Thoughts On: Earth Of People (1966), Beginning (1967), We (1968), Seasons Of The Year (1975), End (1992)
A look at a selection of films by Artavazd Peleshyan (also spelt Peleshian) that will be our Armenian representatives of the the world cinema series.
Artavazd Peleshyan is one of the most interesting, though lesser known, Soviet directors who produced films from 1964-93. He worked solely in the short film medium, producing films that ranged from around 10 minutes to 45 mins – all of which brought together documentary and experimental film forms and aesthetics. The way to then describe Peleshyan’s work would involve an implication of a poetic cinema – however, this is a detail we will return to.
A film that acts as a good introduction to Peleshyan’s style would be his second short, Earth Of People. In this film you can see the influence other Soviet directors, such as Eisenstein and Vertov, had on Peleshyan. We see Vertov in his work with his focus on machinery and movement, one that creates a city symphony of sorts – which Verov is, almost inarguably, the master of. Moreover, there is an Eisensteinian sensibility within Earth Of People that is best recognised by the approach to montage.
Unlike the vast majority of Peleshyan’s other works, Earth of People has an approach to montage with the strongest sense of collision. In such, the juxtaposition of imagery, the actual cut, is very distinct in this short. And this is something that Eisenstein focused on with a linear application of imagery that would produce a thesis, antithesis and then a synthesis that Peleshyan actively, and quite clearly, moved away from in his later work.
Earth Of People also acts an establishment of many of Peleshyan’s reoccurring themes, those being human achievement and perseverance as well as destruction – both in nature and of human constructs. What is missing from Earth Of People, however, is Peleshyan’s interest in history.
A short film that utilises a blend of archival footage, Beginning is Artavazd Peleshyan’s third film that explores the Russian October Revolution of 1917. During the latter half of the First World War, Russia was near collapse, and this saw the resignation of the Tsar representatives of the time and the rise of the Bolsheviks, a faction of the Marxist Social Democratic Labour Party that was founded and greatly influenced by Lenin. This rise was catalysed by a period of revolt by the common people calling for reform in huge numbers who were supported by the army which later snowballed into revolution.
In exploring this period of Russia, Peleshyan demonstrates both his interest in history, but also the power of people – which is often represented in his works through the crowd and the individual. What formally distinguishes this short from many of his other works, however, is the unique edit which emphasised a manipulation of time and space with freeze frames and flipped imagery – all of which were supported by Peleshyan’s idiosyncratic sound design (which only features music and sound effects – very rarely dialogue).
But, my personal favourite film of Peleshyan’s is his 1969 short, We. This sees the many elements of his earlier films come together as one of the best examples of his approach to montage. In such, We is a depiction of Armenian history that beautifully depicts an atmosphere or shade of a culture through images of both people, land and the meeting of the two.
What Peleshyan’s We does best is break down the linear montage seen in his earliest films as well as capture a formal mise en scene that is very clearly Peleshyan’s own. In such, Peleshyan not only distinguishes his work from the structuring of Eisenstein’s films, but also the aesthetic of Vertov’s. The end result of this is a powerful experiment in cinema’s ability to project a sense or tone, to capture the feeling a director means to convey.
What all of Peleshyan’s work ultimately builds towards is one of the most poetic forms of montage. That is to say that the juxtaposition of imagery hasn’t got so much to do with meaning or a synthesis of a thesis and antithesis. Instead, Peleshyan’s films are almost a canvas that is stretched through time, and one of the best examples of this would be one of his most renowned films, Seasons Of The Year. Like We, Seasons Of The Year brings together all of the formal elements of Peleshyan’s style with some of his most striking imagery and scenarios, but does so in the most abstract manner. This approach emphasises the idea that his work is a canvas; that his narratives aren’t really constructed shot-by-shot, instead they are displayed shot-by-shot, but only truly work when seen in total.
This is the unique genius of Peleshyan’s work as it manipulates the temporal element of cinema into obscurity. In such, when we consider the vast majority of other narrative films, we understand/remember them thanks to their plot and the manner in which the shots and scenes are related to one another through time. With Peleshyan’s poetic films, the order and time element of the narrative isn’t so important as it is only through absorbing all of the images given that the substance of any which of them is revealed.
And so, what we see through the films of Artavazd Peleshyan is one of the most eloquent demonstrations of the cine-poem. Like an essay, Peleshyan’s films build toward a point. However, unlike an essay, there is very little fractional meaning within. That is to say that an essay is made up of many small points that build into a larger one – and this is what Peleshyan’s films lack. The cine-poem, as represented by the films of Peleshyan, are then holistic applications of imagery that instil an emotional and sensory concept of meaning in a viewer.
An expressive example of a holistic approach to montage, one that is focused on tone and atmosphere instead of small points building towards a larger meaning, would be one of the latest films of Peleshyan’s, End. In observing passengers on a train who eventually fall asleep as it seemingly moves through a tunnel, Peleshyan plays with a cliched idea of a journey through life that ends in death. However, as cliched as this metaphor is, it doesn’t appear as such within End – and such cites the strange power of Peleshyan’s work. There is a sensory meaning that overrides everything about his narratives, and so, to put them in words is a disservice to them.
Whilst this is something you could say about many films, that words could not capture what the film does, there are few other filmmakers who use such a phenomena like Peleshyan does. And so, it’s by looking at his body of work that you are given one of the most poignant definitions of the cine-poem; these are films that defy other mediums of communication and are entirely sensory.
To end, as always, I turn to you. Have you seen any of Peleshyan’s films? What are your thoughts on them and poetic films in general?
Daisies – Rebellion
Nick – Delusion, Trust, Reality
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