Saturday, October 18, 2008

Target #236: Russkiy kovcheg / Russian Ark (2002, Aleksandr Sokurov)

TSPDT placing: #920
Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by: Anatoli Nikiforov (written by), Aleksandr Sokurov (writer), Svetlana Proskurina, Boris Khaimsky (dialogue)
Starring: Sergei Dontsov, Aleksandr Sokurov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Aleksandr Chaban, Natalya Nikulenko, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Osipenko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova

In many ways, Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002) sits beyond the bounds of conventional film criticism. It unfolds as if in a lovely dream – vivid, dazzling and unforgettable, and yet simply indescribable. The film is quite literally a casual wander through centuries of Russian history, each elaborate room and hall of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg representing a different period of the nation's extremely rich history. Sokurov is not at all interested in telling a straightforward tale of Russia's past – there is no substantial plot to speak of – but rather he seeks to explore it, and every room, every graceful camera movement, every astounding set-piece of costumes and music, captures a tantalising snippet of a historical period long lost in the sands of time. An almost inconceivable feat of preparation and execution, the film was famously shot in a single, uninterrupted take, a technique that progresses far beyond being a mere commercial gimmick and envelopes the audience within Sokurov's mighty cinematic canvas. In other words, you're there.

An unseen twentieth-first century narrator, whom we assume to be Sokurov himself, awakens at the snow-swept entrance of the Hermitage Museum, having presumably died unexpectedly. For the next 90 minutes, his eyes become our eyes; we can only watch, awestruck, as he wanders through this living, breathing capsule of Russian history, every different room yielding a fantastic new time period that we may explore. It is in this way that Sokurov's one-take technique becomes absolutely indispensable. I love Roger Ebert's (31/1/2003) concluding observation: "If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. Russian Ark spins a daydream made of centuries." The steady, uninterrupted flow of images keeps the journey vivid and authentic, sustaining an illusion that feels so genuine as to be almost inhabitable. By the end of the film, it is no longer Sokurov who is exploring the Hermitage, but it is us, and the richness with which each time period has been recreated is simply astonishing to behold.

I found interest in some critics' description of Sokurov as an "anti-Eisenstein," demonstrating that our emotional register is not solely triggered by the artificial suggestiveness of purposeful film editing. Montage may very well tell us what we're supposed to think and feel, but the single take of Russian Ark succeeds more momentously in immersing us in the moment, and so allowing our own individual emotions to form. The use of the dynamic long-take has been used, to varying extents, and for this reason, since around the time of Eisenstein – I particularly remember a sweeping outdoors shot in Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Hitchcock famously used long-takes in the brilliant Rope (1948), and less-famously in the not-quite-so-brilliant Under Capricorn (1949). Even in Russian cinema, Mikhail Kalatozov made incredible use of the technique in The Cranes are Flying (1957). However, technical considerations aside, does Sokurov's film have much to offer us aside from a vague lesson in Russian history? I say that this question is an irrelevant one; all that matters are the emotions instilled within us.

Currently my #7 film of 2002:
1) Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)
2) The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)
3) Adaptation. (Spike Jonze)
4) Road To Perdition (Sam Mendes)
5) Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg)
6) The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
7) Russkiy kovcheg {Russian Ark} (Aleksandr Sokurov)
8) Red Dragon (Brett Ratner)
9) Mou gaan dou {Infernal Affairs} (Wai-keung Lau, Siu Fai Mak)
10) Cidade de Deus {City Of God} (Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund)

What others have said:

"Though casual viewers with no special interest in either film history or Russian history may be bored to tears, for serious film students Russian Ark is a must-see. Sokurov’s achievement is notable not only for being the first film shot in one take, but for offering a striking antithesis to the Soviet montage cinema of early Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s edit-driven approach was forward-looking and characterized by decisive, revolutionary action, reflecting Marxist optimism about the future. By contrast, Sokurov’s film is awash in nostalgia and dreamlike passiveness, reflecting the lack of a clear way forward for contemporary Russia."
Steven D. Greydanus

"Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is one of those movies more easily admired than genuinely enjoyed, let alone loved... It is from that technical choice that the most compelling drama emerges; wondering if Sokurov and cameraman Tilman Buttner will screw up or not is far more interesting than the fairly inert parade of historical figures such as Catherine the Great and recreations of historical events such as the Royal Ball of 1913. The opulent pageantry and the works of art on display make for undeniable eye candy, but what is shown is ultimately less captivating than the manner in which it is shown."
Michael Dequina

"Russian Ark is less like watching paint dry than like watching it sit on the wall and stay wet. A lot of expertise has gone into making a movie that is the same thing for an hour and a half -- the same boring, posing, meandering journey of weirdness, impossible to follow or stand. It doesn't change. It doesn't develop. It makes little effort to arouse the audience or communicate its content. There are those who call it an amazing technical achievement, and they are correct. But the movie is also extraordinarily boring. Go see it if you want an insight into how it must feel to be a teacher with nothing to do except pace up and down an exam room, waiting for the mean old clock to move its hands."
Ian Waldron-Mantgani


ackatsis said...

I'm having trouble uploading images at the moment, so I'm afraid you'll have to tolerate a picture-less blog post for the moment.

Thank you for your understanding, kind readers.

ackatsis said...

This technical issue has now been resolved. You may now exhale, and return to your daily activities.

tosser said...


I should rewatch it, considering that when I saw it, I was an unwilling 10 year old who was to be "cultured" by my parents. :|