Hakob Hovnatanyan: the radical sound and vision of Parajanov’s miniature masterpiece

Hakob Hovnatanyan (dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1967)

Short films are often given, well, short shrift. Much like comparing poetry with prose, the form of the short film is arguably more difficult to master, at least effectively, than its long form counterpart. Sometimes, it is best to reject both exposition and narrative, in favour of something impressionistic. In Sergei Parajanov’s Hakob Hovnatanyan (1967), we learn little of either the titular painter or what makes his work significant. We do, however, get a feeling for his work, not to mention the milieu in which he worked and from which he emerged.

Five years ago, I was in Brussels, thinking what to say before a screening of Hakob Hovnatanyan, a short film by Parajanov about a nineteenth-century Armenian portrait painter, which I had a hand in restoring. An Armenian woman introduced herself as working for the Embassy in Brussels, saying that she belonged to a family which commissioned one of the paintings featured in Parajanov’s film. What was special about this portrait, and what distinguished it from the others, was that its subject was dead when it was made: a husband had ordered the painting to commemorate his wife after her passing.

The business of restoring Hakob Hovnatanyan had started exactly one year previously. I had flown to Yerevan to discuss the possibility of loaning the original camera negative of the film so that it could be cleaned and scanned in Warsaw. Things looked a little shaky when a fortunately peaceful revolution took place during the spring, but finally an agreement was reached in June 2018. The negative was delivered by hand, digitised, and, at the end of the summer, was programmed by the late Tom Luddy, accompanying the North American premiere of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War at the Telluride Film Festival. I never found out why Luddy thought Hakob Hovnatanyan would go well with Cold War. The most obvious answer would be that, to a North American mindset, both films would be “Eastern European”, the short a product of the Soviet past while the feature a reflection on it. However, I suspect the rationale was more subtle, in that both works share a feeling, not so much of sentimentality, but of nostalgia.

Parajanov’s film is, in some ways, a lament for the past – not the Soviet Tbilisi of 1967, but the nineteenth-century Tiflis that Hakob Hovnatanyan himself knew

In Japan, the concept of mono no aware, or “the pathos of things”, is used to relate to the ephemeral nature of existence, as well as that feeling of sadness that usually comes with it. Pathos is as good a word as any to characterise the mature work of Parajanov, whose centenary was marked on 9 January. By “mature phase” I am referring to the body of work that begins with The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). However, many of the formal qualities and thematic concerns of this masterpiece of world cinema can be traced to Hakob Hovnatanyan. Like the widow commissioning a painting of his dead wife, Parajanov’s film is, in some ways, a lament for the past – not the Soviet Tbilisi of 1967, but the nineteenth-century Tiflis that Hakob Hovnatanyan himself knew. Parajanov was born in 1924, less than seven years after the October Revolution; the Tbilisi in this film, with its mechanical music boxes and horse drawn carriages, is the Tbilisi of not just his childhood, but also the Tiflis he experienced indirectly, through art.

A few months after the screening at Telluride, I travelled once again to Yerevan to screen Hakob Hovnatanyan for the Armenian General Benevolent Union, an international non-profit association established in 1906. In the audience was Tigran Mansuryan, the composer of the remarkable score for The Colour of Pomegranates. When I asked Mansuryan about how he approached the music of The Colour of Pomegranates, he likened it to ikebana, the Japanese art of arranging flowers. The score for Pomegranates is unique amongst Mansuryan’s work, as it is the sole example of musique concrète. This style was pioneered in the 1940s by French sound engineer, Pierre Schaeffer, who approached sound recordings as the raw materials for musical compositions. These sounds could be collaged, much like in photomontages and film editing. It was the work of Schaeffer, and his collaborator Pierre Henry, that fascinated Mansuryan – and, by proxy, Parajanov. According to Mansuryan, the soundtrack of The Colour of Pomegranates would not have been possible without the contribution of a sound engineer, Yuri Sayadyan; Hakob Hovnatanyan was, in effect, Sayadyan’s graduation film as a sound engineer. Just as with The Colour of Pomegranates, Hakob Hovnatayan is a film to be heard as well as seen. To appreciate what both Parajanov and Sayadyan achieved with Hakob Hovnatanyan, it is necessary to go back to the late 1920s, and the birth of film sound.

Hakob Hovnatanyan (dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1967)

In 1928, Sergei Eisenstein, alongside his then-assistant, Grigorii Aleksandrov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, signed a “statement on sound”. Their worry was that, with the coming of synchronised sound, film language would be set back decades: the new technology would enable filmmakers to, in effect, directly capture stage plays. Instead, they advocated for a juxtaposition of sound and image. Just as one shot is modified by a subsequent shot, a shot could also be modified by music, the spoken word, or raw sound. Stalin’s cultural revolution put paid to that dream, as throughout the 1930s and 1940s socialist realism took hold as the official Soviet aesthetic across the arts. Truly innovative soundtracks would flourish in the West at the same time: for instance, in a handful of British documentaries ironically inspired by Eisenstein, like Alberto Cavalcanti’s Coal Face (1935), or, most famously, Harry Watt and Basil Wrights’ Night Mail (1936).

Nearly four decades later, Sayadyan’s musique concrète soundtrack for Hakob Hovnatanyan returns to this avant-garde dream, serving as a non-verbal commentary on Parajanov’s images. Accompanying a rhythmic succession of static details of male portraits are rhythmical drums, while corresponding details from their female counterparts are matched by melodic wailing. Portraits of children, meanwhile, are juxtaposed with youthful chattering in French. It is not so much what is said that matters: it is the signification of a pre-Soviet Russian empire, the empire of the nineteenth century during which Hovnatanyan lived and worked. One aspect of Sayadyan and Parajanov’s soundtrack for Hakob Hovnatanyan is particularly brave, one which audiences may still find disconcerting: the use of silence.

There are two versions of The Colour of Pomegranates, only one of which was edited and approved by Parajanov, the so-called “Armenian” version. For its limited release throughout the Soviet Union and abroad, the film was recut by former avant-gardist and Eisenstein contemporary Sergei Yutkevich. Judging by production memos edited and translated by Parajanov scholar James Steffen, Yutkevich deemed Parajanov’s edit surprisingly sloppy, both in terms of image and sound. In his version, Yutkevich made a surprising addition: a shot of a church cupola crashing into smithereens is given a “gong” sound transposed from a different part of the original soundtrack.

Hakob Hovnatanyan is neither documentary nor fiction. It doesn’t have a musical score, at least in the conventional sense. Yet, in many ways, it counts as a singular, furtive exploration of the style for which Parajanov would become famous

Levon Abrahamyan, a cultural anthropologist and friend of Parajanov who also makes a brief appearance in The Colour of Pomegranates, explained that Parajanov’s counterintuitive “silence” had been entirely intentional. Indeed, if Schaeffer’s “concreteness” was one innovation which fed into Sayadyan and Parajanov’s sound work, then so was the thinking of another twentieth century musical pioneer, John Cage. In 1952, Cage premiered his infamous 4’33”, in which the orchestra does not play a single note. In one sense, it challenged the very idea of “silence” – a work in which nothing is played nevertheless attunes the audience to sound per se, whether it be the random creaking of chairs, accidental coughs, or simple ambience. In another, as in architecture, it recognised space as something of equal importance to substance, much like the pregnant meaning ascribed to pauses in the work of the playwright Harold Pinter.

This also brings us back to the particular difficulties – and power – of the short film form. Subtraction, as opposed to addition, was an integral part of the modernist aesthetics. Reducing a work to basic formal elements, whether it be in a text by Samuel Beckett, or a single line drawn by Picasso, is to adhere to the adage that less is often more. The German art historian Wilhem Worringer even went as far as correlating abstraction with empathy. If an artwork is transcendent, then it is beyond imagination, and we are left only with the possibility of describing what it isn’t. Parajanov’s Hakob Hovnatanyan is neither documentary nor fiction. It doesn’t have a musical score, at least in the conventional sense. Yet, in many ways, it counts as a singular, furtive exploration of the style for which Parajanov would become famous. A style in which both action and drama, character and plot are purged.

Watch Hakob Hovnatanyan on Klassiki from 11 January to 1 February.

Daniel Bird produced Parajanov Triptych, a programme of restored short films including Hakob Hovnatanyan, and Temple of Cinema #1: Sayat Nova Outtakes.