Sarajanov | Gaga. The allure of the obscure.
Call me crazy, but there is such an immense allure to the obscure; I just can’t keep well enough alone.
I recently happened upon Sergei Paradzjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranites, 1976 via Lady Gaga, of all people … I’ll start from the beginning.
On Friday 18th Lady Gaga released the music video for 911 – the latest single off her new record: Chromatica, 2020.
The song explores the reality of one’s mind unravelling when a fundamental element is not utilized. For Gaga, this is anti-psychotic medication. Upon my preliminary research, I understood the video was paying homage to this obscure piece of art cinema; The Colour of Pomegranates. I hadn’t seen the film, or shamefully, (as someone with a film theory degree) heard all that much of Sergei Parajanov. I could see that Gaga was presenting us with reality, (a horrific accident where she is in severe pain) with interspersed moments from an alternate dreamscape version of this reality.
Now, I’m a self-proclaimed Gaga mega fan – a Little Monster, if you will, but I was confused. It wasn’t just another moment where I thought to myself, ‘oh ok, it’s Gaga doing Gaga, I’ll absorb it, appreciate it, love it’. I needed more, a lot more. I needed to deep dive. Which I did.
Be that as it may, I’m not writing this to analyze every bit of rich symbolic, metaphorical, iconographic layer to Paradzjanov’s film, nor Gaga’s visual homage. I will explore a few thoughts and understandings I have of this somewhat unsuspected duo. It is not my aim to revere myself as an expert in Paradzjanov, soviet realism and history of Armenian medieval poets – I want to respect it enough to not attempt to apply my basic analysis. This has been mostly a meditative exercise on the ideas and morals of tradition and art evolution.
Here, I will merely explore a few thoughts and understandings I have of this somewhat unsuspected duo and two bodies of work.
A musical legend; a thwarted filmic hero.
What do they have in common?
It is not so bizarre that Gaga would find some creative solace in a character like Paradzjanov. A figure who was; constantly under scrutiny for his abandonment of structure and formal process; misunderstood and often persecuted for his subversive sexual activity. Parajanov was arrested for rape, homosexuality and bribery in 1973. Although Lady Gaga has experienced world-wide success and achievements for her work, it as not been without relentless doubt and criticism. In her early career the perpetual topics that were brought about in interviews were if she was a male or a female and what sexual orientation she possessed. Gaga has many layers and levels that she uses aesthetics and musical genres to display to us. She’s quick the peacock and has been memorizing music lovers for over a decade with her vast array of interests and talents.
So anyway, I watched The Colour of Pomegranates. The film that Scorcese described as; ‘Opening a door and walking into another dimension, where time has stopped and beauty has been unleashed’
I am happy the BFI player shows this quote as the short form description under the title. It’s a great idea to possess when entering the film. It’s quite a strange experience watching a piece of film, so obscure, where every shot is meaningful. One feels quite useless in the enterprise of understanding. Reaching the end of the film is where the full experience truly begins – in research.
Paradzjanov gives us a stylized interpretation of Sayat Nova’s life. An Armenian writer, musician who lived a very religious life but whose works contained mostly secular and romantic themes. The film seems to explore these paradoxical lifestyles through displaying both ritualistic and sensual behavior. At time these two themes play out at the same time. The shots that shows several monks, each, greedily chomping away on pomegranates. The fruit, saturated in many religions and mythology as various symbolic significance, has roots in everlasting life and abundance – both things which are desirable but also heavily attained to in secularity. The two ever so entangled in paradoxical partnership.
temptation and death
As there is very little spoken narrative, Parajanov floods the film with the sounds of the senses and the elements. The harmonious raucous that provides the soundtrack to the monks devouring their pomegranates progresses seamlessly into the monks having their feet washed water, in order to grape-tread during which is accompanied by squelching sounds.
Gaga has always explored the use of both religious and sexual imagery in order to examine ideals. Film, moving image – music video’s have always been almost as important as the songs to Gaga, in that her vision for the song aids the meaning and symbolism.
– Washing away sins, cleansing the soul, rejuvenation.
I think another reason Paradzjanov and Gaga correlate so well is that they both retain an element of nostalgia in their work, whilst working to see how far the boundary can be pushed within the realm of tradition. Paradzjanov envisages the 18th century Armenian cultural hero, Sayat Nova’s life representationally, in six chapters in The Colour of Pomegranites. Six bizarre, eery, surreal, confronting, mystifying chapters.
The pop singer managed to get boys, girls, men and women around the world to sing the lyrics, ‘Oh oh oh oh oh I’m in love with Judas’. Using figures from the bible, Gaga tells a modern day story, relatable to ideas of loyalty, seduction, betrayal and love.
Ritualistic imagery has historically intrigued Gaga through the making of music videos like; Alejandro, Judas and now 911. It seems as though Gaga gravitates towards the obscure, often surrealistic aura of religion and spirituality to help explore an idea or an experience in her life.
The music video for Alejandro, Lady Gaga.
The artist’s relationship to representational aesthetics in relation to experience is apparent also in stage design and backdrop sequences on tour. For Gaga’s second studio album; Born This Way, 2011 – a Victorian Gothic stage was designed with no side screens. The singer said;
“I really wanted to break the mold of what modem touring is right now. The most important thing to me was that there be no video screens. What if we just really simplified all of that so that you just have to watch me and the dancers the whole time?”
– Gaga on the set design.
This is evocative of early stage set designs in film, as in the infamous Robert Wiene”s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which the sets were hand painted and crafted to present the illusion of dimension and perspective.
The composition of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari creates angular distortion that aids the illusionary confusion of the mind state of the main character. Gaga’s set design for the Born This Way tour creates the grandiose indulgent aura that celebrated the self, complimentary to the album. Doing away with side screens created more of an intimate relationship with the audience.
This is also what is achieved by Paradzjanov in The Colour of Pomegranites through shot composition and editing.
The square aspect ratio that shoots the six chapters in instils the idea of framing. It’s odd form elevates the feel of primitive art work, complimenting the medieval poet’s time.
is as though Paradzjanov works with layers of iconography to over indulge viewers with symbolism. See how, in the picture above the actress stands at the forefront of the shot, where Mary can be seen in the far left background almost translucent, or as though she is part of the wall behind them.
In the following sequence, sound and colour play an important role in the development of Sayat Nova’s life. Temptation and seduction play out in conjunction with fast pace hard cuts. The woman on screen seduces by pulling gently on a white ribbon over a shell in place of her breast, she then covers and reveals her eyes a few times, which proves too much for Sayat Nova – he stand back with his arms up in a ‘stop’ motion.
The camera distance also helps here to tell the story. From a close up on the female, to a long, wide shot of Nova, Paradzjanov works with every element he has, aside from dialogue for this unconventional biopic tells a story.
There is a danger of me trying to connect dots where there aren’t any – however…it’s fun.
In the scene where Gaga mimics Sayat Nova’s arm movements, she sings the chorus:
‘My biggest enemy is me
Pop a 911′
I don’t think this is a coincidence as when Sayat Nova creates these shapes and movements, his religious life is being challenged by the seduction from the woman in lace and I think Gaga is using this to portray the narrative that is herself that can at times sabotage herself. The power of her mind overwhelms her if not for 911 ( the anti-psychotic medication). This makes me thing of investigating the self, truly looking inwards with ideas of life and death. Sayat Nova is seek in a white walled room or courtyard with two peacocks inhabiting the arched windows. In medieval Armenian culture, it was believed that peacocks skin never decays they are representative of eternal life. It grows new feathers every year which in this instance makes me think of Nova’s muti-faceted lifestyle – the relationship between religion and secular experience and for Gaga the relationship between fame and normality.
The challenge of this analysis/review has been expanding my reading of film and accepting when something is an aesthetic choice or if it has a specific meaning. I can never truly know I guess, and that is perhaps the ‘beauty’ Scorcese spoke about when describing The Colour of Pomegranates. I understand him now. The allure is the’ quality of being powerfully and mysteriously attractive or fascinating’ and the mystery of Parajanov and Gaga is what required me to learn more.
Nonetheless, I wanted to explore why Gaga was so inspired by this film, I needed to see the correlation between her music video and the meaning behind the film. This proved quite impossible but it did made me appreciate Gaga that much more as she made a change to the traditional pop music video. To reference art film with the platform she has is really important for the current climate of the music industry. I think this video will inspire other artists to look deeper into themselves and see how music visuals are still relevant today.
The idea that is most prevalent to me regarding these two artist and bodies of work, is the way in which life and death are confronted. Ideas and feelings are presented in both works as opposite yet fundamentally linked at the same time.
The director of Gaga’s 911 music video; Tarsem Singh decided on similar editing techniques as The Colour of Pomegranites creating quick shifts with sudden cuts, which almost welcomes the viewers into the distorted mind set of Gaga. I think this could be at the core of the connection between these artists: Using unconventional allure – their ability to present a mind set, a montage of lived experience … yeah, I think this makes the most sense to me, let’s leave it at that.
There are already some video analysis theories on YouTube of 911, very little on The Colour of Pomegranates (not surprisingly), so go and check it out for a mind-bending few hours.
How to watch the Colour of Pomegranites: BFI Player – £4.99 a month.
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