Thursday, May 30, 2013

Toppling Dominoes

Film: Russkiy Kovcheg (Russian Ark)
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I very much feel like I should have a lot to say about Russkiy Kovcheg (Russian Ark), and I very much feel like I don’t have a lot to say about it. That’s the problem with demanding longer reviews from myself—when I get into a position like writing up a film like this, I struggle for something to say. At its most pure essence, Russkiy Kovcheg is a 99-minute experiment and little more. We walk through an art gallery and encounter various periods of Russian history preserved, as it were, like the art itself.

Russkiy Kovcheg is notable not for its plot (it has none) but for its astonishing technical achievement. The entire film consists of a single take, one long, uninterrupted shot. This wouldn’t be notable if it were nothing more than a static camera, but the camera here is almost never still. As the narrator and audience point of view (voiced by director Alexander Sokurov) wanders through this living museum, he speaks with another ghost out of time known as either the Stranger or the European (Sergei Dreiden). At times, the Stranger interacts with the people they see; at other times, the two wanderers appear to be unobserved observers.

So it’s all one shot as he walks through this massive house/museum, both inside and out. Along the way, the narrator and the Stranger encounter a cast of thousands of people and three complete orchestras. One can only imagine the massive amount of movement of people and sets and costumes behind the camera. While almost certainly not flawless, it is amazing to behold. Despite minor goofs of extras looking directly into the camera briefly before turning away, it very much appears seamless.

But that’s really all it is. We wander through Russian history, and without much plan, jumping from the children of Czar Nicholas II to a man building his own coffin during the siege of Leningrad in World War II to Catherine the Great. There’s no rhyme or reason for where we end up going through a particular door on into a different salon. It’s just Russian history come to life and various interesting points. Eventually, we finish our tour of the museum, and the narrator leaves, essentially re-entering the stream of history and the real world. What he has witnessed is, as the title calls it, a Russian ark—a collection of notable moments and times in the past preserved in a sort of living monument.

So while there is something like a story, or at least a through line, there really is no plot to speak of. We wander. We look at art. People act or perform in front of us. We wander more. The narrator whispers and the Stranger interacts with other people or doesn’t. And that’s all there is.

Because of this, it’s really all about the technical achievement here. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare of putting this film together—getting everyone in costume, lining up all of the entrances and exits, making sure people were prepared for when the camera showed up. It is a technical marvel, a tour de force of filmmaking technique that I have not seen equaled.

But that’s it. In a lot of ways, Russkiy Kovcheg is like when someone sets up a massive amount of dominoes and then sets them going. It’s cool to watch them all tumble and see patterns appear as they fall, but at some point, one has to wonder about the point of it all. What is the real purpose of setting the whole thing up to knock it down? It’s not like Russkiy Kovcheg is an exploration of Russian history; it’s just a depiction of small scenes of it, none seemingly of any great importance. We don’t see the Czar deposed, but get a few moments with his children. It’s like a great clockwork toy that was wound up and let run, a sort of cinematic fireworks display that is pretty to look at while it is happening, and except for a little retinal afterimage, leaves not much behind.

In that sense, I’m kind of disappointed that there is so little here. It’s a film to see for exactly the reason it was created—because it was something completely new and done almost flawlessly. Once the technical wonder and massive organizational display is done, though, all we’re left with is a big ol’ pile of toppled dominoes.

Why to watch Russkiy Kovcheg: There’s nothing else like it.
Why not to watch: For all its artistic merit, it’s really just a long walk through an art gallery.


  1. I bet Martin Scorsese is fuming, though: one of his own signature moves (see especially "Goodfellas") is the long, single-take tracking shot. Sounds as if this movie has him beat by way more than a mile. Also, the desultory, pastiched nature of this film makes it sound like a postmodernist's wet dream. Linear narrative? What's that?

  2. Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. Technically, impressive as all get out. But that's all there is there. There's no... spirit. There's no heart. You can eschew traditional narrative as long as you give me something in return - like emotion, or at least a message. But this film doesn't really have that. And me not really knowing much about Russian history was a distinct setback (obviously, through no fault of the film's).

    I respect the technical aspects of this film a lot. But... that's it. I think I gave it a 5 out of 10. Interesting idea... but as you say, really it's just a walk through an art gallery.

  3. @Kevin--it is one of the most technically impressive things I've ever seen. But it doesn't give up linear narrative, it gives up narrative in general, so...yeah.

    @Sio--I so wanted to like this. I bought a copy when a local Blockbuster went belly up and I've been sitting on it, just waiting for the right opportunity to see it. And it was such a let-down.

  4. I completely agree with this review. The film is such a glorious, technical achievement, but beyond that...

    1. Beyond the technical achievement, it's a really great technical achievement.

  5. I enjoyed the beauty (thanks for lending it to me), but it's only in the book because they mistakenly label it the first single-shot movie. Mike Figgis' 2000 movie Timecode came before it, was a longer single-shot, and was FOUR simultaneous single-shots in four quadrants of the screen, with a large cast of characters, and with each quadrant interacting at various points with the others. It doesn't have Russian Ark's extras or beauty, but it has it beat everywhere else.

  6. This is one of those films that I get into more because of how it all flows. Something about the movement, the continuous take, the way the camera slowly weaves its way through history brought to life, is fascinating to me. Then again, I'm not a big narrative person to begin with. I find image, movement and space far more interesting as subject and this film delivers on that front.

    1. I'd be willing to watch it again. However, I am all about narrative--that to me is the most interesting thing in any film. Still, I've been known to wander art galleries from time to time, so the urge might hit me again.