Are We Communicating? Director Eric Nazarian Talks about Miscommunication, Antonioni and Armenian Identity

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

YEREVAN — Writer and director Eric Nazarian was born in Armenia and moved to the United States as a young child. He is a graduate of the University of Southern  California’s School of Cinema-Television. The world premiere of “The Blue Hour,” his first feature film as writer-director, took place at the 55th San Sebastian International Film Festival and was nominated for the Altadis-New Director’s Award.

“The Blue Hour” had its US premiere at the 10th Arpa Foundation for Film Music and Art (AFFMA) International Film Festival, where Nazarian received the best director award. The film also won four prizes in the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival in 2008. The drama, composed of four stories about working-class lives near the Los Angeles River, examines the everyday lives of ordinary Californians. In November 2008, Nazarian was among six screenwriters who were selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as winners of the 23rd Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting for his screenplay “Giants.” Each writer received a $30,000 prize.

Below is his interview with Bakhchinyan.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Eric, your film presents the problem of loneliness and lack of communication in modern Western society. The separate stories, united with the common geographical milieu and likeness of souls of the heroes, reveal human fates and characters in an interesting way. How you came into this?

Eric Nazarian: I am very interested in the theme of communication and language in society. Especially in a global society like in Los Angeles where we live side-by-side, usually unaware of the people we pass by in the street. I look for ways to tell stories cinematically. Cinema has its own language for storytelling. It is different from prose and literature and radio. In cinema we do not need words but images to express ideas. The palette of non-dialogue fits well with the theme of non-communication between people. With “The Blue Hour,” I wanted to examine this theme of non-communication between people who live alone side-by-side but are worlds apart due to the circumstances of their lives and the isolating geographical make-up of the city. I wanted to make a film about non-communication using as little dialogue as possible. My thematic inspiration was to go back to the roots of cinema and make a film that would not require subtitles to be understood. I was interested in showing the interior lives of the characters and their very peripheral connection to the river, a place where very different people walk the same roads but are not aware of each other and communicate only with themselves. In the first story, “Island in the River,” Happy, the graffiti artist, communicates with her art by drawing the crying clown on the side of the river. The music communicates with her more than her mother does as we hear them arguing at home in the evenings after work.

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The second, an Armenian story, “A Warm Place,” is about how grief over a child’s death breaks down communication between husband and wife. How sometimes in our own living rooms we have difficultly establishing contact with the people we love. Avo and Allegra, the main characters, must find a way to communicate again, even if it is through hands touching or making eye contact, trying to accept what they can’t change.

In the third story, “The Healer,” Ridley, the blues guitarist’s only companion is his guitar and the mysterious voice coming from the low-rent motel. He is a man who lives with music in his head and communicates only with his guitar. This story is about the healing power of music as a companion just as real as a human being. In the fourth story, “Humphrey,” the old man communicates with the memory of his dead wife and finds peace. Overall, every character in the film is looking to find ways to communicate and establish contact with a person or a memory or an object that gives them a sense of peace and meaning. There is tremendous isolation in a city like Los Angeles hand-in-hand with tremendous potential for multicultural literacy.

With “The Blue Hour,” my hope is to show these four slices of life in a way that examines the delicate ties that connect these four strangers who have much more humanity in common than they will realize. This is a theme that interests me a great deal — the raw elements of humanity and to ask the question — are we connected? Are we similar despite our differences? How can we establishreal human contact with each other? Are we connected in ways we can’t even begin to understand or are we fragmented as a society and as a civilization into individualized units of existence with no possibility of lasting communication or interaction? Small stories that ask big questions are some of my favorite movies.

AB: The problem of loneliness remains urgent for cinema since Michelangelo Antonioni’s times.

EN: I am glad you mention Michelangelo Antonioni who is probably cinema’s purest existentialist who contributed tremendously to our understanding of the changing traditions of film grammar. He is one of my favorite directors and has inspired me tremendously. Each of his films had a different grammar and examines a different layer of this theme of alienation and the possibilityof hope. “Il Grido,” “L’Avventura,” “La Notte” and “The Passenger” are about individuals looking for connection in a world that is indifferent in a lot of ways. That last image of “L’Avventura” with Monica Vitti’s hand on Gabriel Ferzetti’s shoulder is one of the most pure images of hope in cinema history. After so much alienation and fragmentation, that one second of hope is expressed through a hand touching another human being. He inspired me a lot for “The Blue Hour” and taught me through his work that there are ways to create a different kind of cinema that examines the interior lives of human beings in society who try to find communication and establish genuine relationships with other people. I think Antonioni’s cinema is even more relevant to my globalized generation today. Like Antonioni’s characters, I feel that we are constantly searching for human contact, communication and spiritual meaning. Back in the 1960s, his characters had dinner parties and sailing trips.Today we have cell phones, Facebook, the Internet, text messaging and cell phone cameras. We are constantly exchanging information. But with all this technology, are we communicating?

AB: I remembered a joke how a guy approached a girl on the street asking if she has an email. After her negative answer, the guy says: “Pity, otherwise we would be acquainted” and goes away…

EN: (Laughing) This is my big question. The predominant link we have to the rest of the world is the Internet, phones and television. But is there something else much bigger than we are able to realize that connects us in ways we don’t realize? This is a theme that forms the idea of another film I want to make.

AB: Will you tell about it or it is a kind of “Eric’s secret?”

EN: I have an idea for a film I am currently writing set in modern-day Armenia that I will bring with me. The film is a kind of mature love story examining a delicate relationship between two very different people who find out they have much more in common than they thought. In short, it is about people communication and finding a common connection. This will be very different than “The Blue Hour.”

AB: Is there anything typical in your films because of your being Armenian?

EN: Armenians are an itinerant culture. We have endured and celebrate our heritage through our art. We have carried our culture and music everywhere we have set root. From the ancient Armenian storytellers to Komitas, Gorky, Sergei Paradjanov, Spendiaryan, Hakob Hakobyan (my favorite Armenian painter), our culture, like our music, travels very far and infuses other cultures with a sense of timelessness, a deep melancholia and a global passion for life and endurance. There is great mystery, hope, pathos, tragedy and catharsis in Armenian culture that for me comes through in the music and paintings.

As a filmmaker I keep our music close to my heart. Regarding my themes as an Armenian, I love the kanon. It is a very cinematic and uniquely Armenian instrument that symbolizes something very pure, folkloric and mystical about Armenia. The kanon and Hakob Hakobyan’s art for me has the same power as a Gregorian chant. It is very soothing and cleansing. I can’t describe what it is about the kanon but it haunts me whenever I hear it. Sometimes the kanon even inspires tears when it is played in tremolo. I used the kanon quite a bit in “The Blue Hour’s” Armenian episode as well as the opening titlesequence where several string instruments are mixed together to create a global radio montage of strings overlapping with radio voices in Spanish, Armenian, Hebrew, Japanese, French and Farsi. I love Armenian music and try to use it as much as I can in my films as naturally as possible. Armenian music gives me a sense of the enduring Armenian identity. My aunt Parik Nazarian is a great singer of Armenian folklore and village ballads. She is one of my  biggest inspirations and deserves enormous credit for introducing me to the kanon and the rich tradition of Armenian music. My father Haik and uncle Haso have introduced me to Armenian literature and poetry and painting. Between the rich traditions of Armenian painters, poets and musicians, I tryin my work to pay tribute to the past Armenian traditions and evolve them through my own images and stories thatreflect the Armenian culture in Armenia and around the world.

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