Artavazd Pelechian: from Начало to Конец, and Beyond

Кино дистанционного монтажа способно и раскрывать любые формы движения: от низших и элементарных, до высших и сложнейших. Оно способно говорить одновременно языком искусства, философии и науки.
The cinema of distance montage is capable of showing any form of movement: from a basic and elemental action to higher and more complex ones. It is able to speak equally in the languages of art, philosophy and science.
Моё кино. Artavazd Pelechian, 1972.
In a recent post relating her experiences while traveling in Armenia, Catherine Darley shows us, by way of contextualizing the Moscow-Yerevan railway, the video Конец (The End) by the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Pelechian. I applaud her good judgement and impeccable taste, for Pelechian is one of the film artists whose work I admire most.

Artavazd Pelechian speaking at the ВГИК (VGIK) in 1967.

Artavazd (sometimes “Arthur”) Pelechian (Արտավազդ Փելեշյան, Артавазд Пелешян) was born in Leninakan (now Gyumri) in 1938, schooled at the famed ВГИК (Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) in Moscow, and created his major works beginning in the mid-1960s. He built his body of work upon foundations laid by the early Soviet film directors of the 1920s and 30s, notably the film artist-theorists Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. In addition, Pelechian’s films, which (as far as I have seen) have no dialog and almost no verbal content, come as close as anyone’s to the notion of pure cinema which many film critics thought was lost forever at the end of the silent movie era in the late 1920s.

However much Pelechian uses Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s theories of montage (in simplistic terms, “editing”) as foundations for his work, he nonetheless decisively departs from their examples, proposing his own theory, which he calls distance montage, as an enrichment of the tradition that his forebears established. Pelechian states: “Eisenstein’s montage was linear, like a chain. … 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.”

Pelechian, in his 1972 book Моё кино (My Cinema) illustrates his theory of distance montage with these diagrams. The first is Pelechian’s depiction of the Eisenstein/Vertov approach, montage in the classical sense.

An image appears on the screen, and when it ends, it is replaced by another image. The two considered together may either reinforce continuity or break it. In both cases, the spectator involuntarily tries to “make sense” of what they have just seen. In this form of montage, a new meaning arises, not present in either image considered singly. The brain somehow fuses the two images into a single conceptual unit, prompted by their content. Eisenstein likened this phenomenon to the compound ideograms in Chinese writing, where combining simple signs results in signs for complex or abstract concepts:
From the superimposition of two elements of the same dimension always arises a new, higher dimension. In the case of stereoscopy the superimposition of two nonidentical two-dimensionalities results in stereoscopic three-dimensionality. In another field, a concrete word (a denotation) set beside a concrete word yields an abstract concept — as in the Chinese and Japanese languages, where a material ideogram can indicate a transcendental (conceptual) result.

Sergei Eisenstein: “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” from Film Form, 1948.

Pelechian illustrates his own theory of distance montage with this diagram:

Rather than thinking of a film as a linear sequence of images, we can think of it as a sequence of sequences, each of which contributes meaning to the film by the interactions within and among them. A single image may resonate in the spectator’s memory throughout a long sequence, and when repeated later in the film might explode with new significance, supported by its appearance in a new context. The spectator’s experience of the film is not simply beginning-to-end, but rather can be thought of in circular, or even spherical terms. This implies that each image (or sound, or image-sound combination) has the potential to affect the interpretation of every other image, sound or image-sound in the film.

Эта схема очень сильно упрощает действительную картину, поскольку дистанционное взаимодействие между кадрами и блоками происходит на разных расстояниях, через множество промежуточных звеньев, настолько сложными и извилистыми путями, что невозможно сразу дать проекцию общей формы их совокупного движения. This diagram greatly simplifies what really happens, since distance montage acts among shots and sequences separated by various distances, through many intermediate connections and such complicated and torturous paths, which cannot immediately give a general form of the screenings’s total movement.
Моё кино. Artavazd Pelechian, 1972.

Pelechian, speaking about his film Наш Век (Our Century) sums up: “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.”

Скажу главное: дистанционный монтаж придает структуре фильма не форму привычной монтажной «цепи» и даже не форму совокупности различные «цепей», но создает в итоге круговую или, точнее говоря, шарообразную вращающуюся конфигурацию. The main point is this: Distance montage structures the film, not as a ‘chain’, nor even as an aggregate series of ‘chains’, but in the end creates a circular, or more precisely, a rotating spherical configuration.
Моё кино. Artavazd Pelechian, 1972.
If that’s a bit hard to grasp clearly from words (I know it is for me), it can only be stated that the strongest defense of Pelechian’s techniques are the films themselves. (Pelechian himself states in Моё кино that he does not work according to a theory, but rather works largely intuitively, and that he uses the theory to explain his creative decisions after he has made them.)

I’ve assembled here a selection of what I feel are Pelechian’s most interesting works as found on YouTube, to which I have added a few notes.

Տարվա եղանակներ — Времена года — The Seasons
1975, 28 mins.

Времена года (Seasons of the Year) is, in the opinion of many, Pelechian’s masterwork. The film sits somewhere on the boundary between documentary and poetry. A depiction of a way of life in the rural mountains of Armenia is rendered in terms both particular, and universal. The portrait is drawn in the images of faces, livestock, rocks, clouds, and rushing water. A pattern of visual “rhymes” is established in the downward sweep of a roaring mountain torrent and with it, men and sheep spilling down headlong, locked together in their symbiotic relationship. The grueling labors of transhumance are shown in images of shepherds cradling sheep while tumbling down snow-covered slopes, and men being chased by haystacks sliding at breakneck speed down a steep mountainside; a people both struggling against, and working together with the force of gravity.

Սկիզբէ — Начало — Beginning
1967, 9 mins.

A film essay made for the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, demonstrating Pelechian’s mastery at finding the internal visual rhythms of images and bringing them through editing to a state where they become a form of visual music, perfectly underscored by his choice of supporting sound. The film, composed largely of stock footage, proceeds at a rapid pace — one might be tempted to think of the Keystone Cops were it not for the seriousness and drama of the history that flips by kinetically before our eyes.
The distinctly constructivist composition Время, вперед! (Time, Forward!) by Georgy Sviridov, whose strident chords, in tandem with the film’s blistering cutting pace and relentless depiction of movement, … Sviridov’s piece, from a composer otherwise more closely aligned to neo-romanticism, has a remarkable history of its own. First used in the 1965 film of the same name, which dealt with the 1930s industrialisation of the Ural region, the piece was later used as the signature tune for the flagship Soviet news broadcast Время (Vremya, “Time”) … [Senses of Cinema]

Մենք — Мы — We
1969, 23 mins.

Мы (We) is portrait of the Armenian people, alluding through music and images to a long and cataclysmic history, marked with moments of tragedy and uplift, and unfolding before us in a presentation of nearly perfect emotional pitch. We see ordinary and extraordinary events, punctuated with the sight of mountains demolished, and later, standing up again on their own. We see a funeral attended by thousands, repatriations at the Yerevan airport, images from the Armenian genocide of the 1910s, and finally, in an explosion of orchestral music, the iconic image of Ararat and the title “Мы” (“We”), underscoring the undying resilience of a people.

Моя задача опять состояла в том, чтобы показать через отдельных людей не только частное, но и общее, чтобы характеристика изображаемых людей была подчинена познанию типического, чтобы в сознании зрителя складывался не образ отдельного человека, а образ народа. Я стремился дать некую кардиограмму народного духа и национального характера. My task, again, was to show not only particular individuals, but instead people generally, so that the portrayal in the mind of the viewer is not the image of the particular individual, but rather of an entire people. I tried to show a kind of cardiogram of the national spirit and of the national character.
Моё кино. Artavazd Pelechian, 1972.

Մեր դարը — Наш Век — Our Century
1982, 50 mins.

The longest of these selections at nearly an hour, Наш Век is an unapologetic celebration of humankind’s triumph over the bonds that hold them to earth. It does not avoid presenting the follies and tragedies of our collective push into outer space, but in the end an admiration for the achievements of the Soviet and U.S. space programs is what leaves the strongest impression. A recurring motif is the special effect cutting of an image of the sun made to pulse in time with the sound of a beating human heart. Perhaps, he seems to say, it is not so much the cold reason of science that takes us into space, as much as it is our passions and less rational motives that do so. Like all of Pelechian’s films, the music is sutured perfectly to the image and together they become inseparable.

Մարդկանց երկիրր — Земля людей — Land of People
1966, 10 mins.

In an early film, we see Pelechian beginning to grapple with ideas that will appear more forcefully later in his work. A series of images of people putting on gloves (beginning with a worker) leads to an extended series of images of workers in various urban settings. He also makes a liberal use of parallel symmetries in his cutting. The film is symmetrical in time, beginning with a series of shots and ending with the same images in the reverse order.

Վերջ — Конец — End
1992, 8 mins.

At first glance, what seems to be a documentary film about people riding the train, reveals itself at length, and we slowly understand it as a philosophical statement on existence. We are all moving together in life through time, pulled by an inscrutable force ever forward. We can only glimpse one another incompletely, through partly closed curtains, through the gaps between other people. We experience beauty along they way, but even so we are passing through a long dark tunnel until, at the end, we emerge, blinded and blinking in the bright sunlight.

Բնակիչներ — Обитатели — Inhabitants
1970, 9 mins.

The abundant energies of animal life play out over the earth’s surface, as we see the beasts of the world flying, running, swimming, and staring back at us while we stare at them. Mankind’s only presence in this film is as ghostly white, and vaguely menacing, apparitions that divide the film in two. Pay close attention to the soundtrack, itself a remarkable work of sound collage.

Կյանք — Жизнь — Life
1993, 7 mins.

His most recent work, this film continues to explore many themes and motifs of his early work. The beating heart is a recurring sound signature for Pelechian, as are the greater themes of life and the struggles we must endure to live it.

In looking over Pelechian’s filmography, charged as it is with often single-word titles, two salient themes emerge. He seems fascinated with the creatures of the earth (We, Inhabitants, Land of Humans, Life) and moments of time (Beginning, The Seasons, Our Century, End). In fact, the films do not readily divide themselves into these categories: Pelechian draws from both these themes in all of them. But what are we to make of the two titles that bracket a string of his most noteworthy films, Beginning and The End? Or on his repeated insistence on circular, even spherical interpretations of his films? Is it a career-long distance montage that calls out the alpha and the omega?

Pelechians’s work was first introduced to western audiences by the French film critic Serge Daney, writing in the 11 August 1983 issue of Libération in an article entitled “À la recherche d’Arthur Pelechian.” (I would provide a link, but sadly the online archives of Libé only go back as far as 1994.) It is probably to this that we owe the fact that Pelechian’s name is usually transliterated, even in English, as ‘Pelechian’ rather than the more accurate (for English) ‘Peleshyan.’

Hungarian readers may be interested to note that three months before the Libération article, in May 1983, his work was given a long and detailed analysis in the Hungarian journal Filmvilág (Cinema World) by Aleksandr Troshin.

To the best of my knowledge, Pelechian is still alive and living in Moscow.