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“The Films of Sergei Paradjanov,” “El Cid”

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By Michael Atkinson

A summoning of pagan energies if ever there were any in the era of television, the major features of Sergei Paradjanov have maintained a flabbergasting constancy in the Western filmhead cosmos — these prehistoric, narratively congealed Central Asian mutants have never been out of circulation in this country, as retro-able prints or video editions, and are now all available on DVD from Kino in newly restored versions, including, for the first time, his epochal international debut, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1964). It’s intensely odd, because Paradjanov is one of the most hermetic, arcane and completely original artists in cinema history, and his films do not resemble those made anywhere else, by anyone. Perhaps their sui generis freakiness is their saving grace — and thus a sign of hope for the survival of adventurous film culture in this country. It’s not too much to say that no effort at understanding the outer reaches of filmic sorcery can be complete without a confrontation with Paradjanov’s world — a timeless meta-past of living icons, bristling fairy tale tableaux, stylistic extremities and culture shock.

Paradjanov was Georgian-Armenian by birth, cursed by fate to make

films within a Soviet system that condemned him as a decadent and a

“surrealist.” He spent time in the gulag (released thanks to

international outcry in 1978), but the Politburo wasn’t wrong;

Paradjanov was nothing if not a catapulting folklorist, recreating the

primitive pre-Soviet era as it might’ve been dreamt of in the

opium-befogged skull of Omar Khayyám. There could hardly have been a

more oppositive reply to Socialist Realism. The films — “Shadows,” “The Color of Pomegranates” (1969), “The Legend of Suram Fortress” (1984) and “Ashik Kerib”

(1988) — are all based on folk tales and ancient history (Ukranian,

Armenian and Georgian), but only “Shadows” is centered on narrative.

It’s also the most visually dynamic; unfolding a tribal tale of

star-crossed love and familial vengeance in the Carpathian mountains,

the movie is one of the most restless and explosive pieces of

camerawork from the so-called Art Film era, shot in authentic outlands

with distorting lenses and superhuman capacity, and imbued with a

grainy, primal grit.

Utterly convincing as a manifestation of

pre-civilized will and superstition, “Shadows” was still only a

suggestion of the netherworlds Paradjanov would then call home. The

next three films, separated by years of censorship battling and

imprisonment, are barely narratives at all, but rather medieval art and

life conjured up as a lurid, iconic, wax museum image parade, bursting

with native art, doves, peacocks, Byzantine design, brass work,

hookahs, ancient ritual, cathedral filigree, symbolic surrealities, ad

infinitum. This is not a universe where quantities like acting and pace

are issues; Paradjanov’s vision can be read as the dynamiting of an

entire cultural store closet of things. “Pomegranates” traipses

through the life of 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, “Fortress”

revives an age-old Georgian war legend and “Ashik Kerib” adapts an

“Arabian Nights”-style tale retold by Mikhail Lermontov. Together, they

represent one of the most unique usages cinema has ever been put to,

employing the full range of native textures (scrambling Russian

traditionalism with Turkish, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Rom) and

ending up, for all of their stasis and ornate compositions, with a

party-hearty-Marty celebration of traditional culture and life in the

unruly wilderness of Asian societies rarely if ever visible to American

filmgoers. The four DVDs come with an array of background/profile docs,

an impressionistic portrait comparing/contrasting Paradjanov with buddy

Andrei Tarkovsky, and, best of all, several rare Paradjanov shorts.



years away, medieval historicism in Hollywood gained substantial

gravity by 1961, when producer Samuel Bronston and director Anthony

Mann relocated what must’ve been a majority of Italian film laborers to

Spain to make “El Cid,” and struggled to give the monster a

sense of Old World veracity while so many Cinemascope epics of the day

settled for studio lot interiors. Appearing finally on DVD in a

nostalgic gift box equipped with lobby card and comic book reprints,

Mann’s film has long been the quixotic favorite of David Thomson and

Martin Scorsese, who provides an introductory essay. True enough —

despite its genre-monolithic stiffness and starchy period dialogue, “El

Cid” is a muscular, sometimes strangely disturbing historical launch,

fashioned by Hollywood’s greatest landscape painter into a menacing

examination of class struggle and honor-bound tragedy. The portrayal of

invading Muslim Moors and the ostensibly Christian Spanish royalty are

both equally venal, Charlton Heston does the axiomatic job only certain

movie stars can do (riding out, dead but strapped to his horse, along a

beach that foretells the climax of “Planet of the Apes,” seven years

later), Sophia Loren looks so impossibly beautiful that her face seems

on the verge of orchid blooming, and the crowds — all real, all

occupying Mann’s ancient Iberian horizons in a tangible way that

digital hordes cannot — march and rampage. But mostly the movie is an

essay on landscape’s colossal indifference to man, as are so many of

Mann’s films, an eloquent and impressive perspective with which heroic

sagas are rarely blessed.

“The Films of Sergei Paradjanov” (Kino Video) and “El Cid” (Miriam Collection) are both now available on DVD.

[Photo: “The Color of Pomegranates,” Kino Video; “El Cid,” Miriam Collection]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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