Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

I’m a film gourmand, not a film gourmet. If it’s not The Matrix or Smokin’ Aces, somebody needs to take me by the hand and lead me through the movie. Otherwise I’m lighting up and watching something that I can understand. I watched a movie last month, Mon Oncle Antoine, about a boy in a small town out in the woods. It was an allegory. “Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.” See what I mean? The boy in Mon Oncle had to help somebody pick up a dead body and put it in a coffin: the boy is the populace of Quebec; the dead body is the old repressive government; the coffin is the history books. It’s like… it’s like… Obama picking up a squirrel carcass in the street and burying it by the flagpole in the back yard.

So as soon as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (aka Wild Horses of Fire (WHOF)) started, I knew that I was going to require guidance of some sort. Because the Janus Films logo came up and I know from long experience that that logo of yesteryear, as with Criterion today, signifies some sort of heavy load in the offing. And also, a subtitle said that the movie would take place in the hoary Carpathians (the Carpathians are shaped like a sickle, with the middle of the blade, the eastern part, being the Ukranian, or hoary, part). And because the movie then starts with a jew’s harp orchestra and a mother with an ax and a man saying “There is no devil in church… only in man.” And mustaches right out of Karl’s House of Fun (“Jokes, Gags, and the Perfect Bong”). And a man is killed, and then another. Who’s who here? What’s going on? Ear-piercing folk music rattles me. So I hit the Pause button and consulted my series of pipes. “The tall, thin trees create an exaggerated linearity, a sense of continuity, that provides a paradox to the brevity of their existence, and also symbolizes the eternity of true love…..the pervasive religious images are transfigurations of the purity of love… The color composition suggests emotional incongruence… the film is a testament to the inexorable power of destiny.” Does this mean it’s an allegory? I checked in with my artisically- and politically-aware friends Ivan (Ukranian) and Igor (Russian). They told me that the director, Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1993), was a trusted regionalist moviemaker (Georgian/Armenian) who quietly praised the glories of the Soviet Union and burlap underwear, but then suddenly unleased WHOF on an unsuspecting Russian Empire in 1964, to the horror of the apparatchiks in the Kremlin, and was lucky that he didn’t earn himself an immediate trip to the Gulag on the first string of cattle cars pulling out of the trainyard adjacent to his editing studio. In the years to come, he was accused of incitement to suicide, trafficing in art objects leading to homosexuality, and much more, and did spend fifteen years unable to work and five years in the Gulag. In the end he made three more major films (available boxed by Kino) – The Color of Pomegranates, The Legend of Suram Fortress, and Ashik Kerib. There is a documentary about him, Paradjanov: The Last Spring (1992).

So I can give a guy a chance, allegory or no allegory, when he’s paid a price like that. Such as Ye Lou, who made Suzhou River and got sent off by the Chinese government for two years, came back and made Purple Butterfly and then said, oh what the hell and made “Summer Palace” and shipped it to Cannes without permission, earning another five years of punishment. So watching Summer Palace, I got my head in a benign place. Same with WHOF.

And the thing about WHOF is that Paradjanov in filming those forgotten ancestors up there in the mountains, decided to go for the wild-fire-horse esthetic. He throws striking image after striking image onto the screen to the accompaniment of that crazed background mountainfolk caterwauling, plus the harps, fifteen-foot shepherdhorns,and bagpipes with their bags evidently taken from the Russian version of an 1850s Hoover. If you don’t like what you’re looking at, wait a minute because there’ll be something else completely different on the screen a minute later and I must say, some of my favorite movie scenes of all time are to be found in WHOF, scenes that I can loop back over again and again – I’m thinking here, for those of you familiar with the movie, of the barge passing in the river, the rain, wind, snow, fire, and big ball of white cheese in the barn, and Palagna starting to unmount from her horse in order to be mounted, but slipping to the ground completely overcome by passion – and that’s wearing five layers of wool. Word of advice: don’t marry a woman like this unless you’re in that top percentile when the wool comes off.

I should mention that I found a mouldering VHS copy of WHOF at a local library, back behind three Smokey and the Bandits. Strangely, this respected film is hard to find on the DVD shelves, at least where I live. One missing copy is “Claimed Returned,” another is just absent from its little box. But several years ago, the spouse at my request picked up a VCR player at Costco, dirt cheap and at least as obscure and forgotten in the big-box store as WHOF seems to be at the library, for just such an occasion as this. The film, squeaking on its reels, white bands of tape static cutting through it like lightening, might have been produced in the very Carpathians that it features. The primitive here isn’t just the story depicted, but the film style itself. Made not in the 60s, it almost seems, but back in the past that it is recording, with a camera made out of wood and rock. Why so rough? Paradjanov’s movies don’t all present this way. So it occured to me that in WHOF he decided to go stylisticly rustic and having so decided, adopted a type of method directing. That is, he went native behind the camera. Suppose, for example, that you (I’m talking to you. Thanks for reading this far.) decided to make a film about a mentally challenged person, and you included in your directorial esthetic the feeling that you yourself, behind the camera, were somehow in fact mentally challenged. Or suppose that you’re making a western and you let fly a stream of tobacco juice from your director’s perch, into the frame, every so often. Paradjanov acts like a filmmaker hired by the tribe to record its weddings and funerals and herding techniques (which he does), while hiding his camera in a sheep blind.

And speaking of passion, this is the one with Tatyana Bestayeva nude in the great outdoors, who, when she’s approached by a local herdsman stunned by what he is seeing, rather than shrinking away from him, says “Never seen a woman?” “Not like you,” he replies, and I believe him. When she hooks up with the local sorcerer, a tree bursts into flame. That’s sex!

When I watched “10 Canoes,” I happened to know something in advance about the Tiwi culture of Northern Australia; this made all the difference in understanding and appreciating the movie. On the other hand, with “Summer Palace” and “Drifters,” I had the distinct feeling that many subtleties of Chinese culture were eluding me completely. Such was undoubtedly also the case with WHOF. One sees but perhaps does not understand. No matter. There are the images. I thought northern Canada was cold, but now this. Christmas costume frolics with the hero dressed as Death. Snap-brim fedoras in households with a calf under the dinner table. Rain that appears to come down on the heroine’s head from a hose. YouTube provides various clips. The online 5.5GB version features brilliant color and extras that include a documentary about Paradjanov’s friendship with Tarkovsky. And just once, when we get the firing into the air with rifles, I’d like to see chunks of lead fall back and conk somebody on the noggin.