Like Breath

A second “dispatch” from Paris in The Common.



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A city, a melody, and the past….

~~My “little” essay, Petite Fleur, has just been posted on The Common.


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Ja’afar Toukan (1938-20014)

~~I read today that Jafar Toukan, the eminent Palestinian-Jordanian architect, has died in Amman, the Jordanian capital.  Toukan’s vision was modernist; his commitment was to local culture and building materials.  He was a man of immense cultural knowledge, humility, and grace.  He was also a family friend, across the decades–first as a professional colleague of my father (who was also an architect), and then, with his wife Ihsan Toukan, as a friend of my mother.  Whenever I visited Amman, I would see Ihsan and Jafar, and we would while away the afternoon over lunch and coffee, in good conversation.

SOS Children's Village. Photo:archnet

SOS Children’s Village. Jordan.  Photo:archnet

Born into a prominent Palestinian family of poets (Ibrahim Toukan was his father; Fadwa Toukan was his aunt), Jafar Toukan was an architect of local education (a graduate of the American University of Beirut) and practice, and open to the world.  His buildings stretched across the entire Arab Middle East, from Libya to Palestine; included government, cultural, educational, financial, commemorative and residential structures; and reflected some of the distinctive characteristics of their designer–clear, uncluttered lines and self-consciously restrained forms, but most of all an esthetic that was devoid of ostentation, excess, and aggressive visibility.

Jubilee School. Photo:archnet

Jubilee School. Amman, Jordan. Photo:archnet

Today, Amman is a hodgepodge of many rather ugly building, their opulence bordering on the obscene, sustained no doubt by the wishes of the affluent who fled the two Gulf Wars.  Yet the clutter and excess coexist with another category of structures, harking back to those years when architects, among them  Jafar Toukan, and earlier my father, stamped the city with a honeycomb of buildings which draw attention to themselves for their marriage of the local with the international.  They arrest you in your tracks, these buildings, for all they show of stone and texture and perspective and contrast– the blue sky against the white limestone, the esthetic principle against the local materials, the grand design against everyday functionality.

Residence. Amman. Photo:archnet

Residence. Amman. Photo:archnet

The earth, light on Jafar Toukan, a great architect and humanist.~~

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Autumn at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge (2)

It was cold today, the wind howling, the leaves wild, and the Mount Auburn Cemetery crowded with pedestrians and cars and performers and singers and warblers.  We even heard an accordion player and watched awestruck a majestic hawk, indifferent, perhaps even oblivious to our amazement.  (He’s in the penultimate picture.)

Soon snow will set in, and all will be inert for months and months and months.  Today was a festival of sorts, the burning sun before the dark, the animation before the long silence of the dead, the exuberance before long wait.  But even in winter, in the bone-chilling cold of winter, Mount Auburn is a beautiful place, the living–most of them–having left, and the dead in full domination, reminding the few daring visitors that to befriend the dead is to know life, life which is its own reward, its own spring.

P1000146P1000144P1000143 P1000140P1000139P1000138*

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Autumn at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge

Yes, there are the small, quaint towns of Vermont, the daunting heights of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, but there are also beautiful spots of color and energy here in our city, in its downtown and its suburbs.  Mount Auburn Cemetery is one such place, one among half a dozen or so, and today this home of the dead was all life, a dance of shade and wind on an unseasonably warm day.

P1000127 There isn’t much to say about this jewel of a place on the Cambridge-Watertown line.  Easy to get to, welcoming, and stunningly beautiful all year round, but most of all in autumn.  Today was Mount Auburn Cemetery’s day–sunny, yes, but also just windy enough for the constant downward turn of the leaves, one after another, like a blanket over the dead, a preparation for winter’s snow.

P1000126I come to Mount Auburn Cemetery often, to visit a person I love who is buried here, yes.  But also to be with all the dead, the famous and the lesser-known, those who were snatched too early and those who lived into ripe old age, those who sacrificed their life for a cause and those who died in silence, alone.  All here, subject to life’s great equalizer.  But also life’s reservoir of memory and meaning.

P1000132All here, in this expansive, meandering space of the living and the dead.  And a handful of us, pedestrians, lost, stunned, sorrowful, but most of all full of wonderment and awe at a leaf that suddenly begins its journey to the ground, twirls and turns, hangs in mid-air for an instant, then continues its path downward.  At last, it finds its place on the ground, and all motion stops.  Home.

P1000128Farewell, until next time, when the snows melt and spring returns.  But on this miracle of an afternoon, it is life that the dead offer, life which is its own reward, path and destination, fall and rest.

P1000135 *

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“The Color of Pomegranates” Restored

~~From time to time on this blog, I have posted material on the great Soviet film-maker, Sergei Paradjanov.  Today, I am re-posting an important article on Paradjanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates” by James Steffen.  Steffen is a scholar of Paradjanov and author of “The Cinema of Sergei Paradjanov.” He is also a friend, and we have been fellow travelers in Armenia.  The restoration of “The Color of Pomegranates” is a cause for celebration. It heals–as much as restoration can–the wounds inflicted on this great film; it also gives viewers the opportunity to see the film in, literally, a new light.  But most of all, I think, it reminds us, in case we had forgotten, of the enduring art of Paradjanov’s visionary film-making.  The article was posted originally on James’ blog, Dreams and Pomp. Thanks, James!~~

The Color of Pomegranates Restored

DVD frame capture

At the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, The Film Foundation/World Cinema Project premiered a new 4k digital restoration of Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Currently it is screening at various film festivals around the world, and one hopes that it will see a Blu-ray/DVD release at some point in the future. I had the opportunity to view the restoration this summer at two different festivals: Il Cinema Ritrovato (Bologna) and the Golden Apricot International Film Festival (Yerevan). Accordingly, I would like to offer some thoughts on the significance of the restoration and the results.

(Disclosure: I served as an informal historical consultant behind the scenes on the restoration, though I did not participate in the actual restoration process. The program notes I wrote for Il Cinema Ritrovato can be found here, on pages 175-176)

As I discuss in my 2013 book, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, the film survives in two distinct versions. The original 1969 theatrical release in Armenia ran at 77 minutes under the title Nran guyne (loosely, “The Color of Pomegranates”) and had Armenian-language credits and intertitles. The other version, intended for Soviet-wide and later international distribution, was reedited by the filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich and runs at 73 minutes, with Russian-language credits and intertitles. (The Russian-language title is Tsvet granata, which also translates loosely as “The Color of Pomegranates.”) The Film Foundation/World Cinema Project wisely has preserved and restored both versions, though the Armenian version is the one currently being distributed for exhibition via DCP.

The Armenian Version

The Armenian release version is of particular value because it has been screened much less than the Yutkevich cut. More importantly, its editing is closer to Parajanov’s intentions. If we think of the film as a poem, the Armenian version better conveys Parajanov’s thought processes, especially his more playful and eccentric impulses. One sequence which I have always loved in particular is when the aging Sayat-Nova, now a monk at the Haghpat monastery, savors the beauty of spring. He embraces a young lamb then removes his robe to bask under the sun, and the other monks follow suit. During this sequence Parajanov builds on this basic underlying idea so that it achieves great emotional power. Yutkevich’s reedited version removes several striking shots and fundamentally changes Parajanov’s associative logic, ultimately robbing the sequence of some of its poignancy.

However, even the Armenian version is not without its complexities and compromises. It was already the product of an extended censorship battle both with Goskino USSR in Moscow and the local authorities in Armenia. The most damaging change that the Armenian officials required was to remove almost all references to the poet Sayat-Nova, the main subject and inspiration for the film. In fact, the project was originally entitled Sayat-Nova, though admittedly it is common for film titles to change before release for various reasons, in the USSR, Hollywood and elsewhere. Parajanov is said to have liked the new title.

The greatest harm arguably resulted from the requirement to change the chapter titles. Parajanov’s chapter titles in his original script described the contents of each scene in a relatively straightforward manner, inspired by the principles of illustrations or miniature painting. For example, one chapter in the script reads:

How Sayat-Nova, the sacristan of Haghpat Monastery, found in the women’s monastery the very best shroud for the body of Ghazaros, and saw a nun who resembled the princess.

Parajanov’s chapter title makes the main thrust of the episode clear to viewers, so that they can enjoy how this idea is developed visually during the episode.

Largely as a result of the censors’ demands, the noted writer Hrant Matevosyan was brought in to write new chapter titles for the Armenian release version. They reflected the emotional tone of each chapter but did not describe the contents. His chapter title for the corresponding episode reads:

I asked for a shroud to wrap the dead body; instead, they showed the frenzied convulsions of their living bodies. Where can I find selfless love?

In fact, Matevosyan’s title fits the underlying meaning and tone of the episode fairly well, as do most of his other chapter titles. They are often quite perceptive. The problem is that when combined with the film’s cryptic imagery and extensive use of pantomime, they make things unnecessarily difficult for the viewer. More difficult than Parajanov wanted, arguably.

Although I do not have hard evidence for this, I suspect that the other main alteration in the Armenian version was the soundtrack. The film contains several extended silent passages–much more than Parajanov’s other films and, indeed, more than most modern sound feature films. In some cases it appears that Parajanov intended individual shots to be silent, as part of an overall dialectic of sound versus silence. However, some of the silences are very long indeed, and it is difficult to imagine that Parajanov wanted quite so much silence.

My own (unsubstantiated) theory is that at least some of the silences indicate places where Sayat-Nova’s name was spoken on the soundtrack and simply cut out at the last minute to appease the censors. The clearest example of this is at the end of the film, where the mason says “Sing!” (“Yerki!”) and “Die! (“Meri!”). If one looks at his lips closely, it appears that he originally said “Sayat-Nova, yerki” and “Sayat-Nova, meri,” which matches the dialogue in Parajanov’s script.

As I note elsewhere, Alexei Romanov, the chair of Goskino, disliked the film and initially refused distribution outside of Armenia. Sergei Yutkevich resolved the impasse with Moscow by introducing new, simplified chapter titles that made the film easier to understand, and he even re-introduced some of Sayat-Nova’s poetry. He further trimmed a couple minutes of footage and rearranged some sequences. In fact some scholars I know actually prefer the Yutkevich version, because they have grown up with it and find it easier and more enjoyable to watch. I personally feel that the Armenian version is superior for a variety of reasons, but I do not consider the Yutkevich version to be a travesty by any means. I have shown it to students and in public on a number of occasions because the color and detail on prints for this version have always looked superior. This is because Yutkevich cut the camera negative to conform to his edit of the film, whereas the Armenian version only survives in a problematic duplicate negative.

To sum up: the Armenian release version is not without its problems, though it does represent the original theatrical release version of the film. Thus, it is significant from a historical perspective. In terms of editing, it is far closer to Parajanov’s intentions than the Yutkevich version. Ultimately, I feel that it does a better job of conveying Parajanov’s creative vision.

The 2014 Restoration

During Il Cinema Ritrovato, I had the opportunity to meet Cecilia Cenciarelli, the Archival and Restoration Manager for the World Cinema Project, and discuss some of the specifics behind the restoration. I will do my best to summarize some of her comments and observations below.

As the Cinema Ritrovato program notes indicate, the restoration was conducted by the Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrova and the Film Foundation/World Cinema Project. It was derived from multiple picture and sound elements. The camera negative held at Gosfilmofond of Russia was scanned in 4k, as was the duplicate negative of the Armenian version held at National Cinema Centre of Armenia. For a color reference they used an early Orwocolor release print from the Harvard Film Archive.

For the soundtrack, where possible they used the original magnetic recording held at Gosfimofond, and the optical track from an Armenian print for the audio portions not present in the Yutkevich cut. The audio track on the Armenian duplicate negative apparently contained a great deal of noise and distortion, making it largely unusable. Indeed, the sound was one of the most challenging aspects of the restoration and it pushed the limits of currently available technology. (I should note here that L’Immagine Ritrovata has one of the world’s leading sound restoration facilities.)

The important thing to keep in mind is that restorations such as this ideally adhere to commonly accepted standards and protocols in the archival community. One basic principle is that restorations should be philological—that is, any decisions should be based on a solid understanding of a film’s textual considerations (such as different versions) and surviving historical documentation around it–such as studio and censorship documents. A second principle is that any restoration work is reversible; in other words, the film should not be altered in such a way that work on it cannot be undone. A third principle is that any interventions should be documented. For digital restorations, as is the case with The Color of Pomegranates, this means partly that the work is saved and documented at each stage (raw 4k scan, digital removal of damage and dirt, color correction, etc.) so that one can retrace or undo each of these steps if necessary and do further work based on the same materials in the future.

The End Result

In my opinion, on the whole this restoration looks better than anything I have seen. In places I noticed colors and details in the film that I have not seen before. At the same time, the color timing fits within the general range of the various 35mm prints I have seen, but it benefits from greater evenness. The image is also stable and free of damage.

I have long had concerns about the state of the surviving materials for the Armenian release version, based on the 35mm print I saw years ago and the poor quality video masters available in the US and France. Fortunately, this restoration was able to use the camera negative for most of the film, since there are only a couple minutes total difference in the footage between both versions. Because of the condition of the Armenian duplicate negative, it was not possible to make the footage from that element completely match the footage from the camera negative. In other words, the footage specific to the Armenian version looks slightly softer and has a slightly different color bias. Yet even that footage still looks better than what I have seen before. If anything, these visible differences are instructive from a historical perspective, because they show which shots Yutkevich cut and how the changes affected the film’s underlying poetic logic. The restored soundtrack also sounded stronger and cleaner than what I am used to hearing, including in the more problematic passages from the Armenian version.

For me, this now makes the restored Armenian release version unquestionably the version of choice to view from now on. For those who prefer the Yutkevich version for whatever reason, with any luck that restoration will also be released on Blu-ray or DVD alongside the Armenian version. My ideal Blu-ray edition would include both.

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Mourning Gaza

These lines from Darwish, for Gaza

If you were not the rain, my love, then be the tree
Saturated and bountiful, be the tree.
And if you were not the tree, my love, then be the stone
Saturated and moist,  be the stone.
And if you were not the stone, my love, then be the moon
In the dream of the loved one, be the moon.
This is what a woman said to her son at his funeral.

~~Excerpt from Under Siege (2000) by Mahmoud Darwish,
translated from the Arabic by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis~~



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