Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Must-See Cinema: Russian Ark 2002

Being a known -- and convicted -- cinephile, I'm a big fan of film technique. One of the techniques that I quite like is the "long take", wherein the camera keeps rolling through a lengthy shot, usually along with extensive camera movement. Think of the opening scene in Orson Welles' classic crime-noir Touch of Evil, where we start with a closeup of a bomb being planted in the trunk of a car, then follow that car with a crane shot as it drives a considerable distance through a Mexican border town, and finally explodes on the other side of the border.

Many films over the years have used this technique to great effect, arguably the most ambitious of which was Alfred Hitchcock's Rope from 1948, which tried to appear that it was all one long take. Because of the physical limitations of film, the longest take in the movie was about 10 minutes, before the camera ran out of film. Hitchcock "cheated" his way past this by having the camera blocked by a man's coat as it was about to run out of film, so the film looks as though it was just one long shot. It doesn't quite work, but it is interesting to watch.

Then came the advent of digital video equipment, which meant that you were not going to run out of film, and the length of an individual shot was limited only by the size of your hard drive.

Today's Must-See Cinema selection is Russian Ark, which is kind of the apotheosis of the long take: The whole movie, 96 minutes, is one long unedited shot.


An unnamed narrator wanders through the famed Winter Palace, one-time home of the czars and now the Hermitage Museum, in Leningrad St. Petersburg. As he passes through 33 rooms in the palace, he wanders into, in no particular order, set pieces of Russian history. They range from a homely view of Nicholas, the last czar, and his family enjoying a private meal, to Catherine-the-Great fancy dress balls with hundreds of participants. The whole movie had a cast of over 2,000 people, and pretty much all of them had to hit their marks and get it perfect. After all, it was one continuous shot.

I can't sing the praises of this filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, enough. He had only three tries to get it right, since the Russian authorities gave him an extremely limited amount of time to complete filming. The sheer audacity of this attempt pays off big time in the end, a visually stunning and mesmerizing tableau of over 200 years of Russian history. Don't try to make a lot of sense of it while you are watching it. Just flow with it. You can -- and will -- think about it later, after it is over.

This is one of my favorite foreign films of all time.

You can watch it streaming from Netflix , or you can watch it streaming on YouTube. My personal preference on this is Netflix, since you get it in HD and the quality is better.

More reading:
  · Russian Ark on the IMDB.
  · Russian Ark on Rotten Tomatoes