On Earth as it is in the Heavens

By James Norton

seasons-of-the-year-artavazd-pelechian.jpgThe Seasons of the Year, 1975

The astonishing short films of Artavazd Pelechian are visionary examinations of human and cosmic themes

If, of all the arts, cinema is the most effective short cut to a new way of experiencing the world, then cinephiles will always long for the discovery of an obscure genius to tip the balance of consciousness and whirl them into new states of experience. The Armenian documentarist Artavazd Pelechian is just the kind of visionary they hunger for. 

In Spring 2004 an exhibition based around Pelechian’s work was curated by Gerald Matt of the Kunsthalle in Vienna and, as his films are so rarely shown, the magnificent book that accompanied it, Our Century, does great service as the first devoted to Pelechian’s work in the west, consisting of texts by commentators, important writings by Pelechian himself and dozens of full page stills from three of his films. As the films are largely wordless and rhythmic, these give a closer armchair experience of watching them than the same method might for other film makers, but without the vertiginous sense of movement, which is however crucial.

Pelechian’s films are remarkable because they stare upon fundamental and cosmic themes, edited with a mastery of scale and rhythm which makes all life on earth swarm and bloom through the celluloid. Pelechian was born in 1938 and trained at the Moscow film school. His debut in 1964, Mountain Vigil, depicted the lives of those who clear fallen rocks from railway lines. In 1967 Beginning, supposed to commemorate the 1917 revolution, restaged the birth of cinema with still images which gradually begin to move and for the first time integrated archive film with original material. We from 1969 shows the pressure of history on faces and crowds of Pelechian’s compatriots and the desolation of the Armenian genocide. Inhabitants in 1970 is a hymn to the animal world which aspires to formal abstraction, clouds of silver birds pulverising the light, and The Seasons in 1972 is distinguished by repeatedly looped images: a ram hurled down cascading rapids, a haystack tumbling down a hillside, gravity becoming a film-maker’s toy. The stellar reach of Pelechian’s imagination led him in 1982 to Our Century, an account of the launching of humanity into space, featuring archive of American astronauts and his own footage of Soviet cosmonauts. A decade later saw the two short films End and Life intimate examinations of death and birth, although even the apparently inverted sequence of these films reflects a dynamic in which an end always implies another beginning.

seasons-of-the-year-our-century-artavazd-pelechian.jpgLeft: Our Century, 1983. Right: The Seasons of the Year, 1975

At this point the Soviet Union collapsed and Pelechian’s films began to be celebrated on the European festival circuit, but in the past ten years no funding has been forthcoming for any further projects. The book Our Century opens with a detailed and useful overview of Pelechian’s filmography by the Viennese film curator Constantin Wulff. A short piece by Paul Virilio posits a science of man-made accidents and technological disasters which tangentially reflects Pelechian’s montage of natural, historical and technological forces. Pelechian’s most distinguished champion is that other great theoretician of montage Jean-Luc Godard, and one may discern the fruits of Godard’s enthusiasm in the opening sequence of his latest film Notre Musique, an elemental archive montage of 20th century wars and atrocities. A conversation between the two from as long ago as 1992 is reprinted in the book, less a dialogue than a fugue of each of their habitual obsessions. The volume closes with a summary of Pelechian’s theories and the symphonic structure of his films by Francois Niney.

Two of Pelechian’s ‘scripts’ are reproduced in the book, brief texts which are both archive shot lists and prose poems, but the heart of the anthology is Pelechian’s own explanation of his ‘Distance Montage’ theory, fascinating though rendered into occasionally lamentable English. Pelechian rejects Eisenstein’s theory of the creation of meaning from the juxtaposition of two shots and interests himself in that derived from their separation, inserting others between them, deploying repeated images which develop momentum from linking shots which hold apart and reach from one to the other. Distance montage gives a film not a linear sequence but rather a spherical form which rotates around itself, although because film is a two dimensional time based medium this rotation of the image appears as repetition, with the appearances of repeated images referring back as well as forward in time to one another, and as is the nature of a repeated image reminding one of its original, dissolving our perception of the time that has elapsed between the two. This phenomenon gives the film the musical sense of a rhythmic motif. He also writes of editing films by structuring them around a musical score, whether an established classic or the layered working of recorded sound.

Whilst visiting Armenia several years ago I was taken to meet Pelechian by the film critic and historian Artsvi Bakhchinyan. Pelechian’s home, in a dismal apartment block in the hills surrounding the capital Yerevan, was marked by the decorative emblem of a white painted thistle fixed to the door frame. Pelechian was watching images of Armenian churches on a TV with bad reception and we were given tea by his wife Aida. The apartment was small but comfortable and hosted a large collection of cuddly toys. Pelechian had a countenance of weathered iron, dismayed not to have worked for so long. I asked him if his was a specifically Armenian aesthetic.

“Armenia is seen as oriental to the Europeans and European to the East.” he began, “I am not only an Armenian film-maker although obviously that is what I am; I am not a national chauvinist, in fact I am a chauvinist of cinema.” Where did his ideas come from? “From the cinema and the power of the image.” So which other filmmakers’ work did he admire? “Antonioni, Fellini, Kubrick... but pre-eminent over all of these is Paradjanov. Ever since the Lumière Brothers, cinema has aspired to be a synthesis of all the arts, incorporating music, painting, theatre and so on, but with Paradjanov it finally became a fine art. He is the one we will take into the 21st century.” Despite this eulogy, Pelechian didn’t regret that his friend was prevented from making many more films: “He made just these few masterpieces, but what does it matter? Dante had no need to create a second Divine Comedy.” By his own definition Pelechian’s own work could be said to be a further progression from this, inventing his own language of sound and image: “I mean to develop cinema beyond a synthesis of the other arts and become purely cinematic.”

Did he have a strong religious sense? “No, a strong cinematic sense.” Few other directors have the audacity or the simplicity to tackle such fundamental, elemental, grand themes as he does. “As someone living in the 20th century how could I do otherwise?” Did he consider his films documentaries? “No, something more, between documentary and fiction, almost fiction really.”

Despite his repeated insistence on a purely formal basis for his motivation, Pelechian’s films express and celebrate more than most human soul and tenacity and a spirit of collective endeavour. They convey a sensation of overwhelming optimism, despite the melancholy circumstances of Armenian life and history. Even a sequence such as the funeral procession in Weis as much a celebration of human brotherhood as a nationalist lament. There is a tension, too, between the emerging ideology of globalisation at work here and the socialist deployment of the masses which enables and is contradicted by it.

I asked him if he had tried working with new digital technology whether for editing – indeed non-linear editing itself could be one definition of Pelechian’s system of montage – or for image making? He had not, but hoped to experiment with it. He theorised in characteristically elemental forms the process of making film: “You begin with the filmed material of absent physical objects and with montage you create an absent image.”

I had heard that he would often send a cinematographer away alone with a list of the images he wanted. Did he proceed by filming objects and events and them decide what to do with them during the editing? “No, everything is in the scenario I prepare beforehand.” It might seem surprising that there are scenarios for such films which are apparently untranslatable from written language. Pelechian readily agreed. “Cinema is like man before the Tower of Babel, when everyone spoke the same language. The language of prehistoric man was cinema.”

Pelechian’s representation of the effect of his films was a monstrous challenge to the skills of our interpreter. “To me, they are like experiencing magnetic waves, the montage makes them pulse, they send out beams into the spectators’ subconscious, rendering them radioactive. There is a montage too, you see, between the audience and the film...”and he concluded this oration in a magnificently cosmic register: “The solar system too is a montage, montage has an influence like that of the planets...” One might likewise call their effect lunar, or tidal.

How did the experience of cinema make 20th century people different from their predecessors, to whom it was unavailable? “It allows greater exposure to the subconscious, which is a healthy thing. And it is all films, not just mine, which have this effect.” Did he direct and control this beaming to the spectator or did he create the possibilities for this effect to occur? “Both.”

Certainly in this way they should have a universal appeal. Pelechian proudly told us that his films particularly appealed to audiences in Africa, then recounted the following story. “Someone once wanted to screen a film some place in Africa where a film had never been seen before, but when he got to the place set up as a cinema, no-one was there. When he asked why he was told: ‘We don’t understand. How can you show us something when the room is all dark?’ ”

The short films of Artavazd Pelechian will be shown as part of Return to the Promised Land: the London Armenian Film Festival at the Cine Lumiere, Kensington from 11-17 February.

James Norton is a freelance film critic and researcher for television arts programmes.