July 30, 2013

July 29, 2013

Before Babel

Film conversation between Artavazd Peleshian and Jean-Luc Godard

On the periphery of the official and commercial circuits, a network based on complicity and admiration has led to Peleshian's films being discovered, little by little, in the West. Jean-Luc Godard was one of the first and still one of the most enthusiastic defenders of his work. The Armenian's journey to Paris provided an opportunity to suggest that they meet. They talked about art and science, morality and politics, show business and information. In short, they talked about film.

Jean-Michel Frodon

Jean-Luc Godard: What conditions have you worked under?

Artavazd Peleshian: I've made all my films in Armenia, but often with help from Moscow. I don't want to praise the old system, but I wouldn't complain about it either. At least they had the VGIK (Cinematic Institute), which provided excellent training. We learned about cinema not just in the Soviet Union but all over the world and everyone then had an opportunity to find his or her own voice. I don't want to make the system responsible for the fact that I have made so few films; let's just say that I had some personal problems. I still don't know what is going to happen in the new situation. I hope I will be able to go on working; there are always problems, as there are in France  as well, problems relating to production and to the relationships between people. Until now, the biggest problem has been the poor distribution of my films.

JLG: I discovered them because they were shown at the festival of documentary films at Nyons, a few kilometres from where I live. Freddy Buache, the director of the Cnémathèque de Lausanne, applied the "Soviet method" to them for making copies: he made a copy of them during the night and showed it to us -- to Anne-Marie Mieville and me. They made an enormous impression on me, but quite different to the films of Paradjanov, who seems to me close to the tradition of Persian carpet making and to literature. Your films, it seemed to me, could only come out of cinematic traditions. As if the work of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Vertov had managed to go on and make an impression something like certain films of Flaherty or certain documentaries of the Cuban film-maker Santiago Alvarez. A type of film both traditional and original, completely outside America, which is very strong in world cinema. Even Rome, an open city, owes something to America. When there is an occupation, the problem of resistance comes up and how to resist. When I saw your films I had the impression that, whatever defects the so-called socialist system may have, at one time certain powerful personalities succeeded in thinking differently. Probably that's going to change. As far as I'm concerned, being a critic of reality and of the means used to represent it, I rediscovered the technique that Russian film-makers used to call montage. Montage in a deep sense, in the sense in which Eisenstein called El Greco the great montage artist of Toledo.

AP: It's difficult to talk about montage. That is certainly the wrong word. Perhaps one has to say "the system of order". To cast light, beyond the technical aspect, on reflecting the depths.

JLG: What is the Russian word for montage? Isn't there one?

AP: Yes, montaj.

JLG: Because for "image", for example, there are two words in Russian. That's useful. It would be interesting to make a dictionary of cinematographic terms in each country. The Americans have two words: "cutting" and "editing" (related to the people called "editors", who are not the same as an "éditeur" in the French senses of the word, who is more like a "producer"). The words don't refer to the same things, and they don't come back to the same idea as "montage".

AP: We are have difficulties in talking because of the problem of terminology. There is the same problem with the word "documentaire" (documentary). In French you talk about a "fiction film", while in Russian we call it "an artistic film". Whereas all films could be artistic in French. There are also two other expressions in Russian, meaning literally "played film" and "non-played film" ("le cinéma joué" et le "cinéma non joué"-- a year after this conversation took place Godard would make the short video Les enfants jouent à la Russie. - Ed.)

JLG: That's a bit like the Americans, who talk about a "feature film" when it is fiction. "Feature" means characteristics of a face, physiognomy, which goes back to the appearance of the stars. There is a lot that needs understanding about these things, such as the fact that for the French "copie standard" (the copy in which the sound and the visual image are combined), the English say "married print", the Americans "answer print", the Italians "copia campione" (first-rate copy) -- and that comes from the times of Mussolini. But the misunderstanding about documentaire/documentary is one of the most serious. These days, the difference between documentary and fiction, between a documentary film and a commercial film, even if it's called artistic, is that the documentary has a moral attitude that does not apply to the feature film. The "New Wave" always mixed up the two; we always said that Rouch was so fascinating because he made fiction with the force of documentary and that Renoir was too, because he made documentaries with the force of fiction.

AP: It is no longer a problem of direction. Flaherty is often thought to be a documentary film-maker.

JLG: Oh, certainly. He's a documentary film-maker who directed everything and everybody. Nanouk, Man of Aran, Louisiana Story -- every shot has been carefully directed. When Wiseman made a film about big department stores, The Store, he observed the direction and fiction of the department stores themselves.

AP: For the same reasons, I have never even asked about working in the framework of a film or television studio. I have tried to find a place where I could film in peace. Sometimes that happened to be for TV. What is important is being able to speak one's own language, the language of film. Sometimes people say that film is a synthesis of other art forms; I don't think that's true. In my view, it started at the Tower of Babel, where the division into different languages began. For technical reasons it first appeared after the other art forms, but in its nature it precedes them. I try to make pure cinema, owing nothing to the other arts. I look for a setting that may create an emotional magnetic field around it.

JLG: Being something of a pessimist, I see the end of things before their beginning. For me, cinema is the last manifestation of art, which is a Western idea. Great painting has vanished, great novels have vanished. Cinema was, if you like, a language before Babel, which everyone understood without needing to learn it. Mozart played to princes, the peasants weren't listening, whereas Chaplin played for everybody. The film-makers went in search of the foundations of what is unique about film, and this kind of search is, yet again, something very occidental. It is montage. They talked about it a great deal, especially during times of change. In the twentieth century the biggest change of all was the transformation of the Russian Empire into the USSR; logically, it was the Russians who made the greatest progress in that search, simply because with the revolution society was itself making a montage of before and after.

AP: Film relies on three factors: space, time and real movement. These three elements exist in nature, but among the arts it is only cinema that rediscovers them. Thanks to them it is possible to find the secret movement of matter. I am convinced that film is able to speak the languages of philosophy, science and art, all at the same time. Perhaps this is the unity that the ancient world was seeking.

JLG: One finds the same thing when one reflects on the history of the idea of projection, as it was born and evolved until it was applied technically in projection equipment. The Greeks imagined the principle in the famous cave of Plato. This Western idea, which was not envisaged by Buddhists, nor by the Aztecs, took form in Christianity, which is based on the hope of something larger. Later it took a practical form among mathematicians, who invented -- again in the West -- descriptive geometry. Pacal worked hard at it, again with a religious, mystic after-thought, elaborating his thoughts about cones. The cone is the idea of projection. Later we find Jean-Victor Poncelet, a scholar and officer in Napoleon's army. He was imprisoned in Russia, and it was there that he conceived his treatise on the projective properties of shapes, which is the basis of modern theory on this matter. It was not by chance that he made this discovery in prison. He had a wall in front of him, and he did what all prisoners did: he projected onto it. An urge to escape. Being a mathematician he expressed himself in equations. At the end of the nineteenth century came the means of technical realization. One of the more interesting aspects is that at that time sound movies were ready to go. Edison came to Paris to present a method using a disk synchronized with the visual tape. That was the same principle as that of today in certain studios where a compact disk is coupled with the film to create numerical/digital sound. And that went on! With imperfections, like other images, but it went on and was able to improve the technique. But people didn't want it. The public wanted silent cinema; they wanted to see.

AP: When sound finally arrived, at the end of the twenties, the great film-makers, such as Griffith, Chaplin and Eisenstein, were afraid of it. They felt that sound represented a step backwards. They were not wrong, but not for the reasons they imagined: sound did not interfere with montage, it came to replace the image.

JLG: The technology of the talkies arrived at the same time as the rise of fascism in Europe, which was also the time when the speaker had arrived. Hitler was a great speaker, and so were Mussolini, Churchill, de Gaulle and Stalin. The talkie was the triumph of the theatrical scenario over the language that you have been speaking about, the language that existed before the curse of Babel.

AP: To recover that language I use what I call absent images. I think you can hear the images and see the sound. In my films the image is situated next to the sound and the sound next to the image. Theses exchanges bring about a result that is different from the montage in the time of silent films, or, better, of "non-talking" films.

JLG: Today, image and sound are growing further and further apart; one is more aware of television. The image on the one hand and the sound on the other, and there is no longer a healthy and real association of one with the other. They are merely political reports. That is why in all countries in the world television is in the hands of politics. And now politics is working at creating a new type of image (so-called high definition), a form nobody needs at present. It is the first time that political powers have bothered to say: you will see the images in this film and through this window. An image that would otherwise have the form of a small basement window, one of those little things at pavement level also has the form of a chequebook.

AP: I wonder what television has given us. It can eliminate distance, but only the cinema is able to defeat time, due to the montage technique. This germ of time -- the cinema can go through it. But it moved further along that path before the talkie. No doubt because man is greater than language, greater than words. I believe in man more than in his language.

2 April 1992

Artavazd Peleshian in Paris
Photo by Hermine Karagheuz

Thanks to "the Joueur" Phelps
Originally published in Le Monde
French language version available here

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