Russian Ark

Imagine yourself floating through an eighteenth century winter palace. As you glide from one room to another, you see vignettes from history play out in front of you, as if occurring for the first time: Peter the Great haranguing one of his generals, Russian ladies in all their finest clothes at an opulent ball and a desperate citizen of Leningrad, building his own coffin with the Nazis at the gates.

This is the concept of the ambitious Russian Ark (2002), a ninety-minute unbroken shot, taken from the perspective of our narrator as he ghosts around Peter the Great’s Winter Palace, guided by a pompous French diplomat. The movie makes distinctive use of two common filmic techniques to show the two modes of the passing of time: shot-duration and contextual use of props, costume and setting (mise-en-scene).

Without cuts to carry us between these moments, we instead move through the timeline (not necessarily in chronological order) by simply stepping through doors or glancing through windows.

The study of shot-length is called “cinemetrics” and was first devised by film scholar Barry Salt in the 1970s to systematically compare ASL (average shot length) between films. The Cinemetrics database lists Ark as the movie with the longest ASL of any narrative film. Experimental pieces such as Empire (Warhol) have been longer but few attempts to make a single-shot story-driven production on this scale have ever succeeded. Hitchcock famously tried to do this with his 1948 thriller, Rope, but was limited by the technology of the day, which only allowed to him shoot in ten-minute sections due to the length of the 35mm reels.

Filmmakers usually use extended shots to show an event occurring in real-time (like in Rope). Some would argue that this leads to an increase in intensity, as demonstrated by another recent one-shot film, Silent House, where the lack of cuts only exists to build the tension whilst the occupants of a building are stalked. More importantly however, long shots increase immersion in a film by providing the viewer with a consistent experience where the suspension of disbelief (or our accepting of the extraordinary stuff we see on screen) is distilled from the distracting presence of cuts. Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, specifically has quite short shots for the explicit purpose of separating the viewer from his narratives.  In Ark it is clear that the aim of the director is to create something more than a gimmick but an experience in which, like the narrator, we feel comfortable to just sit back and observe.

…it’s hard not to believe, that if not for a thin barrier (like the gulf between the front-row of seating and the stage), we could reach out and touch them.

During the film we witness many scenes from Russia’s turbulent past. Without cuts to carry us between these moments, we instead move through the timeline (not necessarily in chronological order) by simply stepping through doors or glancing through windows. Much like in A Christmas Carol, the narrator and his companion are not always visible to those around them, though they seem to be able to change this at will. With this in mind, the only way to make clear of the change in period is the spectacular use of costume and set. Whilst in conventional cinema the passing of a long section of time is signified by a cut or a fade, here the sudden variation in mise-en-scene is enough for even a viewer not familiar with differing trends in Russian fashion to perceive the temporal jump. As the French diplomat concludes, it is like watching actors in a play.

On this note, we see that Russian Ark provides a more immediate experience for the audience, similar to watching a piece of theatre. Whilst we observe the world changing seamlessly around the narrator, we are not distracted but instead feel more connected to the real people inside this snow globe world. Sometimes it’s hard not to believe, that if not for a thin barrier (like the gulf between the front-row of seating and the stage), we could reach out and touch them.

 

Author: Daniel Golton

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