Russian Ark (Russkij kovcheg)

Russian Ark

Has all this been staged for me?

Now, this is the picture that should represent Alexander Sokurov on the list; as interesting to look at as Mother and Son was, Russian Ark has a far more important value to cinema, though like Mother and Son, it is mostly just there to be watched and admired, rather than for the story. For those who don’t know, Russian Ark is a film for the digital age; the entire film is shot in a single take, over 90 minutes long – something not possible with the limited timespan of film reels, as Hitchcock’s Rope demonstrates. The plot is inconsequential; there essentially is no plot, only a framing device so that the film only strays closely to the line of not being about anything at all, but not completely crossing it. Hell, you barely even have to pay attention to it; this is another one that, though I did resist the temptation to do so, you can essentially up and walk out of the film, quickly get something to eat or drink, and come back, and not have missed anything of real value. This is a film for you to just sit back and admire what is going on, and what is going on can be summed up in two words: cinematic perfection.

Whoever thought up the idea for this film was fucking nuts. How taxing must it have been for the crew and the cast, especially the camera operator, when even one thing or person was out of place, or missed its cue, or forgot their line, or any of the hundreds of small mistakes that go into shooting a film; you couldn’t have a single one with this film. This is truly the pursuit of perfection, plain and simple. Amazingly enough, it was only the third take that successfully pulled the film off, and is shown as the final product; only two screw-ups preceded it, owing to technical faults. That’s amazing right there; you’d expect something to go wrong on the first few takes, probably the first few dozen takes or so, but they managed it on attempt number three. Nice. The single-take Steadicam shot means we essentially float through the whole picture, and indeed our first-person narrator is heavily implied to be a spirit or incorporeal being of some kind. Whether that’s an experience you would like to have is up to each of you; I found it quite welcome, though I couldn’t have cared less what the actual story was, or even if there really was a story.

Roger Ebert is quoted on the DVD cover for this film (and on the poster up there) as calling it “one of the most astonishing films ever made”. I’d have to agree; this is astonishing, all right, but not for the reason the marketing department cut that quote out and put it on the DVD cover for. It’s astonishing just for the sheer effort and detail that went into getting the single take absolutely flawless; calling the plot or story or effect of the film “astonishing” is merely acknowledging the behind-the-scenes effort, not because the finished film itself is all that wondrous. Really, the gimmick of the single take is really the only reason to watch this one; the film itself is apparently a pastiche of the many eras of Russian history all in one building, with cultural references throughout of Russian art and importance, but since I wasn’t Russian, most of it flew over my head, with only a passing anthropological interest in the history of Russia that’s on display on my part. Some of the scene settings were pretty impressive, and the product as a whole is highly impressive from a technical standpoint, and if anything that’s the main reason to watch this one, but if you’re watching this expecting an actual film, you might want to consider watching something else.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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