PRINT February 2010


Artavazd Peleshian

THERE IS NO BETTER EXAMPLE of a remarkable cinematic accomplishment not finding an audience—at least in the United States—than the work of documentary filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian. Born in 1938 in Armenia, then a part of the Soviet Union, Peleshian began making films as a student at the Moscow Film Institute in 1964; by the time he completed The Beginning, in 1967, he had become what he remains: one of the greatest montage artists in modern cinema. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, one assumed it was only a matter of time before Peleshian’s work would be available on this side of the Atlantic—he had become reasonably well known to European film-festival goers, in part becauseof the support of Jean-Luc Godard—and by all accounts Peleshian himself was excited about the possibility of his films being seen in the United States. He visited here in 1991, and for a time the American filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, best known for Koyaanisqatsi (1982), championed Peleshian in hopes that his own Anima Mundi (1992) might be paired with one of Peleshian’s films for an American run. Peleshian demurred, and during the past two decades his US presence has amounted to a few scattered screenings and, more recently, a thirdrate bootleg DVD of his films. Fortunately, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is presenting a substantial selection of his work this month.

To fully grasp Peleshian’s contribution, one must go back to the 1920s, the golden age of Russian cinema, when Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and their colleagues transformed film editing. Even if their perfection of montage became the model for the barrage editing now typical of American television advertising, their accomplishments remain a pinnacle in the history of the medium. However, for many filmmakers during the waning years of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein and Vertov came to represent the arrival of Stalin, the gulag, and artistic repression; the result was a rebellion against montage that took two forms. Andrei Tarkovsky’s slow, meditative films constructed from long takes were a crucial breakthrough, and many directors followed his lead, among them Alexander Sokurov, whose Russian Ark (2002), a feature-length film realized in one shot, is the apotheosis of this antimontage impulse. A less pervasive tendency, perhaps best exemplified by Peleshian, has involved a redirection of the forms of montage championed by Eisenstein and Vertov.

Peleshian has called his method “distance montage.” Unlike Eisenstein’s montage, which is “linear, like a chain,” distance montage, Peleshian has explained,

creates a magnetic field around the film. It’s like when a light is turned on and light is generated around the lamp. . . . Sometimes I don’t call my method “montage.” I’m involved in a process of creating unity. In a sense I’ve eliminated montage: by creating the film through montage, I have destroyed montage. In the totality, in the wholeness of one of my films, there is no montage, no collision, so as a result montage has been destroyed. In Eisenstein every element means something. For me the individual fragments don’t mean anything anymore. Only the whole _film has the meaning. . . .

Sound and image cross each other, intersect each other, switch, change territories. The sound enters the territory of the picture and the image enters the territory of the sound. You start to_ see the sound and you hear the picture. . . . I would want to say that whereas Eisenstein saw editing as a means to get from here to there, I see editing as a means for seeing where we are.*

In distance montage, successive shots may or may not be directly related, and even when they are, their relationships represent only part of their significance. Certain shots, even short sequences, as well as discrete passages of music and isolated sound effects, are repeated multiple times, each time in a different context. As the film develops, the viewer’s sense of the topic Peleshian is exploring evolves, and these repetitions accumulate implication and emotional power.

Each of the seven Peleshian films being shown in Washington is an operatic rumination on a particular theme. The Beginning uses mostly archival material to cast the October Revolution as a metaphor for liberation of all kinds. In We (1969), Peleshian focuses on his native Armenia as a means of exploring forms of ethnic unity and resistance to assimilation that are shared by cultures the world over. In The Inhabitants (1970), the subject is animal life’s global battle against relentless human encroachment. For The Seasons (1975), Peleshian again turned to Armenia, evoking the human struggle to wring sustenance and community from the natural landscape. In Our Age (1982), his subject is the human quest to conquer mortality, as epitomized by the space program, where the “final countdown” instigates a desire to transcend earthly existence. In The End (1992), life is a train journey into the light. And in Life (1993), the miracle of birth is emblematic of the agony and ecstasy of creation.

In the United States, film history tends to be divided into three roughly distinct tendencies: big-budget and smaller-budget commercial features, documentaries, and that immense cinematic territory called “avant-garde” or “experimental” film or “alternative cinema” (the proliferation of terms reflecting the diversity of its products). This particular understanding of film history does not fit the realities of modern Russian filmmaking, where a tradition of films made outside the commercial film industry, as critiques of that industry, has never developed—in large measure because state-sponsored film schools and studios have nurtured a wide range of experiment. Even when the resulting experimental films are not widely seen by the Russian public, they are appreciated by filmmaking colleagues and find their way to specialized audiences. Formally, though, and in terms of their international reception, Peleshian’s films fit comfortably within the history of avant-garde film.

Peleshian’s cinema is distinctive enough that comparisons with the work of more familiar moving-image artists are mostly pointless. While his films bear some relation to those of Bruce Conner (many of Conner’s films, like all of Peleshian’s, are ruminations on the nature of modern life), Peleshian shoots, or directs the shooting of, most of his footage (whereas Conner was, of course, primarily known for working with found footage). His elaborate and highly dramatic compositions fill the wide screen and, combined with his sound-image editing pyrotechnics, create experiences that are at times overwhelming.

Like Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, whose considerable reputation is based on remarkably few films, Peleshian has not been prolific. Indeed, each of his films seems to be a reflection on a particular stage of his life. More fully than most filmmakers, Peleshian’s individual works are parts of an ongoing metafilm: Early on, he focused on beginnings; in Our Age, he confronted mortality and the hunger for transcendence; and in 1992, he completed The End. Life seems to contradict this idea, though it may suggest that Peleshian continues to be surprised by the return of the creative urge even as he sees the end approaching.

The supreme accomplishments of this career are, for this commentator at least, The Seasons and the fifty-minute version of Our Age (a thirty-minute version was completed in 1990). In The Seasons, the remarkable travails of Armenians living in a wild, mountainous terrain are encapsulated in two recurrent images: one of a man holding on to a sheep as the two are washed down a turbulent stream; the other of farmers pulling and pushing haystacks down a hair-raisingly steep hill to their village. These images are emblems of the essential struggles of farmers against powerful physical forces and the seasonal cycle, struggles interrupted—as they are in the film—by the momentary euphoria of social rituals. In The Seasons, Peleshian emphasizes the vertical, at times using mirror printing to highlight the balance these farmers seem able to strike with their formidable environment.

Our Age is reminiscent of Conner’s pioneering found-footage film A Movie (1958)—in fact, Peleshian includes some of the same footage Conner used in his film: a sequence of early, failed attempts at flight—but Our Age includes much imagery shot by Peleshian himself. who became close friends with the cosmonauts he filmed. Peleshian depicts the triumphs and tragedies that have characterized human technological progress in general and the evolution of manned flight and space travel in particular. While the film focuses on Russian cosmonauts, Peleshian sees their efforts as part of a global human effort to transcend physical limitation: One of the repeated sequences is of American scientists and engineers at Cape Canaveral counting down to blastoff. The relentless click, click, click that ticks off the seconds sometimes overlaps with the sound of a heartbeat, suggesting both the excitement of this societal quest and the finitude of human life. The subtlety and inventiveness of Peleshian’s editing in Our Age grows more apparent with each viewing.

So much of film history passes us by. Even for those of us devoted to keeping up with new developments and catching up with past accomplishments, the complex world of global film distribution and exhibition too often frustrates our efforts. That Peleshian’s films are not in wide circulation is one of the disappointments of modern cinema; that, once again, most of his work will be briefly available in this country in 35-mm projection provides an opportunity not to be missed.

*Interview with Arthur [Artavazd] Peleshian, in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 102–103.

“Peleshian: Poet of the Cinema,” organized by Margaret Parsons in collaboration with Melik Karapetyan and Alla Kovgan, runs February 20–21 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

A visiting professor of film history at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, Scott Macdonald is the author, most recently, of Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration (University of California Press, 2009).