A Hawk and a Hacksaw gives new sound to 1960s Soviet-era film

July 26, 2013

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is like the film equivalent of a disturbance in the force. Though a viewing is unlikely to cause you physical pain or mental terror, it will seriously mess with many of your ideas about movies.

On its surface Shadows, a 1964 movie by the Armenian-Georgian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov (also spelled Paradjanov) is a Ukrainian variation on the classic tale of star-crossed lovers. Instead of Montagues and Capulets, we have Paliychuks and Gutenyuks, or Ivan and Marichka, who meet as children after her father kills his (a rather morbid take on the cinematic “meet cute”).

But as their love story unfolds and of course goes awry, the film too unfurls and deepens. It is at once an avant garde film, an ethnographic study  (documentary-like in its detail), a meditation on the power of pagan and Christian rituals; and above all, a rhapsodic, and, at times, psychedelic exploration of the natural world.

Parajanov’s camera shots offer a bird’s-eye view from the teetering tops of spindly trees or fish-eyed perspectives of characters hurtling down rushing rivers atop enormous, hand-hewn log rafts. In between moments of action come quiet sequences, close-up shots of lichen, moss and wood grain. His film seems literally to be tripping on the magic of Mother Earth.

Parajanov’s exploration of the Hutsul cultural and ethnic identity, who for centuries have lived in the Carpathian mountains, is what makes Shadows a film near and dear to the heart of many Ukrainians. Though the film (rightly) has been hailed as “one of the supreme works of the Soviet sound cinema, it was made in the Ukraine and reads as a critique, both of Soviet cinema (whose official guise in 1964 was still largely “Soviet realism”) and more importantly, of Soviet society and politics, at the very moment a more homogenous and sterile “Russian” identity was the rule of the land.

His film was an act of not just personal but political liberty, one he paid for dearly: He was blacklisted after the film came out, other of his films were banned, and he was imprisoned in the 1970s on charges supporters say were trumped up.

If you’ve never seen Shadows, you’ll have a rare opportunity to do so Friday night at the Chicago musical space Constellation. What’s more, the film will screen with a live music score, thanks to Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, the musical duo known as  A Hawk and a Hacksaw (AHAAH).

Barnes and Trost, who have watched Shadows “hundreds” of times, first started performing along to Parajanov’s film a few years ago, at both music (All Tomorrow’s Parties) and film festivals. Trost said they were inspired by Parajanov’s experimental approach.

“Everytime I watch it, I almost always notice something new in the film,” said Trost. “He was totally ahead of his time as far as his craft goes as a filmmaker. It’s just a joy to watch.”

AHAAH, who are based in Albuquerque, N.M., are well known for their joyful and wide-ranging experimentation with music. They combine American pop and experimental credentials they earned while performing in Neutral Milk Hotel (Barnes) and Beirut (Trost), with a smorgasbord of folk sounds and instrumentation from countries as diverse as Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania.

In approaching Shadows, AHAAH didn’t entirely redo the original soundtrack (by Miroslav Skorik). They left behind his orchestral music, but kept the traditional folk songs in the film. And while performing, they incorporate much of the film’s “soundscape,” which Parajanov stuffed full of off- and on-screen sound: Sheep bleats and bells, people singing, small flutes and especially trembitas, long and loud Hutsul horns (which bear some resemblance to their alpine cousins and in the film function like prominent and repeated aural punctuation).

According to Trost, who only discovered the trembitas through the film, and didn’t know much about Hutsul music before embarking on the soundtrack, some of their traditions are still actively practiced in the Carpathians, especially at Christmas.

“Because of the mountain ranges the villages are isolated, so from village to village there are different songs and melodies. Hutsul will travel for miles and miles in the snow to go to different villages to sing Christmas carols – they still do this. It is pretty amazing, kind of like a last, living folk tradition.”

Parajanov’s artistic and political commitments have also proved inspiring to Barnes and Trost. Their work with the Shadows soundtrack is the basis of their new album You Have Already Gone to the Other World. Trost said both the story and soundtrack pushed them to try new experiments with “effects and electricity.” 

And, in addition to their regular accordion and violin, Trost plays a Hammond organ on “Oh Lord, Saint George, Bewitch Ivan, Make Him Mine” while Barnes, playing the santur (a Persian version of a dulcimer), unleashes a musical blizzard on “Where No Horse Neighs and No Crow Flies.” The trembitas are there too, in the thrilling opener to the album “Open It, Rose.” (For another use of Shadows’  trembitas check out “Wild Dances” by Ukrainian pop band Ruslana - they won Eurovision with this song in 2004!)

After performing live to the film multiple times, AHAAH also feels a certain kinship with Shadows. “It’s like having a third member of band,” said Trost. “I’ve come to think of the film as this kind of person.”

A Hawk and a Handsaw perform live to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors Friday night, at the Chicago performance space Constellation. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the show gets underway at 9:30. The event is co-sponsored by The Nightingale Theater and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. And if you can’t make the show, you can listen to AHAAH here and watch Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors here.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of Changing Channels, a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.