Parajanov and Frontality


The films of Sergei Parajanov often strike their commentators dumb. ‘Defies description’ and ‘beyond rational understanding’ are two phrases that recur repeatedly, even among those who count themselves as the filmmaker’s most fervent fans. This commentary often concludes in the passionate but mystified exhortation to simply ‘go with the emotion’ – even if the sources and the destinations of that feeling remain obscure.


There can be no doubt that, in the history of cinema, Parajanov took the realm of affect in cinema to a hitherto unknown place. His highly theatricalised and stylised tableaux scenes invested a new intensity and tension into pose and gesture, short-circuiting the usual ‘psychological’ path from an actor’s performance to the emotion it can elicit – thus inaugurating a scattered tradition in modern cinema running from Marguerite Duras (India Song, 1975) and Yvonne Rainer (Lives of Performers, 1972), and including Laleen Jayamanne (A Song of Ceylon, 1985), Chantal Akerman, and some artists of the New German Cinema (especially Werner Schroeter and Ulrike Ottinger). Not forgetting, of course, Godard, who has paid numerous homages to Parajanov in his video-collages made since the ‘80s, and whose own dance-filled, mobile tableaux resemble Parajanov’s little, but seek the same end of direct affect or ‘plastic pathos’.


In the mid to late ‘60s, Parajanov seemed to absorb internationally circulating ideas about a ‘ritualistic’ mise en scène – variously pursued before him in cinema by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Miklos Jancsó, Kenneth Anger and Glauber Rocha, and in theatre by the ‘Living Theatre’ ensemble and the fundamental theoretical speculations of Antonin Artaud (and all the work he came to inspire: Rivette, Carmelo Bene, Bertolucci’s Partner … ). One can even detect an uncanny echo between the Warhol/Morrissey Factory-era ‘crowded frames’ (especially in the Clockwork Orange-inspired Vinyl, 1965)) and The Colour of Pomegranates!


But Parajanov took this ritualistic tradition away from improvisation, rawness and ‘wild mobility’; instead, according to his temperament and intuition, he systematised his tableaux procedure into a form that was static, that ‘accumulated’ elements in the frame, or across jump-cuts, that worked on the intensities of how fast or slow a gesture was to be performed, when a figure would look into the camera, the appearance and disappearance or transformation of objects (tapestries, musical instruments, garments …). In this way, Parajanov also helped to create a new kind of cinematic time, or temporality: the archaeological time, packed with sediments and strata (not the narrative time which is faced backwards and forwards from each instant), which Serge Daney found typical of modern Russian cinema.


If there is one trope or technique above all others that seems to characterise and sum up Parajanov’s style, it is surely his frontality: the head-on, squared-up arrangements of elements in the tableaux frame, usually involving a body or a group of bodies in a highly designed décor. These are not the only kinds of shots Parajanov liked to compose – think of the fluid chase between lovers at the start of Ashik Kerib or the many ‘insert’ or ‘portrait’ shots of objects and sections of paintings, which can only be weakly designated as frontal, since they lack the dynamics of space (expanded or flattened space) which matter so much in the Parajanovian tableau. Nonetheless, Parajanov’s penchant for frontality has understandably become, over time, the emblem of his style. And the ‘adventure of frontality’, itself, has become, through and beyond Parajanov, a fascinating, still ongoing episode or thread in cinema history.


How are we to understand Parajanov’s frontality in an ‘art history’, or cultural history, sense – i.e., from what traditions does it derive? Serge Daney’s forewarning is salutary: “the first thing not to do is to propose a ‘user’s manual’. We must allow ourselves to feel, make and unmake our need to understand instantly, discourage a decoding reading, ‘putting things in their context’ at all cost.” [“la première chose à ne pas faire est de proposer un mode d’emploi. Il faut le laisser agir, se laisser faire, laisser se défaire notre envie de comprendre tout de suite, décourager la lecture découdeuse et les ‘re-placeurs-dans-le-contexte’ de tout poil.” (1) Parajanov’s ‘context’, certainly, is not singular, not simply something that can be ‘read off’ the images and sounds on the screen, or imposed upon them. Equally, however, we cannot let this master simply float in a free space of charming non-comprehension.


It is common for historians of cinematic aesthetics to mention various possible sources for Parajanov’s frontal technique: in theatre; in the early period of silent cinema that proceeded from the ‘proscenium arch’ of theatre; and in painting, especially of the Medieval variety (icons and frescoes). Allotting to Parajanov’s style any of these ‘archaic’ foundations has the virtue of focusing our attention on one or other of its essential plastic qualities (the use of rhythm, colour, the full-body posing of the actors). But the almost inevitable association of Parajanov with a supposed primitivism – some original, ‘innocent’, nascent state of cinematic language – creates many blindspots that block the path to a full understanding of this filmmaker, and of cinematic frontality in general. It is bizarre, for example – but by no means atypical – that one sympathetic reviewer of The Legend of Suram Fortress can surmise that, in 1984, Parajanov is expressing an aspiration to “take in a few breaths of modernism”, (2) as if he (and perhaps the entire Georgian/Armenian cinema!) were stuck in an earlier phase of cinema’s history, ‘modern’ only by default, not by design.


At least one crucially important idea, however, has emerged from the work of historian-theorists (such as Noël Burch, André Gaudreault, Yuri Tsivian and Tom Gunning) into ‘primitivism’ as a mode in cinema. It is the idea that cinema as a form is constructed upon a tension, a “dialectical interplay” in Paul Willemen’s words, “between presentation and representation, spectacle and narrative, showing and telling. (3) It is clear that Parajanov’s work leans more to the ‘presentation’ side of that dialectic: the brute showing of a spectacle, frequently without explication or commentary (beyond a few, spare intertitles, or the prior knowledge of a myth or legend that we bring to the film as spectators), pushed more into the ‘mute’ realm of a quasi-Symbolist art, or what Alain Masson called (in relation to Raśl Ruiz) an aesthetic based on “an image without a legend, an illustration without a text” [“une image sans légende, une illustration sans text”] (4) It is no doubt this seeming ‘muteness’ of the image – married to the ecstatic waves of traditional folkloric musical accompaniment – that creates the ‘dumb’, awestruck response of many viewers and commentators faced with Parajanov’s cinema.


Let us return to what we might call the ‘theatre hypothesis’ in relation to Parajanov’s frontality. Although such frontality, from the era of silent cinema onwards, is frequently presumed to correlate with the ideal view for the theatrical spectator structured by the proscenium arch of the stage, we must measure the massive displacement that this ‘ideal vantage point’ undergoes when relocated within the classic dispositif of camera, frame, and cinema spectator. To put it simply, the angle of vision created by one of Parajanov’s tableaux resembles no view that could ever be possible for any member of a theatre audience, past or present. The Parajanovian tableau is, in the Deleuzian sense, much more of a mental image or construct, a precise assemblage of ‘floating particles’ laid out before us with diagrammatic precision.


Within each tableau, in the small but decisive ‘modifications’ introduced into many tableaux, and in the interplay of successive or intercut tableaux, we arrive at what Jean-André Fieschi once described (with reference to Murnau’s Expressionism) as an “imaginary space, produced by the circulation of signs within the narrative/formal movement, and their implications; an imaginary space not reducible to the simple sum of its components, or to the successful management of some purely ‘illustrative’ technique”. (5) The fifteen-minute fragment we have of the unfinished Kiev Frescoes (1966) provides a remarkable example of this process: within a single set, Parajanov keeps redistributing the objects (a pram, a piano, boots, a picture frame, a spinning angel) and the bodies, finding new ways to frame and organise them, repeating and ‘re-casting’ the gestures (such as sleeping) as he shifts them from one performer to the next. A special aspect of the ‘imaginary space’ created within this piece is the work that Parajanov does on ‘eyeline matches’. In the following sequence of three shots, nothing – the direction of the gazes, the direction of the gestures (pointing, or holding out an object for the grasp of the other), the positions of the bodies – remains stable, or coheres in a traditional manner of découpage.


With this example, however, a trap has already been sprung for any commentator on Parajanov: are we to read in this gleeful, free mismatch of looks, gestures and bodies a militant ‘deconstruction’ of the Western cinematographic codes – or, perhaps even more alluringly, a sort of ‘pre-cinematic’ vocabulary or syntax naturally, spontaneously produced on the part of Parajanov? Is Parajanov a ‘primitive’? We often assume, as cinema analysts, that primitivism, in some of its salient prominent aspects, offers a preview of modernism – or, conversely, that modernism proceeds, along one of its paths of discovery, by a ‘return’ to, a revisiting or reinvention of, the primitive. What is the logic underlying this idea – and what, historically, intervenes between the periods of primitivism and modernism? The missing, always-implied third term is, of course, classicism, especially in its slightly mythic form of ‘classical Hollywood narrative’. This towering, ideal, almost Platonic form doubles, villainously, as a ‘dominant ideology’ in progressive histories of cinema – the beast variously labelled as the NRI (Narrative-Representational-Industrial) cinema in, for example, Dominique Eizykman’s La Jouissance-cinéma (1976), or very similarly as the IMR (Institutional Mode of Representation) in Noël Burch’s theoretical system of the 1970s and ‘80s.


What is at stake in this cinematic classicism, what does it guard so fiercely? Not only a highly ordered regime of linear narrative, psychological verisimilitude, and stylistic stability, but also the special, psychoanalytically-tinged brand of suture, of complete absorption and ‘identification’ on the spectator’s part, guaranteed by the careful sequencing of diverse shots (or camera placements) within a scene, and by the tight interweaving of bodies and gazes into the seamless, three-dimensional space of a fictional illusion. The cinematic figure of shot/reverse shot (in its many subtle but solid variations) stands as the central trope of this classical system of suture – not only because it ‘knits’ the shots together so completely with its patterned symmetries (cf. Raymond Bellour’s scene analyses proposed in the ‘70s) and pulsating call-response structure, but, still more profoundly, because it proposes (in Paul Willemen’s terms) a comprehensive ‘individuation’ of story and spectator alike which is absolutely necessary for the a new capitalist society to take hold of its citizens, at both Imaginary and Symbolic levels.


Now cut to Parajanov – this key historic figure ambiguously placed both before the classical (primitive) and after it (modernist). No shot/reverse shot; little coherent, linear narrative driving from one tableau to the next; scarcely any individuation beyond the emblematic or iconic designation of a Wanderer or a Bride, a Sayat Nova or an Ashik Kerib. The trope of frontality seems, at every level, to block the mechanism of classical narrative cinema – particularly in the way that it cuts between spaces (even potentially contiguous portions of a single space) that cannot be ‘sewn together’ through any fringe of pictorial overlap (as in shot/reverse shot), but ‘face off’ one another starkly, as we can see in the superb encounter of the fated lovers in The Colour of Pomegranates.


Can it hardly be surprising that, under the influence of a theory of (and against) classicism, devotees of Parajanov are inevitably led to rapturous claims such as the following?


Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors violates every narrative code and representational system known to cinema, and it seems intent upon deconstructing the very process of representation itself, by interrogating the whole set of historically evolved assumptions about the nature of cinematic space and the relationship between spectator and the screen. Parajanov proceeds by means of ‘perceptual dislocation’, making it impossible at any given moment to imagine a stable time-space continuum for the dramatic action. The point of these techniques is not to confuse the spectator but to prevent the kind of comfortable, familiar, and logically continuous representational space associated with traditional narrative form. (6)


What is the problem with such an appreciation of Parajanov, what is its limit? It is the same problem we encounter in the evaluation of any ‘pre-classical’, perhaps of any radically ‘different’ or simply non-Hollywood cinema: while wishing to criticise the dominant cinema, we end up privileging it as the central, all-pervasive mode from which everything else necessarily ‘deviates’ – either because it has not yet caught up to it (the primitive), because it resists its social-control pull (Third World cinema), or because it takes a distance and contests it (the modern). Parajanov, in this commentary, is left with the duty to ‘deconstruct’ an absolute monolith: not merely ‘every narrative code and representational system known to cinema’, but the ‘very process of representation itself’!


It is at this point that we must take up, with a renewed vigour, the challenge of theorising ‘the national’ in Parajanov, the specific socio-cultural elements of his style and approach. This is not so that we can to seal him away in some pristine ‘off-Hollywood’ (as we say off-Broadway) vacuum of absolute Eastern or Medieval exoticism, lacking any dialogue whatsoever with the Big Other of classical cinema. Nor is it to (as Daney warned) tidily ‘pack him away’ in a sealed, ancient Georgian/Armenian context. Rather, it is in order to redefine how, for Parajanov in his specific time and place, the cinema, for and through him, was able to renegotiate that ‘dialectical interplay between presentation and representation, spectacle and narrative, showing and telling’.


Paul Willemen offers us some powerful conceptual tools for this task. He proposes that, rather than gauging the historical development of every national cinema in relation to its adoption, mal-adoption or non-adoption of the dominant Hollywood classicism, we should view every national cinema – including that of America – as an unstable, never fully resolved, compromise-formation between what he calls two ‘regimes of subjectivity and looking’: a pre-capitalist regime, and a capitalist regime. Where a capitalist regime depends on the subtle ‘individuation’ slowly won and reinforced by (for example) the shot/reverse shot structure – thus creating a one-to-one blindness that masks the real sources of capital’s corporate power – pre-capitalist regimes (feudal, medieval, and so on) depend on completely different, much more obvious systems of authority and submission, hence demanding another, quite different mode of representation.


This account draws on the cultural histories of many cinemas – Japan, India, and so on – to argue that the pre-capitalist ‘regime of looking’ has more to do with the gaze of power that comes ‘down from on high’, from a God or a King, than from the famous classical cinematic gaze that proceeds ‘from the height (and the eyes) of a man’. The individuals in pre-capitalist society do not exist ‘within the web’ of intersubjective looks, actions and reactions; they come into being only insofar as they are solicited by the gaze of authority.


This is, in fact, one key way to understand the origins and history of frontality in the visual arts, particularly in genres such as religious painting: the ‘gaze outward’ that interpellates its subject-viewer comes from the authority or divine figure, it is itself a kind of ‘social suture’ – even though, within Hollywood cinema and its ‘deviations’, acknowledging the presence of the camera is often taken as a token of subversion. In his account of the ‘conflict of traditional form and modern technology’ in early Indian cinema, Ashish Rajadhyaksha describes a particular school of popular imagery at the turn of the 20th century in which religious worshippers were photographed – in profile – and then ‘stuck on’ to a traditional-style painting in which devotees were assembled in their rightful pose of ‘looking up’ to their god Srinathji (7): a model composition which is very familiar from the tableaux of Parajanov.


One path that Willemen’s theory allows us into Parajanov is to study the ambivalent celebration and undermining of the ‘frontal form’ as a picturing of the relation between authority (in all its forms) and its social subjects. As a beginning point, it is crucial to realise that so many versions of cinematic frontality – from Parajanov through to Walerian Boroczywk and Mohsen Makhmalbalf – precisely involve authority figures and their withering, powerful gaze: not merely Gods or imperial Kings and Princes, but also, at a lower, ‘relay’ level of social power, priests, sages, teachers, and so on. Many Parajanov tableaux, of course, reference religious and political rituals – seeking, variously, to celebrate and undermine them.


Boroczwyk’s masterful Goto, l’îsle d’amour (1968), for instance, employs an insistent frontality not only in homage to artisanal, medieval forms of image-making, but also as a way to depict and criticise the formidable spectre of the Communist state. And in the somewhat more benign case of Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (1996), a profound homage to Parajanov, the teacher-figure who faces us (and a class of children) frontally, in front of a clean blackboard, is also the master of the film’s imaginary space, constantly reaching off-frame to gather and interrelate colours, places, times and characters.


But let us, as a closing gesture, jump to where the history of cinematic frontality is at this very moment, today. In the 1990s, a strange advertisement began to appear on an Australian television channel, SBS, devoted to an official policy of ‘multicultural’ representation. The brand-image of this station was a perfect pastiche of a Parajanovian tableau – complete with lavish costumes, singing and dancing performers, frames-within-the-frame, and a frontal perspective. The slogan of the channel was ‘the world is an amazing place’ – and this appropriation of Parajanov seemed all too close to the banality of the contemporary ‘World Music’ phenomenon and its intense global marketing.


Simultaneously, in the ‘90s, a new kind of frontality began to appear in the equally high-saturation-marketed  sphere of so-called ‘American independent cinema’. In the films of Hal Hartley and David O. Russell, all the way to teen-entertainments such as Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite, characters were posed stiffly, lined up in formation, for a frontal (and usually wide-angle) lens. This was nothing like the droll, Brechtian frontality that had been intermittently used in the ‘70s by Mark Rappaport, Jon Jost, or Godard-Gorin – although it opportunistically tries to grab a little of that daring ‘radical chic’ cachet of its past usage. The new frontality comes with a label, coined for it by Jeffrey Sconce – ‘the smart film’. (8) And the undoubted master of frontal smarts is Wes Anderson. His The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – by way of its clever reference to WellesThe Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – still manages to retain, perhaps unwittingly, that association of ‘frontal portraiture’ with a feudal aristocracy, whether that aristocracy is defined in terms of the rich, the ‘especially gifted’ (which is Anderson’s personal mythology), or simply the relentless line-up of top films stars, here as in The Life Aquatic (2005).


But something has been lost in the passage from Parajanov to Anderson: the new smart film returns us to the mute dumbness of a merely spectacular, odd or funny image. Once again, the full, intense charge of Parajanov has been subjected to a historic short-circuit.


Such dismal appropriations teach us two things. Firstly, that no cinematic device – even frontality – means the same thing in all the times and places it appears; every ‘breaking of a code’ can be co-opted, and every stylistic effect can serve frankly opposed cultural purposes. And secondly, that if the force of Parajanov is a little lost to us today, then it is up to us, now, not merely to decipher but also to recreate, and transmit, that originary power.




1. Serge Daney, Ciné journal Volume 1 (Parris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998), p. 114.

2. John Conomos, “The Legend of Suram Fortress”, Filmnews (Australia), Vol 18 No 4 (May 1988), p. 12.

3. Paul Willemen, “Regimes of Subjectivity and Looking”, The UTS Review (Australia), Vol 1 No 2 (November 1995), p. 122.

4. Alain Masson, “Palpébral”, Positif, no. 274 (December 1983), p. 43.

5. Jean-André Fieschi, “F.W. Murnau”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), pp. 706-7.

6. David George Menard, “A Deleuzian Analysis of Tarkovsky’s Theory of Time-Pressure”, Hors-champ (2003).

7. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “The Phalke Era: Conflict of Traditional Form and Modern Technology”, Journal of Arts and Ideas (India),Vol 14 No 5 (1987), p. 59.

8. Jeffrey Sconce,  “Irony, Nihilism, and the New American ‘Smart’ Film”, Screen (UK), Vol 43 (2002), pp. 349-369.


© Adrian Martin 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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