Take a Drink: for each move through history
Take a Drink: for each historical figure you recognize
Take a Drink: for great art
Take a Drink: whenever the Man in Black does something weird
Take a Drink: whenever he smells something
Do a Shot: whenever the Man in Black smells something
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Regular readers may have noticed how much I’ve bounced around the globe quite a bit in the last few years, and the present day sees me in Russia of all places. When I get here the place that was near the top of my to-see list was The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and just last month I finally got the chance to see it.
My feet will never be the same.
If you want to skip the airfare, though, watching Russian Ark is a pretty quality stand-in. Simply put, this is a 90 minute Steadicam shot journey through The Hermitage, and 300 years of Russian history.
Russian Ark is, first and foremost, an incredibly ambitious, incredibly realized technical achievement. Director Alexander Sokurov was given one day in the museum to complete this film, and his one-take idea meant that the slightest technical problem or line flub would mean starting all over again. It took three takes to get it right, and the successful third was also the last one they had time for. After it wrapped, Sokurov cried.
Meanwhile, I cry if the elevator’s out of order.
Besides Sokurov and the rest of the 2,000 + person cast, set designers, musicians, and production staff, the heroes of the production are unquestionably DP Tillman Bittner, who was also his own camera operator for the duration of the shot, and actor Sergey Dreiden, who’s mysterious European visitor leads the, well, camera (Sokurov voices its POV), through the museum, appearing in almost every minute of the film and delivering the lion’s share of the dialogue. Besides the pure arduousness of his performance, Dreiden’s odd Franco-Russian Christopher Walken-esque stylings add some weird, but much-welcomed humor to the proceedings.
The ICE… is gonna BREAK!
Content-wise, besides showing off this beautiful building and art collection, Russian Ark also gives us a bit of insight into the modern Russian psyche, after centuries still caught between Europe and its own unique Slavic and Asian characteristics, and imbued with a powerful selective nostalgia for times that spurred a revolution and a new, failed order. It’s a mindset, and a film, still searching for an identity.
You need to be pretty well versed in Russian history and psychology to get anything out of the plot in the film, and it sure helps to know art history and Russian literature to boot. Even then, most of the scenario is a mystery unless you know Dreiden’s character is based on a 19th century French marquis who wrote a critical travel memoir of his experiences in Russia. Yeah, this is more opaque than a latter day Lars Von Trier joint.
Sex, fly fishing, numerology… makes sense to me!
In a way, we are presented with two separate guides and points of view through the film- Dreiden’s and Sokurov’s (who is the disembodied voice of the camera). The effect keeps the audience at arm’s length. Instead of the camera being our POV, it’s commandeered by Sokurov’s pretentious blathering, which adds nothing Dreiden couldn’t have himself. If you want to be in your movie so badly, Sokurov, get in front of the camera.
One reviewer, Stanley Kauffman, asked of Russian Ark “What is there intrinsically in the film that would grip us if it had been made- even excellently made- in the usual edited manner?” My answer is… very little, but the audacity and technical achievement of this film cannot be ignored.