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Worth a read

    Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet
    none will bore the lover of literature.
    Reading them, one will always find something of value...


Armenian News Network / Groong
November 12, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian


				  1.

An Armenian film director and an Armenian cinematic tradition, Henrik
Malyan was Soviet Armenia's foremost film director whose works such as
`Nahabet', `A Piece of the Sky' and `We Are Our Mountains' attained
well-deserved international acclaim. `Dialogue for a Third Person'
(271pp, Nairi Publications, 1997, Yerevan) is his gem of an
autobiography that will charm and intellectually engage anyone
interested in art, film and the history of Armenian cinema in
particular. Blending personal memoirs, aesthetic considerations and
critical observations it is both a plea for artistic integrity and a
call to protect the Armenian cinematic tradition.
 
Written with the enthusiasm and passion that Malyan regarded
indispensable to any art form, the book reads like a brilliant film
script. In the briefest of sketches it focuses an entire mood,
environment or personality. In a phrase or two the defining features
of a situation or a character are summed up. In less than ten pages we
travel a satisfying journey from Malyan's birth place in a tiny
Armenian populated village in Georgia, through to the bright lights of
Tbilisi, then to the grim streets of a newly developing Yerevan. Malyan
then takes us on through his student days, his first theatrical
experiences, his entry into the film industry and much more besides,
all the while reflecting fruitfully on the era, his life and his art.

For Malyan life itself is theatre and art. He believed that in
individual experience we can witness all the drama, the love and the
hate, the war and peace and the tragedy and triumph that we encounter
with Shakespeare or Tolstoy. In his birthplace Telay, Malyan met all
`the Iagos, the Hamlets, the Othellos and the other figures of
Shakespearean drama. But of course here the endings were
different'. In a series of delightful anecdotes he highlights the
truth of Shakespeare's affirmation that `life is but a stage'. He
recalls, as a young boy, observing a passing funeral procession. The
genuinely grieving walked side by side with those present for other
perhaps less honourable reasons. Those merely adopting poses of grief
could be seen accentuating them for the benefit of onlookers. This was
he says his first experience in theatre!

Malyan's plea for creative integrity is refreshing and relevant in an
age where money and market calculations corrupt artistic standards.
Art, including the cinema, is a form of human communication in which
the artist sifts human experience through his/her own unique
sensibilities to produce something that will alter or enhance the
recipient's own appreciation of life. Such creative work demands
honesty and committed engagement with life and human beings. This is
not possible without passion and enthusiasm. One has to love in order
to create. To passion and enthusiasm however must be added humour,
without which the artist cannot reveal the full measure, complexity
and depth of the human drama.

Regarding his work as a contribution to the development of a specific
Armenian cinematic tradition Malyan was contemptuous of the artificial
and needless aping of modern styles and of the ridiculous belief that
only the foreign is of value. No narrow-minded nationalist, he
nevertheless believed that Armenian film producers could produce work
of universal value only if they drew on their own contemporary
experience based in a rich and ancient tradition. Indeed adopting
foreign styles in pursuit of a false modernity produced only
second-hand feelings and second-hand thoughts with no grounding in
real life.

Such views shaped Malyan's technique and the substance of his work.
Appreciating the immense scope of individual experience, he had no
great love for experimental film, special effects or the deployment of
vast troops of actors. Focussing on a few individuals was sufficient,
he believed, to encompass the broad range of both individual and
collective human experience.  The detail of individual human behaviour
is frequently more revealing of the drama of human experience than the
events of the larger plot. So, the often sparse settings for his films
in which formal plot and background provide a frame to focus
individual experience. There is in Malyan's presentation the hint of a
questionable opposition between form and content in art. But this is
not evident in his actual films. Here setting and background, sparse
as they are, are never just props for the viewer but remain integral
to the individual experience portrayed.

The organisational and intellectual apparatus of the Soviet era film
industry did not make Malyan's or any other film director's mission
easy. Film industry bosses and financial accountants organised
production to meet bizarre bureaucratic plans or to satisfy some power
in Yerevan or Moscow. Or they merely played at film production, idling
their time away simply to draw a good salary and acquire status.
Additionally, an army of film critics posturing as intellectuals
condemned efforts that portrayed life in all its positive and negative
shades. Thus artistic production was sacrificed to petty career and
ambition.

Yet Armenia did enjoy periods of great cinematic creativity. Malyan
identifies the period between 1920s to the 1940s as a golden age.
Beginning with first Armenian director Hamo Beknazarian, a string of
films were produced `Honour', `The Mexican Diplomats', `Kikos',
`Kikor', `The House on the Volcano', `Bebo' and others - all driven by
a common aim of contributing to the process of rebuilding the Armenian
nation.  Thereafter, Malyan registered a degeneration until the 1960s
with the making of such films as `Heghnar's Fountain', `The Saroyan
Brothers', `Khatabala', `We', `The Colour of the Pomegranates' and
many others, including of course his own. Though of uneven quality,
all contributed in some way to developing Armenian film.

Since then of course things have come to a terrible pass. But Malyan's
work, along with that of others from the past, has left foundations on
which a future can still arise.


				  2.

A CRITICAL OVERVIEW OF ANCIENT ARMENIAN POETRY BY MANOUG ABEGHIAN

Given as a speech in 1917, this essay is an ambitious and noteworthy
attempt to explain the continuities and discontinuities in Armenian
poetry over some two thousand years. It is an excellent taster to
Manoug Abeghian's immense and immensely valuable and sometimes hugely
controversial work collected in 10 large volumes (from Volume 7 of the
10 Volume Collected Works, Yerevan, Armenia, 1966). Abeghian was an
enthusiastic and erudite specialist in ancient Armenian mythology,
folklore and classical literature. This short overview is an exemplar
of a body of work flooded with perceptive and enlightening literary
and historical analyses, observations and judgements.

The advent of Christianity in Armenia in the 4th century and the
emergence of literary Armenian in the 5th at the initiative of and
within the jurisdiction of the Christian Armenian Church, terminated a
rich secular pagan poetic tradition. Consisting of mythology, epics
and `odes of joy and of sorrow' this tradition, whilst influenced by
Assyrian and Persian culture, was essentially born of the Armenian
struggle for statehood. Thus we have the stories of Hayk's epic battle
against Bel when establishing the Armenian nation, the fables and
stories of Aram, of Dork the Ugly, of Ara the Beautiful and Shamiram and
much else besides. The creation of the Armenian alphabet in conscious
opposition to all this represented a first qualitative discontinuity
in Armenian intellectual and cultural history. A militant Christianity
declared war on and destroyed not just the foundations but virtually
the entire legacy of this poetry.

Abeghian argues that had the secular nobility played a leading role in
the generation of a written Armenian culture many pre-Christian epics
and odes could have survived and developed. But the nobility had
neither the energy nor the interest. It was historically enervated,
and in additionm its spoken language was frequently Persian or Greek,
rarely Armenian. In contrast, the Church's ambitions decidedly
demanded an Armenian language literature.  Sensing the imminent
destruction of the Armenian state, a prospect that would end their
particular privilege, the alphabet was one response in an effort of
self-preservation. A small faction of the nobility, headed by King
Vramshabouh, did of course support the Church's project, but it had no
determining influence.
 
So for centuries thereafter, the Church determined the substance of
Armenian language poetry with its life-denying asceticism and its
forms borrowed from Greek or Assyrian Christian traditions. Yet the
Church was never able to entirely eradicate the secular heritage.
Remnants of pre-Christian secular poetry survived within the
population. The people in turn produced new secular epics and
mythologies such as the cycle of wars against the Persians and David
of Sassoon later on. The Church's own devotional poetry preserved
significant traces of this tradition, evident in Narekatzi and others.
Additionally classical Armenian historians, and Khorenatzi in
particular, (naturally adjusting their material to Christian
requirements) provided an important bridge with their record of
fragments of ancient secular poetry, mythology and folklore. In this
context the history of Armenian poetry reveals repeated efforts to
return to its pre-Christian past.

The 10th Century in Armenia witnessed the emergence of a new secular
culture, frequently, albeit controversially, referred to as the
`Armenian Renaissance'.  But this process, drawing on the past and
generating a poetry that celebrated life here on earth was disrupted
by the Seljuk-Mongol-Turkish invasions that put an end to the
Bagratouni dynasty and the Armenian state. Elements nevertheless
endured and in the 16th and 17th centuries began to flourish once
again. Then for the first time since the pagan era there was the
prospect of a dominant secular poetry. But, in Abeghian's view, in a
tragic turn of events it was again undermined and this time once more
by the Armenian Church. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries
undergoing a revival of its own the Church consolidated its own
religious traditions and entrenched classical Armenian against the
burgeoning secular poetry that had the spoken language as its
medium. With very significant exceptions, it went on to dominate
Armenian intellectual and cultural life into the mid-19th century.

Throughout his essay Abeghian is conscious of the fragility not just
of the Armenian poetic tradition but of the very fabric of Armenian
society and culture. The miracle is that it nevertheless survived to
produce enduring literature of universal value, and well into the 20th
century we may add.


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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