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  1. Multiple Takes on a Single-Take: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark

    April 7, 2011 by Fan



    Multiple Takes on a Single-Take: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark

    Fan Zhang

          The most talked about aspect of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2001) is its being the first feature film in history to shoot entire length in one single take. This is an unbroken 96 minutes of sight and sound, thanks to the new digital technology available to the filmmaker. This novelty is the focus of most popular reviews. It is also how this film was promoted in the market. Curiously, ten years since it received critical acclaims around the world, no one has followed suit. It remains the only major single-take film using this now old technology. This begs the question why?


    I. Spectators in Motion: A Museum View


    One obvious answer is its unique subject matter: the film is perceived by most as an ultimate museum tour guide. The single-take technique will only be suitable for this particular genre.

    A more thoughtful answer is its abandonment of montage, an essential narrative device perfected almost 100 years ago by another Russian filmmaker, Sergey Eisenstein.

    Both answers are valid. Both are also too obvious to be satisfying. We need to go beyond their truism – we need to use them as departure points to an inner reality that is far more interesting.

    Indeed, Russian Ark was  originally conceived as a museum documentary. A meeting was organized in 1996 with the newly appointed head of the film production division of Hermitage Museum Andrey Deryabin and the German producer Jens Meurer with the idea of finding a way “showing off this beautiful and important Russian museum in a film that can be shown around the world, not just concentrating on the economic problems of the country” (Meurer 2003). Sokoruv, as a preeminent filmmaker, was approached to direct the documentary. “You can utilize any part of the museum.” Deryabin told Sokurov (ibid). Instead, the filmmaker came up with the idea of using the entire museum to make a 90-minute historical drama in one uninterrupted take with a digital camera.

    The camera enters the side entrance of Winter Palace, now Hermitage Museum, with a small group of aristocrats who are attending the grand ball held by Tsar Nicholas II on February 13, 1903, known as the last Imperial Ball before the Russian Revolution. 96 minutes later, in one single take, the camera accompanies the same group of people exiting the palace, along with thousands of other guests. Between the beginning and the ending of the grand ball, the camera, which is also the invisible first-person character, following an anonymous 19-century French nobleman, walks around 33 halls of the Hermitage, “looks” at a number of artworks displayed, meets a legion of characters, and witnesses 300 years of Russian history. The change of location from one hall to another is integrated into the change of times, from Peter I, the founder of St. Petersburg who is credited with initiating Russia’s westernization, to Catherine II whose personal art collection brought from her native Germany is the foundation of the museum, to Nicholas I, who in the film receives of a Persian emissary who apologize for a previous assault, to Nicholas II who is going to meet his death in the imminent October Revolution. As opposed to the glory of the 19th-century, the 20th century history only makes a cameo appearance when the Frenchman and the camera accidentally step into a gloomy backroom during the WWII when the city of Lenigrad is besieged by German troops. The Soviet history is otherwise entirely omitted. The last fin-de-siècle is immediately followed by the next fin-de-siècle – a contemporary Russia represented by the new Hermitage Museum and its spectators.

    Clearly, we can treat the entire film as a kind of cinematic life group exhibition, a variation on the traditional tribal display that is “in tune with Boasian principles” (Jacknis 1985: 81) – and we, the film audience, along with the Frenchman and the camera, are the museum spectators (an interesting fact is: museum spectators appear in the film become part of life group exhibition themselves. Their conversations with the Frenchman footnoted the contemporary Russian society and culture – the lookers become the looked).

    This comparison is natural and intellectually unchallenging. But when watching the film with this reference in mind, I always feel that between an actual museum tour and Russian Ark’s on-screen tour there is something fundamentally different

    What is this difference? The origin of museum life groups in the 19th-century gives us some clues. Among them, there are the parlor game tableau vivant in which people reconstructed a scene fro m paintings or novels, taxidermy, waxwork and last but not least, theatrical tableau in which actors’ positions froze in large-scale circular panoramas (Grifitths 2002: 18).

    The visual dimension is the key: while all those representation is panoramic and horizontal, Sokurov’s representation in Russian Ark is vertical, or to be exact, a  perfect integration of the horizontal (space, objects and “culture”) and the vertical (time, life and “history”). This integration is achieved by the uninterrupted “walking” of the camera.

    One may argue that in a museum exhibition, spectators are walking too – and this act of walking between display rooms and objects can also achieve a sense of verticality, a sense of history.

    Yes, and no. The fundamental difference between a museum display and a film screening is: in the museum display, when you walk away from objects displayed in one location, although you can’t see them any more, you know they are still there. You can always walk back. There is an underlying sense of spatially separate externalities (Egypt, Greece, Italy, …), something that are always “there”.  In Russian Ark, when you (the camera) walk away from one scene, it is gone forever on screen. Spatial motion is reversible, at least ostensibly so. Temporal motion is not.

    This is not to say that the aesthetics of museum display is secondary to the aesthetics of film. In fact, it has paramount importance. If Russian Ark retains all its current content and form, only replaces the single-take with multiple takes, as almost all other films do, this will be a fundamentally different film. The awareness of film editing will cancel out the subjective feeling of “walking” in a museum. It will separate the audience from the camera. Audience will immediately identify the walking camera as the filmmaker who is manipulating the scenes by editing, not themselves. The film will become a relatively mundane historical reconstruction.  The strong sense of being there in history, which unifies the architecture and its interior, the objects and artworks, the people as life group and people as spectators, will be lost to just another celluloid dream. A strong sense of historical tangibility, fundamental to museum aesthetics, will be lost on screen.

    The new digital technology allowed new super long-take technique. The technique allowed a new aesthetics that unifies museum’s spatial motion and cinema’s temporal motion, in turn, unifies the opposite senses of permanence and temporality, materiality and immateriality. The question is: what’s the philosophical purpose this new aesthetics serves?

    As anthropologist Daniel Miller points out: materiality is all-encompassing – even philosophy can not do without materiality (Miller 2005: 43-44). So, the best way to answer this question, is first to return to the objects appeared – and not appeared in Russian Ark.

    The collection of the Hermitage includes both West European art and Russian art. The latter, however, doesn’t appear in the film. The guided tour on screen begins with the Raphael Loggia, a replica of the Vatican gallery, proceeds with the sixteenth and seventeen century Italian masters which are followed by Antonio Canova’s sculptures. It finally arrives at the Flemish, Dutch and Spanish art (Keghel 2008: 82). Between the appearances of those objects, the filmmaker reconstructed two types of scenes: the historical characters and events that demonstrate the European aspiration of Russia, and the contemporary museum spectators who respond to West European art in different ways: from indifference to superficial fondness to deep understanding and love.

    In the film, the first-person camera is constantly arguing with the Frenchman it follows. When the time-traveling Frenchman, who appears unexpectedly in the Raphael Loggia and surprised by its magnificence, asks: “Are we in Vatican?” the camera answers with anger: “Better than Vatican. This is St. Petersburg!”. Upon seeing an orchestra playing Baroque music, the Frenchman gasps in admiration: “Ah, Italians!” The camera anxiously answers: “No, they are Russians!”.

    Russia’s cultural relationship with Europe, or to be exact, Russia’s identification with Europe, is the main theme of the film. The Russian anxiety explicitly expressed in the film might reflect Sokurov’s philosophy of history: instead of a Boazian cultural relativism, Sokurov believes in an evolutionary universalism the highest stage of which is the European high culture. Russia is Europe’s legitimate offspring who has the right to claim its patrimony.

    Let’s consider the evidences supporting this hypothesis. Besides the careful selection of artworks shown in the film, the elitist view of Sokurov is also obvious in his filmography which includes documentaries and biopics of political leaders (Lenin, Yeltsin, Hitler, Emperor Hirohito of Japan) and artists (Shostakovich, Chaliapin, Tarkovksy, Chekhov, Huber Robert, Dostoevsky, Mozart, Tosio Simao and Rostropovich). He claimed that “my indisputable authorities are people of classical culture, who have no connection whatsoever to contemporary literary and artistic practice” (Sedovsky 2001).  Elsewhere, Sokoruv has made the comment that the October Revolution originated in mass movement is a catastrophe that broke Russia’ gradual evolution led by high culture (Keghel 2008: 77). The film’s very title “Russian Ark” suggests Sokurov’s conception of Russia as the cultural guardian of Europe.

    In sum, the European art displayed in Russian Ark expresses Sokurov’s historical hierarchy in material terms. The novelty of cinematic single-take, on the other hand, expresses his evolutionary universalism in aesthetic terms.

    Now we can attempt to answer this question on a philosophical level: why is this stunning film technique enabled by new digital technologies not widely adopted? My hypothesis is: in the postmodern age of cultural relativism (or multiculturalism), Sokurov’s philosophy of history is not and will not be widely accepted, not even in Europe. The appreciation of Russian Ark, thus , will stop at a superficial level. The film will be considered by most as just a novelty. The actual idea is overlooked. Ideas, however, are the strongest motivational force behind the spreading of new techniques and aesthetics. In the age of postmodern juxtaposition, single-take as seen in Russian Ark has little use.


    II. Motionless: A Pictorial View


    This reading of Russian Ark’ s single-take aesthetics, however, is my own. The artist’s intention may well be completely different, so it is necessary to know Sokurov’s view on visual style.

    In an Artforum interview conducted during the 2001 Venice Film Festival, three months before Russian Ark’s shooting date (December 23rd), Sokurov said: “The film image must be created according to the canons of painting because there are no others, and there is no need to invent them. They have already been meticulously worked out and extensively tested by time. The director of photography needs to invent nothing; he has only to educate himself.”(Sedofsky 2001) The two-dimensionality of painting and film, according to Sokurov, is a restriction that gives artist freedom to concentrate on the main matter, “the moral dimension” (ibid). Thus, many filmmakers’ attempt to compensate screen surface’s dimensional limit with techniques such as montage (and now 3-D) is not absolutely necessary. In other words, single-take technique brought by digital technology allies film to painting, which Sokurov recognizes as a far more sophisticated art form.

    If Sokurov was indeed inspired by painting when he was conceiving the single-take approach in Russian Ark, would my previous interpretation be invalidated? Are critical interpretations necessarily external to artists’ intentions?

    Alfred Gell points out that artworks are “embodiments and residues of complex intentionalities” (Gell 1996: 37). He also declares that “anthropology shall be part of art-making itself, insofar as art-making, art history and art criticism are a single enterprise” (ibid). This is an advice I take into my heart, and this is a stand I believe Sokurov himself would have approved. In the Artforum interview, when asked about the discrepancy between his preference for pictorial flatness and his intention to create an edgeless feeling of sphere in his films, Sokurov simply replied: “Such theoretic questions are best answered by film critics.” (Sedofsky 2001) I would say those questions are best answered by anthropologists. With this in mind, I would like to move to a third interpretation of the single-take aesthetics.


    III.  World in Motion: A Historical View


    If we disregard the spatial and temporal motions of the camera in Russian Ark and all its philosophical implications discussed earlier, if we imagine that instead of our own bodies moving across museum and history (as the film wants us to believe), we are passive audience enwrapped by museum and history moving towards us (as what actually happens in a movie theatre), we can see that the long-take technique allows us to return to the origin of cinema: the recording of theatrical spectacles from a single and static point of view. We can also see what Sokurov did with the new digital technology is to revive an important Soviet ritual tradition: the reenactments of the Winter Palace seizure, although in a politically reactionary way.

    The most ambitious reenacting event was staged by the symbolist dramatist Nicholai Evreinov in November 1920, the three-year anniversary of the Revolution. It is a mass revolutionary spectacle involving a cast of eight-thousand participants and a 500-member orchestra. Sokurov’s on-screen “reactionary” spectacle eighty years later matches the scale, considering film’s ability to exaggerate: it involves 867 actors, a thousand extras, and three orchestras (Condee 2009: 174). But Evreinov’s protagonists are the proletariat mass while Sokurov’s are aristocrats and artists. Evreinov had 100,000 live Bolshevik spectators while Sokurov has “art-house” filmgoers around the world, a small population comparing to Hollywood’s audience. The only protagonist remains unchanging is the material existence of the Winter Palace/Hermitage museum, which probably is also the only remaining spectator of the rituals.

    The new single-take technique in the end of the 20th-century enables the revival of ritual aesthetics, which is also the essence of original cinema in the beginning of the 20th-century. Due to technological limitations, the earliest films were restricted to a single point of view, just like Russian Ark. As a result, filmgoers went to theatres for spectacles, not stories. In turn, previous knowledge related to on-screen events and imagery is crucial in establishing their meanings (Nowell-Smith 1996: 17).

    For audience, one of the greatest difficulties in understanding this film is not its lack of linear narrative, its incoherent dialogues (people are often murmuring in the film), and its lavish attention paid to objects, but to recognize who’s who and what’s what. Most of the historical characters – Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II – was not explicitly pointed out. There is one figure often appeared suspiciously behind the Frenchman on the margin of the screen. He was never explained or developed, but people who are familiar with Russian history know that in the 19th-century, foreigners were often spied on by government agents. The dinner of the Nicholas II with his family looks tranquil and mundane to an innocent spectator, but the experience of the scene will be enhanced if one knows that this was the last dinner before he and his family were captured and executed by the revolutionaries – the actual seizure of the palace, however, is not shown in the film.

    One revealing detail in the film demonstrates Sokurov’s intention: the Frenchman asks a young man who is looking at El Greco’s The Apostles Peter and Paul: “Are you Catholics? Do you know the stories of Peter and Paul?” The young man replies: “No. I look at them because I like them!” The Frenchman is surprised: “How can you understand it if you don’t know the Scripture?!”.

    But consider the film’s intended audience: it was made to promote the museum and Russia overseas, not exclusively for Russians, then, what accounts for Sokurov’s singular approach?

    The answer is: Sokurov trusts his potential global audience’s intelligence, at least their genuine curiosity. He offers visual and cinematic pleasures. In return, he asks their creative appropriation of his art – and Russian history, just as Russians have creatively appropriated foreign culture.

    The true appreciation of a work of art requires active or even intense participation. So is the true acquisition of knowledge. Those are Sokurov’s own words:“Ideally, the filmmaker would never allow the viewer to comprehend or even perceive the image, at once, in its entirety … the viewer is never a passive contemplator, but someone who participates in the creation of this artistic world. All works of high art are built on confidence in the delicate consideration and intuition of this person. They always leave something unsaid or, conversely, say too much, thereby concealing some simple truth.” (Sedovsky 2001)

    In theory, Russian Ark’s single-take brings audience back to cinema’s static beginning, overwhelming them with ritual spectacles the meanings of which are shared only by some. In practice, it invites active engagement of global individuals: the lack of prior knowledge is not necessarily a weakness. It could be a strength.

    IV. An Attempt at Synthesis


          Russian Ark’s single-take aesthetics could be a way to convey artist’s unversalist philosophy. It could be a reflection of the artist’s visual aspiration. It could be a revival of the original cinema. It could be a parody of political spectacles. It could be all of them and more. Different contemporary anthropologists used different terminology in describing this kind of complexity. Alfred Gell’s “complex intentionalities” is more reflexive; Daniel Miller’s “plural materialities” (Miller 2005: 18) is more materialistic; Fred Meyer’s “complex sense of connection” (Meyer 1995: 84) is more psychological; Igor Kopytoff’s “biography of things” and its singulization in modern society (Kopytoff 1989: 80) is more sociological. Different as they sound, the essence of those concepts might be similar.

    The question is: how to synthesize those transient complexities and utilize the concepts mentioned above? How to take the multiple takes with a single-take? I believe, to achieve this goal we need to adjust our spatial and anthropology’s horizontal point  of view and go back to a vertical point of view for just a while. We need history and personal biographies – two aspects that happen to be what traditional art history and criticism are good at and what have been overlooked by modern anthropology. When anthropologists  are giving support to the art world by providing critical context to “artifacts” and revealing their complex intentionalities, as Gell proposed (Gell 1996: 36), we can also learn one thing or two from them. Here I would make an awkward attempt to incorporate art historian George Kubler’s concept of “prime objects” in my discussion of Russian Ark and its single-take aesthetics.

    Kubler in his The Shape of Time (1973) suggests to use the concept of “formal sequence” to periodize art history. A sequence is composed of a number of “prime objects”. Prime objects in a sequence resemble each other in forms, but they are not mere copies of each other but successful “resolutions” to a common historical “problem”. (Kubler 1973:31-61) For Kubler, there are open sequences: for example, African art and Western modern art belong to the same open sequence; and there are closed sequences, such as the classical Greek art. When history repeats itself, or when a problem hasn’t been properly solved, there could be a reactivation of an old sequence.

    From this point of view, Russian Ark’s single-take aesthetics – viewed by most film critics as a renovation – is in fact a reactivation of old sequences, if we consider it as an extension of the 19th-century Eurocentric universalism, as suggested by take one; or an extension of painting, as suggested by take two; or an extension of either original cinema or Soviet ritual tradition, as suggested by take three. My hypothesis is that the underlying “problem” of all those sequences is that of national identity, or nationalism.

    Sokurov in various places expressed his ambivalent views of  his fatherland. Sometimes he emphasize Russia’s uniqueness as different from the rest of Europe: “This theme [of death] … expresses the essence and value of Russian art. It is that which, I think, distinguish Russian art in its most honorable examples from all of world art, from Western culture” (Condee 2009:167). Death, indeed, is one of the major themes of his filmography. Sometimes he emphasizes Russia’s uniqueness as one of the brightest children of European civilization (Sokurov 2002), as this film demonstrates. Sometimes he was depressed by his Russian identity: “I’m very disturbed by the fact that I’m Russian, that I live in a society that has been mentally ruined along with its very real economic ruin. It hampers the creation of that special world where incentive comes from art, because it is not enough to create a harmonious work; it is imperative to keep it from being stifled by a society in the grips of hatred and disaster. Unfortunately, Russia is still in such a state.” (Sedovsky 2001).

    Ambivalent situation in history creates ambivalent art. According to Kubler, prime objects – or great pieces of art work, are always mutations of established but lifeless art: “A possibility for change appears with the mutant-bearing prime object, while a generally beautiful or distasteful objects merely calls for ritual reception or avoidance.” (Kubler 1973:40)

    There is this profound quality of mutant ambivalence in Sokurov, his Russian Ark, his expectation of its reception, and ultimately his philosophy of history. The film, although an reenaction of old traditions, doesn’t really demand automatic and uniformed response. In fact, Sokurov demands active and critical engagement of his audience. The film is also a conscious effort to debase the mainstream and ritual way of watching film, a consequence of consumerism. Sokurov creatively used new technology to reactive old aesthetics, in turn, to renew the spirit of history.

    We can go back to Sokurov’s Eurocentric universalism. We shall take it with a grain of salt. True artists don’t follow dogmas, not even good dogmas or politically correct dogmas. They may be standing on the wrong side of history, but they are facing real history with all their sincerity and seriousness. They will create a body of work despite their personal views, which may be the achievement of “complex intentionalities”.

    Complex intentionalites could be a prerequisite for all great art. It enables the artwork to travel through time and space, collecting different daily existences and experiences along the way, finally reaches the open eternality of world history, reaches the depth of philosophy.

    Even if there are not many followers of Russian Ark’s single-take aesthetics, with the spread and mutation of its intentionalities, it will finally gain momentum.




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