ARMENIANS ON THE BIG SCREEN By Florence Avakian
Reprinted from ARARAT (Fall 2004)
It is not often that popular feature-length movies shown in the United States present topics about Armenians or showcase their talents. Currently, two such films are in wide-scale distribution, and another is on the way.
Of the three, Vodka Lemon, a New Yorker Films' release, takes place in Armenia, and was a highlight of the Museum of Modern Art's (MOMA) "New Directors, New Films" series in 2004. It is presently showing in various American cities, following a successful run in two New York City cinema houses. It is an Armenian, French, Italian, and Swiss coproduction, written and directed by Iraqi-Kurdish Hiner Saleem, and shown in the Armenian, Russian, and Kurdish languages, with English subtitles. It has recently been released on both video and DVD.
HUMOR, PATHOS, INSIGHT
Vodka Lemon opens on an almost surrealistic note with an elderly musician, who has been hired to play at a funeral, being wheeled down a snowy road in his bed. That scene alone is worth the price of admission. It is set somewhere in a desolate, snow-covered village in rural Armenia at the end of Soviet rule. This gentle tragicomedy stars a retired former soldier named Hamo (Romen Avinian). A tall, handsome, aging widower, he is now forced to auction his possessions, including his prized military uniform, in order to survive. Many of the villagers are also faced with the same option.
With his wife dead, and with no help from his three worthless sons, Hamo spends his time visiting his wife's grave daily and having poignant conversations with his wife's headstone. On one of these lengthy bus tries to the cemetery he meets and is attracted to a lovely widow, Nina (Lala Sarkissian), who makes daily journeys to her late husband's grave. As the sweet romance very slowly heats up, Hamo's wife continuously reproaches him from the grave.
Nina's existence is just as meager as Hamo's. She works at an open roadside stand selling a drink called vodka lemon. When a customer asks her why the drink is labeled lemon when it tastes like almonds, her answer is, "That's Armenia." Life is also grim for the other, mostly elderly, residents of the village. The younger and brighter ones have emigrated to the chies to find jobs. There is no work in this remote outpost. "Don' t you miss the tune when the Russians were here," asks Hamo to a friend one day. "No, we had no freedom then," says the friend. "No, but we had everything else," declares Hamo without hesitation.
The film also includes other colorful characters. Hamo's often drunken son marries off his daughter only to learn that there is a nonexistent dowry; the bus driver always serenades Hamo and Nina with heartfelt love songs sung enthusiastically in Armenian; a couple buys Hamo's hand-decorated wardrobe but has no way of lugging it home. Their bickering is one of the films many hilarious episodes.
Though the portrayed human hardship is lightened with whimsical fantasy and abundant humor, it mirrors the bleak poverty that is facing all of the former Soviet republics today. As Hamo waits anxiously for a letter, presumably bearing money from another son who has gone to - France, the villagers who have joined him in his spare home, and have imbibed much liquor for the expected celebration, turn into an unruly, frenzied mob. Not unexpectedly, the money never comes. Though sympathetic, the characters nonetheless portray a monumental tragedy. It is a picture of today's Armenia, suffering from few resources, and very little foreign investment.
The closing scene of the offbeat film is just as magical as the opening. With practically all of their possessions sold, they finally decide to part, as a last resort, with Nina's prized upright piano which she had bought for her daughter, hoping for dreams of future glory. Bundled up with layers of clothing against the harsh, frigid air, they sit side by side on the piano bench waiting for a buyer. Then without a word, they are seen rolling down the snowy road with the piano, having decided they will keep this last precious object, a symbol of hope for the future.
If there is a real star in this atmospheric film, it is the magnificent frozen mountainous landscape, portrayed in stark brilliant white light. It is a constant throughout the film. No matter how warmly dressed the viewer may be, and how heated the theatre, the chill is felt in the bones. It is a true tour de force for the gifted cinematographer Christophe Pollock.
This insightful, melancholy film brings to mind the warm, dignified humanity in many of acclaimed Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaursmaki's works, and in especially A Man Without a Past, which portrays a middle-aged amnesiac who makes a life for himself-albeit a difficult one. Despite his disadvantage, he eventually wins the heart of a lonely spinster who works for the local Salvation Army.
Presently in wide scale distribution throughout the United States by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the bittersweet comedy Sideways deals with a subject which most middle-aged men in America can readily identify with-the familiar mid-life crisis. This skillfully crafted and filmed work which has been reviewed positively by most American critics is by talented Greek-American director Alexander Payne, whose most recent blockbuster was the Oscar-nominated About Schmidt, another film dealing with middle-aged angst.
A highlight of the prestigious New York Film Festival in 2004, Sideways stars Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) as two white, middle-aged losers: Miles a failed novelist, and Jack a washed-up actor. It is a week before Jacks wedding to a young Armenian woman who lives with her wealthy immigrant parents in a mansion somewhere-presumably, in Glendale, CA. Miles has decided to take his old boozing and womanizing college roommate on a last bachelor jaunt to California wine country, and introduce him to the glories of pinot noir, his love and specialty. They team up with saucy wine server Stephanie (Sandra Oh-Payne's real life wife), and sweet, divorced waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen). Other characters also include Miles' lonely mother, and a fat waitress, featured in some graphic sex scenes.
Following their weeklong escapade with wine and women, a slightly battered-up Jack returns to his Armenian fiancée. The film 's ending focuses in on a five-minute Armenian wedding scene, replete with the exchange of rings, the cross placed on the heads of the couple, and chants sung and passages intoned in Armenian by the actual church priest, the Rev. Fr. Khoren Babouchian of the Holy Cross Armenian Church in Montebello, CA. The scene ends with wedding attendees milling outside, with the church edifice and name in full view. This Armenian-related episode is just a sidebar to the story, not related in any way to the theme of the film.
Sideways is a work of insight and rich comedy that unfolds naturally. It has great scenes of wineries and golf courses, and features fine acting by all the principals, but it seems a continuation of Payne's work that, though observant and compelling, constantly revels in character failures, rather than successes. Their emotional pain cannot be missed and is keenly felt.
A NEW FRESH TALENT
A winner at the 2004 Hamptons International Film Festival with the Zicherman Family Foundation Award for Screenwriting, Illusion has thrust into the spotlight a new and fresh Armenian-American talent, Michael Goorjian, the films director, writer, and co-star, together with the legendary Kirk Douglas. Anahid Nazarian is the co-producer, and John-Paul Goorjian plays one of the characters, Val.
This touching and skillfully crafted fable is a takeoff on the old Scrooge story. This time the relationship is between a father and the illegitimate son he rejected in childhood, and the story about three visions that can change the course of the future. An acclaimed film director, Donald Baines (Kirk Douglas), is dying in his sumptuous mansion. In a vision, he is awakened one night and finds himself in an old movie theatre where a long-dead favorite editor Stan (Ron Marasco) informs him that he has come to show him three films, each one focusing on a different stage of his sons life.
In the first episode of this play within a play, his teenage son Christopher (Michael Goorjian), has fallen head over heels in love with a young girl Isabelle (Karen Tucker) that he has seen only from a distance. He risks everything to be with her, but fails, lacking self-confidence. In the second vision, he is ten years older, and now works for a rich, self absorbed, somewhat unbalanced actor who sends him on a mission to find a young woman that the actor saw one day. As it turns out, the woman is Isabelle, whom Christopher has not seen since their one fateful kiss a decade ago. Again unforeseen happenings separate them.
The final scene involves a thirty-something Christopher who has been dealt some heavy blows in life, including a prison sentence. He has not forgotten Isabelle and is searching for her. Thinking she is married by now, he is on the verge of leaving town, when he is attacked by a cutthroat. As he is about to be dealt the fatal blow, the vision ends, and Donald Baines cries out in pain, desperate to stop the killing and help the son he has not seen in thirty years.
Production notes explain that this story idea had been jelling with Michael Goorjian for four years: a film based on Pierre Corneille's seventeenth century play, L'Illusion Comique , an old man who uses the talents of a magician to find his long alienated son. Through his own Los Angeles-based theatre company, The Buffalo Nights, Goorjian decided to adapt it to modern times.
"I thought that showing the episodes of the son's life could be done like short films within the film. That way, they could each be shot separately; then later tied together with the story of the father," Goorjian explained. He used each episode to find funding for the next one. In this regard, he was also helped by co-producer Anahid Nazarian, a twenty-year employee of legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola. Actual filming began in January 2001.
Assisting in the process was Dan Fried, the film's other co-producer, who brought a segment of the film to a new and innovative company, Entitled Entertainment. On seeing it, a company partner commented, "We were immediately struck by the potential of the film and by Michael's enthusiasm, dedication, and most importantly, his abilities as a directon When we first sat down with him, we knew immediately that as a director, he had a vision for a film that would be both cinematic and heartfelt without being sentimental. What we didn't know was that he would be able to bring such a remarkable performance to the character of the son. It is a rare talent that can play a role that asks him to age from a teenager to an adult, and Goorjian did it seamlessly."
The trust in Goorjian's vision was soon shared by Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, Who at first was reluctant, having just finished a picture with his son and grandson. "But when I read the script of Illusion, I knew I had to do it. It was a very intriguing script, and the role was very appealing to me; it was a challenge," declared Douglas. "The character is an old director, a very famous director who has spent his life in the world of make-believe. And he has a problem facing reality. I was intrigued because I think that many people in my profession have the same problem. We're always playing another character. And sometimes, it's difficult for us to find ourselves. That was one of the aspects of the character that appealed to me very much."
Goorjian recalls the intense rehearsal period, several days a week for six weeks in Douglas' Beverly Hills home, a time of new ideas, improvisations, and rewritings, surrounded by the actor's artworks and awards. "It was fantastic and surreal," observed Goorjian. "Working with Kirk inspired me, in that you don't have to be young to still be excited about acting. He was just as excited as I was doing my first play."
Apparently Douglas felt the same. "Michael is a very, very talented guy. I'm very impressed with him. He wrote a beautiful script, and also his direction is immaculate. He's very good, very easy to work with," stated the acting legend. "Illusion is my 87th picture. I could have a new career now, because since my stroke, if they need an older guy with sloppy speech, they have to come to me. I have the monopoly."
Michael Goorjian already has an impressive resume of acting credits, including a 1994 Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the television movie David's Mother which starred Kirstie Alley. He has also been seen in the Oscar-nominated film Leaving Las Vegas (MGM/UA), Hard Rain (Paramount), SLC Punk! (Sony Pictures Classics), Chaplin (Tristar), Forever Young (Warner Bros.), Newsies (Buena Vista), and The Invisibles (Sundance selection). His television work includes a five-year starring rote in the series Party of Five, which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Drama in 1995.
A founding member of Buffalo Nights, a Los Angeles-based theatre group, Goorjian has several other honors to his credit; including a L.A. Weekly Theater Award nomination for best lead actor in Modigliani, and the L.A. Critics' Choice and a Garland Backstage West awards for his original choreography for the L.A. production of Reefer Madness.
Illusion is his first major independent film, a four-year intensive project for him, and one that focuses on his strong belief of "following your heart."
Florence Avakian is a Manhattan-based freelance writer and United Nations correspondent who often covers the cultural scene in New York City.