There are people out of time, and there’s Artavazd Pelechian. With his new film La Nature, completed in his 82nd year, and only the 11th film he’s made in six decades – most of them shorts – the defiant Armenian has lived through the entirety of postwar Soviet culture and its roiling aftermath, and yet has stuck to his reductionist, formalist guns, like a poet who writes only villanelles and does so with a quill, by candlelight.
Defined variously as a documentarian, a poetic film-essayist, a quasi-experimental artist and a montage neo-theorist, Pelechian’s global esteem, for a certain geek margin of cinephiles, may be the most outsized relative to output since Jean Vigo – everywhere you go to read about him, you find Sergei Paradjanov referring to him as “one of the few authentic geniuses in the world of cinema.” An Italian-made profile doc, The Silence of Pelechian, started rounding about the festivals in 2011, and yet you could say Pelechian has been largely ignored (his Wikipedia entry laments that being “from a country removed from internationally significant cinema circles, Pelechian’s efforts were not initially well-recognized”).
In reality, Pelechian’s general obscurity is perfectly in line with the kinds of movies he makes: impressionistic, textless torrents of often abstracted imagery, suggesting transcendental, even cosmic equations about humankind and nature. Which may make them sound more impenetrable than they really are; one way to look at them is as carefully considered folk-art visions of modern life in transition, a mode you could uncharitably note gave way to the epic montage features of Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke.
Born in Leninakan (once Alexandropol, now Gyumri) in 1938, Pelechian attended the Gerasimov School of Cinematography in Moscow, and immediately started fielding prizes, mostly for The Beginning (1967), an acidic, machine-gun all-found-footage reconfiguration of the October Revolution and the first direct confrontation with Eisensteinian montage theory – which in 1967 did not summon many other passionate rebellions. His films came at a glacial pace thereafter – a short a year, then with three or seven years between them – and his strange, quiet cult slowly grew.
By some accounts, the critical tipping point, at least in France, belonged to the one and only Serge Daney, who in 1983, in Liberation, wrote a paean to Pelechian, “a missing link in the true history of cinema”, as quoted by scholar Daniel Fairfax in Senses of Cinema: “In the USSR, thank God, there are not just functionaries and dissidents. Arthur [sic] Pelechian, an Armenian filmmaker living in Moscow, works. On documents, on Armenia, on the cosmos and on the theory of montage.”
As both Daney and Pelechian say themselves: evoking the films in plain critical language, without making them sound as devoid of substance and purpose as a film school editing exercise, is damningly tough. He is not, by his own admission, a filmmaker comfortable with the medium’s growth over time – with thinking about cinema as an evolving, self-modernising mode of expression. Pelechian does not consider, even today, that the fundamental arguments of cinematic style and syntax – even, or especially, the claims and assumptions made for silent-film montage by Vertov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin – to be settled business.
A Pelechian film is an easily recognisable breed of cinematic fauna: stringently dialogue-free and uniformly black-and-white (as if it were still 1927), scored with classical/liturgical angst, mingling freshly shot images with archivals – and then optically printing it all into a consistent tonal range but also into varying speeds (mostly languid slo-mo). The images themselves – workers, farmers, mountains, seas, animals, Armenian social rituals – tend toward the monumental, often encompassing epic scale, but just as often cropped so the moving subject in question is reduced to heaving textures and tumult.
It is at first blush a lyrical-collagist strategy that could remind you of Bruce Conner, Joseph Cornell, Nathaniel Dorsky, Alexander Sokurov and of course Godard, with whom Pelechian planned an aborted project in the late 80s-early 90s. The difference is that Pelechian’s montage decisions are never merely whimsical, associative or engineered for effect. Rather, Pelechian has always articulated his programme in theoretical terms, in explicit riposte to the dialectic editing fashions of the 20s, arriving at what he’s termed “distance montage” – in contrast to the more equational, more step-by-step procedures of Eisenstein and Vertov.
“Eisenstein’s montage was linear, like a chain,” he’s written. “Distance montage creates a magnetic field around the film. It’s like when a light is turned on and light is generated around the lamp. In distance montage, when the two ends are excited, the whole thing glows… 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.”
Scholar Paul Macovaz puts it: “The Eisenteinian tractor ploughing abstract patterns of revolutionary ardour into the psyche has been nuclearised.” As with Eisenstein, wild theoretical rhetoric can tend to hyperinflate films whose sensual impact can seem readily available without it. (Eisensteinian montage may have materialised revolutionary “syntheses” in their original audience’s consciousness, or they may have simply been exciting action films.)
But there’s an unmistakable holistic thrust to Pelechian’s films, particularly from We (1969) and his most renowned, The Seasons (1975), through to La Nature: a sense of the artist orchestrating his images in waves, not particles, and therein looking to manifest ineffable notions about humanity and nature. In their energetic rhythms and repeated motifs (shots are often doubled and tripled, and sometimes flipped), Pelechian’s films seethe with the tension between chaos (often the subject of the images) and order (the quite musical arrangement of the editing).
Thematic ideas do emerge, or one prevailing idea: Pelechian continually returns to a climate of awe and dread as he gazes upon the costs, abuses and destructions – on people as well as the natural world – of modern life. With all the emphasis on montage, however, the force of Pelechian’s actual images is often overlooked. Perhaps his oeuvre’s most iconic shots are from The Seasons, of a herder and the young goat he’s trying to save caught in vicious river rapids, shot flatly from a distance, helpless and yet slowing it down as if it were a dance. Herzog would kvell; Sharunas Bartas definitely got the message.
At just over an hour, La Nature is Pelechian’s longest film and also his most strident, moving from mountainous serenity into a relentless and often terrifying cataract of found disaster footage, tsunamis and tornadoes and volcanoes and demolitions, even holding its breath for a five-minute-long chunk of iPhone footage, surveying a horrendous flash flood from a rooftop. YouTubers can binge on similar nightmares, but here the aggregate vision holds you down like an apocalyptic screed; electrocuting our love of property and control, Pelechian may be rounding up his life project here with a terrestrial alarm. Suddenly, this least modern of filmmakers seems to be painfully of the moment.
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