Usually in film, we have an omniscient camera that is the god of the film, nothing is hidden from it and we see according to plan. That’s old and adapted from theater. Here we have a floating eye that doesn’t just see, the way audiences saw live theater, perspective floats into space it constructs. In Russia, this sort of thing begins with Tarkovsky, but has cinematic roots in Japan and further back to the Buddhist cosmology of the floating world.
This camera narrates. It puzzles about being in a story. Is it real? Is it staged? Is it something that we make happen?
The first part is a quest for answers. The second part is attempting connections in this world. No dice. We’re continuously ushered out of every room. There are random shifts in time. There is a mysterious guide that we are tethered to, and for as long as we are, there is anxiety and inner monologue. There is thought and trying to make sense.
When we lose him and cut out on our own, there is peace and just rooms and people that float by.
So, this had potential to be something groundbreaking, a Marienbad for our times. But the gist of what matters is obscured by two things, both formal, both irrelevant.
One, is that you go into it knowing it was all shot in one take, publicity has taken care that you do. Suddenly it’s about technical execution. There could’ve been a dozen cuts in there and it wouldn’t matter.
The other is that, because it has been conceived on a lavish scale, many viewers seem to have experienced this as just a museum tour, a costume ball. The filmmaker may have coaxed funds by selling it as a cultural item of prestige, and may even himself labor under the concept, but why settle for a formal visit? I urge you to discard the paintings being Rubens or not, the woman being Catherine the I or II. What difference does it make?
Let this be an introspective affair between the eye and ghostly images it gives rise to. Look for someone else in that camera, next to the narrator. If you meet the narrator, kill him.
Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “cuts,” since this was a continuous shot from beginning to end. This is what made the film so unusual, and you are seeing everything through the lens of the narrator. It is built around Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman.
I do like the way Sokurov uses the camera. It doesn’t always frame the action for you, it floats around the action, creating almost a feeling of cosmic indifference.
I actually didn’t know the film was done all in one take. That’s pretty incredible considering the amount of people that could have made single mistakes.
I believe that after they had rehearsed over and over to get it right, they had to shoot the actual film three times. Three times being the charm. It’s quite an achievement. I’m pretty sure that’s what they say on the DVD.
Yes that documentary (or was it just a commentary track? both?) about making of the film is well worth watching. It was made right near the solstice, so the days were very short. They didn’t have much time to get set and shoot before it got dark. So, yeah, they had a couple of false starts. It was getting late, so the third shoot had to work or they were screwed since they didn’t have permission to continue another day. I like the film a lot, but when you get a look at all the logistics, it is really amazing.
I have to wonder about this obsession on Sokurov’s part with the single take. I get the challenge posed from a technical perspective, but it seems to have jeopardized a whole lot for very little.
I guess being the first just can’t be beat. It’s probably a guy thing.
Hey! An OP that mentions Tarkovsky and Buddhism—I’m in!
I really enjoyed this film, and am a Sokurov fan, anyway. I was impressed with the technical execution but that wasn’t the film for me, and I found myself forgetting it for a time and just being mesmerized with the experience, and then suddenly the realization would come flooding back and I would be just overwhelmed with awe.
I can understand your second point, though this also wasn’t an issue for me. Much as with The Mill and the Cross, which is akin to this film though it’s not all one take, the lavish production was astounding and let’s be honest, if you’re committed to telling the story in this way, setting it in a museum and making it about history, then the production has to be the way it was. Just a remarkable achievement.
Personally I haven’t seen a film from Sokurov I’ve liked. The obscene wide angle lense used here the whole time seemed obnonxious to me. And yes, the publicity tells you up front what the gimick is, so you can’t help but keep that at the forefront of your mind. Unless of course you get sucked in by something else, which I was for a bit at a few times, but not that often.
“obscene wide angle lens”
That made me chuckle. No disrespect, obvs. But why did you find it so disagreeable?
I liked Russian Ark but i get Riss’s point. Sokurov can be annoying/frustrating at the best of times, even if he can also be brilliant. some films work, others don’t. but he is always interesting.
“I have to wonder about this obsession on Sokurov’s part with the single take. I get the challenge posed from a technical perspective, but it seems to have jeopardized a whole lot for very little.”
I think Sokurov wanted to create a theatrical sense to this story, so the single take makes sense. Sokurov enjoys movement, almost constant movement, as seen in his recent adaptation of Faust as well. I suppose for some it can be a bit disorienting, but I really enjoy it, as he brings the viewer right into the film and makes him part of the action, as if in a dream. The “obscene wide angles” have long been part of his repertoire. See Mother and Son.
I loved Mother and Son.
I feel like it gives such a distorted sense of the space. I’m sincerely interested in the museum but I feel like I’m being treated to an exaggerated, almost cartoonish version of it.
The “obscene wide angles” have long been part of his repertoire.
I know, and that’s potentially part of why I haven’t really liked anything I’ve seen from him.
This is really just a personal aesthetic preference though.
And obviously I don’t dislike all use of obscene wide angle when appropriate. Kubrick used it to some great horror effects. I think a whole film in the style just keeps me on edge the whole time, and I don’t feel like that was Sokurov’s intention in his films for his audience, but that’s what it did to me.
It wasn’t a museum tour. It was a dream-like journey through Russian cultural history, which is why the distorted lens worked so well.
He often likes to collapse the image in the frame in a way, and almost remove the ‘depth’ from it, at least what we understand as depth in a traditional sense. It generally works, but can occasionally be distracting.
I liked Russian Ark but felt it was a one watch kind of deal. I could be wrong though.
There may be powerful and convincing reasons to abjure filmic devices like framing, sound, acting, cinematography, lighting, pacing et al, but Russian Ark makes no case for it. It’s more a case of the ‘trick’ one-take film getting more focus than the content. It’s a mess. Worse, it’s a boring mess. A Nice try, applaud it for that, but it couldn’t tie Tarkovsky’s bootlaces.
" A Nice try, applaud it for that, but it couldn’t tie Tarkovsky’s bootlaces."
What a silly comment. It was Tarkovsky who first recognized Sokurov’s talent. Sokurov repaid this great gesture in Moscow Elegy.
I like Moloch and Mother and Son better than Russian Ark.
It feels a big strange when directors I like are big fans of other directors I dislike
At least he didn’t use glass in between lenses like he did for Mother and son to distort the image. Alexandra was great. I haven’t seen Faust yet.
I didn’t say the director wasn’t talented, I said that film was a failure for the reasons it completely disregarded most filmic devices in favour of one long take, Whether Tarkovsky liked him or not is irrelevant to the finished film.
“I didn’t say the director wasn’t talented, I said that film was a failure for the reasons it completely disregarded most filmic devices in favour of one long take…”
Are we really going to argue tracking takes and steadicam shots have no ability to maintain a sense of pace, frame, lighting, sound or don’t allow actors to act?
The lead actor in Russian Ark has been acting for 46 years, 36 years when he appeared in Russian Ark.
The cinematographer worked as the steadicam operator with Bela Tarr, Michael Haneke, Christian Petzold, Michael Glawogger, Tom Tykwer, et. al..
He had 5 different people working in the sound department, over 50 gaffers, 4 co-writers along with Sokurov, two of which handled dialogue (one being Sokurov) the other’s chief job being to handle pacing in the script (one being Sokurov), a supervising cinematographer to take care of the overall aspect of cinematography while the credited cinematographer handled the steadicam operation himself, as well as a camera supervisor overviewing the HD camera, and 3 editors for a single take.
That’s disregarding the filmic aspects of this work?
I’m not even a huge fan of Sokurov. And I’m on record as saying he’s the most ‘literary’ filmmaker I’ve ever seen, in that I agree with the idea that he’s not overly concerned with profilmic elements as much as he is with internalized drama, but he disregarded nothing in this film.
It’s by far the most cinematic of his works, that I’ve seen.
At least he didn’t use glass in between lenses like he did for Mother and son to distort the image.
I wondered how exactly that was done. I figured it must have been something like that.
semantics… let’s change ‘completely’ disregarded to ‘under utilised filmic devices’, maybe not intentionally.
My point is even good filmmakers make bad films. Putting a brilliant cameraman in charge of a steadicam and telling him to wander around a museum for 2 hours in bad light, does not produce his best results?
FAL: “I’m not even a huge fan of Sokurov. And I’m on record as saying he’s the most ‘literary’ filmmaker I’ve ever seen, in that I agree with the idea that he’s not overly concerned with profilmic elements as much as he is with internalized drama, but he disregarded nothing in this film”
I’m not sure about that Fal, unless i have misinterpreted you. A.S would have to be one of the most concerned with ‘profilmic’ elements. I think that is partially why a lot of people find his work so hard to get into because its artificiality often calls attention to itself. As for the ‘internalized drama’, it’s true, there is a lot of that in his work, but quite often his films are so opaque that it’s neither here nor there.
I agree with you about Russian Ark being one of his most purely cinematic works though, but i think that, out of the A.S films i’ve seen, his films work almost purely on the level of visuals and mood and have a sensual quality to them that transcends whatever dramatic conflict he is presenting on screen.
The history films tend to be more on that ‘internalised drama’ kick though.
I think we are seeing cultural differences when it comes to film making. Russian film still has a pretty strong link to the theater. Many of the actors move from one medium to the other without much problem and directors like Sokurov have a strong sense of the stage. His drama is indeed often internalized, which to me is what makes it stronger and often more meaningful. This was particularly true in Molloch, which just as easily could have been a play, as little as conventional cinema figured into this tale of Hitler on the even of his Russian invasion.
As has been noted, Russian Ark was one film where he gave himself almost completely over to cinema. It was a stunning visual feast. What makes the film different was the lack of a conventional story line. It was like being ushered into a grand ball of Russia’s cultural past. If the viewer didn’t know much about Russian cultural history, the many allusions would have sailed right over the viewer’s head. As for the apparently disorienting camera techniques, they were used largely to convey the sense of movement and great sweep of events, with the idea of the great flood, which swept through Petersburg in the early 18th century, playing a big part in the film. It was out of these flood waters that Petersburg was born, and Russian cultural history as we know it today.
“Putting a brilliant cameraman in charge of a steadicam and telling him to wander around a museum for 2 hours in bad light, does not produce his best results?”
It’s not at all semantics. Sokurov employed over 50 people to look after the lighting in this film; as a comparison, Avatar, one of the most expensive films ever made, had 3 credited gaffers.
Rewatch the finale:
The lighting there is gorgeous. In a single take, in a labyrinthian museum the light constantly changes, finds the appropriate texture for the room.
That’s a sign of great lighting, not under-utilized, bad lighting.
“As for the ‘internalized drama’, it’s true, there is a lot of that in his work, but quite often his films are so opaque that it’s neither here nor there.”
I was pointing to works like Spiritual Voices and Confession, in which the entirety of the action revolves around watching men do, essentially nothing while a narrative is narrated over the top of it.
That’s intensely literary, that’s intensely internalized.
Here’s an interview part done by Paul Schrader to Sokurov where they talk about it.
P.S.: In Telluride, a friend of mine who is a cinematographer saw Mother and Son and went to your cinematographer and said, “I figured out how you did it,” but your cinematographer wouldn’t confirm his hypothesis. So I’ll ask you: how did you achieve those unique distortion effects?
Sokurov: [Laughs] I’ll tell you. It was much easier than you think. There is just one principle, and I think that this is a very important one. I have stopped pretending that the image onscreen is dimensional. My first goal is that images have to be flat, as well as horizontal. Secondly, it has to be a comprehensive reading of artistic and aesthetic traditions – I’m not shooting a concrete picture of nature, I’m creating it. In [Mother and Son] I’m using a couple of simple mirrors, large panes of glass, as well as brush and paint, and then I look into the lens -
P.S.: You put the glass in front of the lens?
Sokurov: Yes, in front, and on the side, and behind, placing them on different support structures. It’s very hard, very particular, and a long process. I destroy real nature and create my own.
P.S.: And then you’re spraying on these pieces of glass and mirrors?
Sokurov: There is no spraying. I work with very thin, delicate painting brushes. Like those used in traditional Chinese paintings.
You can say that again, Mr. Sokurov, on RUSSIAN ARK.