b. Feb 22, 1938, Leninakin (now Gyumri), Armenia.

1.

In film festivals, cinémathèques, galleries and conferences around the world, the same scene plays itself over and over. Two film-lovers will be engaged in conversation, extolling their favoured films and filmmakers, when one, as casually as possible, with only a slight pause or sudden inflection in their voice giving away his apprehension at the gambit he is about to proffer, will drop the name “Artavazd Pelechian” into the conversation. At this point, one of two things will occur: either his interlocutor will respond with a blank stare, the name meaning nothing to her, and the discussion will quickly pass on to other matters, or she will react with passionate zeal, upon which a firm bond will develop, and another eager member can be inducted into the Pelechian International.

Remarkably, the establishment of this international association of Pelechian followers, as recondite as the filmmaker who inspired it, can be reliably pinpointed to a specific date: August 11, 1983. And no less remarkably, a single individual – the French critic Serge Daney – can be credited with being the Pelechian International’s founding figure. (1) For it was on that summer’s day that a cinephilically-inclined reader of the French daily Libération, turning to the newspaper’s film review pages, would have come across Daney’s article “À la recherche d’Arthur Pelechian”. (2)

Our reader may well have been gripped by Daney’s opening paragraph, in which the critic declared, “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.” (3) From behind an Iron Curtain which, in this interstitial period between the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, was just beginning to cleave open, Daney relates his desperate attempts to track down the elusive filmmaker. Travelling to Yerevan specifically to make contact with Pelechian, he was disappointed to learn that the director actually lived in Moscow, but the reception given to him by the Soviet republic’s small filmmaking community provided him with the opportunity to see Pelechian’s work for the first time. The three films shown to him – My (We, 1969), Vremena goda (The Seasons, 1972) and Nash venk (Our Century, 1982) – were enough to convince Daney that he was witnessing the work of “a filmmaker, a real one. Unclassifiable, except for the catch-all category of the documentary. What a poor category! In fact, what we have here is a work on montage, which I had come to think had not been practised in the USSR since Dziga Vertov. A work on, with and against montage.” (4)

For Daney, Pelechian represented “a missing link in the true history of the cinema,” (5) and a certain dumbstruck awe marked the critic’s response to his works. “How to speak of his films? Of the image which pulsates in the manner of a cardiogram? And of the sound, true echo of space? […] In this live cosmogony, I could see a Vertov in the era of Michael Snow, a Dovzhenko added to Godard, Wiseman or van der Keuken.” (6) Returning to Moscow, Daney hastened to make contact with the object of his newly-won esteem. As Daney tells it, a meeting between the two finally took place, “on the eve of my departure, on neutral terrain, in a little corner of a big screening room in the Domkino.” (7) The influence of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov on Pelechian’s films was an obvious topic for discussion, but Daney marvelled that “When Pelechian speaks of them, it is as an equal, as if he was angry at them, all the while knowing that it was necessary for the cinema to pick up where they left off.” (8) Further affinities were remarked: with certain of Bresson’s axioms, and, presciently, with Godard, in particular the latter’s frequent recourse to scientific vocabulary and medical metaphors, a trait echoed in statements of Pelechian’s such as his declaration that his goal is to “capture the emotional and social cardiogram of his time.” (9) In the end, the glowing panegyric delivered to the “strong, reputedly bizarre personality” in this article came to have a decisive effect not only on the filmmaker’s reception in France, but also, more broadly, on that country’s cinephilic culture as a whole. Remarkably, in spite of the fact that his œuvre consists of only 11 short works, reaching a total running time of not quite three hours, Pelechian’s films have since come to be regularly screened in the Hexagon, his theoretical texts have found publication in the country, and a steady stream of interviews, laudatory reviews and critical articles has appeared. More recently, this trend has spread elsewhere, with Pelechian’s work periodically surfacing in various far-flung corners of the world.

Daney’s article, however, was not the first exposure Pelechian’s films had had in the West. In 1970, We was screened at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, and, despite a generalised lack of familiarity among audiences with the Armenian genocide which the film took as its subject matter, (10) was given the festival’s major prize. But the accolade failed to serve as a catalyst for his work to become known outside of the Soviet Union. The Oberhausen prize was a one-off, given to an anonymous, if gifted, short filmmaker from a distant, marginalised nation, who, like so many other of the award’s recipients, seemed fated to return to a state of critical oblivion. It took the unflinching determination and breathless acclaim of one of France’s pre-eminent film critics to implant Pelechian’s films and theory into the country’s cultural consciousness. And the endeavour would have been far less assured of the level of (measured) success it has garnered, had Daney not already accrued the towering reputation he possessed at that time. Pelechian’s exposure in France is therefore a striking example of a “tastemaker” almost single-handedly imposing his predilection for a filmmaker on the influential circles surrounding him.

In the literary theorist Pascale Casanova’s terms, Daney constitutes a “consecrating authority [instance de consécration]”, the cinematic equivalent of those who are “charged with responsibility for legislating on literary matters”, and who thus “function as the sole legitimate arbiters with regard to questions of recognition.” (11) Casanova also speaks of a “‘literature-world,’ a literary universe relatively independent of the everyday world and its political divisions, whose boundaries and operational laws are not reducible to those of ordinary political space,” (12) and it is in this vein that one can assert that Pelechian’s work and its reception operates within the logic of a “cinematic space” consisting of an axis between Armenia and Paris, detouring through Moscow, and forged by a small group of cinematic “consecrating authorities” located in the French capital.

Indeed, key aspects of Pelechian’s filmmaking – its grounding in a “pre-Babelic” aesthetic system occupying a zone outside of generic distinctions between documentary, fiction and essayistic films, its self-inscription into the theoretically lofty tradition of the Soviet montage directors (principally Eisenstein and Vertov), its inimitable fusion of culturally-specific and universalist, even cosmological, subject matter – are definitive in shaping the nature of its reception in France, whose own heritage of theorisation and historicisation of the cinema made for a uniquely apposite relationship with the Armenian. After a broad overview of Pelechian’s exiguous corpus, including not only his films but also his key theoretical manifesto, “Contrapuntal Montage, or the Theory of Distance,” (13) this profile will thus track the filmmaker’s reception in France, and its more recent spread to other countries. The creative apotheosis of this phenomenon was indisputably the contact Pelechian had with Jean-Luc Godard from the late 1980s onward. Although, their mooted co-operation on Pelechian’s proposed feature film “Homo sapiens” was unfortunately stymied through the withdrawal of financing, their collaboration did yield the interview “Un langage d’avant Babel”, a fascinating document printed in Le Monde, and its results can be seen in the decisive influence Pelechian’s work has had on the evolution of Godard’s own montage praxis.

Artavazd Pelechian and Mikhail Vartanov on the shoot for The Seasons (photo courtesy of Parajanov-Vartanov Institute).

2.

Artavazd Pelechian was born in 1938 in Leninakan (now Gyumri), which, far from being a “village”, as it has sometimes been described, is a major industrial centre and the second largest city in Armenia. Nonetheless, Pelechian recalls that “there was no cinema” in the city during his childhood, (14) and, after originally finding work in Kirovakan as a labourer, then mechanical engineer, he moved to Moscow in 1963 in order to study documentary filmmaking at the VGIK under Leonid Kristi. (15) Even in this hallowed environment – responsible for the formation of directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Paradjanov, Elem Klimov and Aleksandr Sokurov – Pelechian stood out as a “marginalised eccentric”. (16)

Pelechian’s first two short films made under the VGIK’s auspices, Gornyj patrul (Mountain Patrol, 1964) and Zemlya Lyudey (Land of the People, 1966), contain no more than the germs of his radical approach to montage, and are now considered little more than juvenilia by the filmmaker himself, (17) while François Niney has characterised them as “more prosaic, more socialist-realist” than his subsequent films. (18) Certain hallmarks of Pelechian’s later œuvre are nonetheless already present in these works: while they conform superficially to the conventions of documentary filmmaking, both Mountain Patrol and Land of the People have distinctly formalist overtones. Both films lack dialogue or intelligible language, and archival footage is interspersed with images shot by Pelechian himself. Furthermore, Pelechian has discussed the circular structure of both films, commencing and concluding with identical shots: showing “mountain-workers walking with the light of their lanterns against the backdrop of a dark sky” in the first, and, more abstractly, a tracking shot revolving around Rodin’s sculpture Le Penseur in the second. This technique presages a similar structure in We, among other films, but Pelechian notes that the early works remain on the level of mere “repetition” and lack the “contrapuntal” quality of the later film’s structure. (19)

It was with Nachalo (The Beginning, 1967) that the first signs of the mature Pelechian’s work were exhibited, and the film was fittingly granted the Grand Prix in the Moscow University Film Festival. (20) In accepting a commissioned piece to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, the then 29-year-old had set himself a Promethean task: to sculpt a 10-minute film largely out of newsreel archives conveying the past 50 years of Soviet, and world, history without the use of any denotative elements such as title cards or voiceovers. In fact, diegetic sound as a whole is entirely absent from the film, the soundtrack of which is instead largely taken up by the distinctly constructivist composition Time, Forward! by Gyorgi Sviridov, (21) whose strident chords, in tandem with the film’s blistering cutting pace and relentless depiction of movement, have led to Christoph Settele viewing The Beginning as being one of “the fastest-moving films in the history of the cinema as a whole.” (22)

Dedicated to “the great revolutionary processes which are at the origin of the social transformation of the world,” (23) a certain chronology can be detected in the film, passing from early 20th-century anti-Tsarist movements, to the Revolution, Civil War, the death of Lenin, industrialisation under Stalin, the growing menace of fascism, World War II and the use of nuclear weapons, before culminating in a montage sequence of anti-colonial revolts and clashes between students and police in the West. But, as with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s similar project La Rabbia (1963), strict chronological sequentiality is avoided, and the historical specificity of the film’s imagery is highly attenuated. Archival footage of political demonstrations, speeches by Lenin, Nazi marches and wartime atrocities is used, but it is mingled with clips from earlier fiction films – Eisenstein’s Oktyabre (October, 1927) Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zemlya (Earth, 1930) and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Potomok Chingis Khan (Storm Over Asia, 1928) can all be detected – and footage shot by Pelechian himself, with the use of inter-positives to obliterate the differences in the condition of the respective images. More importantly, the dynamics of social and historical processes are primarily represented through on-screen movement: crowds repeatedly rush across the screen, horses frenziedly gallop towards the camera, trains, trams, automobiles and aeroplanes are propelled into motion, in tandem with a montage rhythm which often reaches Vertovian levels of rapidity.

Were such a heady pace to be maintained throughout the entire film, the effect would, however, be no more than a stultifying stenorhythmia, redolent of a later music video aesthetic. Settele writes of the “high level of movement and speed characteristic of his work”, (24) but equally crucial to the film’s formal impact is its modulation of movement. The Beginning starts, for instance, with a long series of still images, before “springing to life” in the manner of early Lumière projections. (25) Similarly, at two key points in the film, roughly depicting Lenin’s funeral and the horrors of World War II, the film’s pace abruptly decelerates: the music halts and on-screen motion cedes to still images or languorous shots. Conversely, Pelechian also makes use of stop-, slow- and fast-motion, stroboscopic effects, and the “stuttering” of footage through repeated reversal to heighten the spectator’s sensation of movement at key moments in the film.

The Beginning is the film of Pelechian’s which can most straightforwardly be aligned with the montage tradition of Eisenstein and Vertov, and it has thus served the most to confine his work to this lineage in much of the critical reception to his films both in the Soviet Union and abroad – a tendency which Pelechian himself has both inculcated and vigorously reacted against. But while it may be the film’s montage pyrotechnics which make the strongest impression upon the spectator, particularly on initial viewings, the importance of The Beginning for the development of Pelechian’s distinctive aesthetic perhaps lies more in his method of constructing and organising what he calls “episode-blocks”, governed by “conductor elements”. Pelechian sees the first example of this as occurring early in the film, with a series of shots showing “Lenin’s hands in motion, the appearance of the title The Beginning and people running at the time of the October Revolution”, a sequence which “rhymes” with a second conductor element, in the film’s final episode-block: “the title The Beginning appears once again and we see a multitude of people running, but this time the shot is drawn from contemporary news footage of social struggles in different countries in the world.” (26)

3.

Speaking of The Beginning’s formal organisation in such terms only occurred retrospectively; its structure evolved more instinctually, less self-consciously, than the preceding quote would suggest. Indeed, Pelechian has insisted that:

“My theoretical work in no way helps me with my concrete artistic practice. I have determined that I do something first, and only afterwards look for an explanation. It is therefore not really the case that I follow a pre-formulated montage-method and make a film out of it. On the contrary: first I make a film. […] What people call my theory is actually nothing but my search for the meaning of what I do, for an explanation of the structure of the whole.” (27)

What marks Pelechian’s work following the completion of The Beginning is thus a remarkable synthesis of artistic practice and theoretical exploration, such as has rarely been seen in the cinema since the silent era, and manifested, in this case, in the interaction between three films made in quick succession – We (1969), Obibateli (The Inhabitants, 1970) and The Seasons (1972) – and the theoretical text “Contrapuntal Montage, or the Theory of Distance”. Written between March 1971 and January 1972, and published, with some difficulty, in the Soviet film journal Vosprosy Kinoiskusstva in 1973, before its re-publication, in an altered version, in Pelechian’s book Moe Kino in 1988 (with translations into several languages from the late 1980s onwards), this text has perhaps provided for Pelechian’s present status to a greater degree than any one of his films. (28)

In the article, Pelechian recognises his debt to Eisenstein and Vertov, but specifies that, rather than having “come out of” his Soviet forebears, he has, “in the final analysis, come around to them”. (29) Furthermore, the filmmaker asserts “that I was neither repeating nor imitating their principles, but that I tended towards creating something personal,” and insists on expanding the pantheon of his influences to include “Gerassimov, Romm, Yutkevich, Kristi, Paradjanov, Chukrai, Bergman, Kurosawa, Kubrick and others.” (30) The central argument of the article nonetheless primarily takes Eisenstein and Vertov as its reference points, as Pelechian seeks to differentiate his concept of “distance montage” or “contrapuntal montage” from their respective approaches, which Pelechian lumps together under the label of “classical montage”.

“Classical montage”, in Pelechian’s view, focuses attention on the “reciprocal relationship of juxtaposed scenes” – whether under the rubric of Eisenstein’s “montage juncture” or Vertov’s “interval” – in order to generate “meaning, appreciation, conclusion” in a sequence. (31) By contrast, in Pelechian’s films: “the very essence and the principal accent of the montage resided […] less in the assembly of scenes than in the possibility of disconnecting them, not in their juxtaposition but in their separation.” Given two montage elements which, due to what Pelechian calls their “imaged resonance (obraznoe zvoutchanie)”, would have been brought together in Eisenstein’s or Vertov’s aesthetic systems, Pelechian seeks instead to “separate them by inserting between them a third, fifth or tenth element.” It is thus through the “interaction of numerous links” between two shots situated remotely from each other that Pelechian is capable of expressing the meaning of his sequence in a manner “far stronger and more profound than through direct collage. The film’s expressivity thus becomes more intense and its informative capacity takes on colossal proportions.” (32)

This method brings with it a number of corollaries which are explored both in the article itself and in numerous interviews Pelechian has given since. For a start, montage in Pelechian’s films can occur not only between two images, but also between image and sound. Sound takes on a rare importance for Pelechian, and his films are marked by intense work on the soundtrack, to the extent that the filmmaker confesses, “I can not conceive my films without music. When I write the scenarios, I must preview the musical structure of the film, the musical accents, the emotional and rhythmic character of this music, which is necessary, indispensable for each scene.” (33) In order for image and sound to be “indissociable”, Pelechian’s synaesthesic approach to film form – following in the lineage of Vertov’s Entuziazm (Enthusiasm, 1930) – seeks a combination of the respective elements which “does not consist in a physical melange […], but in a chemical combination” in which “the image is decomposed by the sound recording, and the sound recording decomposed by the image.” (34) Furthermore, the film’s rhythm itself, independent of the sound used, acquires a musical structure which, in its use of repetition and variation, closely resembles the fugue – and Pelechian recognises that his films’ formal structures contain “certain analogies in the composition of forms in poetry and music.” (35)

Pelechian’s desire for his spectators to “hear” his images and “see” the sounds in his films has the consequence that, as he expressed it in a later interview, his films are able to contain a montage of absent images: “An image can be absent but present through its aura. Nobody has yet made montage with images which do not exist. This is what I’m trying to do a little in the architecture of my films: make images that are not present visible to the spectator.” (36) Conceiving of a montage consisting of absent images is, of course, conceptually quite difficult – but Pelechian’s invocation of the image’s “aura” is an indication: an image can be present through a repetition of audiovisual elements which had earlier had an association with it established, and examples discussed below will show the manner in which Pelechian sought to achieve the phenomenon of a montage of absent images in We and The Seasons.

Finally, Pelechian distinguishes his system of distance montage through the fact that “the distance montage links are not only established between separate elements (a point with another point), but equally […] between an entire ensemble of elements (a point with a group, a group with a point, a shot with an episode, an episode with an episode).” (37) While recognising that it “outrageously simplifies reality, for the contrapuntal reciprocity of shots and blocks [follows] such complex and tortuous paths that it is impossible to give a projection of the general form of their conjugated movements,” (38) Pelechian offers the following schemata to demonstrate this phenomenon. To the schema:


of Eisensteinian/Vertovian montage, Pelechian counterposes his own, more complex variant:


The use of these schemata is the most succinct indication that Pelechian does not see himself as rejecting Eisenstein and Vertov, but existing in fundamental continuity with their work, and developing their practice to a new level of sophistication, or as he was to put it in 1993, “My work does not cancel out classical montage, but is the continuation of the theoretical research of the 1920s.” (39)

In the same interview, Pelechian characterises Eisensteinian montage as “a linking of straight lines”, in contrast to distance montage’s “circular configuration”. (40) This echoes the point made in the 1972 article that “contrapuntal montage confers the structure of the film not with the habitual montage chain, nor even with the form of a conjugation of different ‘chains’, but rather, it creates from the beginning a circular figure, or, more precisely, a spherical figure turning on itself.” Conceiving of Eisenstein’s montage as merely “linear” perhaps does him a disservice, when Eisenstein himself saw a spiralic quality to his use of montage, and yet the distinction is crucial to Pelechian’s conception of his own method, which he described elsewhere, and perhaps most accurately, as being “orbital” in nature. (41) In orbital montage, shots relate to each other the way an electron revolves around an atomic nucleus: the “principal detonators of contrapuntal montage” exercise a “reciprocal action” on their related elements, such that a “double contrapuntal link” is formed following “vectorial lines”. (42) With the conductor elements connected through such lines, “inverse centrifugal movements” are brought into existence, and the action of the film is conferred with “this particular effect of pulsation, of respiration.” (43) Contrapuntal montage thus simultaneously creates a distance between two shots, and, at the same time, “assembling shots at a distance to each other, unites them so firmly that it cancels out this distance.” (44)

The result, in Pelechian’s view, is a montage system capable of showing “all the forms of movement: from the “lowest” and most elementary, to the most elevated and complex forms. It is capable of simultaneously speaking the language of art, philosophy and science.” Indeed, Pelechian concludes his article on a distinctly cosmological note: harking back to Vertov’s appropriation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Armenian declares that “the method of contrapuntal montage, resting on complex forms of reciprocal action of different distance processes, breaks the limits beyond which our conceptions and our laws determining space and time become outmoded, and beyond which some, upon being born, are unaware of whom they kill, while others, upon dying, are unaware of whom they give birth to.” (45)

4.

While Pelechian warns that “my films do not represent a balance sheet of my research, but merely constitute a step,” (46) it is in We and The Seasons, made soon before and directly after the publication of this text, that the most illustrative examples of his theory of contrapuntal montage can be found.

Pelechian persistently cautions that “the montage that I practice does not ‘mean’ anything,” (47) and Settele accordingly describes him as a “master of the ambivalence of expression.” (48) Yet the subject matter of We is clear: the quotidian life of the Armenian people as marked by the trauma of the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The mass killing, in which up to 2 million Armenians were murdered, is widely viewed as the first modern genocide, but at the time We was filmed it was still largely unheard of in the West. In the Soviet Union, however, the genocide had been the focus of a 24-hour mass demonstration in 1965 attended by 1 million Armenians successfully demanding its official recognition by the Soviet government, initiating a period of intense historical introspection for the Armenian people, a period which provided the contextual background for Pelechian’s film.

As with The Beginning, Pelechian uses a combination of newsreel archives and contemporary footage in We, but here his stated aim is quite different:

“In the film The Beginning, I attached myself to the progressive evolution of the vital process leading from causes to effects, while in We I have followed the inverse itinerary, going from effects to causes. I first present the phenomenon in order to then go back to its source, to its historical explanation. Thus, in the film The Beginning, the historical elements become contemporary, while in We we are witness to the opposite process.” (49)

Similarly, while the dramaturgy of The Beginning rested on “movements of human currents and popular masses”, We focuses on distinct individuals, not to “present unique individualities” but to instil the image of “an entire people” in the spectator’s consciousness and thus to provide a “cardiogram of the popular spirit and the national character.” (50) Pelechian himself recognises that the middle section of this tripartite film is less successful than the opening and closing sequences, and that, here, “the principles of contrapuntal montage no longer ‘function’,” (51) although there is some indication that this is due to changes to the film forced on Pelechian. (52) It is thus in the first and third parts of the film, where contrapuntal montage is conserved to the greatest extent, that we will focus our analysis.

In the film’s opening sequence, overlaid with an elegiac choral requiem, a series of zooms on Mount Ararat are followed by scenes from a contemporary funeral procession. Intercut with images and sounds of cliffs being detonated, the initial shot of this procession shows a medley of hands holding up a coffin, before the swirling movements of the marchers are depicted with lengthy panoramic shots. One shot in particular, reprising the use of repeated footage reversal from The Beginning, transforms the procession into something resembling an intricate embroidery: the screen is filled with bobbing heads shifting back and forth, as the camera repeatedly traces an uneasy L-shaped movement over the crowd.

The film’s closing segment effectively “rhymes” with this sequence: as the requiem returns on the soundtrack, the images are again filled with a highly emotional gathering. The scene here, however, is no longer the funeral procession of earlier in the film, but an airport tarmac, site of the post-war repatriation of those displaced during the Ottoman Empire, as the requiem vies for aural dominance with a low-fi rock song blaring out a muffled refrain of “Hey hey hey!”. In this sequence, however, the historical dimension is highlighted through the persistent intercutting of archive footage from the time of the genocide, in addition to the return of shots of Mount Ararat which crown the closing sequence with zoom-outs in a reversal of the manner in which they had initiated the film.

These sequences are “punctuated” by three shots occurring at the beginning, midway-point and ending of We, and which Pelechian singles out for close discussion. In the first iteration of this shot, before the opening credits even appear on the screen, a young girl, with bronzed skin and natty hair, and apparently naked except for a beaded necklace, is shown in close-up while an isolated symphonic chord dominates the soundtrack; according to Pelechian, however, the “figurative signification” of this shot is not yet clear for the spectator, and “only a dreamy impression mixed with fear reaches him.” (53) This same shot, accompanied by the same music, is repeated “500 metres of film later”, while, at the film’s conclusion, the symphonic chord returns, but the image of the girl is absent, replaced with a long-shot, slowly zooming outwards, of an apartment block whose inhabitants are massed on the building’s balconies. Pelechian views this as the insertion of the “montage’s base element for a third time, but only on the level of sound.” The alteration thus prevents the echo of the earlier shots from merely remaining on the level of repetition, as with Mountain Patrol and Land of the People, and instead gives the ensemble a contrapuntal effect: “In the film We, the montage elements which are repeated indisputably leave the framework of the functions to which they corresponded in the [earlier] films. […] In the film We, they support the general structure of contrapuntal action.” (54)

Not only is the visual image of the girl evoked in the final shot through the repetition of a musical “montage element”, and thus present at the end through its “aura” – that is to say, the associations earlier made with the shot – but the earlier iterations of this shot are retrospectively given meaning through the various associations generated in each of its occurrences: “A shot, appearing at a precise moment, will only deliver its full semantic consequences after a certain elapsing of time, at the end of which an associative process will be established in the spectator’s consciousness.” (55) The shot of the girl, indiscernible when first shown, is now given meaning, and the montage elements “ramify”, they “acquire other dimensions and durations of action.” (56)

A similar process occurs in The Seasons, which like We possesses an “orbital” structure, centring on a number of hallmark sequences. Along with The Inhabitants, a 10-minute work almost entirely composed of shots of herds of animals fleeing the ecological menace posed by man, The Seasons marks a move in Pelechian’s œuvre away from the explicitly social and political concerns of The Beginning and We to a more universal, even cosmological, thematic focussing on man’s relationship to the natural world, which will define his subsequent work. Footage here, shot largely by Pelechian’s cinematographer Mikhail Vartanov (who also directed Osennyaya pastoral [Autumn Pastoral, 1971], scripted by Pelechian), is taken from a remote Armenian mountain village, whose exact location the filmmaker professes to be unaware of, (57) and whose inhabitants toil with the harsh working conditions inherent to tending livestock. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons suffuses the film’s aural landscapes, and is combined with Pelechian’s first widespread use of diegetic sound – one whose vague synchronicity with the images recalls films such as Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) or Jean Epstein’s Finis terrae (1929). Combining pastoral scenes with Vivaldi’s concerto has the potential to wreak of a banal humanism, but it is through the film’s montage structure that Pelechian is capable of scaling genuine peaks of cinematic expression. Two iconic sets of images, in particular, recurrently punctuate the film: in the first, strongly recalling similar shots contained in Vertov’s Shestaya Chast Mira (A Sixth of the World, 1926), shepherds clinging to their sheep are buffeted by turbulent waters while attempting to cross a rapid; while in the second, farmers slide haystacks down a hillside.

In the film’s closing sequence, a wedding ceremony involving one of the farmers is intercut with a shot of the same farmer holding a sheep in the rapids – as in the film’s opening shots – and followed by a culminating sequence, marked by a transition from the wedding’s folk-music to Vivaldi and an intertitle (exceedingly rare in Pelechian) stating “This is your land”, showing the same shepherds clasping their sheep while sliding down an ice-bound mountainside, in one of the most enigmatically sublime sequences in the history of the cinema. While the shots of the rapids are evoked through their bookending of this sequence, the haystack shots are entirely absent at this stage, but their “aura” is evoked through the visual rhyme of the same downwards on-screen movement.

After this relatively prolific period, Pelechian’s output entered a fallow stage. In the wake of The Seasons, the director has only completed three films: Our Century (1982), Konets (The End, 1992) and Zhizhn (Life, 1993), and contributed some sequences to Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Sibiriada (1979). Numerous explanations can be ventured for this drop in output. Certainly intransigence from the Soviet filmmaking establishment played its role in thwarting Pelechian’s projects – although there is no evidence to support the inference made by Daney and repeated by Cazals that he was incarcerated as a result of his filmmaking. (58) In fact, some nonsensical bureaucratic interference notwithstanding, the access afforded Pelechian to the Soviet space programme for the filming of Our Century was remarkable – one need only think of the impossibility of NASA doing the same for a US experimental filmmaker – and astonishing archival footage even exists of Pelechian accompanying Brezhnev on a tour of a Soviet space centre. (59)

Such access provided Pelechian with some exceptional imagery for his film – focussing to a large degree on the futility of the space race then being waged between the US and the USSR – but in spite of the juxtaposition of these scenes with archive footage of earlier botched attempts at human flight, and the undeniable aesthetic impact of the persistent heartbeat-like countdowns and mesmerising synth music, Our Century, upon the completion of its original 50-minute version in 1982, lacks the rigorous structure of Pelechian’s earlier work, and was later scaled down to a 30-minute version which more successfully imparts his contrapuntal montage method. On the other hand, The End and Life, two short works completed in quick succession, are fundamentally bereft of contrapuntal montage, and the sheer beauty of some of the black and white images in the former film does not save the diptych from reverting to the sphere of kitsch – most notably in Life’s depiction of a woman with newborn child.

In the meantime, several larger-scale works have been proposed and worked on by Pelechian, and “scripts” for two films – bearing the titles “Mirage” and “Homo Sapiens” – have been published, but beyond this Pelechian has been incapable of realising them. Instead, the production of his films has given way to their critical reception, and, in many cases, unbounded adulation.

5.

This reception began with Daney’s article, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that the article caused a sensation, in time its effects filtered through. In January 1984, Pelechian’s films were shown in France for the first time, and the screenings in the Cinémathèque française organised by the Association Audiovisuelle Arménienne were the occasion for the filmmaker to be mentioned for the first time in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, which maintained close ties with Daney, a former editor of the journal. Fabrice Revault d’Allones, revealing that “we had been speaking about him, without being able to see his films, since last summer”, characterised Pelechian as “Vertov’s Armenian cousin”. (60) While seeing The Beginning as “rather Eisensteinian”, Revault d’Allones noted that even this early work possessed its “Vertov aspect”: “The limits of ocular perception are reached. […] It is no longer correct to speak of an Eisensteinian dialectical montage.” And with his later works, “Pelechian signals his Vertovian path, going towards the internal nature of things themselves.” (61)

This early article signs off with a double wish which will be fulfilled in the years to come: “to see his films released in cinemas, and his theoretical writings on montage published.” In 1988, with Glasnost now in full swing, Pelechian was able to visit the West for the first time, as, along with his compatriot Paradjanov, his films were screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival at the behest of Hubert Bals. (62) While this heightened his international profile, along with further screenings at Pesaro, the Berlinale, the Festival of the Documentary in Nyon in 1989 and the “Filmer à tout prix” festival in Brussels in 1990, the critical response to his films remained anchored in France. Cahiers followed with an article by François Niney in #421 (in response to the Brussels screenings) and an article and interview in a special issue of the journal focussing on Soviet cinema in 1990. (63) This was followed by another interview for Cahiers in 1992, and an in-depth article in which Jean-François Pigoullié, leaning heavily on Deleuze’s Cinéma books, typified Pelechian’s films as examples of “montage-movement”, and defined the subject of all his films as being “the individual taken in a Movement which carries him, which overcomes him.” (64) All of Pelechian’s films, for Pigoullié, “interrogate the very foundation of the cinema: what is movement? A question which all the great montage innovators have asked themselves.” (65) While admitting that the “flux of images” in Pelechian’s films witnesses the same “rupture with Bazinian ethics” as the contemporary televisual continuum, in that they do not contain “a sampling of the real but an alluvion of images, without origin, which circulates ad infinitum,” Pigoullié contends that, “the path taken by the Armenian filmmaker is radically opposed to that taken by television. […] The documentarist’s attempt is […] to install the spectator (by leading him astray somewhat) in the heart of this flux of images.” (66) Upon quoting Pelechian’s dictum as to the interpenetration of sound and image in his films, the critic tellingly muses that “One would think that one was listening to Godard speak about Passion,” and concludes by stating that Pelechian’s cinema “is a movement towards montage, towards that which, according to Godard, the cinema has searched for in vain.” (67)

Indeed, the years 1992-1993 were a highpoint for considerations of Pelechian’s work. Pigoullié’s article was in response to the organisation of a retrospective in March-April 1992 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, and interest was further heightened by the completion of his two final films. Pelechian’s films were even broadcast on television, on the French-German channel Arte in 1993, and Pigoullié’s text was accompanied by interviews in Bref and Confrontations, articles by Dominique Païni in Art Press and Frédéric Richard in Positif, and, further afield, in the first signs of appreciation of his work outside of France, an interview with Scott MacDonald for A Critical Cinema: Volume 3 and a lengthy German-language examination of his work by Christoph Settele. (68)

But the key moment of Pelechian’s “consecration” came with the publication of his theoretical article in the pages of Trafic, arranged by Serge Daney himself in the final months of his life. Although the article had been widely available in Russian since its inclusion in Pelechian’s 1988 book Moe kino, and had earlier been published in French in conjunction with the Nyon festival in 1989, it was its appearance in a widely circulating journal critically lauded by the French intellectual establishment which allowed for Pelechian’s practice and theory, and their relationship with his widely recognised predecessors, to acquire the currency the filmmaker currently enjoys in France. From this point on, Pelechian was no longer, as Richard notes, “a filmmaker known only within cinephilic circles. His recognition at the same level as Eisenstein or Vertov has been imposed.” Richard would go on to gush that, Pelechian’s corpus counts as one of “the most assured, original and innovative in world cinema.” (69)

While the lack of any new films by Pelechian has had the result that the flurry of commentaries in the years 1992-1993 has subsequently dropped in intensity, a steady stream of retrospectives in France, both in Paris and provincial centres such as Toulouse, has maintained Pelechian’s profile. In 1997 Positif published a new theoretical text by Pelechian whose brevity belies its significance. Here, the filmmaker claims that his films “are not montage films” at all, but rather, because his distance montage creates a “disjunction” or a “décollage” out of its montage elements, it becomes a “dismantling [démontage], or a montage which demolishes montage, in the proper sense of the term.” Furthermore, he views his films as constituting a “cinema against time”, in which “not only is distance ignored, but, and this is important, time itself is burnt and destroyed.” (70)

1997 also bore witness to the first voice of dissent concerning Pelechian, aired in an article by Barthélemy Amengual which remains one of the most nuanced considerations of his work. For Amengual, Pelechian’s films have a tendency to “resemble video clips, the ‘logos’ of certain TV shows, or, quite simply, what you see when you fast-forward a video cassette,” and the profusion of “photographic zooms, floods, avalanches and collapses” is “without condemning it, what I can least put up with.” (71) In this respect, Our Century, with its use of the “mechanical” techniques of the American Underground – its “scratched, broken, jumpy, anamorphised, over- and under-exposed filmstock” – is “by far the least novel and the most tedious […] of Pelechian’s films.” (72) On the other hand, the critic prefers “those fragments which do not disdain stable shots, long and assured pans and decipherable images.” (73) Rather than the predictable influences of Eisenstein and Vertov, Amengual sees more affinities between Pelechian’s work and Epstein’s – particularly in their shared “obsession with the unity, from the level of the atom to that of the cosmos, of living matter” – and he even relates Pelechian’s works to the paintings of Malevich and Mondrian. (74) Amengual is one of the few figures to genuinely interrogate Pelechian’s concept of a montage of absent images, and draws the analogy between Benveniste’s notion of water’s “molecular memory” and Pelechian’s claim that “his distance montage culminates in the poetico-cognitive effectiveness of an image which no longer exists”. For Amengual, nothing should prevent “the spectator […] from making a virtual image from the memory of a sound. The annoying thing is that at this level of imponderability, all this remains subliminal and unverifiable. Ma se non è vero…” (75)

The 2000s saw a further extension of Pelechian’s reception, with a notable retrospective taking place in Paris in 2007. More noteworthy in this decade, however, has been the tendency for his work to be assimilated into the contemporary art world, at the expense of traditional cinephilic approaches to his films. In 2003, Our Century was screened as part of the Ce qui arrive… exhibition organised by Paul Virilio in Paris – and Pelechian’s films do indeed seem particularly pertinent for Virilio’s considerations of war and cinema and his concept of “dromology” – while in 2004, his œuvre was at the centre of an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien, marking the first notable appearance of his works outside the Francosphere since 1989. More recently, his films were shown as part of the 2009-2010 Rencontres internationales: cinéma nouveau et art contemporain in Paris, Berlin and Madrid, with Pelechian himself appearing for a question and answer session in the festival’s Parisian leg. (76) And with recent screenings of his work in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne, even an Australian chapter of the Pelechian International seems to have been inaugurated.

The Kunsthalle Wien exhibition, entitled “Our Century”, was accompanied by an extensive illustrated catalogue, released in German and English versions, which, translation issues aside, constitutes a valuable resource for grappling with Pelechian’s work. The two original articles contained in the catalogue, however, by Gerald Matt and Constantin Wulff, represent the clearest manifestation of the critical imbalance which has crept into analyses of his work. Matt’s preface to the catalogue, for instance, is marked by palpable hostility towards the “triumphalist gesture of a forward-directed Socialist project [which] appears to be inscribed into some of Pelechian’s works”, but clarifies that “a closer look reveals to the viewer those ‘scars of montage’ that tell of the wounds struck by existence.” (77) In this view, Our Century represents the final “mothballing” of “the idea of a force in history, which would direct humanity towards self-fulfilment”, and Pelechian, once his work is “freed of the egg-shells of 60s and 70s Soviet ideology still adhering to it in places” becomes an apocalypticist in the vein of Walter Benjamin, an “avant-gardist of one of those value-relativist theories, which attempted, after the end of the Cold War, to foundation the essence of being, anew and somewhat pessimistically, within the spaces of contingency”, an artist whose films are “epiphanies of the human condition in a permanent state of emergency.” (78)

Similarly, many of the French responses to Pelechian’s work highlighted its status as Armenian cinema, almost transforming it into a nationalist manifesto, at the expense of a political reading of his films which would place a premium on generalised social transformation. For Pigoullié, “Everything opposes Eisenstein to Pelechian: to the Russian messianism of the former, the latter responds with the imaginary of the ‘little people’, to reprise Cioran’s expression, a nation which has always been on the wrong side of History,” (79) while Revault d’Allones refuses even to draw a distinction between the films where “Pelechian films his country, his people, his history (We, The Inhabitants: Armenia, right from the beginning)” and those which “would tend towards general themes.” For the Cahiers writer, this is an error, for “deep down, Armenia remains in these titles as well.” (80)

But Pelechian himself, while recognising the deep imprint that the Armenian national experience has left on him, has always placed a greater emphasis on the universalist import of his films when discussing them, and has explicitly ruled out viewing films such as We merely through the prism of the Armenian experience. (81) Furthermore, while the filmmaker maintained a distinct distance from the governing Soviet ideology, particularly its productivist tendency, his distinctive brand of humanism in no way seems incompatible with a Marxist conception of history; far from being an “apocalypticist”, all of Pelechian’s films are imbued with a deep optimism at the potential of an improvement of the human condition and the possibility of a harmonious relationship with the natural world.

6.

Beyond these thematic approaches to Pelechian’s work, it must be remembered that by far the greatest emphasis in the critical reception of his films has been on their formal qualities, their inimitable use of montage and their formal relationship with earlier montage filmmakers. As such, like the work of Mizoguchi or Straub/Huillet, Pelechian’s films have often been considered as examples of “pure cinema”, an inscription of movement (which, as Pelechian reminds us, is the meaning of the term “cinématographe” (82)) unsullied by the presence of spectacle, narrative suspense or star actors. This is perhaps no more eloquently stated than by the figure who, along with Daney, has done the most to “consecrate” Pelechian in France, and whose contact with the Armenian merits a detailed analysis of its own.

Jean-Luc Godard first saw Pelechian’s films as a result of the Nyons festival in 1989, which took place only a few kilometres from his village of Rolle. As Godard tells it, Freddy Buache, director of the Lausanne Cinémathèque, secretly made copies of the films and screened them for Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville. “They made an enormous impression on me, and, by the way, they are very different from the cinema of Paradjanov, which seems to me to be close to the tradition of Persian carpets, and literature. [Pelechian’s] films appeared to me to only come from the cinema. […] A cinema which is original and originary, entirely outside of America. […] I rediscovered the application of what the Russian filmmakers called montage. Montage in the deep sense, in the sense in which Eisenstein called El Greco the great monteur of Toledo.” (83)

In February 1992, Godard travelled to a Moscow still reeling from the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union, in order to attend a retrospective of his works staged in the city, and met Pelechian in person for the first time. (84) Two months later, Pelechian travelled to Paris, and their encounter was recorded in an interview between the two figures published in Le Monde, a short piece which constitutes one of the most fascinating exchanges between two filmmakers in the history of the cinema.

Snippets of this conversation give an idea of the confluence of their ideas on montage and the cinema more broadly. Upon Godard’s comparisons of Pelechian to Flaherty, Santiago Alvarez and Frederick Wiseman in their common blurring of the distinction between documentary and fiction filmmaking, Pelechian responded:

“What is important is to be able to speak one’s own language, the language of cinema. It is often said that the cinema is a synthesis of the other arts, but I think this is wrong. For me, it dates from the tower of Babel, from before the division into different languages. For technical reasons, it appeared after the other arts, but, by nature, it precedes them. I try to make a pure cinema, which owes nothing to the other arts.” (85)

Godard enthusiastically assented to this idea, adding, “For me, the cinema is the last manifestation of art, which is a Western idea. Great painting has disappeared, the great novel has disappeared. The cinema was, yes, a language from before Babel, which everybody understood without needing to learn it.” (86) The fact that the cinema, alone among the arts, is able to incorporate the three natural dimensions of space, time and movement, has the result, for Pelechian, that it is capable of “find[ing] the secret movement of matter” and of “speak[ing] at once the languages of philosophy and art.” As such, his own montage method has the aim of “creat[ing] an emotional magnetic field around itself.” (87)

For a Godard then deeply ensconced in creating his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma, such statements were greatly appreciated, and the conversation turned to the type of discussions of montage and its relationship to European history and philosophy which dominate that work. Godard, upon asking himself why it was that montage become more important in the Soviet cinema than in other nations, even suggests that the Russian revolution itself was an act of montage: “society was in the process of doing montage between before and after.” Sound cinema, on the other hand, is related to fascism – “Hitler was a magnificent speaker” – and represents “the triumph of the theatrical scenario against the kind of language you spoke about, the language from before the curse of Babel.” (88)

Pelechian closes the discussion with the comment that “Only the cinema has the possibility of truly fighting against time, thanks to montage. This microbe which is time, the cinema can come right to the end of it. But it was more advanced on this path before the sound cinema. Most likely because man is greater than language, greater than his words. I believe more in man than in his language.” (89) The collaboration was slated to continue, but talks between Godard and La Fémis (the French filmmaking school) over installing an editing suite in the Palais de Tokyo, which would have allowed Pelechian to work in Paris on his mooted feature “Homo sapiens”, unfortunately broke down. (90) The script for this film, however, as published in Moe kino, contains some striking similarities with the photo-collages Godard has published in conjunction with Histoire(s), and indeed, Godard’s entire method of montage in his recent essay films – including not only Histoire(s) but also Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991), De l’origine du XXIe siècle (2000) and Film Socialisme (2010) – bears a striking affinity with Pelechian’s own approach. Whether this was through the influence of the “cinéaste maudit”, (91) or as a result of Godard’s own aesthetic development, is open to speculation, but it is indicative that, in addition to an explicit mention of the Armenian in Les enfants jouent à la Russie (1993), Pelechian’s work is cited, as if in homage, in one of the most arresting montage sequences in Godard’s œuvre – the nine-minute opening segment in Notre musique (2004) dubbed “L’Enfer”. (92) One of the Armenian filmmaker’s main legacies on French film culture, then, might well end up being the impact his approach to montage has had on Godard’s work.

7.

But it would be a disservice to Pelechian if this were the only prism through which his films should be seen. Thankfully, his work shows healthy prospects of being appreciated in its own right. As yet, there is still no book-length study of his work, and the mooted publication of a French translation of Moe kino, which would greatly increase the potential readership of this crucial collection, seems to be permanently deferred. But a French-language website dedicated to Pelechian is presently maintained by the scholar Pierre Arbus, which includes, along with a comprehensive film- and bibliography, a detailed analysis of his body of work. (93) In spite of the more recent expansion of interest in Pelechian to the German, Italian and English-speaking spheres of film culture, France remains the nodal point for appreciation of the filmmaker, and the site where, thanks to the “consecrating authorities” of Daney, Godard and their acolytes, his work will be, for want of a better term, immortalised.

The signal irony of this phenomenon, however, is that, in spite of the upsurge of interest in Pelechian since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has been singularly unable to add to his corpus since 1993. As has been noted, this is not for lack of proposals on Pelechian’s behalf, which have often been of an unprecedentedly ambitious scale, but the financing to realise these projects has never materialised. Under the Soviet regime, Pelechian’s films were treated with suspicion, their export and distribution were thwarted, and changes to the works themselves were often demanded. But films were nonetheless made – often, as with Our Century, with considerable resources invested in them. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Pelechian has come to be celebrated in the West, counted, in certain circles, as one of the most important filmmakers alive, and spoken of in unconditionally adulatory terms. But production of his films has ceased. While he is still alive and healthy today, the likelihood of further additions to his corpus is extremely low.

The restricted quantity of his films is mirrored by the restricted access to viewing them. Outside of the periodic retrospective screenings of his films – often shown, at Pelechian’s own behest, on Digi-Beta dupes rather than the rare 35mm prints – his films can only be seen through pirated channels. His entire output could be contained on a single 2-DVD box set, and yet the only DVD release of his works has been an unauthorised, poor quality Portuguese edition, now out of print. (94) One can not help but suspect that Pelechian’s own obduracy is one of the main causes of this situation – that his obscurity is willed, and that, rather than seeking out an audience in his own time, his films are intended to serve more as records of the present era for future centuries. The prints, we can muse, are thus immured in a remote Siberian nuclear bunker, to be exhumed only when all other traces of our civilisation have crumbled to dust. Indeed, only a cinema centred on a pre-Babelic aesthetic system such as Pelechian’s, heedless of the formal codes and language systems of our time, could even hope to fulfil such a role.

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements and warm thanks for their help with this article go to Paul Macovaz, Michael Witt and Dudley Andrew.

Endnotes

  1. Daney, of course, also played his part in founding the “Straubian International,” in relation to another neglected figure in world cinema. See: Serge Daney, “Les Straub” (1984), in: Idem. Ciné Journal 1981-1996 (Paris: Éditions Cahiers du cinéma, 1986), pp. 256-257, p. 256.
  2. Pelechian’s name has been rendered in a variety of ways, owing to the vagaries of transliteration, and the occasional use of “Arthur” or “Artavadz” instead of “Artavazd” for his first name. Throughout this text, the most frequently used rendering – “Artavazd Pelechian” – will be employed.
  3. Daney, “À la recherche d’Arthur Pelechian”, Libération, August 11 1983. Repr. in: Idem., La Maison cinéma et le monde v. II, ed. by Patrice Rollet, Jean-Claude Biette and Christophe Manon (Paris: Éditions P.O.L., 2002), pp. 410-413, p. 410.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 411.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 412.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Pelechian discusses the disbelief he encountered at Oberhausen when relating the facts of the Armenian genocide. See: Artavazd Pelechian, “Le montage à contrepoint, ou la théorie de la distance” (1971-1972), trans. from Russian into French by Barbara Balmer-Stultz, in: Trafic #2, Spring 1992, pp. 90-105, p. 94.
  11. Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M.B. DeBevoise (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 12.
  12. Ibid., p. xii.
  13. Originally published in Russian in 1972, the article was reprinted in 1988, and later translated into French for publication in Trafic. Translations in German and English also exist, but the English version is so amateurish, having been rendered from the German translation by a non-native speaker, as to be unreliable for citation, and so the French translation is used here for reference. For the English translation, see: Pelechian, “Distance Montage, or the Theory of Distance”, trans. from Russian into German by Hans Joachim Schlegel, from German into English by Cheryce M. Kramer, in: Gerald Matt (ed.). Our Century (Vienna: Kerber Verlag, 2004), pp. 83-100.
  14. Daney, “À la recherche”, p. 412. Given the penetration of cinemas in the Soviet Union by the 1940s, this claim is rather dubious.
  15. According to Christoph Settele, Pelechian had only read one book on film before beginning film school. See: Christoph Settele, “Filmkunst – das ist vor allem Montage: Zu den Dokumentarfilmen von Artavadz Pelechian”, Cinema (unabhängige Schweizer Filmzeitschrift) #39 (1993) , pp. 93-104, p. 93.
  16. Constantin Wulff, “In the Beginning was the Film”, in: Gerald Matt (ed.). Our Century (Vienna: Kerber Verlag, 2004), pp. 11-20, p. 11.
  17. Indeed, for a long time Pelechian refused to allow the films to be shown in retrospectives of his work, only recently relenting with Land of the People.
  18. François Niney, “Pelechian ou la réalité démontée”, in: Jean Radvanyi (ed.). Le Cinéma Arménien (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1993), pp. 85-87, p. 85.
  19. See: Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 98.
  20. See: Wulff, “In the Beginning”, p. 14.
  21. 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 Vremya, in Guy Maddin’s montage-pastiche Heart of the World (2000), and in the closing ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
  22. Settele, “Filmkunst”, p. 94.
  23. Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 101.
  24. Settele, “Filmkunst”, p. 94.
  25. Pelechian has named Lumière as one of his “masters”, stating “It seems to me, however, that Sokurov has forgotten one person in his list of fathers: Lumière. Lumière unites us.” Pelechian, interviewed by: Hans Joachim Schlegel. “Filmische und theoretische Innovationen”, in: Idem. (ed.). Die subversive Kamera: zur anderen Realität in mittel- und osteuropäischen Dokumentarfilmen (Konstanz: UVK Medien, 1999), pp. 171-179, p. 173.
  26. Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 101.
  27. Ibid.
  28. See: Pelechian, Moe kino (Erevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1988).
  29. Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 91.
  30. Ibid., p. 90. Elsewhere, Pelechian has noted affinities between his films and those of Godfrey Reggio, a comparison which perhaps undersells the unique nature of the Armenian’s work. See: Pelechian, interviewed by: François Niney, “Entretien avec Artavadz Pelechian”, Cahiers du cinéma #454 (1992), pp. 35-37, p. 35.
  31. Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 97.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid., p. 96.
  34. Ibid., p. 103.
  35. Ibid., p. 99. I am indebted to Paul Macovaz for the connection between the fugue and Pelechian’s work.
  36. Pelechian, interviewed by: Niney, “Entretien”, p. 36.
  37. Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 100.
  38. Ibid, p. 102.
  39. Pelechian, interviewed by: Pierre Dreyfus. “Artazvad [sic] Pelechian”, in: Narboni, Jean (ed.). Confrontations: Les mardis de la Fémis (Paris: Fémis, 1993), pp. 49-56, p. 55.
  40. Ibid., p. 52.
  41. Pelechian, interviewed by: Dreyfus, “Artazvad Pelechian”, p. 54.
  42. Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 102-103.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid., p. 105.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Pelechian, interviewed by: Dreyfus, “Artazvad Pelechian”, p. 53.
  48. Settele, “Filmkunst”, p. 101.
  49. Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 101.
  50. Ibid., p. 93.
  51. Ibid., p. 99.
  52. See: Ibid., p. 94.
  53. Ibid., p. 98.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Ibid., p. 99.
  57. Settele reports that when asked about the village’s location, Pelechian replied that he himself did not know. See: Settele, “Filmkunst”, p. 104.
  58. See: Daney, “À la recherche”, p. 411, and: Patrick Cazals, “La galaxie Péléchian”, Cahiers du cinéma : Spécial URSS (1990), pp. 97-98, p. 97. This is never mentioned by Pelechian himself, whether before or after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there is no other evidence to corroborate the claim.
  59. This footage was contained within the 2011 documentary Il silenzio di Pelechian by Pietro Marcello.
  60. Fabrice Revault d’Allones, “Le cousin arménien de Vertov”, Cahiers du cinéma #357 (1984), p. XIV.
  61. Ibid.
  62. See: Cazals “La galaxie”, p. 97.
  63. See: François Niney, “Pelechian ou la réalité démontée”, Cahiers du cinéma #421 (1990), p. XII. This was an earlier version of the article later reprinted in expanded form in Le Cinéma arménien.
  64. Jean-François Pigoullié, “Pelechian : le montage-mouvement”, Cahiers du cinéma #454 (1992), pp. 30-34, p. 31.
  65. Ibid., p. 32.
  66. Ibid.
  67. Ibid., p. 34.
  68. See: Dominique Païni, “Arthur Pelechian: Cinéaste d’Icônes”, Art Press #12 (1992), pp. 52-55; Jacques Kermabon, “Planète Pelechian”, Bref #12 (1992), pp. 10-17. Scott MacDonald, “Interview with Arthur Peleshian”, in: Idem. (ed.). A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: California University Press, 1993), pp. 93-103; Frédéric Richard, “L’Image démocratique”, Positif #382 (1992), pp. 72-74.
  69. Richard, “L’image démocratique”, p. 72.
  70. Pelechian, “Le temps contre moi, moi contre le temps”, Positif #431 (1997), pp. 46-47, p. 46.
  71. Barthélemy Amengual, “Sur 5 films d’Artavaz Péléchian”, Cahiers de la Cinémathèque #67-68 (1997), pp 91-95, p. 91.
  72. Ibid., p. 94.
  73. Ibid., p. 91.
  74. Ibid.
  75. Ibid., p. 94.
  76. See: Daniel Fairfax, “Celestial Sensations”, Senses of Cinema #53 (2009). URL: www.sensesofcinema.com/2009/festival-reports/celestial-sensations-the-13th-rencontres-internationales-paris/ (Accessed: January 27, 2012).
  77. Gerald Matt, “Preface”, in: Idem. (ed.). Our Century (Vienna: Kerber Verlag, 2004), pp. 6-9, p. 8.
  78. Ibid., pp. 8-9.
  79. Pigoullié, “Le montage-mouvement”, p. 91.
  80. Revault d’Allones, “Le cousin arménien”, p. XIV.
  81. See: Pelechian, interviewed by: MacDonald, “Interview”, p. 97: “The Armenians are simply an opportunity that allows me to talk about the whole world, about human characteristics, human nature. […] I have never talked about a specific nationality.” This sentiment was echoed during Pelechian’s Q&A session at the Rencontres internationales in 2009.
  82. See: Pelechian, “Montage à contrepoint”, p. 105.
  83. See: Pelechian and Jean-Luc Godard, interviewed by: Jean-Michel Frodon, “Un langage d’avant Babel: conversation entre Artavazd Pelechian et Jean-Luc Godard”, Le Monde, April 2, 1992.
  84. See: Bernard Cohen, “Godard fait de la résistance à Moscou”, Libération, February 15-16, 1992; Antoine De Baecque, Godard: la Biographie (Paris: Grasset, 2010), p. 706.
  85. Frodon, “Un langage”.
  86. Ibid.
  87. Ibid.
  88. Ibid.
  89. Ibid.
  90. See: Godard, “Rapport d’inactivité”, Le Monde, October 8, 1991. Here Godard states: “Also cancelled is our invitiation to the Armenian filmmaker Arthur Pelechian to come and edit [monter] Homo sapiens in the Palais de l’image, and to learn with him what remains of the heritage of Barnet and Eisenstein.”
  91. As Godard called him. See: Godard, interviewed by: Paul Amar, “Godard/Amar: Cannes 97” (1997), in: Alain Bergala (ed.). Godard par Godard v. II (Paris: Éditions Cahiers du cinéma, 1998), pp. 408-422, p. 422.
  92. In an interview with Godard, Michael Witt noted the citation, and asked about the influence of Pelechian on Godard’s montage method, but met with an evasive answer. See: Godard, interviewed by: Michael Witt, “I, a man of the image”, in: Sight & Sound v. 15 #6, (2005), pp. 28-30, p. 29.
  93. See: Pierre Arbus. URL: www.artavazd-pelechian.net (Accessed: January 27, 2012).
  94. The DVD collection was titled “Obras documentais de Artavazd Pelechian”. See: Jean-Jacques Birgé, “Pelechian, héritier à la fois de Vertov et Eisenstein”. URL: www.drame.org/blog/index.php?2007/03/04/440-pelechian-heritier-de-vertov-et-eisenstein (Accessed: January 27, 2012).

(All translations into English are my own unless otherwise stated)

Pelechian Filmography:

Russian titles given first, then Armenian (when applicable) and English titles in brackets.

Gornyj patrul (Mountain Patrol, USSR, 1964, 35mm, 10’)

Zemlya Lyudey (Land of the People, USSR, 1966, 35mm, 10’)

Nachalo (Skisb, The Beginning, USSR, 1967, 35mm, 10’)

My (Menq, We, USSR, 1969, 35mm, 30’)

Obibateli (Tarva Yeghanaknere, The Inhabitants, USSR, 1970, 35mm, 10’)

Vremena goda (The Seasons, USSR, 1972, 35mm, 30’)

Nash Venk (Mer Dare, Our Century, USSR, 1982, 35mm, 50’; re-edited 30’ version completed in 1990)

Konets (Verj, The End, Russia/Armenia, 1992, 35mm, 8’)

Zhizhn (Kyanq, Life, Russia/Armenia, 1993, 35mm, 7’)

Un-filmed Scripts

Mirage (published 1988)

Homo sapiens (published 1988)

Select Pelechian Bibliography:

Paul Amar, “Godard/Amar: Cannes 97” (1997), in: Alain Bergala (ed.). Godard par Godard v. II (Paris: Éditions Cahiers du cinéma, 1998), pp. 408-422.

Barthélemy Amengual, “Sur 5 films d’Artavaz Péléchian”, Cahiers de la Cinémathèque #67-68 (1997), pp 91-95.

Pierre Arbus. URL: www.artavazd-pelechian.net (Accessed: January 27, 2012).

Jean-Jacques Birgé, “Pelechian, héritier à la fois de Vertov et Eisenstein”. URL: www.drame.org/blog/index.php?2007/03/04/440-pelechian-heritier-de-vertov-et-eisenstein (Accessed: January 27, 2012).

Patrick Cazals, “La galaxie Péléchian”, Cahiers du cinéma : Spécial URSS (1990), pp. 97-98.

Bernard Cohen, “Godard fait de la résistance à Moscou”, Libération, February 15-16, 1992.

Serge Daney, “À la recherche d’Arthur Pelechian”, Libération, August 11 1983. Repr. in: Idem., La Maison cinéma et le monde v. II, ed. by Patrice Rollet, Jean-Claude Biette and Christophe Manon (Paris: Éditions P.O.L., 2002), pp. 410-413.

Antoine De Baecque, Godard: la Biographie (Paris: Grasset, 2010).

Pierre Dreyfus, “Artazvad [sic] Pelechian”, in: Narboni, Jean (ed.). Confrontations: Les mardis de la Fémis (Paris: Fémis, 1993), pp. 49-56.

Daniel Fairfax, “Celestial Sensations”, Senses of Cinema #53 (2009). URL: www.sensesofcinema.com/2009/festival-reports/celestial-sensations-the-13th-rencontres-internationales-paris/ (Accessed: January 27, 2012).

Jean-Michel Frodon, “Un langage d’avant Babel: conversation entre Artavazd Pelechian et Jean-Luc Godard”, Le Monde, April 2, 1992.

Jean-Luc Godard, “Rapport d’inactivité”, Le Monde, October 8, 1991.

Jacques Kermabon,. “Planète Pelechian”, Bref #12 (1992), pp. 10-17.

Scott MacDonald, “Interview with Arthur Peleshian”, in: Idem. (ed.). A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: California University Press, 1993), pp. 93-103

Pietro Marcello (dir.), Il silenzio di Pelechian (documentary: Italy, 2011, 58’).

Gerald Matt, “Preface”, in: Idem. (ed.). Our Century (Vienna: Kerber Verlag, 2004), pp. 6-9.

François Niney, “Pelechian ou la réalité démontée”, Cahiers du cinéma #421 (1990), p. XII.

–––, “Entretien avec Artavadz Pelechian”, Cahiers du cinéma #454 (1992), pp. 35-37.

–––,­ “Pelechian ou la réalité démontée”, Jean Radvanyi (ed.). Le Cinéma Arménien (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1993) pp. 85-87.

Dominique Païni, “Arthur Pelechian: Cinéaste d’Icônes”, in: Art Press #12 (1992), pp. 52-55.

Artavazd Pelechian, Moe kino (Erevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1988).

–––. “Le montage à contrepoint, ou la théorie de la distance” (1971-1972), trans. from Russian into French by Barbara Balmer-Stultz. In: Trafic #2, Spring 1992, pp. 90-105.

–––, “Le temps contre moi, moi contre le temps”. In: Positif #431 (1997), pp. 46-47.

–––, “Distance Montage, or the Theory of Distance”, trans. from Russian into German by Hans Joachim Schlegel, from German into English by Cheryce M. Kramer. In: Gerald Matt (ed.). Our Century (Vienna: Kerber Verlag, 2004), pp. 83-100.

Jean-François Pigoullié, “Pelechian : le montage-mouvement”, Cahiers du cinéma #454 (1992), pp. 30-34

Fabrice Revault d’Allones, “Le cousin arménien de Vertov”, Cahiers du cinéma #357 (1984), p. XIV.

Frédéric Richard, “L’Image démocratique”, Positif #382 (1992), pp. 72-74.

Hans Joachim Schlegel, “Filmische und theoretische Innovationen”, in: Idem. (ed.). Die subversive Kamera: zur anderen Realität in mittel- und osteuropäischen Dokumentarfilmen (Konstanz: UVK Medien, 1999), pp. 171-179.

Christoph Settele, “Filmkunst – das ist vor allem Montage: Zu den Dokumentarfilmen von Artavadz Pelechian”, Cinema (unabhängige Schweizer Filmzeitschrift) #39 (1993) , pp. 93-104.

Michael Witt, “I, a man of the image”. Sight & Sound v. 15 #6, (2005), pp. 28-30.

Constantin Wulff, “In the Beginning was the Film”, in: Gerald Matt (ed.). Our Century (Vienna: Kerber Verlag, 2004), pp. 11-20.
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Other Works Cited:

Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, tr. M.B. DeBevoise (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 2004).

Serge Daney, “Les Straub” (1984), in: Idem. Ciné Journal 1981-1996 (Paris: Éditions Cahiers du cinéma, 1986), pp. 256-257.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University and book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema