For a variety of reasons, I had resisted going to see Alexander Sokurov’s latest film, “Russian Ark.” Maybe it was the much repeated reviewers detail that it was, in the words of J. Hoberman, “the longest continuous take in the annals of motion pictures, a single 96-minute tracking shot” that made me suspect. I wondered if it wasn’t a director’s conceit, maybe even a reply to another great Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, and his great gift to the world, the film language of montage, which, as an armchair film lover, I’m only just beginning to explore and understand- so, I’ll spare any elaboration and trust that you’ll nod your head knowingly.
Well, no, let’s try. It’ll do us both some good. Probably the easiest way to define montage (Eisenstein believed there were five different types) is a series of independent shots, carefully edited together. You know what I’m talking about. A man walks up to a house. Cut. We see a close up of his hand reaching up to ring a doorbell. Cut. Another man appears from what we take to be the inside of the house. Cut. The man waiting outside lights a cigarette. Cut. The door opens. And so it goes. It’s the collision of these independent shots that then go on to give the film its meaning. It seems pretty simple and straight forward enough- but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a new kind of language, barely 100 years old and still evolving. The power to manipulate this process, to make associations, “express abstract ideas” or make “ideological statements” is, well, infinite.
“Russian Ark” had the whiff, then, of something insular, an elaborate bit of filmic wankery exploring the limitations of montage (and the granddaddy of Film Theory, the French critic Andre Bazin, wrote eloquently about these limitations in one of his most famous and controversial pieces, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”) and the potential to do away with it all together. Was it anything more?
About a year ago the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley had a retrospective of Sokurov’s work. All things being vastly different, it’s likely that I would have gone to see quite a few of the numerous works they were showing (and his body of work, since 1978, is formidable) but as it is, I was sidelined. Still, I had the film notes to read. He was mentored by one of cinema’s giants Andrei Tarkovsky (who, among other films, directed the original and superior “Solaris”) and it was noted that, among other themes running through his work, he “does not disguise his deep empathic view of the human condition, inviting us with his warm and resonant voiceover to share his most intimate feelings and reflections.” Pure cat nip.
So, when the film lingered on for the past few weeks at one of the Landmark theaters downtown, I finally gave in and decided to catch a matinee figuring, better to test suspicion then to later suffer regret. Sokurov’s work isn’t exactly rushing to the local video store shelves. Besides, how many times do you get a chance to check out what a Russian filmmaker is up to?
And, look, the film totally kicked my ass. No, (most definitely, no) it’s not some director’s conceit at all- it’s not some dull technical exercise. It’s swooning and sublime. It won me over before a single image appeared. And don’t we enter into the theater with the best of intentions- to be won over, to be entertained, to have our hopes fulfilled? It’s certainly not for the $8 bag of Peanut M&M’s.
The film opens with a voice: “I open my eyes and I see nothing…” Our unseen narrator. It’s a warm, gentle voice. It lulls. The screen still dark, he vaguely recalls some accident. Eyes, it seems, adjust. A group of decked out 18th century partygoers (puffed gowns, crisp military digs) joyfully bustles their way into the Hermitage, located in St. Petersburg and, I later learned, one of the largest museums of the world. (33 rooms and housing over 3 million pieces.) Our narrator, invisible to us and to, it seems, everybody else, follows them in. (The camera= his eyes.) Inside he glimpses another displaced figure with wonderfully frizzy hair and smartly dressed all in black. He too is wondering how he’s come to this place and, equally strange, marvels that he’s suddenly able to speak fluent Russian. He’s also the only person to acknowledge the presence of the narrator. Sporadically referred to as the Marquis, he is/was a 19th century French diplomat and, like our narrator, we never will learn how or why he’s arrived here. Maybe it’s all a dream?
Our wary narrator follows the ebullient Marquis (his enthusiasm is childlike, but this is tempered by his oftentimes provocative statements concerning some of the art) deeper into the museum where they come upon, not only many of the great works harbored there, but historical scenes being played out. I won’t pretend (like most reviewer, who, no doubt, trusted their press notes) that I had any clue as to the historical context for many of these scenes- but I was never left disheartened by confusion. In fact, what Sokurov is doing here is intoxicating- using the Heritage, itself, as a canvas- blending the art it houses with historical reenactments of moments that, I later learned, actually took place in the Heritage (it wasn’t always a museum and housed, among other prominent Russian figures, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, The Romanov’s and Nicholas I). The narrator and the Marquis happen upon these scenes, occasionally erupting as they do, and with them, we enjoy their spectacle. Sokurov makes the works of art, otherwise discombobulated from their moment in history, come alive, just as the Heritage, as the film’s title implies, becomes a vessel or ark where past and present gather and collide.
There is sporadic dialogue, mostly between the Marquis (impishly played to marvelous highs by Sergie Dreiden) and our unseen narrator (Sokurov), usually revolving around some wry commentary the Marquis has made about a work of art. On other occasions, the Marquis interacts with a patron (at one point he engages in a conversation with the current director of the Heritage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and complains about smelling formaldehyde) or historical figure. A number of such scenes floored me, and I wonder if what I loved most about this film, even as I tried, reflexively, to grasp its history, was the subtle power it accumulated through seemingly random moments. In one of these cherished scenes, the Marquis approaches a blind woman who is caressing a sculpture. Our narrator implores him not to confront her, he mumbles something about her being an angel. The scene, like so many in the film, has a phantasmagoric quality to it and we hear, suddenly, the soothing ambience of bird chatter. The Marquis is endlessly amused and delighted by the art and people he stumbles on and his enthusiasm radiates as she takes him by the hand and leads him to another room. It could be terribly precious if it weren’t so devastatingly breathtaking, residing, as does all of this film, somewhere just outside of time, a kind of temporal plain where all time collides and, just as quickly, dissipates.
In another scene, the Marquis comes upon a patron from the present. She looks to be in her early 60’s and hip (a sharp, flat-top haircut, dressed in all black- like you just know she belonged to some avant-garde movement at one time or another) and is, literally, cooing to the large painting she’s standing before. The Marquis, curious as usual, approaches her and she explains, “I have a relationship with this painting.” “Tell me about it,” the Marquis flirtatiously implores, wrapping her delicately in his arms. She delicately refuses and breaks free, coyly walking away from him as the soundtrack swells with a melancholy ache. What does she say? I can’t remember. I might see the film a dozen more times and never clearly recall. The scene reverberates with the romance of the ephemeral, an ode to the glance that we would, despite ourselves, give ourselves to wholly.
And so we come to the final swoon. A grand ball (over 850 extras) where the Marquis revels in the pomp (a full orchestra, the ritualistic dances) of the elite. It, like so much of the film, is gorgeous to behold and I can’t stress how remarkable the camera work of Tilman Buttner is (a German cinematographer best known for his camera work on “Run Lola Run), whose accomplishment here with a steadicam, especially modified for the film, is remarkable and deserving of all the accolades he’s received. His camera weaves in and out of the performers with ease and grace, calmly capturing the sublime. It does cross your mind from time to time: “How in the hell did they do this? Look at that blocking and choreography! How did everybody hit their cues? One single 96-minute take? How many times did something go wrong and they had to start over again?”
A few. Thankfully in the opening minutes. 7 months of preparation (with the Heritage’s full cooperation), over 2000 extras, over 20 assistant directors, one day, December 23, 2001 to film it and 4 hours of light to work with. (Given St. Petersburg’s latitude, that’s all they had- and a few scenes called for daylight.) It is, no doubt, an amazing technical accomplishment, especially considering that the single take (a “single breath” as Sakorov called it) is never something you’re pressed into an awareness of- you’re too busy enjoying yourself to get too bogged down with the audacity and complexity of it all.
When the ball ends (and it is a reenactment of the final ball to take place in the Heritage, the opulence soon overrun by the Bolshevik Revolution- again, a bit of history I learned afterwards but it hardly spoils the joy derived form the scenes splendor, let along watching the Marquis’s joy as he joins in the dancing), the camera spends the films final ten minutes exiting the Hermitage, threading its way through the elaborately adorned cast. I don’t think I can adequately convey the grandeur and melancholy of these final scenes. Films, for me, can be made bitter by a false ending. Equally, films can be made ecstatic by a true ending. When successful, how a filmmaker chooses to exit his work can either put an exclamation mark on all that has come before it or, suddenly, bring a films quiet merits into sudden, sharp focus. The former is at work here. The camera moves ahead of the murmur and flourish of crowd exiting the ball, turning back for one final gaze before turning to look out a window, out at a sea enshrouded by fog. “We are destined to sail forever….To live forever, ” the narrator says. It’s too ambiguous to be taken as a summary and, if anything, it can be construed as a response to all that we have just seen- the past forever coming alive in the present by the power of our imagination, our observation and the ability to feel and be moved.