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By Phil Coldiron
Artists who write clearly about their work run a serious risk: that they will be taken at their word. In much of contemporary art this dynamic has descended to the point that the work, the sensuous object, functions as little more than an illustration of the artist’s statement, a vestigial offering to the market. Anxiety over the uncertain presence of an audience demands that whoever arrives in the role of beholder must not walk away without the supposed satisfaction of knowing precisely what they have encountered.
I begin here for two reasons. The first is that the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Pelechian is the author of one of the great autotheoretical texts, “Montage-at-a-Distance, or: A Theory of Distance” (my quotes from the piece throughout this essay will draw from Julia Vassilieva’s 2015 translation, published in the journal Lola under that title; its first half has also been translated as “Distance Montage” and “Contrapuntal Montage”). The second is that, after a 27-year absence, Pelechian has returned with a new film, La Nature, installed at Paris’ Fondation Cartier, a venue at the heart of France’s contemporary art scene.
A pre-emptive correction may be in order. For the trouble with Pelechian isn’t that his words have been taken to provide too clear a meaning, but rather that they have offered cover, within a body of criticism miniscule in relation to Pelechian’s achievement, for avoiding the difficult issue of dealing with the meaning of his work at all. “It is almost impossible to express in words the content of such films. They exist only on screen; one must see them.” So we are told by Christoph Settele, writing in 1993 in the Swiss journal Cinema, that he is “a master of the ambivalence of expression,” and by Constantin Wulff, in a catalogue essay accompanying Pelechian’s 2004 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien, that his films are “masterpieces of ambivalence.” In his essay on the filmmaker for Senses of Cinema, by far the most substantial English-language account of Pelechian’s career, Daniel Fairfax does extensive work to contextualize and clarify Pelechian’s thought, as well as to illuminate the mechanics of distance montage, but arrives at a typical conclusion when, in his discussion of We (1969, the film is at times referred to in English as Us), he notes that a recurring image which was initially “indiscernible” is in the end “now given meaning,” without offering any indication what its meaning, or meanings, might be.
This reticence is understandable, even respectable. Understandable because the way in which Pelechian’s montage conveys the “coherence of [his] worldview” presents a serious challenge to language, a topic that we will return to toward the end of this piece. Respectable because it conveys a sensitivity to the fact that the openness of aesthetic experience which their form affords is what marks this small but potent oeuvre, ten films running less than four hours all told, as one of cinema’s singular achievements—note the direct line which Settele and Wulff draw between the films’ quality and their ostensible ambivalence. To attach meaning to these films in the usual fashion is indeed to get them wrong. But it will not do to avoid the matter altogether.
Given that, I’ll take La Nature, at once a summary of the recurring formal and thematic concerns of Pelechian’s career and an expansion into new realms—among other things, it is his longest film and his first done in digital (though it returns him to monochrome after his brief excursion into colour with Life )—as the grounds for an attempt to articulate how, and if, this work can “simultaneously speak the languages of art, philosophy, and science.” (His aspiration echoes Vertov: “Cinema is…the art of inventing movements of things in space in response to the demands of science; it embodies the inventor’s dream—be he scholar, artist, engineer, or carpenter.” Though Pelechian’s horizon is on the far side of Vertov’s movements in space.) I’ll also attempt to account for what populates the fields of meaning it produces through this non-linguistic speech.
In light of the ongoing lack of circulation of Pelechian’s films, allow me to offer a description of his distance montage before continuing. “Montage-at-a-Distance,” completed in 1972, following the breakthrough of We, deals as clearly and concretely as possible with the form Pelechian found for himself. But this form is nonetheless difficult to summarize, because in much of the usual technical shorthand it is hard to distinguish from the montage practiced and theorized by Eisenstein and Vertov. And while Serge Daney, in a 1983 text that by all accounts was instrumental in bringing his work to light in the West, praised him as “a Vertov in the age of Michael Snow,” Pelechian’s desire to clarify his distance from his canonical Soviet predecessors was the acknowledged impetus of the essay. Put crudely, his aim is a montage more modern than either Eisenstein’s or Vertov’s, one which allows for the emergence of precise mental images while avoiding the rhythmic strictures imposed by the former’s collisions, and which allows for absolute freedom of movement from shot to shot without adopting the blank mechanical gaze necessary to maintain the latter’s intervals.
The practical means by which Pelechian achieves this aim are relatively simple. His main formal procedure is the repetition of what he refers to as “bearing elements,” shots of particularly striking visual quality that modulate, in semantic or emotional content, based on the material which separates them. These shifts are registered in progressions across the film, with the shots ultimately sounding as visual chords when considered together in memory upon completion. The interstitial material separating them is typically more formally dynamic than the “bearing elements,” which has the effect of churning up a wide range of associations (while also ensuring that the films remain engrossing shot to shot). The second major procedure is a disjunctive use of the audio track, which allows sound, whether music or effects (there is little to no diegetic sound in the films prior to The Seasons ), to function with the same freedom as the image track. As such, rather than fulfilling its usual roles—narrowing, confirming, or, as in the case of most narrative films, defining the content of a given shot or sequence—the soundtrack in Pelechian’s films greatly expands the range of activity, creating patterns, motifs, and contrasts which multiply, and are multiplied by, those of the images.
I will return below to the question of language’s suppression within this system, but it’s worth noting here that Pelechian routinely makes reference to the Tower of Babel when discussing his work. We might then consider his most significant Soviet predecessor as not Eisenstein or Vertov, but Tatlin, who dreamt of a new Tower, the Monument to the Third International, the figure of a secular world restored to coherence and transparency. In the mechanics of its drawing together of grand structure and a wide range of local activity—with no part dominating any other—Tatlin’s unrealized Monument provides a more clear visualization of the total form of a Pelechian film than any example I know of in cinema. (This realignment has the further benefit of underscoring that, even from the October homage of In the Beginning , Pelechian’s first mature work, the catastrophe of the Soviet project was as decisive as the Armenian genocide in shaping his worldview.)
While catastrophe has figured prominently across nearly all of Pelechian’s films—a more serene sense of death’s proximity suffuses the rest—La Nature, on its surface, deals with nothing else. It opens, as is typical for Pelechian, with an overture; these six minutes are its lone sustained calm. Set to the Kyrie of Beethoven’s late Missa solemnis, this sequence begins with light breaking over dark waters and proceeds through a series of wide shots of mountainous landscapes, some slowly drifting forward zooms, others time-lapsed, their sunlight strobing. Across the film’s first two minutes, the music more clearly dictates the rhythm of the edits than in any passage of Pelechian’s work to date, with each cut matched to the sounding of the opening chords.
Following a half dozen shots in polished high-definition digital, the seventh is a shock: a sharp peak, harshly backlit, in rough early standard-definition digital (it may even be well-preserved analogue tape). This image tears open the film’s smooth visual field, letting in history—not just the age of this obviously older video format, but the sudden awareness that our contemporary textures, banal and overfamiliar as they appear, will soon carry the same alien sense of obsolescence. This shot, which loosens the attachment of the rhythm to the music, also introduces an additional element: it is taken from a helicopter. The next five minutes continue to alternate between these various types of landscape composition (a handful of which appear to be archival 35mm, a further element) as the rhythm continues to loosen, leading to a 65-second helicopter shot, in the same low resolution, which moves from right to left across the whole of a jagged ridgeline.
As an aerial shot drifts across a range of sand dunes extending to the horizon—their scale inscrutable, the grandeur of their sharp lines and deep shadows in polished high definition verging on the unreal—the soundtrack abruptly cuts from the Mass to the sound of explosions, and the film breaks into the extended montage of natural disaster which fills the majority of its duration. While the overture was without diegetic sound, the explosions bridge across the calm desertscape drift into a sonic match with the shots of volcanic eruption which follow, the violence of their repetitive upward movement in cruel contrast with the heavenly overture. Two shots of massive volcanic plumes, one showing them rushing over water, the other capturing them roiling amidst jungle foliage, reduce the visual tempo, at which point Pelechian fades to black, a feint that the worst, after only 90 seconds, may be over.
Pelechian then introduces the sound of waves against this black screen. As with the explosions, the sound foreshadows a matched image: a sequence of seascapes moves from the shore to the open water and then back. Here, too, there is misdirection: only later will we realize that what we are seeing are not, or not only, stock images of the grandeur of our blue planet, but pictures of destructive force held in potential, barely legible in even the largest waves shown in this passage. (The linkage, apparent but not insisted upon, between the surface-depth relationship here and that of the volcanic eruptions is typical of the interstitial material of Pelechian’s method.) Water turns to ice with the sudden appearance of a glacier, the frame zooming in as it begins to crumble, the soundtrack turning to the first movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony—the other, alongside the Beethoven Mass, of the film’s sonic “bearing elements”—which heightens the mood and puts a definitive end to the illusion of calm. The slow pace of glacial collapse grows in step with the rising strings and brass, as we move from dissolution at massive scales to the staccato tumble of ice chunks back into the sea.
From here, the symphony carries across to initiate a sequence of shots of avalanches before disappearing abruptly, replaced by the matched sound of roaring snow. While the seascapes and glacial collapse both provided patterned compositions which were less dependent on strong lines of movement, the downward rush of the avalanches draws out a new relation with the initial explosions, this time one of graphic counterpoint in contrast to the ocean’s conceptual linkage. Pelechian exploits this to introduce a direct causal connection: an aerial shot of an avalanche flips its flow from the bottom of the frame to the top, justifying the sudden cut to a volcanic eruption and multiplying the visual force of these two upward movements, as we realize that an effect has led into its cause. This sets off a second, longer sequence of eruptions, balanced at its beginning and end by images of avalanches, the latter of which introduces the film’s final, crucial element: a group of figures, tiny against a mountain face, fleeing downward ahead of a danger which threatens from above the frame.
At this point, we are roughly a quarter of the way through the film, and it is possible to leave off with this degree of close description: the bounds of its form have been set. From here, Pelechian works through an array of content, as we see sequences based around floods and tsunamis, earthquakes and fires, and various violent storms. Throughout, he maintains the high degree of both graphic and conceptual density described above, though his visual rhythms have loosened in comparison to nearly all of his prior work, making room for moments of slackness that have been largely absent in his career to date. This is not a matter of an old master losing his touch when moving to digital; they are without question intentional. Indeed, this willingness to sit in duration provides the film’s most memorable sequence, a six-minute shot taken from a Japanese rooftop as a flood—I suspect from the March 2011 tsunami, though as with all the material here, it is all but impossible to confirm the context—washes away nearly all the surrounding structures: warehouses, smaller buildings, even massive drum containers.
How are we to understand the desire, amidst all of this, to produce images? Much of what we see is either the product of news crews or surveillance cameras; it is easy enough to situate this material within our present image culture, and much has been written on the ethics and implications of both of these modes. But on the matter of the numerous amateur images produced from within disaster, will it do to follow Sontag and Rancière, who both, in discussing Man with a Movie Camera (1929), find in it evidence that the demands of the camera foreclose the possibility of intervention? This claim here would only need to be inverted: that, faced with the impossibility of intervention, all we can think to do is pick up our cameras. La Nature does not have any answers regarding the ecological disaster we find ourselves in, but its complex understanding of the relationship between the human and the natural cannot be understood outside this frame.
Pelechian, in typical fashion, concludes by drawing together the material from the overture with that of the body of the film. A recurrence of the Shostakovich, now matched to a passage based around collapsing buildings, drawn by the music into conversation with the prior glacial collapse, marks the conclusion of the long montage sequence, and directly abuts the final return of the Mass—both of these “bearing elements” having also been deployed near the film’s midpoint—which now braids together with plumes and clouds, calm waters and flowing lava, smouldering fires and flooded cities, ominously dormant volcanoes, and scenes of people safe amidst wreckage, awaiting rescue, assessing destruction. A coda of light through clouds is soundtracked by a heavy layer of distortion—my ear wants to hear the Mass continuing within it; this sort of auditory hallucination occurs often in my experience of Pelechian’s work. The distortion finally gives way to the piano and vocal improvisation which concludes Tigran Hamasyan’s “Egyptian Poet,” its clear line mingling with birdsong, the new and the old, leading to the final image: the sun bisected by the horizon, its movement held between rising and setting in the weightlessness which has always been fundamental to Pelechian’s ideal.
La Nature joins We and The Seasons in coming nearest as a whole to approaching this impossible aim, Pelechian’s desire for “the outermost…a place where our notions and laws of space and time are useless.” His aim remains impossible because of the simple fact that we are human, subject to the limits of a sensorium that we have succeeded through our arts in expanding, without yet discovering evidence of how it might profitably be left behind. In these three works, Pelechian brings together most compellingly the elements that unite his career: natural forces and portraiture.
If we assent to Pelechian’s description of distance montage as a “cinematic system or cinematic method for the measurement of the system of the author’s worldview,” then the measure of that system can be found in the fact that these manifestations of nature and humanity are often inextricable from one another. This is particularly true in The Seasons (which is screening with La Nature at the Fondation Cartier), in which the relationship of the peasants of a remote Armenian village to their environment draws them together into the image of a shepherd tumbling through rapids, clinging to his sheep. When we are first presented with this scene, through nearly two minutes of variations on this composition, it seems a disaster: something has gone wrong, and here is the desperate effort to correct it. But then, following a long passage of men driving cattle—peasant portraiture which might be taken as done under the sign of Millet—gravity returns as the village men are shown hurtling down a mountain face with haystacks in tow. The relationship to gravity is complex: it is something they must deal with in order to get the hay where it needs to go, and so they have learned to leverage it to ease this task, while accepting that it is finally impossible for them to control.
The result is an ecstatic contrast to the tedium of leading the herds. We are now far from Millet: these are the “creative men” Pelechian describes aspiring to populate his films with in “Montage-at-a-Distance.” When Pelechian returns to the rapids after another interstitial tour of village life, the men’s relationship to the water has been rearranged entirely. They must cross this dangerous water, but they can learn to live with it, to make the work a little less taxing; disaster and efficiency, as images, become inseparable. There is no mystical harmony between the peasant and nature, no rhetorical presentation of the authenticity of this way of life. As portraits, these images defeat all the usual means by which we make images meaningful; they point to nothing outside themselves. As viewers, we are gripped, of course, by the strangeness of this physical experience, but if novelty were all they offered this would be a meagre satisfaction. As much as we may believe that everything has now been made into an image, novelty nonetheless remains easy to come by.
The paradox Pelechian explores—and here I must finally confront his challenge to language, knowing I will lose—is that an image that denies meaning can nevertheless coordinate it. Here, the images of the men amidst the rapids—hurtling down the mountain with their haystacks, and later, sledding along snow and rock with sheep in their arms—in their silence and specificity, mark the contours of an expressive field which does not offer us anything like mastery over what we have seen, what it contains. We do not turn away confident that we now understand peasant life, but we are drawn into an open field in which, for example, life’s extreme hardness and joy sit in superposition. Floating, weightless and disembodied, in this pure space of beholding might be one way to define the bourgeois aesthetic ideal. The measure of Pelechian’s achievement in The Seasons is that, through his intense concern with picturing the forces of nature, our feet remain firmly on the ground. How can we come to believe in this world in which we find ourselves?
It may be productive to consider this question in light of Our Century (1982), the least successful of Pelechian’s films, in which the failure of transcendence is both thematized and played out. Arriving seven years after The Seasons, a period filled with multiple unrealized projects and false starts, Our Century is oriented around the Soviet and American space programs, which provide the “bearing elements” for a more expansive consideration of the 20th century’s attempts at overcoming nature. As in The Seasons, gravity is nature’s most visible force. And so, surrounding sequences of both failed and successful space launches, as well as related preparatory scenes, we see montages of early flight, aerial battle, racing, and sundry follies of invention. These passages, teeming with images of failure ranging from the comic to the catastrophic, bring Pelechian very near to the Conner of A Movie (1958): they share the same distanced perspective, one which sees humanity at a scale in which the comic and catastrophic bleed together (though it is worth noting that even Pelechian’s most brutal images—such as a car tumbling off a racetrack into a dense crowd—avoid the moralizing of the corpse-filled trenches which appear near the end of Conner’s film). Our Century’s strongest moments arrive during the preparatory sequences, which afford Pelechian the opportunity to expand the range of his portraiture, attaching a camera to the arm of a gravitational training device and producing images of faces in states of extreme unselfconsciousness, the fulfilment of another old Vertovian ideal. (This exploration of the face in unique states of knowledge regarding the presence of a beholder forms the basis for his only two films between Our Century and Nature, the brief diptych composed of The End  and Life.)
I have only seen the longer initial version of Our Century, which runs 52 minutes; while it’s easy enough to imagine that Pelechian’s second cut, roughly 20 minutes shorter, might resolve certain issues where repetition tips over into redundancy, it’s difficult to imagine that any amount of editing could correct the film’s more significant failing, which is baked into its content by its historical situation. Where The Seasons, for example, manages to overcome the potential matrix of meaning given by the long history of the image of the peasant in art, Our Century faces an even more severe challenge: no degree of inventiveness in montage seems liable to free this material from the weight of its position within the Cold War imaginary. The result is that even the unrelated material that provides much of the interstitial footage is recast as the prehistory of a particular geopolitical struggle. Put crudely, every image becomes too meaningful. Scott MacDonald, in his interview with Pelechian, attempts to read against this fact by leveraging the film’s countdown motif and an alternative translation of its title as Our Age to introduce an allegorical dimension, one related to Pelechian entering middle age at the time of its making (a reading the filmmaker assents to, at least in broad terms). Whether or not one finds the reconciliation of scale required by this interpretation to be viable, it nonetheless entails a mode of reading that leads away from anything within the images towards a further layer of meaning imposed from without. The disorienting space of beholding that The Seasons makes available is entirely foreclosed, and we are left with illustrations of a known history.
This history of the Soviet and American space programs—from the early days of the Space Race to the moon, through the gesture towards reconciliation of Apollo-Soyuz, and onto Reagan’s glasnost-era Star Wars—is inextricable from the Cold War iteration of the question of the nation, as dominant a framework for dealing with the problem of belief as the last three centuries have provided. (It of course extends much further back than that—the Armenian genocide was a brutal chapter in a chain of ethnic and national turmoil stretching back nearly to the dawn of the common era—but its modern modality is the one most relevant to Pelechian’s concerns.) Though a full reckoning with Pelechian’s work requires historical context, both Soviet and Armenian, that is beyond the scope of this essay, I’d like to return here to La Nature, to its particular historical vantage and its presentation of problems of meaning and belief within our moment.
As I said, the found material that comprises the bulk, if not the entirety, of the film is provided without contextualizing information of any sort. Certain viewers will recognize locations, with at least some degree of specificity: much of the material in the tornado sequence, for example, abounds in markers which make it possible for me to identify the setting as the American Midwest. The most brutal material, that which most directly shows almost certain death, seems to come largely from the global South. Combined with the decision to render the footage equal by conforming all of it to a monochrome palette, the absence of context has the effect of creating a presence which haunts the film, one in which the original footage remains embedded in its original media environment (e.g., a YouTube video bearing details in its description). We may well find this ethically questionable on a number of levels.
To return to a question raised above, a chain of exploitation here begins with the algorithmic incentive to produce content in the midst of crisis, a bitter evolution of Benjamin’s famous dictum in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” regarding humanity’s capacity for aesthetic enjoyment of its own destruction. We might imagine that the material that makes up much of La Nature would exist in a world with cheap personal cameras but without YouTube, but it is impossible to consider these images as they actually exist without taking this into account. (A full consideration of the contrast of the various corporate archives that provide the material here with the state archives which supplied Pelechian’s found footage in his earlier work would undoubtedly be illuminating.) The rerouting of this material from its initial context into a work of art opens upon a second vista of ethical complication. While the film, though first appearing in a contemporary-art context (that is, rather than a strictly cinematic one), will not enter the market as an edition given its funding by the non-commercial Fondation Cartier, and, given its extreme form, seems unlikely to prove a commercial success in whatever theatrical afterlife it may find, even the indirect relation of Pelechian’s profit to the suffering portrayed demands a reckoning. That La Nature was itself produced by a venue funded off the profits of an extractive industry is the sort of miserable irony the present art market seems to produce almost compulsively. And finally there is the third, and most obvious, level of ethical trouble, a line of inquiry the film no doubt works hard to lead its viewer to: how is it possible to tolerate seeing such things?
It is as art, as an object capable of leading to the experiences beyond time and space that Pelechian has stated as his aim, that the film must finally be judged. If La Nature, today, avoids the failings of Our Century, it is because the history of climate change, of global warming and rising seas, is not yet complete. It remains possible to see in the arrangement of these images of meaningless suffering not only an indictment of a global order which determines that the communities being swept away are acceptable collateral damage, and not only a premonition of the inevitable arrival of these same horrors on the shores and plains of the countries which think themselves immune (this arrival has already begun), but also an implication, however faintly in the distance, of the stakes of our moment: that we, to use Pelechian’s word, come to live again as creative people, a baseline for reimagining how to be in, and with, nature. In this, La Nature insists that each viewer acknowledge his or her own historical position. It is hard to imagine reconciling the experience of watching this film from within the comfort of a luxury art venue in a European capital with what the experience of this might be for a resident of any of the cities, towns, and villages we see ravaged. That what is lost in the destruction of many of these communities is precisely the long history of creative living that our time demands is one of the film’s most bitter truths. Here, unlike in the case of The Seasons, there is no utopian dream of a universal audience.
But all of these points do not, as the Fondation Cartier’s press materials tell us, entail recognizing “nature’s superiority, which is capable of taming all human ambition.” Such an understanding consigns not only the film, but all of humanity, to a given history. Why should we accept such a given when Pelechian’s activity here is ripping these images of disaster out of history and reorienting them as the grounds for the free thinking art alone can provide? The range of ethical demands the film makes of each of its viewers, the problems it poses to the possibility of thought, of aesthetic enjoyment, are but further coordinates within the field of potential meaning produced by Pelechian’s montage, a form which, at its best, rejects the superiority of any single element.