PELECHIAN OR THE ART OF FUGUEby Carlos Muguiro
The first news any of us had of Artavazd Pelechian was through an article that the French critic, Serge Daney, published in Liberation in 1983, following a trip to Soviet Armenia. I say "any of us" because Daney´s text was in a way an announcement to the City and the World, urbi et orbi, like the proclamations of the Roman Emperors: "In Armenia", he said, "I have discovered a missing link from the true history of cinema." That it was in Armenia added an archeological pedigree to the find. At the foot of Mount Ararat, where other European expeditionaries said that they had found the remains of Noah´s Ark; there on the Black Sea where the cultures of the Caucasus were the "very book from which the first men took their lessons" (Nadesha Mandelstam); there where Sergei Paradjanov tried to find refuge from the Soviet Big Brother; that is where Daney discovered Pelechian.
Pelechian´s films began to be seen outside the orbit of soviet influence from 1988. This was the year of the joint retrospective of his work and that of Sergei Paradjanov, which was held during the Amsterdam Festival. The following year they arrived at the Nyon Festival and the Panorama Section of the Berlin Festival. One cold Spring night the director of the Nyon Festival showed for Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville the somewhat clandestine copies, "in the soviet manner", that had been produced of his films. As a result of that session, Godard fixed for posterity the idea that the cinema of Pelechian was "a language from the time before Babel", which was to say that in order to describe the Armenian film-maker the only worthwhile ideas were those of geological eras and of myth and not those of humanity´s ordinary rhythms nor, of course, those of cinema´s own history. His films bring to our notice something tremendously distant (something emotional, a feeling), something difficult to capture, and so difficult to make clear. In the September 1990 edition of Cahiers du Cinema, dedicated to soviet film, the name of Pelechian now appeared with those of Klimov, Shepitko, Tarkovski, Paradjanov, Sokurov or Muratova in the pantheon of the great soviet film-makers of modernity. The following year the USSR disappeared.
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The most beautiful words that have been written about the work of Artavazd Pelechian seem like the sayings of archeologists or astronomers, or even of prophets, but not of critics or cineasts.
The "missing link" to which Daney referred had a first historical-critical interpretation connected to the fortunes of the Soviet Russian vanguard following the official establishment of Socialist Realism at the beginning of the thirties. It was especially striking that before Pelachian became known, whilst in the West the cinematographic vanguard of the sixties, especially in the United States, had rehabilitated the great heterodox, Dziga Vertov, (the inventor of the Cine-Eye, of the perception of matter, of the interval, of the film-maker´s own body), in the USSR itself Vertov´s influence seemed to have disappeared without trace. It was not an easy problem to unravel, taking into account the obscurity of the long Stalinist period.
Pelechian burst onto the soviet scene at the end of the seventies, with a "as we were saying yesterday. . . . ." that restored the great imaginative figures of the school of soviet montage, especially Vertov, but drawing inspiration from a landascape of films that went back directly to Dovzhenko and ultimately to Eisenstein. The fruit of that effort is his text Distance Montage or Theory of Distance, that was published in 1973. By these contributions to theory, Pelechian also helped to connect up the secondary and alternative networks of Russian cinema, whose pathways seemed to have been untrodden for the last forty years.
In any case, the significance of his work rests not only on his reconstruction of the dynamited bridges of Soviet Russian cinema, but also on the mysterious and fascinating place he holds amongst his non-soviet contemporaries. Pelechian joins, without being aware of it, the community of unknown equals that reflect on the physicality of cinema, on its realism in the present, on its rhythmic and synaesthetic values. Pelechian maintains an ironic distance with respect to the supposed true documentary, he suggests a second reading of the materials in the archive, he considers the possibility of its repetition and inversion in the structuralist manner, he reflects on the poetry of science and the antiutopia of progres, he regenerates the way we look at landscape. . . . From all these strategies spring unsuspected links with film-makers apparently as far apart as Michael Snow, Bruce Conner, Peter Kubelka or Chris Marker. Paul Virilio placed Pelechian's medium length work Nas vek/ Mer dare (Our Century) in the center of the exhibition Ce qui arrive…, at the Cartier Foundation hosted in 2002 and in this film the philosopher sets out his theory of catastrophe. In that context Our Century was converted into a powerful black sun, like a new Black Square from Malevich that projected a blinding light, critical and disenchanted, over the century of progress.
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The theory of Distance Montage is the art of fugue. It is this in its evocative way of connecting the technological aspects of the film with the film´s musical language. The films of Pelechian grow from conductive motifs; from a theme and its variations, making use of repetition and involution; from the combination of melodic voices as they are exposed step by step; and from the effect of counterpoint (think, for example, of the wrench of the Offertorio from Verdi´s Requiem that sounds repeatedly in Vychod/Zin/Life).
Besides this, his cinema is the art of escape also in a literal way, because Pelechian´s idea of the Distance Montage is not a theory of how to link shots, but about how to let them free to work on their own. Regarding the escape of images the film-maker himself has explained, "The originality of the theory of Distance Montage lies in the following: the difference from the montage of Kuleshov or Eisenstein, who arranged images in order to create meaning by their conjunction, is that I try to maintain two images that individually make sense separate from each other; the Distance Montage produces tension in the relation between them and makes for dialogue across the sequence of shots that separate them".i
Pelechian understands that nature is not put together in one smooth continuous sequence, neither is it organised on principles of shock, nor with a definite purpose, nor for narrative effect; nature is a constant goodbye, a permanent farewell in which each shot, each image, each instance, distances itself from the following one until they meet in a certain but indeterminate future. In this way the poetic cosmos of Pelechian, as it was called by François Niney, emerges to interlace the rhythms of nature and of history, the two mythic poles that provide the backbone of his filmography. The first is a cultural projection, stimulated by a certain kind of faith that travels along the ways of linear time towards redemption or utopia (not necessarily political). The second is an ancestral echo that returns to the circularity of time and the constant return to nature, a nature not indifferent to the human being. The "diptych" with which his filmography closes (at least for the time being) responds precisely to this double idea; the line and the circle. Konec/End is the line; Vychod/Zin/Life is the circle: the two rhythms of the world.
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That said, let us return to Daney. The mention of the "missing link" was also a way of identifying a sensation of emptiness connected to the education of feeling produced by Pelechian´s films. The work of Pelechian signalled an emotional amputation in the spectators most secret places, something deficient in the way we have learnt to see, to feel, to live the film. Why, before the works of Pelechian, does the spectator experience a certain type of excess of feeling that can not quite be grasped, as if he had not developed the organ with which to absorb the far-off reminiscences that Pelechian´s images carry along with them? It is a feeling of sensory loss, as if his language, effectively, was from the time before Babel, as Godard first said. It is as if the films of Pelechian bring us news of a forgotten language, of the spoken word (or of a cinema) that we knew in some remote time but which now, for reasons which remain obscure, we have forgotten.
Were we once Armenian shepherds? Did we once risk our lives daily for a lost sheep? At one time were we completely undifferentiated from nature? The answer is yes. So is it in that we feel some remote ache for the forgotten ache language of the time before Babel? Certainly; such is the cinema of Pelechian. When Osip Mandesltam visited Armenia in 1930 he wrote: "I have developed a sixth sense, Aratian: the sense of being attracted by the mountain. I shall carry it with me wherever my destiny takes me, it comes with me now and it will never abandon me." Such was the emotional link that Daney also found.ii
i Interview with Pelechian included in the catalogue of the second European Biennale of Documentary Cinema, Marsella, junio 1991.
ii Mandelstam, Osip, Armenia en prosa y en verso, Acantilado, Madrid, 2011, p. 84.