Russian Ark

As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I’m going to be out-of-town for a few days for the Palm Springs International Film Festival. I hope to find an Internet cafÈ and make some screening updates to the blog, but we’ll see.

In the meantime, a site reader who goes by the name Samurai Jack has contributed the excellent, historically sensitive piece below on Alexander Sokurov’s wonderful 2002/2003 film, Russian Ark. (But if the writer would prefer to go by any other name, I’d love to change the credit. 😉 ) It has been released as a fine DVD by Wellspring with loads of extras.

And finally, don’t forget to pick-up the new Criterion DVD of Akira Kurosawa’s finest film, Ikiru (1952), hitting shelves today. óDoug

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By Samurai Jack

The feature film, as an art form, is an artifact of the editing process. Short takes ranging in length from seconds to minutes are intercut and assembledto create scenes, sequences, and finally a narrative of one kind or another.

In the US, D. W. Griffith used editing to tell overlapping stories that couldn’t be told any other way. For Sergei Eisenstein, the father of Soviet montage cinema, the edit was more than a tool or device. It was a means of going beyond what could be captured in any single image, of straining toward a world of meaning beyond what was “there” in a static way — a meaning that had to be constructed by the viewer. It was, in keeping with contemporary Marxist sensibilities, very much an activist approach to cinema, forward-looking and oriented toward change, and intended to move the viewer to action.

Decades later, another notable Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, took a diametrically opposed approach, experimenting in such films as Solaris (1972) and Offret (The Sacrifice) (1986) with extended takes, sustained in some cases for the better part of a quarter hour (about the limit with traditional film, since a film canister holds only about ten or fifteen minutes of film).

Tarkovsky’s extended takes were in a way the antithesis of Eisenstein’s activist montage cinema, inviting the viewer to contemplation rather than inciting to action, offering an experience defined not by a succession of images but by a succession of moments. A convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Tarkovsky brought to issues of Russian identity and culture a sensibility very different from Eisenstein’s, and his relations with the Soviet government were even touchier than Eisenstein’s had been.

Once the advent of digital video freed filmmakers from the constraints of physical film, it was only a matter of time before someone set out to make a feature film entirely in one take, without a single edit or cut. Perhaps serendipitously, the first filmmaker to actually do so was another Russian, Aleksandr Sokurov; and the theme of his landmark film, a meditation on Russia’s cultural heritage and current identity crisis, offers striking resonances with Eisenstein and Tarkovsky.

Where Eisenstein’s approach was forward-looking, Russian Ark, which wanders among the galleries and hallways of the Hermitage, a St. Petersburg monastery turned museum, is awash in nostalgia — a sentiment for the most part scrupulously avoided in Russian cinema under the Soviet regime. (Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia [1983] was, significantly, the first film he made after defecting to the West.)

Where Eisenstein’s dramatic cuts emphasized revolutionary change and radical action, Sokurov’s hypnotic, deliberate pacing and dreamlike narrative logic create an inexorable flow of events in which, as in a dream, there can be no decisive action, no revolutionary events, only passive experience and contemplation.

Adrift in time, wandering back and forth among the centuries with thousands of costumed extras and actors representing 200 years of Russian history, Sokurov’s camera follows an unseen narrator and a black-garbed French diplomat who seem often unclear where or when they are, while in the background various historical figures wander by in varying degrees of lucidity (at one point we see Catherine the Great, here preoccupied, like many an unhappy dreamer, with finding the toilet).

Torn between wistful visions of Russia’s own lost glory and an uneasy awareness of the long shadow of European cultural hegemony, Russian Ark evokes, perhaps, a sense of cultural lassitude or inertia, a lack of a clear way forward, contrasting with the optimistic futurism of Eisenstein’s Marxist milieu. There is transcendence in Sokurov’s vision, but transcendence remembered rather than living transcendence, a bittersweet dream overshadowed by the sense of a bleak waking reality, from which the viewer finally awakens, stirred but not transformed.

Films that are historically significant in some way, that represent some landmark achievement or breakthrough in the history of cinema, don’t always have the artistic or aesthetic substance to bear their own significance. Some milestones are also masterpieces, and would be worth remembering and watching even if they weren’t milestones. But not all. Citizen Kane (1941) would still be known today even if its groundbreaking storytelling approach had first been pioneered by earlier films. But would even serious cinephiles go much out of their way to see The Jazz Singer (1927) if not for its claim to fame as the first talkie?

The first feature film shot entirely in one take could have been a tedious stunt or gimmick — something done just because it was possible, not because the technique in any way served the subject matter or themes. Some viewers, indeed, may find Russian Ark just such a bore. But Sokurov has found the right marriage of subject, theme, and technique.

Too much commentary on Russian Ark, including the DVD commentary track by producer Jens Meuer, is preoccupied with the technical aspects of the production. Certainly, the film’s technical achievement is its claim to fame; and there is considerable behind-the-scenes drama in the 96-minute shoot, with a production crew carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment from gallery to gallery, and a cast of thousands of all awaiting their moment, knowing that they must complete the film in one day or not at all.

What is needed is more attention to what is actually seen on the screen, the historical figures and periods represented as well as the historical and cultural significance of the Hermitage’s various galleries and treasures. Critics dismissive of Russian Ark have suggested that beyond its novelty value the film is best suited as an attraction at the Hermitage itself, as a preliminary to touring the museum. More appreciative viewers might equally feel that touring the museum could be helpful as a preliminary to watching the film. At the very least, a future DVD release would be immensely enhanced by an additional commentary track with an expert in Russian art and history — a tour guide to Sokurov’s exploration of Russia’s cultural soul.