A Cultural Archetype: Film Reviews

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A Cultural Archetype

Film Reviews by Antranig and Lucine Kasbarian

The Armenian Weekly

September 19, 1992

In a refreshing departure from traditional Armenian cultural fare, eight young Armenian filmmakers were given the opportunity to showcase their latest work at a program organized by AGBU-Arts on Thursday, August 21, held at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.

The evening’s menu of sitcoms, fables, short stories, and art films brought together a diverse collection of producers, directors, and cinematographers who hail from New York, Los Angeles, and Montreal. Joining them was an enthusiastic crowd of 175, who mostly enjoyed the program’s celebrations of the art of creative invention.

Of the 11 films shown, five truly emerged as uncommon and notable entries. They are entitled, respectively, Chicken of the Sea, Nauseous Nocturne, Temperate Habits, Untitled and The Deep Cry.

Chicken of the Sea, written by 22 year-old Michael Agbabian (graduate of USC film school), is a 10-minute fictional dreamscape in which awkward and quirky behavior is the norm. What makes this film engaging is the collection of bizarre yet delectable activities we are voyeurs of...from watching a lovelorn girl in a grocery store stealthily whiff pages of perfume ads in magazines, apply them to pulse points and return them to the racks, to being invited to view the interior of our antihero’s home laden with body parts of department store mannequins (one seemingly amputated arm having afternoon tea with the suffering protagonist), to his declaration of love to the deprived schoolgirl sent upon a tuna can across the supermarket linoleum like a hockey puck.

The other unusual aspect of this film was the use of creative imagination, not only in plot but in cinematography. By using High-8 film, Agbabian edited the film continuously resulting in a print with color tints that could not have been better suited had it been meticulously arranged. Glowing magenta air and green skin only added to the incongruous and unnatural effects already produced.

A 36 year-old student of the American Film Institute, cinematographer Raffi Ekmekjian of Los Angeles, created a fantasy adaptation of the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes in Nauseous Nocturne. In this 10-minute sequence, young Calvin thinks he knows better than his parents, disobeys them by reading horror stories before bedtime, and pays the price by suffering horrible dreams. As the visual realism of Calvin’s conscious hours are overtaken by his sleepiness, he gradually sinks into a fancy, brilliantly pigmented, avant-garde nightmare. The story’s narrative then begins to take on a lyrical verse much like that of Edgar Allen Poe, and the juvenile’s bedroom’s unthreatening furnishings begin to take on the bizarre, distorted features of Abstract Expressionist interior decoration (Wiene’s 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari comes to mind). The strength of this film lies in its whimsical special effects, as well as a comical progression of actions culminating in an ending that reminds us that there is a moral to some stories.

The most satisfying film was 25 year-old Mike Tutundjian’s entry, Temperate Habits. A graduate of Manhattan’s Hunter College, Tutundjian wrote and directed this 35-minute adaptation of the short story “The Catbird’s Seat” by James Thurber. The film opens with our leading man, the neurotic head of the filing department in an accounting firm, holding a mock trial in front of empty chairs as if rehearsing for his real day in court.

Thus we receive our initiation into the technically sound and stimulating cinematography we are about to experience. Shot entirely in black and white, the film presents a well-crafted barrenness that accentuates the artistry of space composition while leading viewers subconsciously to focus even more intently on the plot. Later, as we hear our by-the-book employee’s premeditated and methodical tone contrasted by that of his aggressive, shrill-voiced, gibberish-spewing coworker, who is out to eliminate all contenders who stand in her career path, we begin to notice a well-constructed, angular dialogue sprinkled with dark humor. As we see an efficient, wimpish dullard turn into an underdog with a maniacal glint in his eye when challenged by a woman possessed, we realize how successful the creation of wholly credible and complex characters are by these actors’ performances. When the underdog outsmarts his insidious rival with a comeuppance in the unpredictable and ingenious climax, we appreciate the thought-provoking plot that allows for the anticipation of what will follow and the absorbing of messages and hints delivered to the audience.

Credit is also due to Arthur Meschian for his understated yet wonderfully atmospheric score. The sparse, mysterious setting of minor keys and dissonances in the background aid in the creation of a brooding, foreboding atmosphere throughout the story.

The most abstruse film was 22 year-old NYU film school graduate Zareh Tjeknavorian’s Untitled. This obscure 11-minute projection at times took on the combined flavor of a still-life poem of Sergei Paradjanov and a perverse circus-ring of Federico Fellini’s Theatre of the Absurd. The film begins with striking poses of Adam and Eve, each appearing ethereal yet earthly, as if their existence were frozen in boundlessness. The scene snaps to an intoxicating vision of a tongue-darting reptile slithering through the trees. When this snake coils around a feeble white mouse, gradually and gracefully choking and devouring it, one cannot tear one’s eyes away from this frightening yet everyday phenomenon. At once we are aware of the treachery and supremacy of nature. How the fight for survival sometimes allows the ends to justify the means. We then view a Nefertiti-like authority poised on a throne, followed by kaleidoscopic, psychedelic images in all shapes and textures.

This film is liberal and unconditional in its message, deliberately vague as if it could only be described as a moving work of art. The musical score, undoubtedly composed by the director’s father, conductor/composer Loris Tjeknavorian, added to the somber, reverential tone that was cast forth.

The Deep Cry, written and directed by 21 year-old Albert Khodagholian from USC is a narrative about two 12 year-old Iranian-Armenian boys living communally somewhere in the West, when their idyllic, bare-essentials existence is disrupted by a visiting non-Armenian elder related by marriage.

As the plot unfolds, the similarities between this story and the Armenian Case cannot go unnoticed. These boys perhaps represent the innocent pre-1915 villagers living simple, defenseless lives, when along comes a stronger foreign presence who makes himself at home on their property. He causes the boys to offer their hospitality and live side by side, and they do so, but not without hesitation and eventually, wariness and resentment. Soon, the bully overpowers the children, making their daily lives a struggle for survival. Eventually, the children, in turmoil and as an act of self-preservation, exact revenge upon their elder by tying him up and beating him senseless.

The Deep Cry is an appropriate title, as it refers to an outburst of expression unleashed, not freely and openly, but aroused from deep beneath the surface, as if it occurs only after shocks and wounds had been sustained for a long time. Also jarring was the narrative for this story as it was told by the 12 year-olds, but in a manner too sophisticated for the voices we heard. It made the boy sound dissolute and yet mature beyond his years, very much like the disconnected tone of a physically abused child.

A sixth film deserving of mention is UCLA grad Sylvette Artinian’s Waiting for Mary, a straightforward tale of a young Armenian couple who live in Los Angeles with the husband’s old and declining father. While the old man requires constant attention as he patiently listens to Armenian folk tunes and waits for his deceased wife Mary to return, the young wife yearns to get out of the house, get a job of her own, and put the old man in a nursing home – much to the consternation of her traditional-minded husband.

As we move back and forth between the past (the old man) and the future (the wife), and the husband’s confused and inflexible attempts to reconcile the two, the old man strays out of the house in search of his lost wife, gets lost for hours, and thus creates a panic within the couple, sealing their decision to place him in a home. A touchingly simple story that Armenian-Americans will readily identify with, Waiting for Mary is concisely carried out in 16 minutes. These and other films presented during the festival introduced a wealth of talented Armenians who are struggling to succeed in a highly competitive field. The event served also as an indirect appeal to us to support and encourage our peers in the difficult and often thankless arena of film.

The AGBU is to be commended for underwriting such an ambitious program, which was the third in a projected series of cultural events to be staged in the NY/NJ-metro area. Particular note goes to Sevan Melikyan, AGBU-Arts staff coordinator, who served as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, and who was largely responsible for arranging an event that showcased the wellspring of forward-thinking Diasporan talent. Melikyan was successful also in rounding up such a large audience composed largely of young artists, writers, and culture aficionados. However for future presentations, Melikyan does need to tighten his program management and fine tune his oral skills. The event was palpably long and filled with technical difficulties that were almost the rule rather than the exception. In introducing each work of art to the public, Melikyan would have done well to curtail unnecessary comments, and keep repetitive and vapid praise to a minimum. Support for our artists becomes meaningless, even harmful, when it is made indiscriminately and without regard for their qualities.