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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.