ART HISTORY FOR FILM MAKERS
Sergey Parajanov’s first major film, and the one he considered to have started his career is SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS made in 1965.
Parajanov was a painter as well as a film maker, and it shows in his films.
SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS is loosely based on a story by the Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (1864 – 1913), who wrote about life in traditional isolated Ukrainian villages. Shadows is set in the remote Carpathian region of the Hutsul people and features their sumptuous textiles and folk art in the production design. Parajanov’s treatment of the story is less ethnographic than mythic. Although there is a wealth of detail in the film, and the life of the pre-communist peasants is shown as hard (de rigueur in Soviet portrayals of pre-revolutionary life), Parajanov gives the film a sense of timelessness that underpins the story of love, loss and grief and vengeance.
But it is Parajanov’s sense of visual storytelling that is most striking.
Leading sheep in the mountains, converging lines and use of different shades of white
The extreme close up, especially with the subject eyeballing the camera, is little used in western cinema, but does appear in Soviet film making, and in Soviet still photography.* It does not occur in portrait painting until the 20th century, although Gustave Courbet got pretty close here with this self portrait:
It’s an aggressive shot: either aggressive to the subject, being “in-his-face” – or aggressive to the viewer, having the character’s face shoved into one’s own. It refuses distance. Very effective when used cleverly. Parajanov makes much use of this kind of shot in the film.
Another type of shot Paranjov uses that we might find unusual yet evocative is the very high angle shot. Quite a bit of this film is shot from a very high angle. Here the massing of the sheep contrasts with the more isolated figures of the people, who are arranged in quite a rigid line. The film does contain religious images and symbolism (such as crosses and crossed sticks, lambs and so forth) but the way they appear in the film offers much more than just religious symbolism, as can be seen in the shot above. Here we see humans trying to assert their humanity, their ability to form lines, and the sheep just mass randomly. The red spot in the middle is brilliant, it’s like a heart at the centre.
Parajanov’s use of framing is really interesting. Many scenes are shot framed by something (a window a tree, crossed sticks, etc.). Here we see the people enter the courtyard, but it’s shot for above so it’s actually framed by the roof above and below. [sorry this one was shot with instagram]
Abstraction is another very important artistic element that Parajanov brings in to the film and I suppose it is one of the main things that got him in trouble with the Soviet authorities (that and the rampant pagan-Christianity that’s presented). He uses two principal techniques to attain abstraction:
Above, he uses distorted reflection, to liquefy the image, render it insubstantial and constantly eluding clarity of vision. The use of colour (hard to see here, but tones of blue, red and brown-gold with spots of green).
Movement. He moved the camera quickly as the characters also move quickly. The result is a gloriously-coloured blur, an abstract image that nonetheless manages to convey the feeling of what’s happening in the film: a celebration.
From a ‘story’ point of view, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It has all the necessary story elements but like an opera, the story is only the skeleton on which to hang the main event. If you’ve ever seen La Traviata, you’ll know what I man. The story is hokey, awful (even the Dumas novel is practically unreadable). Yet every time I’ve seen it I’ve cried like a baby by Act II. And not just me. Last time I went to Traviata, people were in floods, a woman behind me was actually howling with grief. Why? Because Verdi’s a brilliant composer, and his music forces you to feel.
In Shadows, the main event is the visual, the art.** Shot by cinematographers Viktor Bestayev and Yuri Ilyenko, it is the visuals that carry the film’s emotion and passion. Production design was by Mikhail Rakovsky and G. Yakutovich, with costumes by Lidiya Bajkova. This team created a convincing yet dreamlike evocation of Ukrainian village life.
Some of the film was shot on location and some was shot at the Dovzhenko film studios in Kiev.*** Aleksandr Dovzhenko was Parajanov’s mentor. I think that it’s Dovzhenko’s amazing film Earth that links Parajanov, Dovzhenko and Tarkovksy. Although Earth is in some ways a standard Soviet film (it’s about the process of collectivization of agriculture and the hostility of the ‘Kulak’ landowners to the soviet), Dovzhenko actually transforms it into a film full of mystery and spirit.
Shadows of Fogotten Ancestors isn’t Parajanov’s best known film, that honour goes to The Colour of Pomegranates. My personal favourite is The Legend of the Suram Fortress which I wrote about in Art History for Film Makers. But Shadows is a good introduction to the director’s style and concerns, and it’s an interesting first step in the development of an extraordinary body of work where style and story converge and create superb film art.
Folk art and folk culture
Russian and Ukrainian folk art is powerful and distinctive and was actually encouraged and supported during Soviet times, which is why a fair bit of it has been preserved. The great History painter Surikov tried to depict the colour and visual style of Old Russia.
[Feodosia Morozova by Vladimir Surikov – Wikimedia Commons]
Some painters tried to capture the remnants of peasant life on the cusp of the Revolution.
genre paintings by Boris Kustodiev [Wikimedia Commons]
Parajanov’s film in many ways adheres to the Soviet celebration of folk culture, but since this rendering is devoid of the redemptive power of class struggle or any foreshadowing of Sovietization it got the director into trouble.
excellent essay on Earth by Dovzhenko with a link to the film
*Carl Theodore Dreyer uses it to devastating effect in The Passion of Joan of Arc
**I rewatched it with the subtitles off and that was better.
***I really need to make a pilgrimage there one of these days