Whose Century?: Artavazd Peleshian’s “Nature”
Artavazd Peleshian makes action films. They just don’t resemble the kind Hollywood manufactures. Though they can be summed up in a line (men preventing rocks from falling on train tracks in 1964’s “Mountain Patrol,” shepherds herding their flock through hazardous terrain in 1975’s “The Seasons”), a lot happens with form in these short and medium-length movies. Extending and adding to the theories practiced by Eisenstein and Vertov, the Armenian director uses montage to carefully assemble sounds and images for his immersive works. He combines shots graphically; he cuts from one shot to the next based on the action within them; he unabashedly applies repetition; he blends found and filmed footage; he layers soundtracks with classical music and direct, cacophonous sounds. They move, move, move.
Sadly, the dynamism of a Peleshian movie has been absent from cinema for 27 years, since Life (1993), his look at childbirth. That is until now. Nature (2020) turns a theme running throughout Peleshian’s career into the main subject of the movie: man’s relationship with nature. Don’t expect a meditative landscape movie or a wildlife documentary, as if one would ever with Peleshian. Rather, this is something different, even for the 83-year-old director.
Nature is unusual for several reasons. At 63 minutes, it is Peleshian’s longest movie to date. The ample runtime allows for breath and pause — both missing in his compact earlier works. Unlike his other movies, he was commissioned to direct Nature: in 2005, Romanian filmmaker Andrei Ujică and Fondation Cartier approached Peleshian, who accepted. 15 years later, he completed it. Finally, embracing the tools of contemporary cinema, he used digital sounds and images for the first time.
Nature looks and feels different from prior Peleshian pictures, but it is still identifiable as a Peleshian picture. It is a composite of lifted Internet footage — of varying quality, from ultra hi-def to pixelated cell phone videos — that he has converted to black and white. Roughly, Nature is split into three parts — or movements. There are even movements within those movements. The first part is calm, with crystal clear aerial shots of mountain tops, the camera constantly pushing and zooming in, like the opening of “We” (1969). Then, a fade to black, the screen remaining blank for several beats at the eight-and-a-half-minute mark. Nature resumes with the sounds of choppy surf. This second part, taking up most of the movie, and cobbled from diverse amateur footage, consists of disasters: landslides, flooding, tornadoes, melting icebergs, lightning strikes. Peleshian lingers on long footage from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as well as the one that struck Japan in 2011. Raging waters toss cars and boats like toys. It’s an endless parade of destruction: roofs lifted off buildings, high rises toppling to the ground, a panel truck thrown onto its side.
From the first to the second part, Nature turns from the serene and sublime to the chaotic and terrifying. The movie lulls, then jolts you awake. “I am striving for a montage that can create an emotional magnetic field around it,” Peleshian told Jean-Luc Godard. To instill his movies with feeling, he applies what he calls “distance montage.” Fondation Cartier has the most succinct definition of Peleshian’s method:
Whereas classical montage tended to place two images next to each other that are together of significance, Pelechian to the contrary strives to distance them, placing other images and sounds in between in order to emphasize the echo they have with each other. Distance montage thus structures itself by playing with repetitions and subtle variations in visual and sound motifs.
Rather than link, Peleshian separates two images — or sounds — with montage. In Nature this technique is diffused; it’s not nearly as noticeable as in his shorter works, like the recurring shots of a shepherd tumbling downstream with his sheep in “The Seasons.” One can hear the same short audio bit of lightning strike accompanying several different pieces of tornado footage dispersed throughout Nature. The repeated audio has a psychological effect: it’s a harrowing sound, and yet it is alienating when glued to various storms.
Terror, awe, isolation — the alchemical mix of emotions makes Nature pair well with “Our Century,” Peleshian’s account of the Soviet and American space race. Part of that movie is a series of aerial disasters — Hindenburg, planes falling and planes crashlanding, spaceships exploding. It’s a Ballardian spectacle. If “Our Century” spotlights manmade disasters, Nature does so with natural disasters, which are often manmade disasters too.
The last part of Nature, a coda of sorts with ten minutes left in the movie, Peleshian focuses on the silencing aftermath. There are craters pocking mountains; smoke billowing from a volcanic eruption; and helpless people stranded, waving at helicopters. The dust finally settles, and Peleshian ends with the ruins, the wreckage, and the calm after the storm. It is as if nature has obliterated the remnants of society and civilization. If this is Peleshian’s final film, he leaves with a reminder of who really is in charge on this planet.
Artavazd Peleshian’s Nature had its first theatrical screening at the 59th New York Film Festival. For more information on Peleshian and the film, visit Fondation Cartier’s exhaustive online project devoted to the director: “Encounter with Artavazd Peleshian.”