Paradjanov and Godard on DVD

Michael Fox January 29, 2008

Anybody who values artists over politicians and bureaucrats takes an extra measure of pleasure in the imminent release of a Sergei Paradjanov DVD boxed set. Similarly, anyone who cherishes filmmakers above critics and financiers welcomes the arrival of a Jean-Luc Godard box spotlighting his underrated mid-‘80s work. Paradjanov is not with us to enjoy the last laugh — he died in 1990 — but it is a marvelous thing indeed that his work is widely available. After he released the barbed, beautiful “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” in 1964, the great Russian director was harangued, harassed, and ultimately imprisoned for four years by Soviet functionaries. Following his release in 1977, he was so restricted and constricted that he was only able to direct two features in his remaining years. Godard hasn’t had to endure indignity and suffering on that scale, needless to say, but he has been subjected to endless insults over the years, not least among them the yawning indifference of American critics and moviegoers to his dense, beautiful films. So the distribution of his lesser-known works is a cultural triumph equally worth trumpeting.

“The Films of Sergei Paradjanov” (Kino, $79.95) brings all of the director’s major works together on DVD for the first time. The package includes “The Color of Pomegranates,” the 1969 masterpiece that he shot under the title “Sayat Nova” and was forced by Soviet censors to recut, plus remastered versions of “The Legend of Suram Fortress” (coincidentally, this 1984 film screens Wed., Jan 30 at the Pacific Film Archive as part of the “The Medieval Remake” series) and “Ashik Kerab” (1988). The real lure, if further incentive is required, is the first appearance on DVD of “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” the work of vision and honed bitterness that focused the attention of shadowy figures in the Kremlin.

Set in the wintry hinterlands of the Carpathian Mountains, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” plays like a 19th century folk tale handed down through generation after generation. Based on an early-20th-Century novel by Mykhailo Mykhailovych Kotsiubynsky, the film depicts the rather miserable life of a Ukrainian named Ivan. Before the credits, his brother gets felled by a tree while saving Ivan’s life, and moments later his father is killed in a pride-fueled hatchet battle. As Ivan grows up, his friendship with Marichka, the daughter of his father’s killer, develops into a profound mutual love. “Shadows” seems to be shaping up as a Romeo and Juliet story, but it moves in a different, though equally dark, direction.

I’ve made the plot sound horribly grim, but it is leavened by Paradjanov’s love of color and music. A kind of backwoods costume epic, “Shadows” is decidedly more theatrical than realistic. The soundtrack is nearly wall-to-tall with songs that reverberate with the superstition — and religion — that provides the basis for the community’s beliefs and behavior. Yet at the same time, the vast majority of the film takes place outdoors, grounding it (pun intended) in a carpet of rivers, forests and snow.

Paradjanov shoots “Shadows” in a modernist style (audacious whip pans, dreamy crane shots) that seems at odds with the tale’s 19th-Century setting, and yet he pulls it off without a hitch. That brings us straight to the door of Jean-Luc Godard, who has made a career of aggressively challenging storytelling conventions and the dominance of plot.

I vaguely recall an old Godard quote where he essentially accused every narrative filmmaker of being a traitor to cinema. It was an inflammatory statement uttered by a provocateur, but it no longer seems remotely radical to me. Look at the shot selection and editing of “The Jane Austen Book Club” or “Dan in Real Life,” and tell me that the people who made those movies have the slightest awareness of cinema as an art form.

I revisited “Passion” (1982), the eye-popping curtain raiser of “The Jean-Luc Godard Collector’s Edition” (Lionsgate, $34.98), which also includes “First Name: Carmen” (1983), “Detective” (1985) and “Hélas, Pour Moi” (1993). “Passion” is ostensibly about a stubborn Polish director shooting a Byzantine movie — Jerzy angrily deflects any inquiry from a financier or extra about the actual story — and, like every Godard movie, it exposes the ongoing war between art and commerce. Or, to put it more elegantly, the difficulty of creating beauty in a post-capitalist world.

The great joke of “Passion,” given how much jawing the characters (played by the likes of Isabel Huppert and Michel Piccoli) do about budgets and work and America, is the amount of beauty Godard crams into every frame. Those who attack or dismiss Godard for being intentionally obscure, and for not making movies the typical multiplex patron can “follow” — are missing all the other pleasures that film offers beyond plot and character development. The things, in other words, that are unique to cinema, and aren’t borrowed from theater or novels or (God forbid) television.

Although I am prone to rail against home-viewing patterns as much as the next curmudgeon, DVD seems especially well-suited to Godard. More than any director working today, with the exceptions of David Lynch and Hou Hsaio-Hsien, Godard’s films require multiple viewings for their structure and themes to become apparent. I would add “meanings,” except I realized while watching “Passion” that in trying to decipher and decode the plot, I was missing so much else.

I was guided to that epiphany by a couple of lines that Jerzy says to his Polish leading lady (played with exquisite dignity by Hanna Shygulla). “Maybe it’s not that important to understand,” he suggests. “It’s enough just to take.” A viewer couldn’t ask for a more straightforward communication, or direction, from Godard than that.

For the record, neither the Paradjanov nor the Godard box set contains any extras of significant value. But with directors and films of this caliber, they aren’t missed.