the castle disappears

luxury development and the vanishing of the city

About K.

At first, a slow dark limb knits itself from the earth. Bound with concrete, skewered with rebar. The process of decomposition plays out in reverse; a skeleton lurching out of nothing, assembled into the sloped body of a diseased and obliterating animal, yet somehow gleaming. Rain comes down on the mottled edges of Finsbury Park. Wet and oily, tumbling beads. Is that the quality of the air, beginning to change?

In the opening words of Kafka’s Castle, the narrator, K., glimpses—shielding, I always think, his eyes—the bulk of the castle that dominates the village at its base. K. will not escape this village. Nor will he enter the bounds of the castle. His eye will slide from it forever, its oiled and obscurant carapace;

“It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of Castle Mount, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.”

The castle dominates everything. It is absolute; an incontrovertibly raw fact of the existential plane. “Where the great castle lay.” We do not glimpse its awful wet stone for ourselves, its spindly towers. K looks up “at what seemed to be a void.”

Close to home, but far away

London. A city that grows within a city, and with each encrustation—each growth—the surrounding tissue drops away. Streets of low-rise Victorian railway cottages become framed by a redoubt of shining cladding. A linear mountain of steel and glass. It is an overlay of the city falling away from itself. These dense massifs draw their boundaries with an invisible claw. An impermeable barrier that we can penetrate, though only impersonally, absolutely, and always, kept at arm’s length, pushed firmly, albeit smilingly, away. A team of explorers pass through a skein of oil. An odious barrier inside of which the world is changed. So this is the mournful tesselation of the city. The transplanted “New Ruins” spoken of by Owen Hatherley, with their “gated communities, entertainment hangars and malls crisscrossed by carbon-spilling roads; a vision of a [British] future alienated, blankly-consumerist, class-ridden.”

The development, populated by its so familiar ‘render ghosts’ (purchased from catalogues, dropped in by CAD artists), accompanies a name - and a promise. “A new community for London”. Big grin, devilish eyes. It may as well be a missive from God, informing us of some distant modification in the time-space continuum, a flicker of light witnessed through the lens of a high-powered telescope.

What exactly are the qualities of the castle, and the village that sits beneath it? For starters, the castle is massive, yet its contours and boundaries remain unclear. We know it is large, but that largeness is unquantifiable. Secondly, it is translucent - its form continually shifting, slithering, writhing. Thirdly, we cannot look directly at it. Our eyes slide and bounce from its surface, its skin. And perhaps finally, its borders are both violent and gentle. It is not always clear that we are crossing them.

Dowden, writing on the “place” that Kafka’s castle has occupied in our collective critique of the bureaucratic, observes that the book resists us because of its “parable-like simplicity and unyielding opacity.” Each outpost of the castle remains bossily straight-forward just as it drowns us in the murk of despair. A development is housing. But the silent anthropology of its coming-to-be is often girded and made unclear by the confounding arcana of planning policies, secretive meetings, off-shore finances. We see the castle, the Development, rise before us. But we have no clear idea how it got there - or what it all means.

There is, of course, a voice to this behemoth. Unguent, sloppy, booming down from above. Raining like death. Telford Homes, the inoffensive and almost twee sound of it. For them, City North is a “new London landmark for Finsbury Park.” The copywriters of development cheer themselves. Isn’t this the existential proposition that Wittgenstein so famously rejected? A landmark, and an escape route - for it is only “moments from underground & mainline stations that can transport you to the sights & attractions of central London within minutes.” A landmark built upon a slide, a hole in the Earth.

When developers propose a new project, the greatest consideration is that it should achieve as much square footage as possible (rentable space) to contain the host of individual units that will be tessellated into its void. The outcome has been a gradual diminishing in the size of our homes, while their cost has skyrocketed. Confusingly, minimum standards for dwellings have been critiqued from a number of quarters, and I’m always happy to dismiss those and curse them as the thinking of cranks. The Centre for Cities introduces the malodorous emergence of the “rabbit-hutch home” with one hand, before muddying the waters with the other. “Space standards,” they argue, “mean that many new houses are too big.” As long ago as 2013, the Guardian wrote ambiguously about whether “pocket-sized flats” represented the “future for first-time buyers.”

The chosen will be carried on litters into the sky. The dismal will be crammed into storerooms and warehouses.

Developments such as City North are probably very nice once you walk inside them. Modern fittings and finishings, adequately ok furnishings. New white goods, pleasant views. But this does not excuse them of their ontological horror. They remain a kind of slumped beast, fattened on atomization, empty PR and exclusion.

These are sky-lofts for the vertically ascendant; those city dwellers, “winners” of late capitalism, who will exist increasingly apart in a city whose gulfs and depths and terrors will become distant and removed from them, even while they play a role in feeding this crisis. Vertical, a work of excoriating nonfiction by Stephen Graham, puts this in stark global terms, of how “in recent years the built environment around the world, both above and below ground, has become dramatically more vertical - and more unequal.” The city accelerates away from itself, even as it grows, groans and appears to steady. There are frictions and energies and dynamics which writhe and have seizures beneath the thin skin of the built world. It is pulling itself apart. And we (luckless idiots) set up a temporary home on its fault lines.

A territory of quiet poison

I think of Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The novel which inspired Tarkovsky’s own Stalker in 1979. As with the book, and the film that followed it, “zones” of poisoned land emerge in the footprint of an indifferent alien power - leaving a mark on the ground that becomes filled with their unknowable trash. The secular developments of modern New London fulfil a similar effect; something alien and obscure dropped down onto the city with as much finesse as a warhead. City North looks abject and aghast, in its towering above the low-rises and system built towers of this busy and metropolitan place.

Stalker: in search of Tarkovsky's Soviet sci-fi locations | BFI

And in this way, the modern city begins to break up into zones of difference that are both visible and invisible. A Clarendon development moments away from my own flat finds itself girded with powder-blue hoardings whose position continually creeps and shifts; over the past months of lockdown, they swallowed the marketing suite, and then took a bite into the road itself. Re-painted, rebuilt, shifted forward. The hoardings boast a night-lit rendering of the project itself; brown-dark cubes and the lozenges of tiny parks. And at its edges, the streets are sunk in darkness - this is the world unto itself, hermetically sealed, unpenetrated. And beyond its walls, only darkness - and the chillingly unknown. The new community exists, but it cannot be accessed, soiled, penetrated. Not by you, at least.

Once, we held the belief that in order to be “Kafkaesque”, a situation must become obtuse. Impossible and frustrating. But now, we know that it can also imply an act of disappearance, of dire exclusion. Different and alienated realities seem to inhabit the same world, but don’t share a language - and might never make eye contact. Down my road, at the edge of this ‘new world’, the council embark on a battle to obliterate a row of (inhabited) Victorian cottages, so as to open up the view between development and the horizon. Yet again, the new carries with it the ides of evacuation.

So, mud-slicked and anguished, we—occupants of the darkness at the edge of the render—find ourselves at a loss, raging and weeping, unhappy as K. was unhappy, destined to peddle and drift amongst the evaporating materials of the unhappy village. And the castle above us grows, and will not let us in.

heavy curtains, empty rooms

a history of losing myself

Recently, I tweeted about memory. About the strange succulence of dredging something old and unfamiliar up to the surface. Stuff that is unretrievable by neural links (stapled unceremoniously into the lather of our brains), these memories — hazy, billowing — have no physical matter. They might not be real. They are so far away.

When I wrote those tweets, I was remembering days that were already punched out of shape, irregular, perhaps beautiful (even if I didn’t have the language for lyricism). Eight or nine years old (that’s a guess, made accurately), wandering the halls of a darkened and largely abandoned country estate. The English countryside, somewhere above the heavy thighs of London. On days when I was sick or pretended to be, my mum — the person responsible for looking after this estate in the frequent absence of its aristocratic owners — would have to bring me along, pale, uncertain, self-involved.

It was my first proper introduction to the already-dead mausolea of the gentry, proper Turgenev style. Later I’d think about his Home of the Gentry, and its soiled and nostalgic invocation of the estate of Glafira Petrovna, the house which “had not yet gone wild, but seemed already to have sunk into that quiet repose which possesses everything on earth wherever there is no restless human infection to affect it.” He’s being coy, and romantic. This house, of my youth, I won’t name. But I did Google the address and made eyes at this tumbling, 18th-century manse and its big, glowering lids which blink silently at rolling, barely tamed fields and copses, dirt tracks and loosened iron gates. This was the place where, over a course of stitched-together days, I’d roam loose. No school (I didn’t enjoy it). No extremity. Just the rooms, chaotic and dark and empty, all suffused in the burnt-sugar of crystallized and muddy brown. A house inside of a cigar, the inside of an ash-tray. Thick, asthmatic curtains, dirty paintings of past and forgotten scions — stubby fingers, rosy cheeks, mildewed uniforms. It may as well have been submerged, making me a kind of diver, holding my breath.

Joseph Mallord William Turner. Sion Ferry House, Isleworth: Sunset 1805

It struck me as what Bernhard, in his Correction, calls an encounter with the Absolutely Other. For him, a mirroring. Rotheimer who detests the country pile where he was born (suffocating, obtuse, cold), and who finds acceptance in the most, human homes of those who live nearby. Contrast. The narrator, who is drawn to Rottheimer’s family estate, Altensam. Fascinated, pulled, by its massif of difference. When you come from a modest background, a thing like a country estate — lifeless, tumbling, grand — can seem like a portal, or a hole in the ground. A system of caves, a shipwreck, a destroyed fortress. If your own driveway takes a few seconds to walk, here is a road — a road — which takes minutes of slow, grinding work to overcome. Gravel spilling and spitting beneath frantic tyres. The house was hidden in its landscape, as if cloaked by forgetting. It is the spewing watercolour of J.W.M. Turner’s Sion Ferry House, from 1805. Weeping, fading. Forgotten.

Today, I couldn’t reassemble the arrangement of those rooms. Even if I tried. In my memory (close my eyes, concentrate hard), I remember a vast oven, a set of winding stairs, a set of vast, deep, plushly-soft ‘formal’ stairs. Above, a huge and yawning corridor, one end that was truncated by a towering set of windows (maybe the height of an ordinary house). This was sheathed in thick, pillowy curtains, cutting out the light. Go close and you’d glimpse the distances beyond; green fields, lolling horses. Perhaps this is where the ballroom was; itself another dust-sheet-covered space, confusing — alienating — in its unencountered dimensions. Large, echoing, mournful. Who knew that such vast spaces could seem so small, so cramped - and littered with shadow? I think of Xavier Mellery’s coffee-stained, deeply-rouged rooms, claustrophobic and nervous. The Staircase, The Doors.

Xavier Mellery’s The Staircase, 1899

Long gone were the days when people came here and had fun. Chairs (flaking) were stacked to one side. A series of wall-hugging paintings, huge in their splaying. Boughs, dark woodland, the flicker of Romanesque arms. To think of Sergei Vinogradov, painting at the turn of the century, into its early and faltering skin — who knew its days were numbered? — saw all of this rural abjection as a kind of romantic distance, a powdery imagining. Summer at the cottage.

For Tarkovsky, years later, an exile, at the edge of the Baltic sea. Sacrifice (he was dying while the film was being shot, killed by the toxins of Stalker), it is a clapboard house, riven by anger and insoluble fear. Dark. Oil. And ultimately, fatally, flammable.

Elsewhere, a games room. A box of toys, a train set that looped around the entire room. You could crawl under its legs (I did) and emerge somewhere in the middle. There were multiple stations, distant and far away. I found it curious and alienating. There was even an entire costume cupboard, even appropriate for my diminutive little size. So I’d be dressed up for this sprawling and welcome sick day (a solider, a rider, in khaki and black), and do my best not to disturb my mum who had actual things to get on with, preventing the house from subsiding into the throat of the land. So you get yourself lost, peering at the antiquities and trophies of a dynasty who — I suspected — were living their lives elsewhere, somewhere bigger and more furious. Who could feel at ‘home’ amongst all this ageing splendour? The cracking of rot. Wet sounds. Clouds of roving dust.

I never connected the dots, later. How I was trying to find an expression for this place. Turgenev, Goncharov, Gogol. If you then study anthropology (as an adult), and Russian literature, as I did, then you’re already looking for something Other and something specific, imagined. From a similar genre of the living-dead, I went to college and learned about tropical islands and tropical maladies and the people who caught them (from the people who brought them). I learnt about the Russian’s own obsession with obsolescence, the rural rot which existed beyond the luscious lap of Moscow and St. Petersburg, those brilliant and crystalline cities. For Gogol, it was Dead Souls and Chichikov’s creepy and clandestine plots among the many faded piles of the rural gentry. Petty, trivial, vain, oafish aristocrats in their sleepy homes with “cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner.” For Goncharov, it was the dilapidated home of the eponymous protagonist, and the faded, romanticized notion of his old childhood home in the country - a place that existed only as a dream, unassailable, inaccessible. There are no load-bearing walls in the worlds of our sleep.

creeping fringe space

Ashford, I see you.

If you don’t drive, then entire terrains will forever remain unknown to you. Unaware, they exist, even while we make faint contact with the rot of their fringes. A parcel arrives in the dead of night at a Distribution Centre and folds through time and space. It arrives in your hand, in your sweating morning lap. It came from somewhere. Somewhere close, yet far away. When you drive, you enter spaces that are only really activated for the car, and for everything that it enables and contains. Sheds. Warehouses. These things are obscure, even while they service you. Drive on. Blink. Blink again.

Ashford happens by accident. It happened by accident to me, a passenger in a car, seeking solace on the very edge of England. A day trip to Dungeness takes us on a slow and grinding descent through the worsted subtopias of Enfield and Sidcup. Long, fearless roads of worn tarmac and greasy plane trees lined with fat, fastidious Tudor mockery. Petrol stations, car dealerships, distribution sheds. An Amazon warehouse whose gigantism rouses something like beauty from its deeps - striped in blue-white gradient, so as to make it disappear into the air.

The land that Blair built. Maybe.

Ashford happens suddenly. A Deliveroo rider struggles on sticky pedals over the mouth of a dual carriageway. A series of nested roundabouts and circulatory roads which trigger memories of faded places seen at the very outer edges of national transit maps. Isles of water; port towns, inlets, bristling and barricaded with warehouses and siding sheds.

Ashford bends, until it breaks. A series of boughed and upsetting ‘designer lampposts’ illuminate the streets of its award-winning ‘shared space’ scheme, because the lightbulbs of these lights are no longer manufactured. This story broke in 2010, but the lampposts remain.

Ashford erupts, in slow motion. A landscape whose seed is a PFI scheme, a Unitary Planning Document, a white paper, a handful of blood. Ashford looks like everywhere else while also managing to elevate itself into a condition of banality so strenuous that it becomes unique. Ashford is like nowhere else on earth precisely because it is everywhere else on earth.

Ashford is sheds, trussed up as explosions - frozen in time. Plastic, filleted, textural, irregular. Dragging deeply on the cigarette of Constructivism, what comes out is a throaty splutter, coughed up in the face of the ‘disruptive’ aesthetics of heinously plagiarised Liebeskind and Eisenman. Plasticy curtain walls jut out from bland box apartments. Circular squat towers come wrapped in tobacco-stained cladding. Along Elwick Road, the central spine of the council’s shared space scheme, each building seems to hurtle away on its own lurid trajectory without reference to those with which they supposedly share space. It creates a sense of farcical and uneasy absence. A failure of continuity, a bemusement of senses. At its heart is the vast undulating slug of the Elwick Centre, a mixed-used entertainment scheme splattered in unenticing sloughs of dim gold metal, pushed out like over-full stomachs. You’ve got to sigh.

Ashford is creeping disorientation, in so far as these fringe spaces have the capacity to smear and spread. Littoral areas of warehouses and blank facades and plastic in-fill have streamed along service roads and crept into the centre of the town, disorienting everything. The centre comes to feel like the very farthest periphery. Everywhere feels exactly like nowhere. Some poorly brick things survived the slaughter, though knee-capped and dismal.

Some parts stand out. Remain somehow lodged in my memory. A tackily fun ‘Constructivist’ car park, bookended by faceted towers which nod - very distantly - to Ilya Golosov’s 1929 Zuev House of Culture. In Moscow.

A car park in PFI Constructivism (actually good)

The scolding drabness of Ashford. The interiority of it. The roadiness of it. Everything points away, frantically, from its centre, even while it is captured in the process of its own self-cannibalizing feast. You drive. You drive. You stop. You ache. You leave. Really that is the only option. The only release. Or death. Yes, or death.

a hard road to the Hrazdan river

in search of Sergei Parajanov

This essay began life as a series of throw-away notes written while I was working on a more matter-of-fact study of Armenia’s Soviet-era cinemas, published in the Calvert Journal. They sat it out on the benches. I’ve now worked them up into something a lot more personal, based on some things I didn’t feel like I could say while doing fieldwork on the cinemas and for an essay about ‘urbicide’ in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory claimed by Armenia and Azerbaijan both. It’s the third of four things I want to write about the region.

“a hard road to the Hrazdan river”

Few filmmakers have been honoured with a museum. There might be statues and memorials. A spray of graffiti. A book (sometimes good, sometimes not). In cinema, there are retrospectives and ‘walks of fame.’ But there isn’t a gift shop. Or an attempt at telling a life.

After all, a museum is an effort to organize memory - and to do it physically. To commemorate, but also to learn. For Sergei Parajanov, whose museum — the Sergei Parajanov Museum — sits atop a precipice of Yerevan’s Hrazdan River, it was no sure thing that this ‘memorial’ would ever come to pass. After all, the beleaguered and frequently misunderstood Georgian-Armenian director had spent long periods of his career in jail at the behest of the same authorities who, in 1988, gave their unexpected blessing to a facility of commemoration close to Yerevan’s historic Kond Quarter. Parajanov chose the site himself. A change of opinion. Shifting sands. His 1973 conviction had taken the form of a charge of ‘bribery’, the ‘sale of artworks’, 'homosexuality’ (Parajanov was bisexual). The charge was politically motivated, grounded in nothing but the government’s paranoid suspicions about his (apparently) ‘subversive’ lifestyle, his advocacy of Armenian culture, his aesthetic ‘Formalism’. The punishment was outrageous. He would spend a mess of years in a Siberian labour camp before he was freed. Jean-Luc Godard fought for his release. As did Fellini.

‘I don’t like sleepy people’. Parajanov the performer

In 1988, the Museum — only half-finished, barely begun — would be damaged by an earthquake. Meanwhile, the government who had given it the go-ahead also fell. Fatally. When Armenians arrived into the bright dawn of the early 1990s, they found themselves with a blinking and brand-new democratic government. But they also found themselves with a museum to a man whom the country now recognized as their national artistic genius. By then, he was already dead.

But they weren’t the only ones to lay claim to Parajanov’s legacy. As he himself observed, “everyone knows that I have three Motherlands. I was born in Georgia, worked in Ukraine and I'm going to die in Armenia.” True to form, Parajanov would be buried in Yerevan’s Komitas Pantheon, dappled by the shade of trees, pink-stoned, hot. It is filled with the great and good of Armenia. Theatre directors. Playwrights. Poets. There is a statue of him in Tbilisi, Georgia’s flourishing capital city. His body breaks, excitedly, with arms outstretched, through a house’s wall.

The Sergei Parajanov Museum, Yerevan

I first ‘discovered’ Parajanov while licking my wounds from a complicated breakup. I had temporarily moved back in with my parents on the Suffolk coast, finding it hard to pick up the pieces of a life that had played out on other coasts and in other countries. At age 25, it can seem difficult — however young — to re-build a life, especially under the anxious eyes of parents who, with the best will in the world, believed they’d seen the back of you. By night, I found it difficult to adjust to the norms of sleep. I sat up. Rolling cigarettes, brewing coffee, wandering in circles around the garden. I consciously chose to watch Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates precisely because its short, one-hour running time and promised lack of plot would be easy; something to soothe myself with, to curl up against, warm, like an animal. And then to drift off to sleep.

A ‘cinema of the cryptic’ - from Parjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)

That night, I would find something strangely stirring and poetically ambitious in its surreal, intricately composed tableaux. Later, I’d learn that this version, the version I watched — uploaded scruffily to YouTube — was one of many, the original having been shoved from pillar to post by a variety of advocates and bureaucrats who had either tried to cut it up or give it life. I got hungry for it, and for his wider slew of films. It wasn’t a large back-catalogue - a sad but exciting thing to realise if, like me, you relish the first breaking of the ice with a new piece of art. You are always chasing that high. Finished projects. Some shorts. Screeners and tests. Half-finished things and others that had been left to rot and linger. As I learned more about his life, and about the complex politics and exegesis of producing films amidst the bureaucratic bloat of the Soviet production industry, it seemed half-obvious why a filmmaker like Parajanov (bisexual, independent, provocative) had found it difficult to sustain his career. There would be reprisals. Time spent in prison. Projects would be considered and then rejected as supportive then oppositional Mosfilm studio heads bartered and agitated for and against him.

Parajanov, caught in the flux of this, tried his best. But luckily, that ‘best’ has left us — the world — with a perplexing, beautiful and deeply uncommon legacy of films. Put them together, spine to spine, and they take up a little chunk on your shelf. And that is all. But it’s all we have.

Born in Tbilisi in 1924 to Armenian parents, Parajanov took an initially ‘conventional’ path toward cinema. He was admitted to VGIK, the prestigious Moscow film school, in 1945. A bad time to make strange films. His 1954 VGIK work, Andriesh, was screened twice by the film school committee. A rare honour. After graduation, he apprenticed as a second and assistant director in Ukraine. In 1961 he made Ukrainian Rhapsody, a ‘modern’ work whose subject was the Great Patriotic War. It reads as ‘conventional’ socialist realism. Romantic, epic, burly. But there, shimmering at its edges, are those intricacies of Parajanov’s obsessive choreography, his organization of bodies, beautifully, in space. Perhaps it adds grist to the mill of Evgeny Dobrenko’s salivatingly revisionist argument that there is more to ‘official’ Soviet art than “moralistic melodrama” in the shape of Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered of 1932. The “primordial and gelatinous” core (as Gramsci called it) of the Soviet fruit planted its seeds, after all, in a mess of national cultures who found a voice beyond the craven ideologies of factory workers and their (almost always) plaited heroines (even if they could wield a rifle as well as a pan). Parajanov’s ‘socialist realism’ might be the thing itself. But it might just be socialist realism caught in the dressing cupboard, flowing gown and crown of gold half-shoved upon its scarlet cheeks.

An intimation of iridescence - Parajanov’s Ukrainian Rhapsody (1961)

Here he would produce his first proper masterwork, 1964’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Where Pomegranates is slow and static, choreographic in its gestures and painterly reveals, this earlier work has a gloss of cinematic conventionality. As if it were an ‘ordinary’ film. A wide, lingering establishing shot of a caravan of hunters, trudging through the snow. Marichka’s tragic drowning. A highly stylised and delicately composed Hutsul wedding. Ivan’s disorder of hallucinations. This is an ordinary film. But then again, it isn’t. Frequently, that intent is upset, unhooked from its socket joint. Sorcerers and witches bend the possibility of the real - a story set in motion with the pyromaniac spellcasting of 1954’s Andriesh. Parajanov, speaking in 1989, spoke compellingly of film — of his art — as a putting on of costumes. A transformation of subjectivity.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov (1964)

A year later, he would begin work on the abortive test-screens of Kyiv Frescoes, whose ghostly, pale remains — some fifteen minutes of fragile and wavering footage — give an indication of how Parajanov had already found fertile ground with the tableaux as a way of organizing the language of his ‘poetic’ cinema. It is modern, minimal, strange. Soldiers sit with machine guns in their laps while actors, not yet costumed, strike surreal, frozen poses in tight jeans and colourful shirts. Gaudy, hollow picture frames and fragments of sculpture stand alongside Orthodox priests and entirely nude women.

What could have been. The fragments of Kyis Frescoes

James Steffan gets somewhat into the mind of Parajanov at this juncture, observing how — fresh from the international success of Shadows — the filmmaker set out self-consciously to cement his place in cinema’s hall of fame. No shrinking violet. Kyiv Frescoes would have been a simple story, complexly told. A story of a man named Chelovek (‘the man’) who pays a longshoreman to deliver a basket of flowers to a retired general. By a slip of confusion, a near comedy of manners, he instead delivers it to a woman, a war widow who now works in the Museum of Arts, Kyiv - the custodian of the Infanta Margarita by Velázquez. The Longshoreman spends the night at the woman’s apartment. Later on, the Infanta steps literally out of the painting, so as to console the grieving widow.

The production was — to say the least — chaotic, or at least convoluted. An early draft of the script, later published in 1990, comes apparently the closest to Parajanov’s kaleidoscopic vision, though it is far from “definitive”. Levin, speaking of that draft, describes it in rapturous albeit uncertain terms, with its “outwardly chaotic, incoherent, rhythmic, film-imagistic prose”. A thing “suffused with light.” Later drafts, by comparison, seem somewhat ‘tamed’ down. The final shooting script and screen tests were submitted to Moscow and the office of the studio’s head, Derzhkino. They were not opposed to it, in principle, but seemed nervous about its experimental character and the fear that these tests would not form a coherent ‘unity’. So as to head off these concerns, they suggested (read: demanded) that a writer, a person ‘of letters’, were attached to the project in order to help translate Parajanov’s vision into a more comprehensible and organized whole. Revisions were made. Still, the board of advisors at the studio found that it needed yet further “corrections.” From the outside, and from a remove of years, this looks like a whole lot of vacillating. Films about Kyiv’s history and the triumph of the ‘Great’ war were welcomed, indeed encouraged. But a film like this? Experimental, compositional, ethereal. The two worlds gazed at one another, before turning their faces away.

But Parajanov, brimming with a newly-discovered language and vibrating with the possibilities of a truly poetic cinema, tasted the fire on the wind. Wounded, but undimmed. Instead, he headed home to Yerevan. But not with his tail between his legs. A job offer awaited him at Armenia’s Armenfilm studio - to produce a new feature film. A film that would eventually become The Colour of Pomegranates.

“I owe Armenia a cinematographic confession”. Speaking in 1989, Parajanov — filmed shortly before his death — revealed something of a testament, a “personal bible”. Behind him is a softly billowing curtain, yellow, ochre, red, a film reel propped against a wall. This was his “vision of dreams”. What troubled him, and motivated him, was an obliteration of the past - the past that he so desperately sought to drag into his present. It was the “tragedy of a cemetery being torn up”, speaking of a park built in honour of old-hand Bolshevik revolutionary, Kirov. “The cemetery”, he laments, “must give way . . . the ghosts are cast out”. But it is Parajanov who must become their vehicle. “They seek shelter with me, their living heir - but I can’t take them in”. This impasse was the denial of the Soviets to allow Parajanov, and filmmakers and artists like him, to bear the legacy of their collective past. Cast adrift in the modern world, alone, pallid, shrieking, these ghosts — he smiles — “know neither electricity nor insurance agents”. He smiles again, gesturing from his throat. “I have to prove I love them”.

And in this way, Parajanov’s cinema becomes an ecstatic channelling; a proof of love, a proclamation of faith. Ghosts that are channelled, ghosts that are summoned. Let loose. The filmmaker, the artist, must prove himself worthy as a guide — a vessel — for the disjointed and wandering ghosts of his nation’s past. He must rip his shirt and don the costume of an excavated, obliterated past. The ghosts don’t stop existing. They haunt, and wheel, and caterwaul. Parajanov let them bathe in the blank, glossy surface of his films. In The Colour of Pomegranates, ripe fruit is split with a knife. Its juice bleeds into the shape of the borders of the ancient kingdom of Armenia. Later, dyers lift bolts of wool from vats in the colours of the national flag. It does not reveal itself easily. Its references are coded, submerged, even while they operate with the loudness of screaming.

The film — his masterwork, nobody would disagree — tells the story of 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Intertitles suggest that Parajanov would explore his “inner world”, his “passions and torments”. A foot, crushing grapes beneath its heel. Flapping fish, gasping for air on a large stone plate. Ian Christie remarks on actress Sofiko Chiaureli’s playing of multiple, androgynous roles. The poet as a youth, the princess whom he loves. A nun. An angel. Shot with a limited budget, without lighting, Parajanov nonetheless had to reckon with the baffled and snub-nosed intransigence of the Soviet authorities, for whom the film — poetic, mythic, lyrical, obscure — had the scent of decadent ‘Formalism’. Sergei Yutkevich was brought on to re-edit the rushes, adding intertitles, with the ambition of making Pomegranates “more widely showable”. Like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, the film would encounter expressions of confusion, suspicion, vitriol. The questionable scent of mysticism, faith, autonomy. It would receive its full release only in 1983, fourteen long years since its completion.

My own journey to the Parajanov Museum, to the long, low loop of the Hrazdan River, was complicated by its indirection, and the dates seem difficult — years later — to fathom. A layover in Berlin. A train to Prague. A flight to Hungary, where me and a friend, H, linked up with another friend, also H. And then we flew again to Istanbul, where Prague H and I had already spent so much time, though never together. Him, exploring. Me, working. We tarried, without a map or a motive. We met up with a friend, a photographer, W, before passing slowly and lazily south, and then striking east. We stopped in Antep. We rode, by bus. No air conditioning. Lazy heat that sank. In Diyarbakir and Mardin, where the ‘Armenian’ houses — properties seized during the Genocide, their Armenian owners turfed out, murdered, lost — had become hotels. We stayed in one such place, its high rear courtyard giving us a bird’s eye view across the plain of Mesopotamia, and — less prosaically — the frontline of the war between Syrian rebels, government forces, ISIS and Kurds. By night, American and Turkish fighters took off and plunged into the inky black swirl of the Syrian night. Little white flashes. Dropped ordnance. By day, just heat haze - and a view toward infinity. I was still trying to steer a magazine at that time, drinking thick Turkish wine and smoking cheap cigarettes and doing fuzzy video calls on the patio. We decided to head east, again. Further, toward the sump of Mount Ararat. Toward Van with its pearlescent, shimmering lake.

Crossing from Turkey into Georgia, the mountains heave into view

Our time in that city wasn’t happy. It was strange, strangulated. Our little group was held together by a lattice of shifting and complicated needs and motives that none of the others ever got a grip on. One night, I slept on a balcony - escaping the ferocity of the heat after a day of warm beers and too much coffee. We got way too high by the shores of the lake and stumbled back through a tormented, garish nightmare of blasted roads and campfires and neon-lit car dealerships. It had brought us together. It had shoved us apart. Weeks and weeks upon that slow road had begun to wear heavily on all of us. Eventually, already too late, we packed everything up, the pieces of us, and headed north - toward Kars, high in the verdant and historic hills of ancient Chorzene. As we climbed, the air began to thin - the scrappy, scrubby desert and dry plains giving way to green farming towns and, eventually, mountains. Now we could really breathe.

Landscapes rarely come to mind when you think of Parajanov. Lutes, stringed instruments, gilded coffee sets and the flapping pages of religious books. You think of costumes and props and swords and animals. A flurry of chickens thrown down onto the floor of a church, scrabbling wildly, some bleeding, others flying and limping away. Wine poured over a man’s chest. Delicate linen held before the face of a beautiful woman. But these films are, each of them, grounded in the spaces of the Caucasus - a tiny terrain riven with violently diverse landscapes, where towering snow-capped mountains jostle against rolling plains, traffic-swarmed cities, rolling deserts, arid tundra. Pot-holed roads bear cattle and pre-1989 cars. For a while, we rode with a driver, a Russian veteran of the ‘first’ war in Afghanistan, who showed us his tattoos and his scars. His car was a sort of limousine, reserved once for party officials - and now us. I was there on assignment. Writing, or trying to.

The pomegranate-coloured hills of western Armenia

The Colour of Pomegranates takes place in the cloisters of a monastery, giving only fleeting glances of the world beyond. A cemetery, thronged with choreographed and worshipful mourners. A black, fertile field of clods and soil, over which two boys run and fall. It is a closed world, a place of vaults, courtyards and windowless rooms. Later, however, Ashik Kerib and The Legend of Suram Fortress would explode themselves back into the landscapes of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Wide shots give spectacle and girth to Parajanov’s hyper-stylized tableaux; horses circling, swordsmen dancing, women chanting. Even leopards, lounging. Slowly, after years of confinement and prison, Parajanov began to reach outwards, longingly, into the landscapes of his beloved and multiple homelands. The world will be filled with myth. The ‘modern’ is a product and a condition of its heroes and its stories. Modern life is legacy, lived.

When thinking about where Parajanov stands amongst his peers, there seem few handy similarities. The obsession with myth, with the rich potentiality of national folklore. The composition of hyper-stylized tableaux and ‘artificial’ scenes. I think of Pasolini and, particularly, the staginess of his Medea. Parajanov described Pasolini as “like a God”, enraptured — it would seem — by his “majestic style”. This is recounted in the 1994 documentary Parajanov: a Requiem. It would be worth remembering that Pasolini suffered some thirty-three trials in his own lifetime, almost always battling the same repression and misunderstanding. Steffen, in his peerless account of the work of Parajanov, suggests the influence of La Ricotta (1962) and The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), though many have recounted the oft-repeated story of Parjanov visiting a Tbilisi cinema some seven times to watch Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967), coinciding almost exactly with his return to Georgia and the starting of his work on what would become The Colour of Pomegranates. He was friends with Tarkovsky. They shared letters, drawings and works of art while Parajanov languished in prison.

These were difficult and transformative years. Unable to shoot, he drew. He sketched. Scenes of prison life (hairy, lice-ridden convicts holding their genitalia in their hands before a trough of water). Scenes of religious ecstasy. Later, he claimed that these years gave him “purity” — not only as an artist, but as a spiritualist. In prison, he heard the “confessions” of his fellow inmates. These would become “screenplays” in his mind, many of which — he argued — would be buried with him. But some whispers of this world did escape his confinement. Parajanov would write a screenplay that would become Yury Ilyenko’s Swan Lake: the Zone (1990), released just one year before the elder filmmaker’s death. In this rapturous and surreal tale, a convict — a skewed mirror of Parajanov? — escapes imprisonment and hides within a model of a hammer and sickle. It is a tale of the tortures and agonies of political repression. It is a romance. It is a tragedy. I’ve seen people describe it as “obtuse”, mythical, “decaying” — a “nightmare”. These things are true, yet they reflect Parajanov’s later belief that incarceration was itself an evil, that it “makes people pathological”. That “if you put people in isolation, tragic things happen”.

D in Ilyenko’s Swan Lake: the Zone (1990) (screenplay: Sergei Parajanov)

Nobody is Parajanov. Parajanov is Parajanov. He said that you are born with your art, that it cannot be taught. Not even at the best schools. Maybe once I would have curled my lip at this. But as the years climb forward, I realise that I don’t care - that there is something ecstatic and liberating in saying this. It doesn’t seem correct. It doesn’t matter. I used to believe that I might create something lasting, a moment of shimmering, shivering space. But now I think about the importance of simply being honest to that art you have carried with you — in your stomach — even if it is quiet and minor. Even if it has the littleness of a stone that has been crushed by a century of rivers. As long as it might let the ghosts in.

In a short film from 1985, Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, Parajanov made his most daring attempt to join the confluence of the legendary and the living. An experimental study of the paintings of Niko Pirosmani, with Parajanov on top and boisterous form; composed, formulated, playing both with the frame and the framed. In its final moments, a man — dressed in a suit of white linen, bowtie and straw hat — bears one of Pirosmani’s paintings above his head while walking backwards, across a field, toward the white prefabricated buildings of modern Tbilisi. Two horsemen, dressed in glorious medieval finery, rove and rear around him. Art, modernity. The living and the long-ago dead. All ride together. All live and die as one.

Several visits. Delayed decisions. I spent a final long week in Tibilisi, not doing much at all. We spent afternoons together and, increasingly, apart. More often than not I’d think about the Parajanov Museum, an entire country away. Its walls of costumes, its folded letters, its collages and sculptures. I was curious. Curious about who else was here, who visited. Why. The odd tourist, nervously stepping over the foyer, as I first did. Eventually, we spent an evening in a small, shabby hotel. Our friend slipped off with somebody. We cradled drinks in the syrupy heat. At some point, I decided that I was done. A ticket booked, connecting the dots between Tibilisi — with its hulking modernisms, its delicate balconies, its golden churches — and London. I wasn’t homesick, after so many months. Nor was I sick of this, of this place. Sometimes, you turn your face away from something, not because you know why, but because you realise you can. So I turned my face, and I put the city — the region — behind me. What I found in Parajanov — what I continue to find — are not symbols, signs swallowed by their signifier, but places where the world of past, present and future wear thin, so translucent you can almost hold each of them in your hand. This is how the ghosts get in. This is how the future might be made.

A pomegranate in the ‘Armenian house’, southern Turkey, 2015

Some resources on Parajanov

BFI. ‘Where to begin with Sergei Parajanov
Christie, Ian. ‘The Colour of Pomegranates: Parajanov Unbound’. Criterion, Film/Essays
Steffen, James. The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013
Steffen, James. Kyiv Frescoes: Sergei Paradjanov’s Unrealized Film Project. Kinocultura, 2009.

the coca-cola house

is a house, of coca-cola.

Owen, first of his name. And last. That’s what the epitaph will say, scrawled in dumb blunt Crayola across the front door of the coca-cola house, the house that has a sort of nodding acquaintance — yes, you could call it that — with the fizzy cola brand coca-cola. A brand which used to contain actual, real cocaine, or so it is said, which really — I think — raises again the ghostly apparition of Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyst and dream-fucker, cracking open a bottle of the stuff (‘kch—tiszzz’) and sort of wrapping his genteel, cigar-stained lips around the spout and glugging down, before — yes — tossing the bottle away and, haughtily, swivelling his sort of clam-like eyes toward you, a patient, on his lounge chair, and, not giving you a moment to speak, expounding on his theory of dreams.

Bury me alive in the coca-cola house, for it has a gun-turret arcade game in its basement. A very niche sort of video game to embark on, and one which — I would presume — involves little more than just churning infinite bullets and thick, hazy tracer rounds into a mass of gibbering targets, from above, and getting a high score for exploding your enemies into clouds of viscera so large you almost feel bad for a moment. Don’t feel bad. Don’t. You can’t. Not here, because it’s an airbnb property.

I will have my best ideas in the coca-cola house, where I will live; with my crippling anxieties, my self-talking, my split lip, my watery eyes, my fouled copies of Platonov, my scribbled Red Book (Jung’s, printed out from a fuzzy pdf). I will wake up and, slug, like an actual slug, because I have had too much coca-cola and too much ball-turret gunning, crawl toward the pool table where I, breathing, heavily, will rest for a little bit, just close my eyes a little bit - laying ‘in-state’ as they say, and what a state. Eh, eh?

Freud spoke of the uncanny, the unheimlich, as if it were everything that The Heimlich (a sort of backwards dry humping that might save you from choking on a little knotty tendril of lamb fat, a piece of too-dry sourdough) was not; that is, something that does not save you, but just creeps you — very awake, very clear of throat — out. Freud, coked-up, messy with the stuff, the back of his throat a terrain of coolish, unfeeling, and numbed ham, is beginning to look a lot like Santa Claus, isn’t he? Like Santa Claus, the giver of gifts and not, yes, no, the taker of lives.

I will live perpetually in fear of the coca-cola house, with its lank blue and its powdery, crushed onion floor. I will fly about with my hands at my sides, sort of knocking stuff (like the coca-cola lamp and the dull red cushions) off of surfaces and walls, really just really amped up on coca-cola but also angry at myself and sad and sort of half-aware that, if I were really going to go for it, like, as in, make it a sort of life’s mission, that I could actually make the house more coca-colarey than it is currently, really? Which is not actually a lot, to be entirely honest with you. Coca-cola enough. You might expect the theme, that translucently white pearl colour, that black, that red, to be sort of taken to its logical conclusion rather than sort of just gestured at with a few framed prints and a sort of tacky, gigantic replica of a coca-cola bottle. What I’m saying is that, if it really wants to claim the lofty title of The Coca-Cola House (note I have not been doing so until this point, capitalizing), then it should really make more of a concerted, concentrated effort toward realizing that goal, rather than just having a bit of coca-cola paraphernalia littered about, really.

“Family friendly” is the coca-cola house, and sort of draped, in a tawdry way, in “fun Coca-Cola memorabilia” along with “complimentary coca-cola in the fridge”, and a hot tub, where - after drinking a complimentary coca-cola, you can stew, buzzing slightly, from the caffeine, in the tawdry and lukewarm water. You can watch TV, “streaming your favourite shows.” Cool! It has a “full kitchen”, where you can - presumably - cook one of those roast chickens with a beer can in its guts, but instead of a beer can you use a can of coca-cola. Why not! It’s the coca-cola house!

The coca-cola house will swallow me, as if it were Obayashi’s House, a deadly house and a haunted house, whose pool table will crush my bones and whose dire sofas will lurch across the floor and just sort of total me into a gooey paste.

Why, why does it radiate with evil so, the coca-cola house? Pinkly dim carpets, boiled to the edge of grey. You slip across its white kitchen tiles, dizzy with nausea, your brain lurching from side to side, knowing that you will never escape this place, really, not even if you crash through its windows onto the sickening lawn. Freud. I return to him, and he - cross legged - is sitting on the pool table, sort of strumming a crushed empty coca-cola can (a ‘ccc’) in his large, hairy hands.

The items, i recall, that we project our own repressed impulses upon become the most uncanny to us. He says that, licking his paws. We blame these things for maladies, calamaties, miseries.

“In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight. Unheimlich is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of heimlich, and not of the second . . . On the other hand, we notice that Schelling says something which throws quite a new light on the concept of the Unheimlich, for which we were certainly not prepared. According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.”

The coca-cola house has come to light indeed. Bathed, sickening. Flooded with light, and gulfs of gibbering darkness. I cross the kitchen, gulp water from the tap (but it’s coca-cola isn’t it?), and recall Jung’s Red Book, coca-cola coloured, and his black book, coca-cola coloured, and how there is “something living down there”, something alive and ancient and abject.

The uncanny arises in the "repetition of the same thing”.

The coca-cola house will swallow me. It will swallow all of us. Gulp.

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