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In Memory of Beauty
"In a human being everything must be beautiful:
the face, and the attire, and the soul, and the thoughts."
(Anton Chekhov)
I. Who is Sergei Paradjanov?
     In the nine years following the death of Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov, there has scarcely been any mention of "one of cinema's few authentic geniuses" in any of the major international cinema publications. Unlike with his Russian friend and colleague, Andrei Tarkovsky, there have been no books (in English) written on him or his work, no real attempt to look back at his work with a fresh perspective and try to pinpoint just what were his contributions to the history of art. Yes, there have been occasional exhibitions and retrospectives, but for some inexplicable reason his stature as one of the artistic giants of the twentieth-century has not been acknowledged by the public at large. And when even the so-called specialists in the field of cinema talk about his work with great difficulty - often defaulting to such vague conclusions as "visually stunning, but obscure. But still worth seeing...." - is it any wonder that many people have never even heard the name "Paradjanov"? And this is indeed a pity. It is precisely now, with the standard for visual art being set by MTV, that this man's work could help restore in people a lost sense of beauty.
     But there was a short period of time, three decades ago, during which Paradjanov did command world attention. The year was 1965, and he had just created his first masterpiece, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors. Never had a film exploded on the screen with such vibrancy of color and movement. There was something alive in this film that, in comparison, one could see was lacking in almost every other film, including many acknowledged masterpieces. What was this living energy that Paradjanov had tapped into? And how did he do it?
II. The Longing for Something New

     In the Fall of 1968 two articles written by Paradjanov appeared in Film Comment, whereby he related his revelations gained in making Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors: "We impoverish ourselves by thinking only in film catagories. Therefore I constantly take up my paintbrush. . . .Another system of thinking, different methods of perception and reflection of life are opened to me."
     Additionally, Paradjanov related on numerous occasions his indebtedness to Andrei Tarkovsky's first film Ivan's Childhood (aka My Name is Ivan), without which, Paradjanov has said, he would have done nothing. And, surely enough, Paradjanov's new "methods of perception and reflection of life" do seem to have a certain visual commonality with Tarkovsky's poetic cinematic language - though not through imitation: "Tarkovsky, who was younger than I by twelve years, was my teacher and mentor. He was the first in Ivan's Childhood to use images of dreams and memories to present allegory and metaphor. Tarkovsky helped people decipher the poetic metaphor. By studying Tarkovsky and playing different variations on him, I became stronger myself."
     But, to really begin to understand just what happened to Paradjanov during those viewings of Ivan's Childhood, one has to probe deeper than mere visual concerns. This was not just a turning point for Paradjanov; this was the answer to a fervent prayer for a life-change: for, in order to receive something new, one needs to intensely desire, to long for that which is new. And for Paradjanov, the answer to this prayer came, at least in part, in the form of Tarkovsky and his film. This was not just the transformation of a good artist (he had previously made five average films) into a great artist, this was first and foremost a spiritual turning point in the life of a human being. It was this new window of spiritual opportunity, through which he was given his "paintbrush" and through which "another system of thinking, different methods of perception and reflection of life" became open to him. At the time of this transformation, Paradjanov wrote:
". . . there are moments in life when all habitual ideas, rules and relationships are involuntarily re-evaluated. Moments of the highest tension and the greatest attention to life. It is as if you throw yourself wide open, and each new thought, each image that penetrates you, draws after it dozens and hundreds of others, similar and dissimilar. As if the current catches you and only strong muscles are able to withstand the force. These are the moments of maximum self-surrender, of a maximally full and passionate life."
     And so, as is well known, he became a great director and created two masterpieces in a row, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, which won many prizes, and The Color of Pomegranates. But, and this can perhaps be another lesson to take with us on our TruthQuest, with every spiritual opportunity granted to an individual, further spiritual development is expected in return. If the individual complies with this simple law, he can invariably expect more opportunities to come his way in accordance with his spiritual development. If, however, the individual fails to perceive the need for further spiritual advancement from the opportunity granted, then a fall will occur. The fact that Paradjanov chose to continue practicing his infamous lifestyle despite the opportunity to become completely NEW in his way of being resulted quite naturally in his life becoming a living hell. This is NOT a religiously-based moral judgement, but rather a simple observation of the irrevocable and sublime working out of the Natural Laws anchored in Creation.
III. To Hell and Back: Paradjanov and Dostoyevsky in Prison

     Arrested on trumped-up charges, sent off to die in the harshest maximum security labor camp in the Ukraine, the next fifteen years of Paradjanov's life were spent in and out of a pit so frightening, so void of light that it is truly a wonder he managed to survive at all. And even during the time he spent out of prison, Paradjanov could be seen begging and selling off family heirlooms on the streets of Old Tbilisi, Georgia.
And yet, years later, Paradjanov said that "These years of squalor were the best years of my life," and that they gave him "an amazing deathlessness." The reasons that he gave for this were twofold: 1) the opportunity to view a wide range of "pathology and recidivism" (in the prison-camp, where he served his sentence, there were only undereducated hardcore criminals - he was the only "political" prisoner) and 2) the way in which he was forced to strive to overcome these unimaginable circumstances. . . .
     . . .One hundred and twenty-five years before, a young Russian writer named Fyodor Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death for political reasons. Right before his execution, the tsar commuted his sentence to eight years (later reduced to four) in a Siberian prison. Dostoyevsky, in a situation similar to Paradjanov's, found himself surrounded by low-class criminals. And, like Paradjanov, Dostoyevsky found there to be a rich experience in living with these people, who were previously foreign to his middle-class environment, but not to his social conscience. In that prison, his awareness of human suffering deepened beyond mere political or social identification towards something far greater: the concern for the human spiritual condition. It is this concern, which would form the basis for his greatest work, as well as one of his greatest revelations:

"Beauty will save the world."


     When Paradjanov was in prison, he struggled mightily to surmount the oppressive reality of his environment. To accomplish this he used the exact same gifts that had previously established him as one of the world's most eminent directors. He founded a school amongst the inmates called "fleurism", in which he taught these hardened criminals to "paint" with dried flowers. They made fantastic wreaths, such as the head of a ram, which were then used for funerals. He used the tar off a rooftop to make coins, which he ingraved in an ancient style. He invented numerous scripts, drawing directly from his prison experiences - one of which, Swan Lake: the Zone, was made into a film by his former cameraman. By the time he "graduated" from prison he had amassed on the order of 600 collages, assemblages, drawings, etc. - a lifetime's worth of work, compressed into a few years.
IV. Life Beyond the "Zone"
     In a hellish situation, where men half his age were either committing suicide or dying of "natural" causes, Paradjanov, with diabetes and a heart condition, thrived. By his own testimony, he became the priest of the Zone (the name he gave to his prison, with obvious allusions to the Zone in Tarkovsky's film Stalker). In fact, when Tarkovsky once asked Paradjanov what he thought that he, Tarkovsky, lacked as a director, Paradjanov responded,"'You lack one year of a Soviet maximum security prison. Not the general prison, but the maximum security one. . . .You are already a great director, but if you are asking me what you lack, you're lacking that kind of insight.'"
     But was this comment really fair to Tarkovsky? Obviously, Paradjanov had gained the necessary insight into his own need for spiritual advancement, but it is categorically wrong to apply this criteria to others, including Tarkovsky. If Tarkovsky had needed the experience of a maximum security prison, it would have happened in natural accordance with the Laws of Creation.
     Unfortunately, comments like this were all too prevalent during Paradjanov's last years. They reveal a profound flaw in the mentality of this long-suffering artist: he sincerely saw himself as a martyr. This fact is well documented in the artwork he created during and after his stay in prison, wherein, on more than one occassion, he depicted himself as a Christ-figure. There is also a room in the Armenian museum, which houses his artworks, that Paradjanov has set-up as "a room of my fate". It is this room where his self-portraits are displayed.
     It is, however, his films which reveal most bluntly his attitude towards martyrdom. The Color of Pomegranates, made a few years before his imprisonment, depicts poetically the martyrdom of the Armenian poet-troubadour Sayat Nova. And The Legend of Suram Fortress, made right after his final release from prision, is an even more intense display of all kinds of martyr attributes. Suram Fortress is a wonderful film, which, like Tarkovsky's last film The Sacrifice, is forever marred by the belief that 1) their intense suffering, as personified by the actions of their main characters, has been for the sake of mankind; and 2) their Creator looks favorably upon such actions.
     Fortunately, Paradjanov found a better expression for his predicament in his last film, Ashik Kerib, where the minstrel must endure hardship, suffering and pain on the path to strengthening his spirit, trying to become a true human being, that he might one day be worthy of his rightful place in Creation.
V. Paradjanov's Childhood

     For Paradjanov, childhood was an ongoing, never-ending experience. No other director has devoted so much time exploring the wonder of a child's world, its beauty, innocence, purity and freedom. Paradjanov himself retained certain child-like qualities, which aided him throughout his life, as well as in his art and films. He even created a special room for children in his museum in Yerevan, Armenia, where his many puppets and dolls are displayed. About this, he has said:
"I want children to visit the exhibition because now the time has come to seek, to find and to realize the beautiful, the beautiful around us - our mountains, sky. We should be able to express passions, to see, to love and to venerate."
     His dolls can also be seen in his last two films. In The Legend of Suram Fortress, Simon the Piper teaches the young Zourab Georgian mythology through the use of these puppets. In Ashik Kerib, the minstrel and his aged mentor are rewarded for their performance to a passing caravan by children, who throw their dolls to them. When his master dies, Ashik Kerib buries the dolls with him. And it is a group of starving, orphaned children who save Ashik Kerib by giving him refuge from invaders.
     Indeed, Paradjanov made Ashik Kerib "for the children of the world." He spoke of its allegories being on a child's level:
". . .if you are a poet, armor will interfere with your song, if you see the blind give them a caress. Tenderness is the main trait of Ashik Kerib's character. The allegories, the metaphors, the poetry, the lyricism, the mentality - help cultivate tenderness in the life of a child. Ashik Kerib's goodness brings him back to his loved one who rewarded him with her waiting and with her beauty." (Film Comment)
VI. Love and the Beauty of the Spirit
     During the making of Ashik Kerib, Paradjanov said: "I think the absolute best filmmaking would be for the deaf and dumb. We talk too much, there are too many words. We're drowning in words, so many words. Only in ballet do we see pure beauty, pure pantomime. That is what I am aspiring to."
     In classic ballet, there exists the combination of two crucial expressions of the human spirit: beauty of movement and beauty of attire. Throughout all of Paradjanov's films one will never see a woman dressed in blue jeans, a mini-skirt or a bikini. Rather, one will often see women presented in the most exquisite ethnic garments, which enhance, not debase, their natural beauty and radiance of spirit. Similarly, one will never see coarse movements in the work of Paradjanov. As in classic ballet, the characters move across the screen with grace and dignity, as if they are gliding through air. The men stand tall and noble and move with elegance and grandeur. And the women barely touch the ground, so light and graceful is their presence.

     To define in more exacting terms the cinematic expression of true beauty, one must perceive the natural link between truth, beauty and pure love. Paradjanov painfully experienced this correlation when his beautiful wife, whom he still loved to the end of his life, could no longer live with him, saying it was when he was silent that she truly felt his love.
     It is true that "love" has always been cinema's bread-and-butter. From its earliest days to the present time, millions of "love experiences" have been recorded onto film. But how many of these love experiences transcend the emotions to aspire to a higher sense of spiritual love? And in how many of the love scenes in these films do we see beauty aspired to in a pure, dignified and natural way that is in keeping with the greatness of the spirit inside us all? Beauty is a powerful attracting force. And so beauty carries with it the opportunity, indeed, responsibility, to lead those affected upwards in accordance with the nature of the spirit. To have this magnanimous opportunity degenerated to the level of the exposure of the naked body is to renounce this great responsibility. The spirit can never thrive when the body is debased. The body is its tool on earth; hence, it must do its will. When the spirit is strong, there can ONLY be the upward striving towards what is pure and noble.
     For all its "great" love-scenes, there are shockingly few moments in film history when even an attempt has been made to capture the sublime, radiant nature of love. In a recent Sight and Sound article, Tarkovsky was remembered to have stated that he was the only director who managed to express "the ecstasy of love." He continued: "I did it in Mirror. Love is a miracle - it transcends the gravity of the material world. People in love must levitate."
     There is no question that Tarkovsky, at times, reached great heights in expressing the spirituality of pure love. There are, however, other cinematic moments, such as in Ingmar Bergman's Magic Flute, in the final scene of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket and in most of Paradjanov's mature films, where love is incandescently, authentically captured. Futhermore, Paradjanov is the only director who consistently brought together pure love and beauty in radiant scene after radiant scene. Now, this is not to say that impurity didn't make its way into his films - unfortunately, it did. However, in Paradjanov's relentless striving for the spiritual ideal of love, he managed to scale higher heights than any other director in film history. This ideal permeates every aspect of his films: the costumes, the setting, the lighting, the music, choreography and so on. The following are just some of the unforgettable scenes from his films, which testify to this fact:
1) ASHIK KERIB. The opening sequence of images, where the main character and his love, Magul, are seen together with rice pouring down upon their heads. The next sequence, "he loves me, he loves me not," which intercuts the two lovers with two doves. The sequence of "The Betrothal" where Ashik Kerib's mother and sister help him prepare for the asking of Magul's hand in marriage. The incredibly beautiful sequence in the blue belltower, following the rejection by Magul's father, where the two lovers take a vow of love. And finally, the heartbreaking conclusion to the first part of the film, where Ashik Kerib leaves his family amidst a ritual parting dance (performed by a troop of black-claded dancers). As he moves through some pomegranate trees, his sister hands him a red pomegranate, into which he bites.
2) SHADOWS OF OUR FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS. The sequence following the funeral of Ivan's father, which begins with a close-up of a daisy beaming in the sunlight with the two children (Ivan and Marichka) playing in the meadow in the background. Then follows a night sequence with the children investigating a haunted landscape. And then a dramatic cut of the children running down a hill with the golden rays of the morning sun shining magically through the trees and the ecstatic folk music of the Ukraine soaring on the soundtrack. Another cut - Ivan and Marichka have become beautiful young adults. The camera effortlessly circles the brush enclosing the two lovers. Their words, their gestures, the radiant light and the music all contribute to express the intensity and purity of their love. A close-up of Marichka eating wild berries from Ivan's hand. Another cut - Ivan prepares to leave his home to work in the pastures as a hired-hand; his mother is left alone, bemoaning his leaving and the loss of her other children. The next sequence - the parting of Ivan and Marichka - is one of the great moments in cinematic history. The sun shower - Marichka's tears. The desperate crying out of each other's name as Ivan goes further and further away.
3) THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES. The sequence that begins with the intertitle "We were searching for ourselves in each other." This is truly filmmaking of the highest order. No attempt will be made here to describe what must be experienced for any one desiring an authentic expression of love and the beauty of the spirit.
     Paradjanov earnestly sought Beauty; Tarkovsky earnestly sought Truth. Both will invariably meet on the Path to the Light, if they will it through their dedication to continued spiritual growth. What they both lack in terms of perception, then, they can make up with the one and only thing that can bring about this necessary union of Truth and Beauty: The Knowledge of Creation. This Knowledge is given to mankind in a one-of-a-kind book "In the Light of Truth: the Grail Message" by Abd-ru-shin.
     Then such statements as "I do not understand my own films," which Paradjanov had uttered towards the end of his life, will no longer be possible. With True Knowledge comes the opportunity for a great, new beginning for every willing human spirit for a return to true life.

VII. Towards a New Art
     If there can be any single description given to Paradjanov's work, perhaps it is his unquenchable longing to achieve an ideal human beauty in a world that has become contemptuous, even hostile towards the greatness of the spirit.
In The Republic, Plato envisions the practice of a pure and true form of art:
"Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region . . ."
     It truly takes an enormous amount of courage to start one's life over on a completely new foundation - a purified foundation where all aspects of a human being, including thoughts, words and deeds, can become truly beautiful as befits the spirit. If we can take anything from the work of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky, perhaps it should be the inspiration to take this plunge into The New. First, however, we need real direction - and, for that, we must have the Knowledge of Creation. Otherwise, we risk falling into an even deeper pit than the one we've just crawled out of. And time is now of the essence!
"Thank You, Lord, for Thy Goodness!" (Ashik Kerib)
     What is ultimately most rewarding in the viewing of Paradjanov's films is the gratitude that he expresses towards the Creator and His Creation. There is an almost overwhelming reverence for Nature. In one form or another, the elements permeate almost every scene of his films (and, for that matter, Tarkovsky's films as well). It's as if he is continually paying homage to - indeed, longing to be a part of - the Creator's Perfect Work that is Creation, which Alone is Absolutely Pure, Beautiful and True.

     And so, in typical Paradjanov fashion, we conclude with his experiencing of the power of the spirit to transform and uplift its environment through beauty, through naturalness, through simplicity:
     ". . . In a neighboring courtyard, one of the courtyards of my childhood, a scraping sound begins at four in the morning. An old potter is starting his 'wheel'. One after another, clay twins are released from his hands. He hardly looks at the form, whistles something through his nose. His fingers slide habitually and indifferently over the clay, straightening the future sides. . . .
     But here comes a new order. The old man runs the circle carefully, slowly. He stops every minute. Looks, gets used to the unaccustomed outlines. The fingers anxiously feel the composition. Now he is crossing over, stepping across something. . . .going further and further away. . . .The new object is set up on the bench, immediately changing the surrounding landscape. A [new] puddle, a [new] tree, [new] clouds, mountains, the sea. . . .And this whole limitless, generous world . . . "