Negentropic Montage: We (Artavazd Peleshian, 1969)
“The crowd grips the land with its polycephalic claws. A façade of watchers sees across time into the sublime haziness of Mount Erevan: negentropic montage.”
– Anonymous Chinese web forum post (own translation)
The motif of energy conversion infuses the formal structure of Artavazd Peleshian’s film My (We, 1969). Assimilating two basic laws of thermodynamics, movement, pressure, temperature smelt images down to refined, low entropy nuggets of kinetic exhortation. Huge telluric chunks smash into jarring seventh brass chords, each one coded explosion and collision. The Eisenteinian tractor ploughing abstract patterns of revolutionary ardour into the psyche has been nuclearised. A long fuse burns retroactively from Peleshian’s undulating masses into the jagged insurgents that rampage across the editing cuts of Stachka (Strike, 1924) and Oktyabr (October, 1927). The conversion of energy is not just a metaphor that underlies the transformations of a revolutionary body politic, it also manifests the pathos of history, of time, and of memory as a kind of collective heat loss, an infinite sum of the finest gradations of temperature, each one a scintilla of the collective furnace of history hungry for fuel, desperate for ignition. These seeped quanta of barely perceptible warmth are sheathed in image-sound processes, that is oriented images and sounds, temporary associations, an architecture of movement. Cinema can transform this pathos into a glimmering throng of shining moments. The frenetic effort on screen does not dissipate into an entropic pool but rather resonates across a web of taut processes: faces linked with façades linked with shuddering avalanches, hands that wield the steal and coal of heavy industry fused to outstretched arms supporting a coffin, rivulets and currents in an ocean of bodies that resemble the laminar flow of lava cross-hatched across a violently erupting volcanoe. In a central image of the film a bobbing mass of heads on screen flow smoothly forwards then backwards, pivoting on an abrupt inflection. This edit point is a singular point, the core of a primordial gif. That dimensionless point houses…
This enormous engine of cinematic movement yields a potent image of memory, an inter-generational ‘we’ that neither embraces nor excludes. The regenerative surface of this image is powered by life, by the life-force of culture refracted through the accumlated formal material of Soviet revolutionary cinema. Let me briefly outline Pelshian’s theory of distance or contrapuntal montage, which is in many respects the final iteration of the Soviet tradition. The fundamental unit of this technique is what Peleshian calls contrapuntal support. At its simplest these supports might be a single image, embedded within a particular ordering of image or sound. So for example at the beginning We, the close-up of the face of a young girl looks towards the camera as a series of dissonant seventh chords is trumpeted in the brass.1 The image then appears later in the film, again accompanied by the same grouping of chords. Finally at the end of the film, only the chords themselves remain, the image of the girl, at least according to Peleshian, having left its impression on the chords, is no longer needed.
The number of these contrapuntal supports is limited. They might also include a procession of images, longer melodies and musical phrases, as well as percussive or rhythmic motifs. For Garegin Zakojan they are Peleshian’s response to the rise of the plan-séquence in sound cinema and the decline of “polyphonic” montage at the end of the silent period: “by means of a certain number of repetitions of the same nominative-shot of a small number of photogrammes, Peleshian assembles a sequence which functions, at the level of perception, like a plan-séquence.”2 Peleshian himself remarks that their reciprocal effect is that of a “decomposition of sound by image, and a decomposition of image by sound”,3 a mutual infusing of shared formal characteristics. Time too must be “disassembled:, rearranged according to the the rythmic and tonal characteristics of the medium of cinema, and this means musical forms, and in particular the fugue, hence contrapuntal montage.
The term fugue has had a number of different meanings throughout the history of music. All its various designations might be unified under the notion of “imitative counterpoint”. A subject, motif, theme, simply a sequence of notes, in early music history, a sequence of pitch-assigned syllables, is repeated according to some more or less fixed rule, or canon. The texture of the music dissolves the progression of time; a continually intertwining bundle of lines of music, gives the impression both of movement and of stable, harmonious balance; a kind of whirling through orbit of rotating spheres, or the circular movement of mechanical wheels in an enormous Carnot cycle. It is just this image of bent spheres of images and sound that Peleshian invokes to sum up the effect and character of the formal structure of his films: “Contrapuntal montage confers on the structure of the film, not the form of the habitual chain of montage, nor even the form of a conjugation of different chains, but creates by beginning with a circular figure, or, more precisely, a spherical figure turning upon itself.” Or, later: “The leading elements, linked together by such lines, form in one part and in the other great circles, bringing in their wake and in the corresponding rotation all the other elements. They conform to inverse centrifugal4 movements and mesh one into the other and seem to grind, like the teeth of an incorrectly calibarated cog.”5 The contrapuntal arrangement of image-sound processions, or image-sound processes, has formal implications for Peleshian’s films as a whole. Peleshian’s entire œuvre, comprising just two and half hours of film, should be considered as one long agglomeration of spiraliform image-sound processes. This geometry of spirals engenders what I would call a form of cinematic telepoiesis.6
The reciprocal decomposition of sound and of image allows the formal character of each to pullulate through the film’s montage-system. This is the first kind of telepoetic effect Peleshian discusses. Colour tempos, or something akin to a tonal harmonisation of image sequences, result from the strict linkages created in the contrapuntal support; that is, only by means of careful repetition, do certain sequences of images and sound acquire “nuclear” stability. Once in place (or “exposed” in keeping with fugue terminology), Pelechian can begin his work of ellision and transformation, needing less and less of the original process each time. A second telepoetic effect is the refunctionalisation of shot quality. If we imagine the close-up as the tenor, or holding voice, of the fundamental contrapuntal support of We, then, later, it is transposed into both higher and lower voices; its proximity to certain musical and image sequences allows its effects to reach across longer distances: “As a consequence, the traditional names of the shots – close, medium, long – become flucuating and relative. In each instance, the name ‘close’ may be applied to the three types of shot, according to the role and the duty with which each one is invested by the contrapuntal montage. The result of this is that by changing the field of action contrapuntal montage can lead either to the preponderance of one shot or another, or to the levelling out of all shots.”7 The final result then is a broad, inter-filmic, and ultra-filmic, telepoetic space.
Fragments, details (often archive footage, if not, a kind of plastic documenatry footage) are shorn of their everyday consistency, and woven together into contrapuntal supports, image-sound processes. The separation of these elements from one another, and their repetition as metamorphosed blocs results in an almost galactically scaled body of work. Peleshian extrudes from all of this a concrete telepoetic geometry; a system of related images, sounds, fixed or fused, which are melted together; a system of symmetries and a fluid rule for experiencing the dimensions of the space which results from these symmetries, a tonal space, in the strict musical sense of that word. Peleschian put it like this: “I’m convinced that the possibilities for montage are infinite. It is indisputable, for example, that we can create a montage of an extreme close-up of the eye with a long-shot of the galaxy.”8 The initial separation of the nucelons of the contrapuntal supports or image-processes, paradoxically, melts down the glue that sticks images together. Their double, even triple, separation from one another, allows them to be reprojected as galactic telepoesis. Peleshian summarises it thus: “The montage of Kuleshov, that would be a canon blast followed by an explosion. The distance montage, is a chain reaction. But there’s something in distance montage that goes beyond an atomic explosion, it’s retroaction, the effect of return, of closing the sequence or the film on itself. Flow and reflux. Movement of birth at death, but also of death at birth: growth and degradation, death and resurrection…no one has yet made a montage with images that don’t exist. That’s a little what I try to do in the architecture of my films: render visible to the spectator images that aren’t there…”9, Cahiers du cinéma 454 (1992): 35-37.]
The perennial themes of nation, that is of collective birth, memory, and culture, are what underpin Pelechian’s formal experiments in We. What distinguishes his film is his refusal to “articulate” this view extra-cinematically. What I mean by this is that there are no speeches, no traditional “moments” of political unity. The incantatory effects of traditional political rhetoric, whether it be the fascist summons to sink deeply into the blood soaked earth of a purified “Volk”, or the Jacobin call to aggregate the general will and do justified terror in the defence of revolution, are replaced by a flame-like, magmatic orb of historical pathos, the crater of genocide. Submerged in the exhilaratingly painful inevitability of historical entropy Peleshian’s film hurls this glowing sphere into the turbulent fluids of negentropic cinematic redemption.
- Not many have seen Peleshian’s film as he intended it to be seen. The only digitally extant versions lack this key opening image. Even the Portuguese DVD released in 2006 is corrupt. ↩
- Garegin Zakojan, “Modello Nazionale e Cinema di Poesia,” in Il cinema delle repubbliche Transcaucasiche Sovietiche (Venezia: Marsilio, 1986), pp. 285-400. ↩
- Artavazd Peleshian, “Le Montage à contrepoint, ou la théorie du montage à distance (Mars 1971-Janvier 1972),” Trafic 2 (1992): 90-105 (own translation). ↩
- Peleshian prefers to invert “centrifugal” rather than use “centripetal”; this oddity of lexis suggests that the term “fugue” must be retained, even if negated, indeed the robustness of the notion of fugue, structurally, seems to derive at least in part from its reversibility, its resistance to negation, its inclusion of negation. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- My usage of this term is not a reference to Jacques Derrida. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Artavaz Peleshian, interviewed in François Niney, “Entretien avec Artavadz Pelechian” [sic ↩