Sunday, December 22, 2013
Best to confess at the outset, confused and contradictory reactions to Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 “Russian Ark.” I suppose this reaction is warranted because “Russian Ark” is insanely ambitious, an attempt to embody the entire destiny of Europe in one film, and, what’s more, one single gargantuan tracking shot. The film’s cyclopean edifice, St. Petersberg’s Hermitage Palace, contains thousands of extras, the greatest paintings in the world, several theaters that seem to be simultaneously presenting ballet and opera, as well as madmen, sailors, Tsars and Tsarinas, and angels; the film’s credits include 12 wigmakers, dozens of ballroom dance coaches, experts in 19th century Tsarist court protocol, and Martin Scorsese. Briefly (and baldly) stated, Sokurov’s thesis is that Russia may not have been wholly European at the time of Peter the Great and the erection of the Hermitage in the northern swamps. But by 1913, Russia and its monarchy epitomized the last of Europe, its final flowering and the spiritual heirs to the cultural and intellectual treasures of the continent. This legacy is somehow preserved in the “Russian Ark,” that is, the Hermitage collections and its ghost-haunted imperial colonnades and ballrooms. Sokurov’s majestic 93 minute Steadi-cam shot ends with a procession of thousands of brilliantly costumed members of the Russian aristocracy descending an enormous stairway -- the image seems somehow designed to echo, and act as restitution, for Eisenstein’s famous Odessa steps sequence at the inception of the Soviet era in “The Battleship Potemkin.” At the base of the stairway, which occupies acres of terraced marble, there is a vast vaulted hallway and the crowds of glittering nobles and noblewomen, resplendent in pearls and ostrich plumes, parts as the camera races ahead of them, ending with a shot through a doorway that opens onto a vast grey and featureless sea. Sokurov’s ghostly narrator, his unseen Dante touring the Hermitage galleries, remarks enigmatically that the people haunting the Hermitage will live forever -- something, of course, that we know to be untrue, at least in a literal sense. (In one exceptionally beautifully lit and choreographed passage, we have seen girls dressed in Grecian robes dancing down a great marble hallway -- one of the lovely nymphs is the Tsar’s daughter, Anastasia.) It is hard to reconcile the opposites held together by the film: Russia is profoundly Asiatic and, yet, at the same time, the great final repository of European values; the aristocrats that we see flowing like the waters of Niagara over the huge glacier of marble steps are all doomed and, yet, Sokurov tells us that they will live forever; the Hermitage is an ark preserving both the most glorious art work ever made, paintings by Rembrandt and Poussin, Rubens and El Greco, and, yet, also curates the horrors of the 20th century -- in one chilling scene, we are shown a wintry storage room, huge like everything else in the film, and told that this is where caskets were made during the Siege of Leningrad in which a million people died; the narrator, who stands in for Sokurov, it seems, knows this and warns his interlocutor not to enter this frigid and deadly space. The interlocutor, apparently a French philosophe, steps into the cold zone of empty frames and caskets to encounter a man driven mad by famine who bellows at him that he is walking across a terrain of corpses. And, indeed, there are other horrors in the Hermitage -- in one scene, Peter the Great apparently sentences his son to death; in another scene, set sometime in the Stalinist era, the museum’s administrators debate whether they are under surveillance by the authorities. It is curious and inexplicable to me that our tour guide for our trip through the Hermitage is not a Russian at all but a gaunt. Voltaire-like Frenchman, a fellow who says that Pushkin is “nothing special” and marvels at the fact that he is somehow able to speak such fluent Russian. I presume that Sokurov needed an interlocutor, someone to talk to his ghostly narrator (who wakes up from darkness, vaguely recalling an accident, and finds himself at the door to the Hermitage). Furthermore, I assume that the man’s status as a “stranger” -- the way he is identified in the credits -- allows the narrator to provide exposition, that is, to tell the interlocutor, things that have to explained but that would otherwise go unspoken. But still the device is puzzling: why this diplomat from the Congress of Venice? Why does he prance and dance around in some scenes? Why does he puff out his cheeks and engage in a “blowing” contest with a page-boy? These are episodes, among several, that I simply can’t understand. And, of course, the film’s amazing narrative style, a single unbroken 93 minute take involving thousands of extras and every conceivable kind of space and light -- there are scenes shot in back staircases in almost complete darkness, opera imagery staged by candelabra, modern galleries lit by electric lights, and, finally, glacial-blue outdoor scenes when the camera passes between wings of the vast building -- this famous and confounding “mise-en-scene” poses the greatest riddle of all. Why does Sokurov choose to shoot the film in a single take? Certainly, this stylistic device doesn’t clarify the space that the camera moves across -- to the contrary, the interior of the Hermitage is a maze, an impossibly complex labyrinth comprised of a warren of tight, dim rooms opening into half-mile vistas down great marble corridors. We are immediately trapped in the maze and have no sense how it fits together -- the camera motion is not persistently forward but, often, confusingly retrograde, moving forward and backward within galleries, tracking characters for a minute or so at a time only to lose them in the brocade and alabaster distances of the palace. I presume Sokurov intends the tracking motion to make palpable to idea that a single building can be an ark -- that is, the magically vast and commodious receptacle of everything that is wise and beautiful and wonderful about European civilization. But the concept is more expressive in theory than practice and, as we marvel at Sokurov’s technical acumen, we are also baffled by the enormous waste of energy invested in the artifice -- why not do as Hitchcock did in “Rope” and hide a few cuts in the dark spaces between galleries? Sokurov’s point, I suppose, is organic -- one of the triumphs of the West and Europe is film and the art-film in particular and for the ark to contain all of Europe’s culture and achievements (and all of its misery as well) film and film technique must be represented. As with Tarkovsky, I sense that for Russian film makers, the long takes are a necessary counter-balance to Eisenstein’s fast editing and dialectical montage -- but it would seem that the point could be made in some way that is less intrusive and exhausting.