Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)

Boy, would I love to see a making-of documentary of this.  A 90 minute, single-take journey through the Hermitage museum in Russia, with gazillions of extras dressed in outfits from various eras, all of whom had to be at a specific place doing a specific thing at a precise moment, or else EVERYTHING would be for naught, and the entire production would have to start over?  AND Sokurov and his cast and his crew had just ONE day to do it in?  What a task, what pressure to make sure that everything is perfect!  What if the cameraman tripped over a discarded tissue while following the Marquis through that grand hallway, or one of the dancers in the grand ball that closes the film bumped into the camera, or the conductor or lead cellist in the orchestra sneezed?  One little mistake ruins everything when your entire movie consists of one take, but obviously they got it right – fourth time was the charm if IMDB’s accurate – so I guess it’s my duty to put that idea of the sheer epic magnitude of the production challenges aside and judge “Russian Ark” in its finished form.  So I guess the real litmus test is whether “Russian Ark” has any value other than the maybe-gimmick of a 90 minute single take, whether the substance and the material would work and be compelling if the production were just a regular ol’ shot-cut-shot-cut, ‘ordinarily’ edited film.  Well maybe it’s just my complete and utter lack of interest in Russian history, but what can I say, what’s essentially a walking tour through the Hermitage with an unhinged Marquis, encountering this historical figure or that, wouldn’t exactly call me into action.  There’s no plot to speak of (not a criticism, I’m just pointing it out, so all you plot haters leave me alone), other than the Marquis and the unseen narrator journeying from room to room, era to elegant era, and the Marquis’ interactions with historical figures both famous and inconsequential.  Really, what’s the point of such a thing when you’re gonna show it in an ordinary, nothing special fashion?  Frankly, I think it’d be an utter bore – a nifty idea, playing with the fabric of time within the confines of a single building as a man travels from century to century seamlessly, but still a rather pointless bore if portrayed using conventional film methods. 

So I guess that means that “Russian Ark”’s success hinges on the technical qualities, on the images, on that single-shot gimmick.  If you want to call that a major fault, that’s certainly valid, I suppose that indicates an inherent flaw in the substance behind the technical qualities, at least for my American ass who can’t tell Catherine the Great from King Ralph – but my god, what a technical marvel this film is!  Is it a gimmick, having an entire 90 minute film be comprised of a single moving shot?  Of course it is, but even then, you gotta give Sokourov and all involved – cameramen, actors and extras who had to be in a precise shot at a precise moment, production managers and key grips who had to make sure everything went smoothly lest the atom bomb of a dreaded slip-up go off, have to be given an A++++++ for effort just for the sheer difficulty of pulling something like that off.  Whether there’s even a point to doing something like that is another story, but props for at least accomplishing something that difficult. 

The production values and the images are impeccable and beyond beautiful – this IS the Hermitage, one of the most glorious art museums in the entire world, after all, so obviously “Russian Ark” gets a free pass on that one, and I’ve already gabbed about the cinematography to death, and the music – some classical, some original to the film – is beautiful, a perfect complement to the beautiful artwork.  But you just have to marvel at the creativity and the staging of it all, how the hyperactive Marquis is being followed, disappears so that we’re left to wander those magnificent halls and its temporally displaced inhabitants alone, only for the Marquis to just enter the frame from the side of the screen unexpectedly, all of course in a single take.  Or, how the Marquis wanders through a throng of museum-goers, all talking amongst themselves in rather indistinguishable conversations (I got a real Altman vibe from scenes like this), entering and exiting the frame like the entire film is a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle whose pieces have to be placed precisely, yet still flow freely and animatedly.  Just remarkable how this was all put together.  And who better to guide us through this building that transcends time and space than the Marquis, with his black outfit, frazzled hair, unhinged demeanor, bizarre form of hitting on female art admirers and cultural criticism (“Russian music gives me hives”), his ability to go from sheer ecstasy to cranky pouting at the snap of a finger, and limitless energy?  I’m quite convinced that this man was completely insane, or at least had SEVERE a.d.d. or something, but who could possibly be a better choice to guide us through a single-take journey through a museum where one room being browsed by people in Victorian garb gives way to men in modern-day business suits in the very next room (and yes, the Marquis’ reaction to this unexplained shift in eras is just as bizarre as the shift itself)?  And just like the sights and substance of the film itself, the Marquis’ success as compelling guide depended almost entirely on the single-take gimmick – we’re following him nonstop, camera often shaky, and his exiting and entering the frame at the randomest of moments only adds to his deranged (and enormously entertaining) demeanor.  As nonsensical as the whole fluctuating time period structure of the setting and the ‘narrative’ was, a little rat of a man who’s just as nonsensical provides the perfect complement, just as the music provided a perfect complement to the images.

“Russian Ark” is a technical masterpiece, one of the most impressive on-screen efforts I’ve ever seen.  It’s just too bad I had barely a shred of emotional involvement in it (might’ve been the 4 hours of sleep I was riding on, but I did pretty much doze off for a moment or two at least a couple of times.  Just sayin’…).  Hell, I’d have to say that almost all of my appreciation and awe for it comes not in the finished product, but the mere thought of how hard it must’ve been to put it all together.  The camerawork was impressive, to say the least, and the Hermitage is clearly a magnificently beautiful place – that’s pretty much all I got out of this (well, ok, the Marquis was cool…).  Yeah, the huge ball at the end is grand and magnificent, but it’s only really special because of how effortlessly the camera glides through that busy ballroom, miraculously not disturbing the participants in their precise dance.  Honestly, how many ball scenes, even as grand as this one, have we seen in hundreds of films before this, the only difference being that this one is shown to us in one take, in the middle of the action?  I just don’t know what, if any, point there is to this whole thing, even with the subtle and utterly mesmerizing transitions in time periods from room to room, other than demonstrating the utmost extreme in just how impressive a long dolly shot and one’s skill with a camera can be.  With that in mind, I’d be tempted to call “Russian Ark” little more than a substance-lacking exercise in style, but that style, that impossible-to-fathom effort to put that style on screen, is so hypnotic and graceful, where the effort of perhaps the most complicated single tracking shot ever is made to look effortless, so how could I possibly insult it so?


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