Friday, August 08, 2014

Russian Ark (2002)

Russkiy kovcheg, Russia / Germany / Japan / Canada / Finland / Denmark, 99 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Writers: Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina, Aleksandr Sokurov
Photography: Tilman Buttner
Music: Sergei Yevtushenko
Editors: Stefan Ciupek, Sergey Ivanov, Betina Kuntzsch
Cast: Aleksandr Sokurov, Sergei Dreiden, Maria Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, David Giorgobiani, Alexander Chaban, Maxim Sergeyev

As much as anything it is doubtless the technical achievement of Russian Ark that has pushed it so high on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, so that's as good a place to start as any. It's impressive—one continuous single take on a steadicam, lasting over 90 minutes, and on top of that an epic costume drama with a cast of thousands. Think of all the famous long takes you know—in Touch of Evil, Goodfellas, The Player, and/or Gravity—and multiply exponentially. As a mathematical formula, it may be expressed as [Touch of Evil x 9] to the power of Barry Lyndon. I wouldn't have believed it possible myself if I hadn't spent a month one week looking it over carefully.

Russian Ark is no easy breeze of a picture, and falls easily and quickly into the look and feel of the most pretentious and aimless art film. That technical achievement is remarkably subtle, at least for someone like me who often has to have long takes pointed out, and otherwise the movie features not one but two central characters who appear to be time travelers or perhaps shape shifters of some kind, or perhaps ghosts (one is never seen—he is represented by the camera point of view), who spend the movie prowling the corridors and galleries of the magnificent Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, swapping barbs and a general air of sadness as scenes from some 300 years of Russian history materialize and play around them. Put it this way. You're unlikely to get much out of this if you don't know at least something about Russian history and probably if you aren't willing to look at it more than once. I know that's a damning review so I hasten to add: It is worth your energies. But anyone can understand why a body might not be inclined that way.

Indeed, I'm not always sure the grand experiment proves out. By going so far to one extreme of cinema, it incidentally ratchets up the theatricality. Occasional mistakes in timing or inappropriate awareness of the camera on the faces of some of the players, for example, would normally call for another take to iron out. That luxury was not afforded director, co-writer, and co-star Aleksandr Sokurov with such self-imposed constraints as this, and so in many moments Russian Ark has more the quivering live feel of a stage production, which diminishes it some. Add to that the dense literary overlay with the narrative high concept of a kind of science fiction ghost story about the eternal husbanding of Russian culture, and you have a project that is insanely ambitious (and potentially doomed in countless ways).

But the fact is its many small flaws come to seem minor as the picture unfolds its many, many impressive treasures—literal and figurative. The artwork and interiors of the Hermitage carry the day when nothing else does. In the end I think the single take is appropriate enough, if only for the counterpoint and symmetry it provides to one of Soviet Russia's acknowledged masters of cinema, Sergei Eisenstein—the pioneer of montage and other cinematic arts of the cut. There is not a single cut in Russian Ark, of course. I don't read that as a rejection of Eisenstein's aesthetic, however, but more another element to add to what is really this picture's central preoccupation: the vastness of Russian culture, which in turn is a reflection of the vastness of Russia itself.

Russia is not just the place where montage was invented, Sokurov's decision implies—it is a culture capable of embracing all of cinema. And art. And life. And death and time too. The not-so-friendly ghost that we see, a Frenchman played masterfully by Sergei Dreiden, credited as "The Stranger" but known by our ghost of the camera as "The European," is caustic about Russia, dismissing it with withering arrogance as a country of European copycats and wannabes. Our ghost of the camera, a Russian credited at as "The Time Traveller" (Sokurov, who is not credited in the picture for this role), glumly attempts to rebut him. In the terms of this narrative, the other is all that each of these two ghosts has, and the Time Traveller is the first to recognize the wisdom in not alienating his only companion.

Meanwhile, the costume drama, the great artwork on every wall, and various historical scenes play out and swirl around us continually, moving through some 33 or more chambers of the museum complex, including a grand finish in the Winter Palace. There are other ghosts too. There is the cruel Peter the Great. There is the great patron Catherine II, and there she is again, later, running away from the camera in an extraordinarily beautiful outdoor scene. (It is the cold gray weather of an afternoon in late December. The footsteps of people crunch in the snow.) There is the pomp and bluster of a diplomatic function involving a Persian envoy. There are soldiers performing formal marching maneuvers. And there is the spectacular ballroom scene in the Winter Palace at the end, complete with full orchestra and hundreds of graceful dancing couples.

It's not hard—and it's somewhat tempting, certainly on first view—to dismiss Russian Ark as a stunt, a kind of documentary in real time of production design and a bit of a showoff at that. But there's actually so much to this. The first distinct sound we hear is a ship's horn and the last image we see is of the sea. The "ark" conceit, a vessel that is alive and vital with a cargo of essential Russian culture and sailing the oceans of time, is worked out meticulously and carried off well. The formidable Hermitage Museum and its vast collection—only a fraction of which is glimpsed here—provide a setting that is nigh perfect. And cinematographer Tilman Buttner deserves mention for pulling off such a physically demanding task and keeping it remarkably beautiful.

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