Saturday, 3 April 2010

Russian Ark (Russia, 2002)

For a man who spends an awful lot of his life considering the relative merits of movies, I’m surprisingly poor at picking favourites. Naming Top Tens, ‘Best Ofs’ or any other kind of list, of any kind of length, that erects a barrier between one wonderful film that is ‘in’ and another wonderful film that is ‘out’ is not something for which my mind is designed or towards which my personality is inclined. Predictably, this is an inability that’s revealed whenever I talk about Citizen Kane. Those friends who haven’t seen Kane but who’ve spoken to me about it have often seemed positively uninterested in letting me persuade them to watch it. (This, I concede, may well reveal more about me than it does about them, or about Orson Welles.) And yet they have all been urgently, achingly, keen to know if I think it is the best film ever made.

I have said innumerable times, in conversation if not in print, that I find there is an infinitesimal amount to be gained (for film fans, for film critics and, most importantly, for film) from squabbling over whether Citizen Kane is slightly ‘better’ than La Regle de Jeu or slightly ‘worse’ than Tokyo Story. There is, though, an incalculable amount to be gained from simply saying that Citizen Kane is a marvellous movie, as good as any other; that if you haven’t seen it you should watch it immediately; and that if you have you should watch it again.

This entry, though, isn’t about Citizen Kane – but it is about a film that, in its innovation and audacity, bears serious comparison to it. It is the film that, gun to my head or hand on my heart, I would, despite my aforementioned aversion to saying this kind of thing, nominate as the greatest film of that decade amusingly but inelegantly nicknamed ‘The Noughties’. The film is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark.

Sokurov is not so much a filmmaker as alchemist. He takes the same base metals of moviemaking that are constantly combined to produce those pictures – average and uninspiring, amusing but unoriginal – that we all watch weekly, and makes out of them films so astounding it’s difficult to accept they are the same breed of creation as most of those movies playing in our multiplexes and on our television channels. His exquisite Mother and Son was, if not the best film of the 1990s, an incredibly close contender, and – though it is opulent where Mother and Son is austere and massive where Mother and Son is minute – Russian Ark is a comparable accomplishment.

That I have yet to give a précis of its plot points to the difficulty of discussing Ark. It is a film that defeats film criticism. The standard language of movie analysis, whether journalistic or academic, seems (like so many movies one had previously thought cutting edge) suddenly and startlingly outdated once one has watched Sokurov’s masterwork about Russia’s heritage and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage.

The film’s American trailer introduces it best:

‘2000 actors. 1 single continuous shot. 33 rooms of The Hermitage Museum. 3 live orchestras. 300 years of Russian history … Not only is Russian Ark the longest single shot in cinema history, it is also the first film ever created in a single shot.’

In this introduction the methods of the film’s construction and hints at its ‘story’ are intertwined – and so should they be: in Russian Ark form and content are inseparable. A disorientated man awakens at The Hermitage Museum, formerly the palace of the Tsars, and sees episodes from its vast and varied history played out as he (or rather we) wander through its rooms and its history. He (or rather we) admire its exhibits, argue over their quality and, most memorably, witness figures from Russia’s past play out the events the Hermitage has housed. Before him (or rather, before us) appears Peter the First and Puskin, Nicholas the First and Catherine the Great. His (or rather our) companions on his (or rather our) trip through reality and time are the Marquisde Custine, a 19th Century French diplomat dismissive of much of Russian art, and the 19th Century Russian spy who shadows him. (The spy’s presence is one of a half a million historically accurate and subtlety deployed details.)

The parentheses in the preceding paragraph are important. We never see Ark’s main character. In fact, perhaps, we are Ark’s main character. The character is, I think, a modern day filmmaker. Certainly, he is Russian and voiced by Sokurov – but is he Sokurov? Or is the unseen Sokurov playing someone else? We hear his words – indeed, we virtually think his thoughts – but we are not gifted any explanation as to why. The film is not simply shot in one unbroken shot, but in one unbroken Point of View shot. Subsequently, no movie has ever come closer to capturing the experience of consciousness.

Sokurov’s success is due not only to his talent, endeavour and strict generalship of his enormous army of collaborators, but to crucial advances in filmmaking equipment. Other directors – most famously, perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock in Rope – have attempted to make features filmed in a single shot, but their ambition exceeded the capabilities of the technology available to them. In their films you can, sometimes quite literally, see the join. (After ten minutes or so, reels of film had to be changed in the camera.) Because of the stupendous sophistication of its digital recording, Russian Ark is, again quite literally, seamless.

There are those who ask, slightly derisively, ‘Yes… but what if Russian Ark hadn’t been filmed in one take? What if it had used traditional methods of editing?’ To those questions, I find, the best answers are questions themselves: What if Battleship Potemkin had used traditional methods of editing? What if A bout de souffe had? What if Toy Story had been made using traditional animation? What if Citizen Kane hadn’t used deep focus photography or if The Red Shoes had been in black and white? We cannot separate artworks from the means and styles of their creation and, as film critics, we can assess only what is onscreen.

At the core of the question, ‘What if Ark hadn’t been made in one take?’ is, I think, a far cleverer question: ‘Is the film all style and no substance?’ I, emphatically, do not believe that it is – but I can see that there will be always be viewers who think that, and I can almost see their reasons for it. Chief among these is that the film’s style is so arch it is hard for the first-, or fifth-, time viewer to take in anything else. There is, though, far more to take in. Ark is a film about the collision of cultures; about man’s reaction against circumstance as expressed through the art he makes and the societies he constructs; and, above all, about Russia, alone and in relation to the rest of Europe. In Ark, there is almost as much to think about as there is to gawp at. But not quite: Arks form, and our wonder at how it was created, will always overwhelm us. This doesn’t disturb me: the same is true of The Sphinx.

As I wrote in my review of El Topo, there is always an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ quality to any film this esoteric, and many who laud it as I do are no doubt simply pseuds showing off. Perhaps I will be proved to be one of them – but I’m willing to take that chance in order to take the chance of persuading someone to see it. Ark is a marvel. It’s a film that focuses on the past, but that feels like it was sent from the future. Whether, decades hence, it does prove to have been the best film of its time is ultimately immaterial – but I hope it proves to have been the most influential. The prospect of a future for filmmaking in which Russian Ark’s ideas are influential, and its qualities commonplace, is awesome.

At present, though, Russian Ark stands clear as a film that is – if any film can be – unique. Indeed, it is so unusual it forces the viewer to go outside cinema for reference points and comparisons. It reminds me a little of Ulysses (and, no, I don’t pretend to understand half of that, either) and a little of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. That ordinarily un-illuminating cliché ‘poetry in motion’ has been applied to the picture more than once and, for once, it actually says something about the film it describes. The measured rhythm of Ark’s development; the well-timed appearances of its motifs (both thematic and visual); and, most of all, the obsessively strict way it is orchestrated all recall tightly ordered poetry. Most films are written in free verse. Russian Ark is a Petrachan sonnet.

I don’t mean to imply, by heaping all this praise upon it, that Russian Ark does everything a film can do. Watching it, you are unlikely to burst out into belly laughs or weep at the emotional intimacy you feel with its characters – but you may well be moved to laugh at the astonishing daring of it all and to weep at its equally astonishing visual beauty. If you choose which films to watch because you like to be consumed by a powerful plot, or simply to have your ribs tickled (and those are, incidentally, perfectly decent reasons to choose which films to watch), you may not find much pleasure here. If, however, your mind is set alight by those movies that could change what movies are – and if you want to travel to filmmaking’s freshest frontier – there is no better choice than Russian Ark.


aesthetigeek said...
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Raymond Owen said...

RUSSIAN ARK is surely one of the most remarkable films ever made. DP Tilman Büttner has received far too little credit for what is surely one of the great accomplishments in the history of cinematography. The film lives and breathes, it repays repeated viewings, it is endlessly seductive. Great post.

Heaven is a Cupcake said...

Are you neglecting your blog now that you're famous Scott? ;-)

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Franz said...

I saw "Russian Ark" many years ago. I can't say I understand it. In fact, the same thing goes to most Russian films I've seen.

But I was blown away by the imagery. Not just one scene. You described it well enough.

Patrick Gamble said...

Hi Scot.

I'm late to the party here, but must say that your review/critique of Russian Ark is spot on – by far the best I’ve read. Your article flows almost as beautifully as the film, well done.
On a separate note have you seen anything by Bela Tarr? I’d be interested to hear what you think, especially your opinions on Werckmeister Harmonies.