Montage from a Distance: The Films of Artavasd Peleshian

While I am still away from Armenia I thought I would reprint some articles that I have written over the last few years. Below is an article that originally appeared in the Armenian Weekly, in May 2004. It is basically a review of several short films screened in the Boston area, directed by obscure filmmaker Artavasd Peleshian, a Soviet-era pioneer in abstract cinema. I found his films to be utterly fascinating, and they have had a huge impact on me. Unfortunately, they are very difficult to get a hold of and thus cannot be readily seen. We can only hope that a renewed interest in Peleshian’s work will reverse this trend.

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The films of Artavasd Peleshian are not well known to Armenians or to world cinema as they are relatively inaccessible. All but two of his films were produced during the Soviet Union era. Most of his films are short in length, the shortest being 6 minutes long, with one film, ‘Our Century,’ about the Soviet space program lasting 60 minutes. His works for the most part are obscure and border on insanity, yet visually they are spectacular. From seeing these films, shown on April 15 as part of the Balagan film series in Brookline, MA, it is obvious that he is among the great avant garde world filmmakers due to his innovation and unique craft.

Mr. Peleshian developed a unique style of cinematographic perspective known as “distance montage,” combining perception of depth with oncoming entities, whether in the form of running packs of antelope or hordes of humans escaping from or scattering towards an irrevocable doom. Mr. Peleshian used both archive documentary footage from the national film vaults in Moscow and his own footage shot on location, intercutting them seamlessly, with the viewer totally unaware of the transitions. Moreover, the effect of distance montage is also captured through the clever use of the telephoto lens, as the camera acts as a spy device intruding on mundane tasks that people engage in--hugging, sobbing, screaming, riding a tram, picking noses, nodding to sleep. Some scenarios are intentionally arranged, yet are conveyed in a documentary style. His films feature no dialogue, the interweaving images set against music, sound effects, or both simultaneously. Music styles focus on classical with dabs in popular or traditional. Nearly all of his films were shot in black and white.

Of the 12 films that are known to exist, six were screened throughout the evening. The first, “The Beginning,” from 1967 is his third film, displaying crowds of people running towards and away from bombastic deities scorning their devoted followers. Here the archival footage is intermingled with modern images of war and labor. Mr. Peleshian uses a unique editing device here, as snippets of film are held momentarily on one frame, then advance only for a second or two until again pausing on another, resulting in a stuttering visual effect of sorts.

“We” from 1969 was perhaps the most stunning and nostalgic of the films shown, opening with a held shot of a young girl with a wild mane of hair and a beaded necklace, followed by scenes of Mount Aragast and the rocky terrain of Armenia’s Ararat region. This film displays the labors and emotional turbulence of mankind, with close-up scenes of men pulling up boulders from the ground or struggling to erect a stone monument on a hillside with panoramic view of Yerevan (assumingly the victory monument atop the ‘Cascade’ steps). Virtually the entire film is shot in Armenia, primarily in Yerevan. Most scenes are filmed in documentary style with crowds of people flooding the streets, in particular Mesrob Mashdots Avenue and Republic Square. This film artistically portrays the culture of Armenia through the medium of personal emotion—the viewer feels like an intruder when watching people lamenting during a funeral procession, during which tens of thousands flood Republic Square. Another scene shows masses congregated on the tarmac in front of a parked jetliner, again with emotional people hugging and sobbing, yet the viewer cannot place the scenes in context with the incident—the events portrayed are not interpretable, due to the total absence of dialogue or a narrative plot.

“The Armenians are simply an opportunity that allow me to talk about the world, about human characteristics, human nature,” the director has admitted regarding his work.

“Inhabitant” from 1970 is a film nearly entirely composed of scenes of animals huddled together, hurrying to destinations unknown and from situations unrevealed. Most of these scenes were filmed by Peleshian and his film crew on location. The film opens with a close up of a swan unfolding its wings, its body filling the frame, totally vulnerable to those gazing upon it. In subsequent scenes animals are in constant flux, whether galloping in packs of hundreds or solo, swinging from vines. The segments of animalography are intercut with shots of people in precarious positions, as the role of man oppressing beast is reversed, with the beast dominating the world. Again distance montage is put brilliantly to use here, the camera’s angle remaining static yet tracking the tide of the flocks. Movement is the sole emotional device, complemented by the score of music and indeterminable animal sounds.

“Seasons” also takes place in Armenia, and visualizes the close bonds between beast and man. The film begins with a man struggling in the rapids of a raging river, straining to unsuccessfully grasp hold of a lamb floating along just ahead of him. The force of the river’s streams suppresses them ever from uniting, with the man repeatedly failing to clench the leg of the lamb. In later scenes, these rescue attempts of lambs are further examined, with little comprehension on the viewer’s part, as men clenching the animals slide down great hillsides, covered with grass, snow, or crumbling clay. Scenes of village life are intermingled, with men reaping high grasses, then collecting them in stacks to slide them down the steep slopes, pulling them along with ropes tied around them. The men seem jubilant running with the hay stacks, occasionally tripping over loose stones, their tasks accompanied by movements from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Then Mr. Peleshian abruptly turns to a melancholy wedding procession, again in distance montage mode, closing in on the bride and groom during their unification, only to learn that the groom was the man struggling with the lamb in the rapids.

“It’s not specifically the seasons of the year or of people: it is everything,” Mr. Peleshian has explained. “One should not forget that this film’s ‘heroes’ are not the people, but the seasons and nature. It is not man who imposed himself upon nature, but rather nature that imposes itself upon man.”

In 1993 Mr. Peleshian made the film “Life,” this time in color, which he describes as the celebration of life. Shot in real time during a six-minute time span, a woman lies on a platform – whether a bed or stretcher is unclear – slightly perspiring and moving her head from side to side, and it eventually becomes apparent that the woman is in labor. The camera in telephoto zoom moves ever so slightly by the woman’s head, as if caressing her in comfort. Her face winces and her mouth gapes, occasionally smiling, perhaps in anticipation. Rather than portraying a woman birthing in full vulnerability, as is often done on evening television hospital soaps, the director concentrates on the emotional impact, on the mother to be as a woman rather than patient. The thump of a continuous heartbeat persists throughout the film, coupled with an aria performed by a tenor-soprano duet. The film perfectly articulates the director’s brilliant command of sound and vision, as he is able to accurately command the desired emotional effect to be interpreted by the viewer. This was also true for ‘The Beginning’ in particular.

The last film Mr. Peleshian completed was called, ironically enough, “The End” produced in 1994. The spy camera is well put to use here, with the film again photographed nearly exclusively in zoomed close-up. The film takes place on a moving train, with exchanging shots of people being filmed unbeknownst to them--Mr. Peleshian having become a master of the craft by this time, showing views of scenery from the perspective of the passenger. The departure and destination of the train are unknown, as the director--as with all the other viewed films--is only concerned with the present, and the situations that arise from moment to moment.

Another visual device the director uses when shooting is one whereby the camera remains fixed on a single point in distance, while unrecognizable objects from afar slowly approach the camera in real time, finally distorting as they advance into oblivion. The film’s last moments are captured using this technique, the camera fixated on a small orb of white light surrounded by total darkness, accompanied by the constant drone of unrecognizable machinery sounds. The light gradually widens in diameter, and soon it becomes apparent that the camera is fixated on the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. As the train finally meets the wall of white, the viewer is cast into the expected obscurity of light, the light of Mr. Peleshian’s filmmaking legacy.

The director, whose efforts were never properly recognized by world cinema and, until recently, Armenian cinema—with the exception of French New Wave cinema pioneer Jean Luc-Godard—has retired from filmmaking, suffering cruelly from mental illness. Mr. Godard had offered to finance a subsequent film but Mr. Peleshian declined, on the grounds that signing a contract was a foreign concept to him. Mr. Peleshian now lives in Moscow, with the false conviction that his films have been forgotten.

Copyright © 2004 Christian Garbis


Anonymous said…
In a Dense web we are in, fulled with so much information, i was glad to see Pelechain's name mentioned. thanks, i adore the man.
he should know his legacy went far beyond what he believes to have happened with it. alongside Pelechian, who counts Eisenstein...

Nissim, Israel.

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