Sunday, August 31, 2014

Russian Ark

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and TCM is doing its annual salute to the Telluride Film Festival, running movies that have either been featured at the festival, or movies with people who have been honored by the festival. Tomorrow's first selection is the intriguing Russian Ark, at 6:00 AM.

Russian Ark is a movie that doesn't really have a traditional plot. It starts just outside the Hermitage museum in Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, where an unseen man meets up with a Frenchman in 19th century garb. This Frenchman then takes our unseen man through the various parts of the building, giving him a brief lecture on the artworks now in the museum as well as the history of the museum and the country along the way. Those bits of history are accompanied by people in period costume, and there are thousands of such people populating the movie.

What makes the movie intriguing is that it was done in one long take, all 90-plus minutes of it, with a Steadicam. You have to admire the director's (Aleksandr Sokurov) audacity, as well as the attention to detail necessary to choreograph all those characters around our two main characters as they make their way through the building. This is especially noticeable in the grand ball finale. Some of the history might also be interesting, if not extensive enough. Brief mention is made of the siege of the city, back when it was known as Leningrad, by the Nazis during World War II. This is a subject that would deserve a full-length film in its own right, as the siege was extremely difficult for everybody in the city, with a million or so people dying from hunger and being buried in mass graves. As for the curators of the Hermitage, it's claimed that they ate the glue they used to attach canvases to the backings in order to survive. Yikes.

But the one long take filming presents problems along the way, notably every time our unseen man stops to look at one of the works of art. These would be natural places to have a cut, and it's the lack of cuts here that looks obvious -- the rest of the time, you barely notice it. But that's a minor problem. Overall, Russian Ark is a very well-made movie, and a very interesting one to boot.

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