March 4, 2003

In Russian Ark, technical wonders outshine plot blunders

Short takes and quick cuts are a film school trick, useful for fledgling directors and recently promoted music video hacks who want to underline their ability to visualize a scene from every conceivable angle in their mind's eye. (Plus, they think that audiences get bored if they go too long without seeing an edit.) Long takes are also a film school trick, not only because a number of great directors preferred the long take--Renoir used it a lot, and Hitchcock tried to shoot Rope in one take but kept running out of film--but also because movie sets are subject to greater laws of entropy than ordinary places. One can expect the shot to go on for only so long before a production assistant walks into the frame or a day player flubs a line. Given the place in which it is produced, the long take is like a spectacular martial parade that lets a director show off the power he wields on his set.

Long takes are more than a mere technical device, however; they're becoming increasingly popular in the international cinema as a storytelling device. In most cases, directors employ them to slow down the movie's pacing. Rather than cutting and compressing long periods of time into an hour-and-a-half, directors choose to drag time out and make the audience feel each minute as it passes. Where quick edits are a way of distracting us from the gradual passage of time, long takes are a way of focusing on events longer than we ordinarily would and of making each moment seem longer than it otherwise might. Russian Ark, which contains the longest take in film history, tries to do both: it collapses several hundred years of Russian history into 90 minutes and yet it tries to draw out a simple stroll through a museum for as long as it can.

Even conceptually Russian Ark sounds like a logistical nightmare, one that required either the most patient or most obsessive crew on the planet (or perhaps both). There are two gimmicks in the premise: first, the movie is a single continuous shot, lasting for 96 minutes; second, the camera itself is a character, a ghost traveling through the halls of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, alternately guiding and guided by another ghost, a French aristocrat known during his life for his scathing travelogues about Russia. To my knowledge, the first gimmick has never been pulled off successfully; compliments at this point ought to be extended to a particularly hardworking steadicam operator, and to cinematographer Tilman B├╝ttner. The second gimmick, which understandably has received less attention from previous reviewers, has to my knowledge been tried only once, in a rather mediocre adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake. As you can see, this isn't so much a complete movie as it's a stunt, and I suppose one has to adjust one's standards of quality accordingly. As Dr. Johnson once said, when a dog walks upright on his hind legs the wonder isn't that he does it well, but that he does it at all.

The plot quite obviously had to be tapered to fit the camerawork, and the final product is part museum documentary and part historical costume drama. Formerly a palace of the Czars, the Hermitage is now a public art gallery. The camera and his guest travel through the halls of the museum, occasionally marveling over the paintings, and occasionally running into scenes from Russian history. The scenes unfold in roughly chronological order, and are reflections of events that actually happened at some point in time within the Hermitage. So we begin at an opera hosted by Catherine II, and end at one of Nicholas II's final royal parties. In between we run into Pushkin (who's given no lines), watch Nicholas I receive ambassadors from Persia, and watch Czarina Anastasia and her friends play in the halls of the palace. Because sets, actors, and equipment had to be moved from room to room during the 90 minutes of production, the lulls are filled in with speeches about Russian culture. The marquis holds forth on the defects of Russian music, the wonderful smell of oil on canvas, and his fondness for the works of Rubens and Van Dyk (who were Dutch, but no matter). When another scene finally gets set up, the camera is shuttled out of one room to have a chance run-in with a past state function of great importance in another room.

I would argue that listening to a dead French aristocrat and an off-screen narrator converse about the proper way to hang paintings in a gallery is boring; this is only because it is boring. An hour-and-a-half is about my limit for museums, and then the percussive tapping of feet on a parquet floor and the scowls of museum docents begin to wear me down. (Quick aside: can museums, and I'm thinking in particular of museums in Europe, please develop a consistent backpack policy? I had two guards in two connected rooms of the Reijksmuseum tell me to carry my backpack in the museum and alternately not to carry it. Sheesh. Good thing I was stoned.) But I realize that something has to fill the downtime, and I suppose I can't really begrudge the director, Alexander Sokurov, this device. His choice of a star--and it's clearly the museum itself--may have presented him with his greatest challenge though, and it's the one he doesn't really meet: the demands of the production failed to allow enough time to adequately ponder either the current state of Russia, or the damage incurred during the 20th century.

Russian Ark makes the Hermitage Museum a repository not only of the art of Russia but more abstractly of the enlightened aspects of the Russian soul. The nobles filing down the grand staircase at the end the movie isn't mourning the end of the aristocracy (this isn't a political movie) but the end of Russia's grander aspirations. From then on nobody would endeavor to build something like the Hermitage--not the Soviet dictators, nor the politicians in the current government (when asked to classify it, the narrator says he doesn't know how to). The title's metaphor comes back into play in the movie's final image, as the museum appears to be adrift in a storm-tossed sea, and the final words leave the impression that it may be out there forever. This of course is not an uncommon theme in discussions of contemporary Russia. Before he came back for good, Alexander Solzhenitsyn speculated that it might take hundreds of years for Russia to heal from 75 years of Soviet rule. Sokurov seems even more fatalistic. The odd thing is that this contradicts his central metaphor. The ark did not remain out at sea forever; it contained the elements of a future world.

That kind of fatalism is hardly indicative of the entire movie, however. Russian Ark is clearly proud that a thing like the Hermitage Museum exists to begin with, and the placement of a Frenchman (movie shorthand for a snob) in the center of the action tells us that one cannot help but be impressed by the museum's contents. The same goes, I think, for the movie itself: as we follow the shot and realize that nobody tripped over the camera operator or dropped a wine glass on his foot, we begin to realize just how difficult this project must have been. That hardly makes it a great movie, and I doubt that anyone would say that it is, but it at least makes it a useful and enjoyable technical exercise.