While going about their business, great artists often make monkeys of the people who write about them. Look at what happened to one chatterer, who not long ago was playing the critic in the New York Times. “There are two kinds of tough-minded, morally uncompromising artists in today’s film world,” he wrote, “those who want to make musicals and those who don’t…. Pre-eminent among the wallflowers is the Russian master Aleksandr Sokurov.”
Unknown to this monkey–me–the Russian master had just shot one of the most splendid ballroom scenes in film history. It’s the thrilling climax to Russian Ark, a movie that has absolutely no precedent, except for The Scarlet Empress, Gone With the Wind, The Leopard, Doctor Zhivago, the agglomerated screen translations of War and Peace and all other costume epics. Russian Ark sums up and surpasses these pictures in the sense that it’s nothing but feathers and pearls and epaulets and gold braid, music and color and figures out of the past. By cutting these things loose from the moorings of a plot–or even a single time period–Sokurov has allowed his sumptuous pleasures to flow freely, purely, without troubling you to remember which archduke is in debt to whose cousin.
But then, being tough-minded and morally uncompromising, Sokurov has also made Russian Ark into a haunted meditation on the disasters of history, and on our precarious efforts to rescue something from the flood. The melancholy that has pervaded many of his previous films–The Stone, for example, or Mother and Son–also seeps delicately through Russian Ark. It’s as if this picture wanted to hold still and be quiet, even as it launches into the longest tracking shot ever made.
Imagine a black screen, with no sound except for sparse, quiet, atonal music that sounds like someone’s nerves being re-strung in a neighboring galaxy. “I open my eyes and see nothing,” says a man’s voice in the darkness. “An accident. I can’t remember what happened.” Then, in a wan light that mutes the colors, figures appear in a small courtyard: women flushed with excitement, young officers laughing and hurrying forward in a light flurry of snow. The voice on the soundtrack remarks on what you’ve already noted: The costumes belong to the nineteenth century. But what is this place, the voice wants to know? Who are these people? The camera plunges after them, into a doorway, down a dark stair, through a confused hallway and up again, pressing on through the maze like the eye of the ghostlike narrator.
And for the next ninety minutes, this motion will never stop, as the camera eye wanders through what proves to be the State Hermitage Museum. No second camera will add its point of view; no cut will suddenly carry you into a different time or place. Russian Ark will turn out to be a single Steadicam shot, threading its way without interruption through dozens of different spaces and lighting conditions, while being threaded through itself by hundreds of choreographed performers. Some are in contemporary dress and some in costumes of earlier eras. Some represent historical figures (Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra) or nameless soldiers and aristocrats, while others appear as themselves: Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, for example, or the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev.
Considered just as a stunt, this single, feature-length shot is superlative, if not utterly mad. Think of the months of planning and rehearsal it required. Then picture the anxiety-racked day of the shoot: the assistants whispering frantically into their headsets, the grips trying to duck unseen past the camera (there were almost as many grips as credited performers), the heroic Steadicam operator Tilman Büttner carrying on long after his thighs must have turned to lead. Had anything gone visibly wrong in those ninety minutes, the whole movie would have been ruined.
Get beyond your astonishment at the magnitude of this feat and you begin to notice the directorial skill that sustains it. To give only two examples: When Sokurov wants to make a sudden jump in space–an effect that would have been easy to achieve, had he allowed himself any cuts–he cagily has a pair of hands intrude into the frame. You assume you’re seeing a close-up of the lead actor’s body; but unless I’m mistaken about this Wellesian trick, the hands actually belong to a stand-in. That’s how the lead actor can suddenly, magically be standing far away, in a place you’ve never seen before, when the camera looks up again. Here, Sokurov literally uses sleight of hand. Elsewhere he relies on something like the blocking traditionally practiced by good theater directors. A throng is flowing down the great stair of the Hermitage, carrying along the camera, when a man in the foreground seems to recall that he’s left something upstairs. He turns and begins to push his way back up, against the crowd; and so the camera turns, too, to follow him, allowing Sokurov to direct your attention to a different view of the architecture.
But even though it took daring to shoot a film in one take–daring, and awe-inspiring skill–what does the stunt mean? Sokurov has explained that he wanted to insert himself into the flow of time–a comment that strikes me as enigmatic and incomplete because there is more than one flow of time in this movie, or perhaps no flow at all. Since the Hermitage of Russian Ark is inhabited by the ghosts of three centuries, time stands still; since the historical period changes as you pass from room to room, time moves unpredictably. Maybe I can rephrase Sokurov’s statement: By taking place in real time, the shot becomes like a steady searchlight cutting through darkness, while the imagined eras are like eddies that pass intermittently through the beam.
This is something new–and its novelty goes deeper than the invention of machines that can record a feature-length take. It even goes beyond an artist’s determination to use this technology and his discovery of an appropriate purpose for it. Russian Ark alters the nature of cinema.
There have always been single-shot movies, starting with the Lumière brothers’ brief scenes of railroad stations and factories. But even when such films have been longer and more self-consciously artistic (as in the work of Michael Snow), they have revealed themselves to us as artifacts made by a machine, which mindlessly captured whatever was put in front of it. The people and settings were really present before the camera–that much we knew–but by the time they had appeared before us, they had become phantoms. Events staged for the camera are therefore more absent than present to the audience–except when filmmakers create choreographed tracking shots. Then the machine becomes less important than the intelligence that manifests itself, as we recognize that a mind is telling the camera and the actors where to go. Now the shot is more than the record of a performance. The passage through space and time becomes a performance in itself.
Such shot-performances have always had a fragmentary character, as contents of a greater whole–until now, when Sokurov has made the accomplishment of the shot exactly congruent with the movie. Russian Ark embodies, in its totality, the performance that his cast and crew carried out. The thing itself is now present before you, and will be present again each time you watch the film.
And yet, as I’ve said, Russian Ark is full of ghosts. (It sums up and surpasses all haunted-house movies.) Most notable among the spooks is a nineteenth-century French aristocrat (Sergey Dreiden): a long-faced, frizzy-haired phantom, trim in a tight black coat, who strides about with his arms clutched behind his back, dropping amused, condescending remarks about Russia and its people, and arousing some irritation from the camera-eye character. Though unnamed, the Frenchman is surely Chateaubriand–an ideal ghost for Sokurov’s purpose, since he is the author of Memoirs From Beyond the Grave, and also a sharp, disillusioned witness to the first age of revolution. With his celebrated sensitivity to fragrance, Chateaubriand goes through the Hermitage sniffing at paintings; and that’s as much respect as he’ll pay to the formal and material qualities that are so important to museumgoers today. Catholic and premodern in his understanding of art, Chateaubriand thinks only of iconography. He’s shocked that a painting of Cleopatra (half-naked at that) should be installed right next to a picture of the Virgin; he’s incredulous, and outraged, that a boy of our era, someone who is ignorant of the Bible, should pretend to understand an image of Peter and Paul.
That the Hermitage should have been built and decorated on Italian models seems to Chateaubriand the height of folly. “Italy is a warm country,” he reminds the camera-eye. But then, of course, the czars had to import architects and sculptors: “You Russians don’t trust your artists.” This is a particularly cutting remark, assuming that the camera-eye represents Sokurov, a Russian artist whose works were all shelved during the Soviet era. And yet, despite what he’s gone through, the camera-eye keeps defending the Russians to his smug interlocutor. He defends them until a change comes over Chateaubriand, who by the end of the great ballroom scene is no longer so mocking of his hosts. Everyone is leaving, the camera-eye says, as the aristocrats begin to pour down the stairs, toward the end of their era. Aren’t you coming?
Chateaubriand shakes his head and steps back. “There’s nowhere to go,” he replies. “I’ll stay.”
It’s a gorgeous moment–although, if Russian Ark has a fault, you might locate it in this nostalgia for aristocratic splendor. The film might have benefited from one, just one, of those title cards that clutter The Scarlet Empress: “Under the despot’s heel, the poor cry for bread and freedom,” or something like that. But Sokurov gives no hint of goings-on outside the palace walls. The film not only repudiates the Soviet past (by abandoning all montage, for one thing, and so pissing on the grave of Eisenstein) but also remains shut up inside the Hermitage–the ark–as if the whole twentieth century had been a flood, from which a few precious remnants of imperial culture have been saved. I won’t disagree politically with this sentiment–it’s Sokurov, not I, who has to live with this history, so let him think as he pleases–but I question the way its pessimism clashes with the movie’s spirit. Everything about Russian Ark is ingenious, exuberant, risky, bold. I find it strange that Sokurov should expend such tremendous energy, such genius, in making the film and then pretend, at the end, that we’re all just holding on.
Let that be a topic for further discussion. I prefer to close with a comment on another form of pessimism, peculiar to those Americans who have learned to disdain art. It’s the conviction (recently expressed in a number of newspaper articles) that film festivals have no reason to exist, unless they help studios to market their pictures. Just what the world needs: more sales opportunities for Hollywood products.
So I note that Russian Ark will be shown in one of the most severely curatorial of these supposedly useless events, the New York Film Festival, which begins September 27. When I endorse the festival, readers ought to know that I am not a disinterested observer; I have spent some time on its selection committee. And I say, even so: If the festival had done nothing in its forty seasons except launch Russian Ark on US screens, it would have justified its existence for all time.
I’m glad to say the festival’s presentation of Russian Ark sold out almost immediately. If you’re not among the lucky ones holding a ticket, look for a nationwide release, starting in New York and Los Angeles sometime in October.