Friday, 5 September 2014

Russian Ark: A Cinematic Museum Visit

Russian Ark 2002 film Alexander Sokurov poster

Pretty much everything I know about Russian history boils down to three things: Stalin was a murderous bastard, Peter the Great was an epicly drunk murderous bastard who trained bears pull carts and serve vodka, and Vladimir Putin gave a new meaning to the phrase "massive, purulent cunt that squirts angry bees infected with AIDs". It's not a very oft-used term.

Vladimir Putin binoculars massive purulent cunt that squirts angry bees infected with AIDs
He does regain points by being the most homo-erotically charged Bond villain since Raoul Silva
As a crash course in Russian history, then, I decided to pick up Alexander Sokurov's technological and organistational nightmare, Russian Ark, and see how much history it could learn me in 90 minutes. The answer is quite a bit.

Russian Ark follows, through the eyes of a nameless narrator (a dead museum curator) voiced by the director, the 19th Century French travel writer, the Marquis de Custine, as he and the narrator wander through the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, witnessing various moments in the building's and Russia's history. Narrative-wise, it doesn't get much deeper than that; two guys wander around a museum and watch shit happening, and seeing as it's all shot in first person, you end up becoming very familiar with the back of the Marquis' head.

Russian Ark 2002 film Alexander Sokurov Maquis de Custine back folded arms present modern museum scene
That cannot be a very comfortable way to fold your arms.
Frankly, you probably only really know of this movie thanks to it's rather intriguing and unique use of a single continuous take for it's entire 90-minute run time. I won't linger too much on this bit seeing as it's the only thing anyone ever says about the film, but can we just take a moment to appreciate the effort that must have gone into that? The cinematographer, Tillman Buttner, had to survive 90+ gruelling minutes of lugging a heavy steady-cam around a museum with one trip, misplaced light or malfunctioning actor spelling disaster for the whole project. With thousands of cast members, three full orchestras and fuck-ton of stairs, that's an unbelievable feat worthy of it's own documentary. Even Hitchcock kept it to only one room. However I did say I wouldn't focus on this aspect of the movie so let's move on to what it's actually like as a film, which is gorgeous.

Russian Ark 2002 film Alexander Sokurov Anastasia Russian teenager girls scene
Credit to Butt(snigger)ner where it's due, he managed to frame some astounding shots, made all the more mesmerising by the vast sets and beautiful costume design present. A particular joy is a short scene in which an elderly Catherine II runs through the snow in a rooftop garden, followed by the narrator. It highlights the almost...well, not almost...the completely enveloping dream-like quality that pervades the film thanks to the calm fluidity of the camera and the ghostly vignettes of moments past and present that haunt the hallways of the building. Shit, I'm sounding all artsy and fappy again; quick, here's a picture:

Russian Ark 2002 film Alexander Sokurov Catherine 2 II snow courtyard scene
She's making plane noises with her mouth.
Bad thing: by building the film around these little snippets of Russian history, Sokurov made it very difficult for himself to actually create a coherent overarching narrative. Yes, it is fascinating to see a man making his own coffin during the Siege of Leningrad, but once we move on to the next room he'll immediately be forgotten. Even the relationship between the narrator and the Marquis doesn't extend much further than the two bickering less as the film goes on; it's disappointing to not see more of a burgeoning understanding between the pair, essentially representations of Russia's collective conscious and the scornful eye of Europe respectively. The film as a whole seems to be like a documentary all chopped up and put in the wrong order; there's hella information crammed in here but most of it in an order completely counter-productive to creating a story. Conversations are started and never finish, characters trail off mid-sentence. It's all a bit of a mush; a beautiful, mesmerising, confusing mush.

Russian Ark 2002 film Alexander Sokurov Maquis de Custine porcelain plate party table scene
"Ah yes, this is very fine mush."
That said, this confusion could be to do with the other major flaw in Russian Ark: the sound. Thanks to the technical restrains of the extended shot (and Buttner's constant cursing), all of the sound was added in post-production, sometimes not with the deftest of skill...

Russian Ark 2002 film Alexander Sokurov grand ball orchestra scene
The whole orchestra is done by a foley artist with a kazoo.
Footsteps are infuriatingly out of sync and manage to sound identical moving from wood to marble, while the lip syncing is lazy at best. Much of the dialogue was evidently recorded with little thought about the depth of the sound, so a character behind the camera sounds like they're coming from the exact same spot as someone to the right or the narrator himself. Mixed with the off lip syncing, sporadic subtitling and my poor ability at distinguishing between gruff Russian voices, I spent most of the movie unsure who was talking, what they'd actually said and to whom.

Russian Ark 2002 film Alexander Sokurov Tsar apology audience scene
"Who farted?"
All in all, Russian Ark has kind of hit an uncanny valley of success. It really is very pretty and fascinating both on a historical and technical level, but it's also dull as dishwater when ten minutes are spent on staring at paintings and utterly inept when it comes to aspects of post-production that are usually taken for granted. Despite that, I finished the film entertained and contented. There's a lot to see and hear and I can imagine if I went back to watch it again, there would be even more hidden away to make the second outing just as fresh. It's not quite a fun Friday evening movie, but certainly worth the time for those who want to invest it.

Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

Walking Around A Museum With A Go-Pro -
It'll only not piss everyone else off if you dress up and close the whole place for a night.

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