A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Russian Ark

March 11, 2010

Russian Ark

In the course of several store closings I’ve had opportunity to buy many movies I might not have otherwise.  This film made it into my collection based on the sheer bravado of its concept, but until tonight I’d never had a chance to watch it.  The concept: A massive film with a cast of thousands that is done in a single lengthy take.  That’s all I knew about it before putting in my DVD player.  And now that I’ve finally had a chance to watch it I have to say –

Okaaaay.  This is probably the strangest movie I own.  It’s like some kind of experimental student film but writ large with a huge budget and starring, more than anything else, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  If a Russian art history major had a fever dream it would be this movie.  I would postulate that the Hermitage is the titular ark, holding Russian culture and history through the chaotic waters of time.. but that’s only my own interpretation.

The film involves the journey of a nameless protagonist – who has no memory of where he is or how he got there – and from who’s perspective the whole film takes place.  You never see any part of the protagonist – he’s only a voice and the camera itself as you see the whole movie from his point of view.  He drifts through time, mostly incorporeal, accompanied only by a mysterious European who ambles alongside him from time period to time period disparaging Russian artistic accomplishment.  The narrator/protagonist has little will of his own, and is mostly drawn along with this odd stranger.  And, really, there’s no plot.  You do learn a little about the stranger (he’s a diplomat who has been to St. Petersburg once before, just after a disastrous fire.  He has no knowledge of much after the Russian revolution.)  And the narrator introduces the stranger to some of his contemporary friends at one point.  (A doctor and professor who, according to the closing credits, are played by themselves.)  It’s strongly suggested that they’re both dead.. and most of the people inhabiting the movie can’t see or hear them, though some can.. like the blind art critic lady, who may or may not be an angel.

As the two of them wander along they witness a number of historical figures such as Alexander the Great and Katherine the Great, even a young Anastasia.  But the movie isn’t really about these figures either.  It’s a piece of art that’s about art.  There are long, lingering pans over pieces in the museum, even loving attention to the china and silverware at a state dinner they drift by.

But what an amazing technical accomplishment the movie is!  The filmmakers really do a great job working with the all-in-a-single-take format.  A few camera tricks are used as transitions, mostly extreme zooms that lend an otherworldly quality to the film in certain parts.  I think they also pull some tricks in post, playing with the color saturation (most notably at the very end of the film.)  Most of the time the camera moves through the galleries and crowds at eye-level in a single unbroken steadycam tracking shot, but there are a couple very ethereal moments where it briefly dollies up and out, as if the narrator is floating away from the action.

It’s a hard movie to follow though, for a number of reasons.  Primarily because it has no plot to speak of.  But also because there’s a lot of overlapping dialog, and much of it is NOT translated by the subtitles.  To further muddy things much of the dialog was clearly re-recorded in post, and doesn’t match the actor’s lips a lot of the time.. so there can be confusion as to who, exactly, is speaking.  Perhaps it would be easier to understand if I spoke Russian.. but clearly I do not.

As a performance piece and as a delicious spectacle of beauty and elegance I respect this movie.  I don’t know how often I’ll watch it though.  It has to be witnessed all in one sitting I think, and you need to be ready for something pretty other-worldly.  I’ll bet there’s somebody out there who teaches an entire semester’s class on this one film alone.  It’s that kind of pretentious.

I will say that the climactic ball at the winter palace is a great way to cap it all off.  It’s just staggering the scale of this movie towards the end.  “In Soviet Russia – movie watches you!”  (Okay, so it was made in the post-soviet era.. but I just had to say it.)

March 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 11 – Russian Ark

Russian Ark – March 11, 2010

Tonight we’re back to what we were going to watch last night: Russian Ark, which was filmed in one long continuous take. It’s definitely an art piece, meant to be seen as not just the story it’s telling, but how it’s presented as a piece of film. The concept is half the point. Neither Andy nor myself had seen it prior to tonight, but we were both fascinated by the idea.

Oh, right, it’s in Russian, and subtitled. Sooo, I’m paying close attention to this.

First of all, let me say that this is possibly the most bizarre movie I’ve ever seen. I’m no stranger to weird independent concept films, but this one definitely takes the prize. Even aside from the single continuous take/single camera shot, the plot is bizarre too. It’s a time-travel sort of piece, with the narrator – whom you never see and is represented by the camera’s POV and a voice – and a companion he’s only just met seeming to travel through various periods in the history of Russia while walking through the Winter Palace. They start in the 1800s and move back and forth as they move from room to room.

I’m sure if I knew more about Russian history I’d have appreciated the plot, such as it is, more. I’m sure there’s all sorts of historical parallels being explored and alluded to. I’m sure some of the figures shown should have been immediately recognizable to me even unnamed. I’m sure I should have known the events being shown. But I don’t, which is a pity. The movie is so impressive as a concept piece, I desperately want to be able to appreciate it in its entirety, not just in its execution.

But I do appreciate the idea of it. Not just the single take thing, but the idea of taking a single place, a location which has existed through turmoil and so many periods of history, and exploring that history within that location. And the single take, using the camera as the narrator, works well to place the viewer in a very specific mode: The observer. The narrator repeatedly tries to keep his companion from interacting with the people present or from getting to close, lest they be noticed and ejected. And they are noticed and forced out of several rooms. But the narrator himself is never the reason.

I found it a little difficult to follow at times, but I blame the ADR for that. There were parts where it was obvious that the dialogue was being dubbed in and didn’t quite meet up with the film. In a subtitled film in a language I don’t know, that’s disorienting. But in some ways, it works for the bizarre dream-like quality the narrator seems to believe he’s in.

The narrator asks at one point “Is this a dream?” and his companion responds “Perhaps,” and then “I am wide awake.” An interesting question in an interesting movie. Take the title literally, which I believe you’re meant to, and it’s not certain whether the movie is a dream or more a series of echoes, preserved within the Palace, forever trapped and playing out for those who visit and watch.

I honestly don’t know what else to say about this movie. It’s going to be rough switching gears to go back to another cheesy vampire movie tomorrow night when we do The Tribe.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment