The Seasons (The Seasons of the Year; Four Seasons)

English Title: The Seasons (The Seasons of the Year; Four Seasons)

Original Title: Vremena goda (Tarva yeghanakner)

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Erevan

Director: Artavazd Peleshian

Cinematographer: G. Chavushyan, Boris Ovsepyan, Mikhail Vartanov

Runtime: 29 minutes

Genre: Documentary

Language: Russian

Year: 1972-1975

Volume: Russian

‘This film is about everything, not only about the seasons of the year or people, it is about everything.’ Peleshian’s own interpretation of The Seasons is quite accurate, taking into account what he generally says about his films: ‘It's hard to give a verbal synopsis of these films. Such films exist only on the screen, you have to see them.’ Putting aside the director’s understandable reluctance to translate this poetic black-and-white firework of montage and rhythm, one could say that The Seasons is above all a film about life in the Armenian mountains. Farmers tend to their animals and harvest under incredibly fierce conditions (they transport sheep over boulders and through white-water, or chase huge haystacks down steep slopes); a young couple’s marriage excites the whole village. Accompanied by natural sounds or contrasted by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and folk music, the images – sometimes manipulated by slow-motion or time-lapse, sometimes interrupted by old-fashioned intertitles – evolve into a dynamic rhythm of faces and hands in close-up, herds of sheep, cloud formations, shadow landscapes and rustic dwellings, rituals of work in the fields and stock breeding. A life of labour and hardship, nature and beauty, handcraft and decoration – the poetry of cultural tradition.

Two earlier films (Beginning, 1967; We, 1969) and two later ones (The End, 1992; Life, 1993) won awards, however, it is The Seasons (together with Our Century, 1982) which can probably be regarded Artavazd Peleshian’s best-known film, marking also a significant shift in his work. For the first time his approach towards a ‘contrapuntal’ or ‘distance montage’, as he calls it in his theoretical text ‘Distance montage, or the theory of distance’, was realized not by using archive footage but original images. For the last time he collaborated with the other Armenian documentary auteur of greatest importance, Mikhail Vartanov, whose cinematography delivered the magic pictures of The Seasons.

It took Peleshian three years to create these 29 minutes of cosmic energy and complex structure. The result is so astonishingly strong, both visually and audibly, that once seen, heard and motorically perceived (‘relived’ in a way), the intensity stays on forever, physically. The beginning and the end especially, where nature, animal and man are bound together in a fierce and yet harmonious struggle, reveal a subtle poetry of rhythm that is developed from an inner quality of the images. The movements constituting the washing of the waves or the floating of the clouds determine the steady flow of the editing, its repetitions or interruptions, its acceleration or retardation. Unlike in the case of Vertov or Eisenstein, the montage is not based on two adjacent shots, but rather on the concept of taking apart (‘distancing’) what is supposed to relate to each other.

Most significantly this also holds true in the relation of image and sound: ‘[With distance montage] you will not only see the image and hear the sound, but you will also hear the image and see the sound’. In perception, the close-ups of faces and hands, the long and medium shots of the herds, the lashing of the torrents or the high-speed of the haystacks are as ‘present’ as Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ or the melodies from the duduk at the wedding. It is thus not a synthetic, but rather an emphatically autonomous concept treating film as a hybrid medium with synaesthetic qualities. Even the few intertitles (‘he got tired’, ‘do you think that elsewhere it is better’, ‘This is your land’) do not complement the images or add to up to a plot, rather they figure as an aesthetical index saying – these are the elements of film (like black and white, light and shadow, sounds and images, music and voices).

Formally the intertitles are a reminder of the good old days relating to the archaic traditions celebrated in The Seasons (the film is, after all, a hymn to Armenia’s cultural heritage). Their ‘messages’, however, contribute to the creation of the evidential guiding editing principle, namely the mythological time structure, with a focus on ‘work’ in the first half and on ‘leisure’ in the second. A spiritual universality lies above all this, an existential drama that is not the product of narration but of the montage of leitmotif (shepherds and sheep intertwined) and other structures of motifs. It’s the intrinsic rhythm, the balance of repetition and variation, and the constant competition for mastery between ethnographical detail and cinematographic form that makes The Seasons such an outstanding ‘poetic documentary’ in Soviet film history. Peleshian’s cardiogram of the soul and spirit of the Armenian people is a paradoxical ‘national monument’, being neither nationalist nor monumental. He does not create the story of individuals, but an organic image of the people, his people. A higher form of civilization this is, beyond the limits of progress. Rhythm and beauty, force and love are the ingredients of this alphabet in cinema.

Author of this review: Barbara Wurm