two women lived different psychic realities, which Linda readily understood, and I think she may have been upset by the way in which her life has been exploited in this movie.

    I have these questions in relation to ‘Billie’: did Linda Kuehl’s family or whoever it is now that holds the license for her estate, insist, as part of the license deal that Linda Kuehl’s story should feature prominently in the script?   The family, and it is mainly her sister who is appears, provided plenty of 8mm home movie footage of her (used rather repetitiously) to bulk out the film, so they obviously at least to some extent approved its form and structure.   If not the family, was it Erskine who wanted to structure the film around Kuehl’s story, feeling the story within a story was a neat formulaic solution to the film’s shape, even at a cost to the films integrity?

    Just questions but as I viewed the film I would have liked to know the answers because ‘Billie’ is a terrible film. In this documentary Erskine is completely unable to give Billie Holiday’s performances the respect she deserves. There is not one number featured in the film (they are all drawn from the archives of her performing) that she is allowed to complete in picture. I think the point about Holiday is that she expressed herself her race her femininity when she sang. The singing is quintessential to her being. Yet right in the middle of ‘Strange Fruit’, which Billie depicts as much as sings, so that in her performance everything is seen, Erskine cuts away from the power of her presence to throw us some litteralistic visual giblets: graphics of lynching’s, faces whatever. To cut away from the visceral power of Billie’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is an act of dereliction, an abandonment of Erskine’s subject. And Erskine does it not just once but each time Holiday performs. Abandonment of Billie Holiday, is that Kuehl?

    The cutting pace of ‘Billie’ resembles a manic pop video with any shot longer than 5 seconds regarded as slowing down the pace. Erskine’s relentless splicing diminishes Holiday’s monumental presence which demands a subdued pace to assimilate. In putting his film together Erskine has abandoned imagination and opted for mechanical simplistic solutions to the problems posed by his material. The film has a lot of audio material from Kuehl’s archive. But to cover the hole in the picture Erskine has resort the repeated use of the same visual cliché: the tape recorder, either reel to reel or cassette. Erskine has nothing more to offer than clunk of the switch and the whirl of the spools, then lay the voice over. It feels like he can’t be bothered to try and develop any other idea of how to handle the voices: no pic cut to machine. He’s unable to work his way out of this tired repetitive trope. This is dead end stuff that stands in representation of an artist who was truly alive.

    Nearly all documentaries carry within themselves seeds of relevance to their subjects. Even when poorly conceived and made, they can retain at least a modicum of interest for the viewer. And this is still the case with ‘Billie’, even though the film leaves something of a bitter taste that even so long after Holiday’s death, it is still Whites who are framing her story.

    adrin neatrour