Russian Ark and the Latest Technology

It feels a little overwhelming that I’m sitting here in my cozy bedroom, typing away on a computer that isn’t over a decade old. And I’m only a few steps away from unlimited Internet access (at least until the battery runs out.) For millions, this is no big whoop. I’m sure it will feel like nothing extravagant or extraordinary to me with time.

Aleksandr Sokurov’s extravagant, extraordinary film, “Russian Ark”, might lose some, but not all, of its impact as Digital Video (DV) becomes more commonplace. For now, it is, in form, breathtaking to a degree like no other film since “Waking Life”. This 96-minute feature consists of just one continuous shot—no cuts, no staging tricks like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope". The only other film to attempt this was “Time Code”, which consisted of four continuous shots, all running simultaneously on a screen divided into quadrants. In theory, “Time Code” should seem like the more technologically impressive achievement. But where that film felt like a stunt made to display and exploit the capabilities of DV, “Russian Ark” seems like it was created for more artful, philosophical means.

It opens in total darkness. We hear the voice of an unidentified Russian filmmaker, unclear of his surroundings. We never see him, as the camera is his point of view. He finds himself in a museum (The Hermitage in St. Petersburg), only to have apparently stepped into another era. He watches a group of actors, dolled-up Eighteen Century style, rehearsing. Then, he encounters more figures in the same period garb, only they’re not acting. Eventually, he meets a jovial 19th Century French marquis who is the only person who can see him. The marquis becomes a tour guide of sorts as they cavort through the museum. What transpires is a journey through the past and the present. In some rooms, contemporary patrons admire the museum’s possessions; in others, historical figures whose likeness should be hanging on the walls (Catherine The Great, Nicholas I) appear in the flesh.

As the camera glides in and out and around these rooms and the figures inhabiting them, the significance of Sokurov’s achievement really starts to sink in. Not only because he successfully orchestrated all of the actors, their dialogue and movement in one shot (or “one breath” as he’s described it), but also because the result is so much fun to watch, provided that you’re willing to adapt yourself to its carefully controlled but unhurried pace. The journey he takes us on is at turns imaginative, provocative, playful, reflective, and joyous. At the film’s arresting climax, he re-creates the Grand Royal Waltz of 1913. As the camera gracefully weaves through a sea of dancers and spectators, one is reminded of Maya Deren’s experimental films and their fixation on ritual and movement, only at a gloriously massive scale. “Russian Ark” delivers as many thrills as a Hollywood blockbuster, only they’re of both the heart and the mind, and what synchronicity they’re capable of when given as much weight as the latest technology.