Best of the Decade Derby: Russian Ark

Historical background:

Saturday, September 28, 2002, 3:00PM - 39 th New York Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall

An obvious choice for this list, perhaps, it announces itself as a post-millennial milestone.   And in that regard it invites skepticism or ridicule.   But one has to consider it from all possible aspects: as a costume parade, a theme park, a historical and cultural meditation; as performance art, a museum tour, and (not or )an industrial commercial for digital filmmaking.  Some complain that the constant camera movement propels us too much, that there isn't sufficient space for stasis and meditation.   Personally I found a strong countercurrent in that everyone in this film has a fixed place -even as we move with the off-screen narrator through one set piece to the next, our position is fixed through the frame - the screen we watch stays still.   Are we moving, or is the world moving before us?   This is echoed in the Marquis' ambivalent regard of his surroundings, and in the final image of the sea outside in a state of endless churning, endlessly still.

I can think of very few recent films that implant its way of seeing in a viewer as distinctively as Russian Ark .   That was certainly true when I saw it at the New York Film Festival; I left the grand screening room along with 1,000 other viewers flooding into and floating through the lobby and out into Broadway, borne aloft by ourselves and by the film - we became the film as surely as the film had become part of us.   I could hear Sokurov's detached, bewildered whisper voicing my perception of the surroundings - look at all these people, as destined to die and as alive in this moment as the digitally captured antique humans we just witnessed.   Look, there's Wes Anderson, encircled by admirers asking him what he thought of the film.   What is he saying that everyone is hanging on every word?   He says that a lot of the historical Russian stuff went way over his head, but he couldn't get over that one shot of the girls with flowers in their flowing tresses twirling and scampering down the hallway.

Certainly, a beauty that transcends cultural specificity is at least part of what Sokurov is after.   But is it possible to understand Russian Ark without appreciating the historical context - is gawking at the girls enough?    As one of the charter members of the Platform Fan Club, I'm all for dogged specificity and emphasis on the geopolitical -- and it needn't be in favor of the films either.   Dan Edwards, doing a great riff on David Walsh, writes of Russian Ark , "While the sheer material grandeur of Russia's upper classes prior to 1917 cannot be denied, it seems deeply abhorrent to nostalgically celebrate and mourn the passing of that grandiose tradition without any acknowledgment of the absolutely grinding poverty upon which this opulence was built." What response can be offered to such a formidable critique?     Is it possible to embrace this film without lamenting its seeming disregard for the masses?

Perhaps Russian Ark can be seen as a perverse inversion of early Soviet filmmaking.   Instead of eye-blistering montages, we get one super-extended shot, where the montage is in a disjunctive mise-en-scene, perpetually unfolding. Instead of peasants elevated to regal status, we get rulers reduced to a petty humanity - Catherine the Great searching for a piss pot, oodles of nobles standing around or walking, living lives with as high a quotient of banal lack of incident as the rest of us.

I don't necessarily endorse this tactic so much as I recognize how it's symptomatic of a larger trend in international culture, one also touched on in Guy Maddin's brilliant The Saddest Music in the World .   As Benjamin Halligan writes, the film manages to be both an introspective reflection and an outward promotional piece about Russia's potential to contribute and reconnect with both Continental and global culture.   This paradoxical depiction - that of a mighty national legacy with a down-home underbelly, embodied in grandiose figures who are also rendered as beneficent, mortal, and a tad pathetic, packaged for entry in the global marketplace -   can also be seen In Zhang Yimou's Hero and the domestic persona of George W. Bush (the least successful export item of the three).   The examples are all symptoms of neo-imperialist culture, a global competition over dreams of universal power and representations of entire peoples - a global battle that seems to play out somewhere way beyond where you and I exist.

While I don't necessarily disagree with what the former me wrote above, I'm having a hard time resolving it with what I felt watching it recently (third or fourth screening but first since 2005). There's no question that it's a unique work, but somehow the novelty of the film's formalist charms gave way to a new impression, something reinforced by a comment made by German filmmaker Christoph Hochhausler when I spoke with him about the film in Berlin. To him, the film amounts to one big bet that Sokurov, once his camera starts moving, must win by all means - as long as he gets those 90 minutes in, it doesn't necessarily matter what's in those 90 minutes. This was definitely a suspicion that came to mind when I watched it this time around. Of course, there are some stupendous moments of jaw-dropping beauty in the film, but there are also several passages when it feels like Sokurov is just letting the camera roll, focusing on nothing really in particular, either because the next set piece isn't quite ready or he didn't have a full set of ideas to play with visually in the current scene. Or there just aren't a whole lot of ideas put in play.  I mean, all the ideas I touch on in my earlier write-up are more of a cumulative impression of this film, but on a scene-by-scene basis the film feels like more of a sketch-level rendering of those ideas; his treatment of centuries' worth of Russian history feels willfully oblique.  This fatuousness is especially evident in the climactic ballroom scene, where the camera swings from one end of the room to the other, then back, with a little hint of romantic intrigue caught on camera, a lot of costume spectacle and not much else.

I might be overstating the case against the film in the wake of this disappointing recent viewing - there is still something stunning about the beauty of this film and its unique manner of exploring ideas of nation and history (though another thing that's become evident is how impatient I'm becoming with Sokurov's totemic approach towards those ideas). One thing I'll always carry with me is the film's Russian Ross McElwee/Michael Myers first-person lensmanship as it probes through space and time. It recalls submerged childhood fantasies of moving invisibly through the world, which may be why the film blew me away when I first saw it beyond all other considerations.