by Allan Fish
(USSR 1983 47m) not on DVD
Aka. Mer dare
a + b + c + ab = 0
d/w/ed Artavazd Peleshian
Whatever happened to montage, as many film students have asked? It became a noun is the simple answer, adapted outside of its meaning by Hollywood, no longer anything to do with the old film theory equations; where Pudovkin believed montage meant that one shot followed by another gave a combined meaning (a+b=ab), Eisenstein argued that instead the first two shots gave a third meaning (a+b=c). It all became literally academic, for these schools of montage gradually evaporated with the coming of sound.
It would be a director, appropriately from the old Soviet Union, who would sound the death knell for old school montage. Artavazd Peleshian is an elusive figure in every sense, who made just nine films in a 28 year career, with a care taken over each to rival Andrei Tarkovsky. The difference being all Peleshian’s films run to less running time combined than Andrei Rublev alone. Peleshian became known – where he is known, for in the west he’s still neglected – for inventing ‘distance montage’, an appropriately detaching methodology where montage was used to reduce meaning to nothing, where each individual shot meant nothing; the finished film was the meaning.
And how to describe these works? Once asked to do so I remember advising that they existed somewhere between his compatriot Sergei Paradjanov and the freeform footage manipulation of those two rebellious Bruces, Baillie and Conner, but that the line betwixt was anything but linear. Imagine then Conner’s A Movie made by a poet. Each stands alone, but if one can see his films in the order made you can see what amounts to both a confirmation and repudiation of Peleshian’s statement. That perhaps a + b can equal c if each letter is a film, not a shot.
Take his early student film Beginning which, while ostensibly about the revolution and incorporating some footage from Eisenstein, ends with a shot of a little peasant girl in medium-close up. His next film We, detailing Armenian heritage, opens with a shot of the same girl, his star child almost, as if picking up where his previous film left off. Inhabitants came next, imagining a rebirth of the Soviet Union but seen through animal allegory. This would be followed by Seasons of the Year, in many ways his most famous and poetic work. It documented a shepherd community in the Armenian hills, rescuing their flock from landslides, snowdrifts and rivers, stopping to give us a traditional wedding, and then coming back to the shepherds, all set to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. It’s a mesmerising work, and one which even as I write ridicules me for only allowing one film to stand for Peleshian (in truth, you could make a case for three or four). In one simple shot, of a shepherd holding his wrist as if taking his pulse, one can illustrate Peleshian’s entire oeuvre, the search for the heartbeat of nature, of the movement of the universe. Yet it seemed appropriate to choose Our Century as it literally reached out into the universe, as well as being his longest film. Again it’s freeform, again no dialogue, purely a rhythmic fusion of visuals and music. It begins with a rocket being prepared for departure and ends with its ejection into outer space. In between it takes in man’s achievements through the technology of the 20th century, where simple juxtapositions between astronauts and cosmonauts (no bias here) lead to further juxtapositions to the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers accompanied by Chaplin’s Limelight suite. More distance montages follow of disasters – planes, trains, automobiles, airships, you name it – and a few successes, Kipling’s ‘If’ reduced to silent montage. It’s simply indescribable and inescapably beautiful. Where Warhol believed a man had 15 minutes of fame, Peleshian seems to be saying mankind has but 15 minutes and it’s running out. It’s not on DVD as none of Peleshian’s work is, as if the work itself had imitated the master, turned itself into a recluse. Then along came youtube; the world of literally everyone and no-one. Would Peleshian recognise the irony?