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Russian Ark (2002) – Nostalgia is Always Beautiful… Tyranny isn’t.

February 9, 2010

Let us begin in the manner in which we intend to continue : By considering a point of medieval philosophy.  The 14th Century Logician William of Ockham once noted that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.  This venerable principle of ontological parsimony is most often wheeled out in order to see off the speculations of some of our more extravagantly theological or mystical co-humans.  Those who would wish into existence a vast metaphysical infrastructure where competing theories would make do with the smallest of particles and the most elementary of forces.  Given a set of facts, why would you not choose the explanation that accounted for those facts in the simplest manner?  In order to answer this question, we must first ascertain what constitutes simplicity.

The problem is that simplicity is one of those slippery terms that philosophers wheel out when an impasse is reached.  When discussing a philosophical theory, differing thinkers will first look for logical inconsistencies, then for factual incongruities, but eventually they will fall back upon a host of rather subjective and nebulous aesthetic principles : “It is counter-intuitive!” they will sniff.  “That solution is unclean when compared to the alternative” they will remark.  “It is insufficiently simple” they conclude.  Of course, this is a cynical and simplistic characterisation of the problem.  Theorists of Artificial Intelligence such as Ray Solomonoff and Marcus Hutter have made great strides in devising mathematical and statistical models of ontological parsimony fleshing out that which has, for far too long, been a refuge for intellectual scoundrels.  My assessment, however, does raise an interesting question.

Is simplicity culturally relative?  Following Ockham, we demand that extraordinary claims be supported by extraordinary amounts of evidence but what this often means is that unpopular and dissenting opinions have to work harder to gain traction.

Consider, for example, Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (2002).  At the end of the film, the protagonist refrains from killing the tyrant because he has seen the wisdom of a state where the value of political harmony and a single driving vision outweigh the benefits to be gained from the competition of differing opinions.  In other words, Zhang Yimou seemed to be suggesting that a one-party state such as modern China was preferable to the democratic states of the West.  When the film was released in the West it was met with howls of outrage.  Given that the film was partly funded by the Chinese government, many Western thinkers characterised it as propaganda.  But why is offering a different opinion seen as being tantamount to propaganda?  Hundreds of films every year express opinions in the same unrigorous manner as Hero without being labelled as such.  Is it just that when it comes to arguing against democracy, we set the bar higher?  Do we demand extraordinary evidence before we are willing to engage with contrary opinions?  Should we be more forgiving of dissenting opinions even when we see them as monstrous?

Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is three things : Firstly, it is a love letter to the Winter Palace (now occupied by the Russian state Hermitage Museum).  Secondly, it is a technical exercise in so far as it is a film made up of one continuous 96 minute long take.  Thirdly, it is a wistful apologia for the Tsarist regime.

Film Poster

Due to its first two natures, Russian Ark does not really have anything approaching a conventional plot.  Instead, it is a film that wanders through a series of set-piece tableaux held together by a loosely fantastical framing device.  At the beginning of the film the narrator (and camera) opens his eye to find himself back in the past, in the days of the Tsars.  Swept along by a crowd of young officers and ladies attending a ball, he soon finds himself joined by another time traveller, a cynical and mysterious figure known as “the marquis” and who identifies himself as a diplomat.  As the pair wander from room to room, they skip between time periods and encounter strange people (such as a blind woman who is an expert on the paintings of the Hermitage museum despite never having seen any of them or a young man who expresses fondness for a painting of the apostles without knowing anything about them due to his secular communist education) and lavish set pieces (such as theatrical performances, balls and diplomatic ceremonies) before eventually drifting apart and out of the building.  This is not a film that is held together by plot, it is instead held together by themes, moods and ideas.

We might be in the Vatican!

The Bustling Arrival

Such beautiful colours and costumes… all Russians are actors.

As I said, the first big idea behind Russian Ark is the Winter Palace itself.  Originally built by Peter the Great, there were three different Winter Palaces constructed before the current one.  The official residence of the Tsars, the palace, much like the City of St. Petersburg where it stands, was a statement of intent.  A physical manifestation of Peter’s desire to drag Russia out of its medieval funk and into a modern world dominated by Europe.  As an art museum, the Hermitage reflects this aspect of the building’s character.  Not only is the décor such that its corridors and rooms could happily find a home in any Western palace, its walls are also adorned with art created by the great European masters.  The paradoxical and self-loathing nature of a state palace and museum that seeks to ape the character of other nations is one of the film’s central riffs though we shall return to that when I deal with the film’s politics.

The image of the Marquis bursting through double doors into another beautiful room is one of the film’s key visual motifs

The second big idea behind Russian Ark is the desire to make the most of modern digital cameras and make an entire feature film in a single take.  As David Bordwell points out in his brilliant post on the matter, the urge to make films out of fewer and fewer shots has been a reflection of directorial machismo for a while now.  Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Becker’s Running Time (1997) look like they might have been made in one shot but in fact they use carefully designed cuts.  Indeed, Hitchcock’s film famously uses the pattern on someone’s jacket to disguise a cut.  The longer a cut, the greater the logistical difficulty.  The more painstaking the preparation.  The more exacting the blocking.  Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is also an expression of the desire to show off as the film is made up of not one long take but a series of interlocking timelines that show characters passing each other in the same hallways from different angles.  Russian Ark’s technical flourishing is not as subtle as Van Sant’s.  Instead of taking on the logistical challenge of staging and re-staging the same moment in time, Sokurov demonstrates his logistical control through huge crowd scenes and hundreds of extras who weave in and out of the camera’s sight in a way that mirrors the camera’s purported weaving in and out of time.

The set-piece based nature of Russian Ark does give its tableaux the feeling of being staged.  Consider for example the opening sequence of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) or the nightclub scene from Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990).  Part of what makes these scenes so memorable is their sense of realism.  Welles and Scorsese construct rich visual and audial worlds that throb with vitality, as though the camera really has stumbled across something actually happening.  In contrast, Sokurov’s tableaux are thinly written and thinly drawn.  The worlds they depict are so shallow as to be obviously there only to be perceived by his camera.  There is more sense of life in the long take lip dubs created by highschool students and uploaded to Youtube.

Intriguingly though, Sokurov seems to acknowledge the artificiality of his own construction.  When we first arrive in the Winter Palace, we enter through the backstage area of some theatrical performance.  The young blades and ladies rushing to the ball mix with theatrical performers in a way that suggests a lack of distinction between the two.  The Marquis even comments upon this artificiality, drawing it into his recurring idea that Russia is an Asian state playing at being European.

One of the Marquis encounters

The third and final big idea behind Russian Ark is its politics.  The figure of the Marquis is based upon the 19th Century travel writer the Marquis de Custine.  Custine visited Russia in 1839 and grandly mocked St. Petersburg for its attempt to reinvent Russia as a European nation with European values.  He said that the Russian aristocracy had :

“just enough of the gloss of European civilisation to be ‘spoiled as savages’ but not enough to become cultivated men. They were like ‘trained bears who made you long for the wild ones.'”

Sokurov’s Marquis frequently reproduces Custine’s observations on Russia’s divided nature, stressing the absurd lack of authenticity in Russian desires not only to be seen as European rather than Asian, but also to gain the respect of other European nations by aping their codes of behaviour and dress.  In one scene, an envoy from the Persian Shah begs forgiveness for an international incident before the Tsar’s entire court.  An act of humiliation seemingly designed to stress the cultural differences between the two nations : The Asian state comes to grovel at the feet of its European rival.

One of the film’s more elaborate set-pieces, a diplomatic apology from the Persian ambassador

However, where Custine was a progressive who sympathised with the aims of the revolution, Sokurov’s Marquis is quite a different figure.  Custine loathed the inauthenticity of Russian attempts at being European because he knew full well that they were driven by tyrannical decrees by the Tsar.  What offended Custine was not the inauthenticity itself, but rather the existence of a government that would force such an absurd and pathetic charade on its own people :

“Russia is a nation of mutes; some magician has changed sixty million men into automatons”

Sukurov’s Marquis, by contrast, chides Russia for its refusal to be itself while also expressing admiration for the accomplishments of the Tsars.  At the end of the film, he expresses a desire not to move forward into a future filled with revolution and war, but rather to stay in a glorious Tsarist past.  One filled with beautiful European-style architecture, grand balls and works of Renaissance art.  Rather an inauthentic tyranny than an honest republic, he happily repeats the refrain of the Asian tyrant : The country is too large to be ruled by a Republic.

The Warmth and Humanity of the Russian Royal Family

Gloomy Communism

Separating the film’s arguments from those of the Marquis is not always easy though one can detect two separate strands of thought, neither of them particularly becoming.  The first is a maudlin sentimentality for the Tsarist regime.  When the 20th Century does appear in Russian Ark it is either spoken of as a horrific time of war and death or it is presented as gloomy and decadent, a long way from the bright lights and seductive glamour of the Winter Palace in all its Tsarist majesty.  When the Marquis comes across some of the protagonist’s friends he comments that they smell of formaldehyde.  The second strain is one of lack of identity.  When the Marquis asks the protagonist whether modern Russia is a republic or a monarchy, the response is that he does not know.  Russia has lost its soul.  It cannot even aspire to the sense of identity claimed by the Tsars in their creation of an ersatz-European city.  Modern Russia is not even a plagiarist.  It is nothing.

Many many extras

As a political meditation, this is hardly profound.  Clearly Sokurov does not wish merely to parrot observations made nearly two hundred years ago but his refusal to engage with recent Russian history leaves a sour taste in the mouth.  If the Tsarist regime had been nothing but grand balls and handsome young people in nice uniforms then I suspect that many people would aspire to live there, but what of the poverty?  What of the misery?  Sokurov is so quick to dismiss and condemn the Communist years that he has produced a film that seems filled for nostalgia for a time when the Russian people were so downtrodden and miserable that revolution seemed the only option.  By failing to consider these facts, Sokurov has produced a film that is little more than a pretty and mildly distracting technical exercise.  A soufflé of a film.  A pretty and lavishly produced soufflé.  Though of course, coming from a European and republican background, perhaps I was doomed to consider Sokurov’s arguments to not be extraordinary enough to support his conclusions?

The long dark corridor into a cold and tempestuous future

If this is what life is like outside of the embrace of the Tsars, can you blame the Marquis for wanting to stay in the warm?

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