Saturday, April 3, 2010
Thus far, I've shied away from using film to diagnose and dissect the Russian and Soviet experience. No more! Notwithstanding my lack of currency with the medium, I've finally paid a visit to the film section of my college's library, and it ain't as bad as you might think. If you can resist the temptation to rent Uncle Buck, you can actually find a few Russian treasures. In fact, watching a few of these films takes me back a decade or so to a simpler time, a time when I somehow felt that I had enough time to rent endless foreign, cult, and classic films. Looking back at my early twenties, I wonder why I felt the need to see so many films. I wish I could say it was purely my own passion for independent or classic film. This may be partly true, but it's also true that I had a vague but pressing feeling that I would someday put my knowledge of film to use. What was I thinking? Probably I expected some critical job interview (and what job interview isn't critical?) to revolve around my familiarity with Passolini's Medea. Looking back, I know this is absurd. If I wanted to improve my chances on the job market it would have been a thousand times better to join a fraternity.
Yes, watching Russian films takes me back. I remember seeing a hundred strange films at places like Washington, D.C.'s The Key Theatre and Biograph Theatre (Both closed down long ago), Montreal's Cinema de Paris, and Chicago's Music Box Theatre. Indeed, when I first moved to Chicago I chose a location within walking distance of the Music Box. At the time I had a love of the ten-movie discounted "punch card" and my sister and I affectionately referred to the Sunday morning classic movie shows at "church."
My recent foray into Russian film begins with Sokurov's the Russian Ark. This has all the hallmarks of the non-blockbuster. It's shot in a single, continuous, 90 (or so) minute "take"--a tour of St. Petersburg's famed Hermitage art museum. The director does us all the wonderful service of making us feel as if we also have had the chance to stroll at some leisure through the galleries of the Hermitage. There really couldn't be a better tourism advertisement. The film also takes us on a tour through the centuries, with stops in the St. Petersburg of Peter, Catherine, Alexander I, Nicholas I, Nicholas II, and today. The narrators are a character based on acerbic the Marquis De Custine, that famous French traveller of the early nineteenth century, and the camera (or you, depending on how you look at this first-person narrative device).
The film is necessarily but overwhelmingly biased in favor of tsarist and aristocratic history. A single painting of a peasant is meant to stand in for the whole of the Russian lower classes. On the other hand, the Russian Ark lets you know exactly how splendid Russian grandeur could be. You witness (seemingly first-hand) how the tsars ate, entertained themselves, received diplomatic dignitaries, and even danced. In the film's most impressive scene--impressive for its verisimilitude but also for the fact that it comes at the end of history's longest continuous live-action sequence--we get to see one of those famous mazurkas we've all read so much about!