07/03/2017

Russian Ark - Is There Editing In Your Dreams?

Thoughts On: Russian Ark (2002)

Seen entirely through a long POV shot, a recently deceased man is guided through the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum.


Watching this film is, in large part, like walking through an actual gallery. I'm somewhat aware that there's things of great historical and cultural significance all around me, but walking from room to room to room to room to room leaves your legs tired, your chest empty, your thoughts spiralled around a vision of bed and food and your body fatigued and silently crying. Whilst that is somewhat hyperbolic, all I mean to say is that I don't know much about fine art at all and being subjected to a cathedral when you don't know what's being worshiped is quite arduous. So, if you're not mesmerised by art, there's really an awful lot that this film can offer you. There's some great cinematography and of course astounding choreography and camera work that allowed the iconic 96 minute long shot, but this film doesn't have much substance to it. That is to say that the form and content do not interact well. Formally this is an amazing film that explores art and Russian history. However, the content  - dialogue, narrative, characters, plot points - add nothing to this. Everything is stiff, whispered, disconnected and incredibly formal. The only redeeming factor of this film (beyond the amazing technical and formal achievement) is the attempt to represent something like a dream - maybe death.


It's implied in the beginning of the film that our unknown protagonist was in a fatal accident and so what he experiences in this long POV shot is the perspective one may have of purgatory or heaven. So, without exploring much of the narrative, what I want to delve into with this film is the idea of both the long shot and the POV.

The point-of-view shot is around as old as cinema itself, and was seen as early as 1900 in As Seen Through A Telescope. This film plays out as something like an experiment. A man sets up a telescope, looks through it and then we cut to a vignette shot of a woman's leg:


This implies that the camera is in the telescope and so we see from the, what is now evidently a peeping Tom's, perspective. This piece of cinematic language has been used in films ever since; take another example from Chinatown:



Just like Albert Smith, Polanski shows his character, Jake, about to look through something, this time binoculars, and then uses a vignette to imply that we see through his eyes. This is called a shot-reverse-shot and doesn't just require a telescope, binoculars or vignette to work. One of the greatest uses of the shot-reverse-shot has to be Hitchcock's zolly in Vertigo. John looks down the stairwell, he's climbed and...


This doesn't only show that you don't need a vignette for the POV shot to work, but that you can characterise a POV and add a psychological element to delve deeper into your subject's psyche. What we then see here is Hitchcock expanding upon French Impressionist cinematic strategies. In Napoleon, an impressionist masterpiece, Gance shot his iconic snow sequence by rigging cameras onto sleds to reenact an impressionistic POV in a snow ball fight.


This was done as the approach to cinema taken by filmmakers such as Gance, Epstein and Dulac was character-centric. In such, the camera was used to reveal the inner workings of characters and represent their psyche. And it's this that gave the POV shots used in films such as Napoleon such weight - they said something of character and story. For example, the snow fight sequence as seen from a young Napoleon's perspective tells you about his rebellious nature as well as his competitive spirit and masterfully strategic mind. This is of course what Hitchcock manages with his Vertigo effect and also what other filmmakers using the POV will do to a certain degree. And in such, you can see the significance of the POV as a piece of cinematic language that formally represents and deepens character.

Having taken a quick look at the POV, let's now consider the long shot. This too has been around for as as long as cinema has. But, it's a little harder to question what qualifies as a long shot when looking through cinematic story as shot lengths are somewhat relative. For example, the first films were just one shot:




Each of these shots were a handful of seconds long and define the mind-set of many early filmmakers. Films were a spectacle unto themselves when first invented; a moving image inside one frame was enough to inspire awe. Early films can then be looked at as something tantamount to paintings or plays as the formal representation of the story was so simple. This is what contributed to the long average shot lengths and wider framing; it seems that CUs and montage aren't intuitive to cinema, much rather devices that had to be invented. So, considering this context of early films, like those by the Lumière bros., these don't really qualify as long shots as everything was static and distant. It would take until the dawn of French Impressionism and Soviet Montage for us to have a clearer idea of long and short shots, after all, French Impressionist films would sometimes use single frame shots that flurry by.

So, moving into the 10s and 20s, 'long shots' would become something of a concept. However, it wasn't until the late 40s that the long take was considered much of an attraction. We can infer this by looking at another Hitchcock film, Rope.


It wasn't technically feasible to actually shoot this film in one long take, but Hitchcock creates this illusion with many clever cuts. And what this film meant to do, which was uncharacteristic of classical Hollywood films, was draw attention to editing (or a lack thereof). So, the sensation you get throughout Rope is that you're a fly on the wall, a person in the room, which adds tension to the scenes and makes time a looming object as we wait for the mystery (which I won't spoil) to be uncovered.

It's after Rope and moving into the 60s that we of course had The French New Wave and a developing philosophy of cinema that drew attention to editing and film form, like The Impressionist and Formalists of the 20s did, instead of demonstrating classical continuity and invisible editing. With this came long shots as seen in, for example, Godard's Breathless and, of course, Weekend. And progressing past the 60s and into more recent times, we see that the long take has become something that film lovers will jizz all over themselves for. Many people will marvel at that one shot from Goodfellas...


... Oldboy...


... Children Of Men...


... Birdman..


... The Revenant...


... or Creed...


However, whilst there is certainly an element of spectacle to the long take, it is substance that ultimately decides if a long take is good or not. For example, the long take in Goodfellas works so well because it shows the control Henry has and the ease at which he navigates his world. The long take in Oldboy emphasises Dae-su's struggle, giving the scene an incredible sense of desperation. But, when we look to other long takes, like the many stitched together in Birdman, there is a strong sense of a gimmick. We see this too in Rope and Russian Ark. Whilst there are formal and artistic justifications for the long take in these movies, you get used to them pretty quick and they do become banal.

Substance and film form is a subject we've touched on before with Wavelength, another long take - this time 45 mins.


Yes, there is formal experimentation here, just like there is in many of Warhole's films, but it simply has no formal weight and doesn't add to story. And this is the worst kind of long take; it's not just a gimmick or a bit of spectacle as it is in Children For Men, Creed, Rope, Breathless or Touch Of Evil. The gratuitous long shot in many experimental films just renders the narrative unwatchable.

This is what I feel occurs, partly, in Russian Ark; I just couldn't pay attention to the movie and was only woken up by a few beautiful images. However, there are a few arguments you may raise in defence of this movie. The first comes from a position of respect for art, culture and history - which means you probably understand and appreciate this film a lot more than me. The second argument, which is our focus and a bit more accessible, is the idea of a dream.


There is a subtly mesmerising feeling of surrealism in parts of this film. In fact, when I hit mute, the imagery speaks so much better than the constant commentary from the characters - and this moment with the running girls is good example of this. This feeling isn't well-sustained, but, through it, the essence of both the long take and POV shot becomes clear. As has been described by many, cinema has the capacity to mimic human perspective - and this is arguably where the form was born from. The long, steady POV shot is then a form of realism as it tells stories in a format that we see the world with our own eyes. However, a paradox that arises when considering this replication of human perspective is the fact that the long take is boring...


... and when we do see a use of the camera to imitate human perspective, it's in a war zone...


... or a sci-fi, action cluster-fuck...


So, what seems apparent is that this extreme form of realism used with the POV and long take is not very cinematic. The reason why may be found in the idea that the best parts of Russian Ark are the surrealist segments.


As said. this shot here has a lot of power as it is so dream-like - unlike a lot of the film. This power comes from atmosphere and cinema's ability to captivate. I in no way understand what makes movies captivating, and I'm sure there's no definitive answer, but, there seems to be something of an answer in the paradox we just uncovered. If extreme realism outside of war is boring, but 'surreal realism' - the combination of the long shot and POV to create a dream-like effect - is immersive, then it seems that dreams and what we perceive when we are unconscious are a major source of captivation. In such, if the energy, adrenaline, thrill and horror of war, conflict and action are one thing that encapsulate, then the ambiguous, weightless and ecstatic sensation of a dream must be somewhat connect or tantamount to this. I don't say this as a psychologist or biologist, instead, someone who's seen a bunch of films. And in comparing the realist and surreal approaches to representing human perspective, we hit a very broad subject of cinema's relation to human consciousness. But, in seeing the combination of POV, the long take and surrealism in Russian Ark I was hit with the simpler question: is there editing in your dreams?

I'm entirely unsure about the answer to this question as I have almost no capacity to visually store and recall any of my dreams. I know and can remember the events of some of my dreams, but I can't tell you if they play out like Un Chien Andalou...


... the poetic opening to Persona...


... The Mirror...


... Hardcore Henry...


... Man With A Movie Camera...


... Birdman...


... Battleship Potempkin...


,.. or The Russian Ark...


In all honesty, I can imagine all of my dreams being styled to look like any of these movies. But, what do I actually perceive when dreaming? This has frustrated me for a while and the answer is probably that each dream has its own style - one day it's Soviet montage, one day a long fluid shot, another impressionistic flurries. Nonetheless, with this idea of editing, dreams and their form comes a question of what the POV and long take add to the Russian Ark. Does this film accurately project a surreal idea of life after death or a dream? Or, is it just a gimmick?

Looking at the film as a piece of entertainment, I have to say that this is just a gimmick, one that produces an arduous and pretty boring film. However, considering why the filmmakers chose this formal approach, I'm left a little more open. This is because I think there's substance to the idea that, after dying, a man is taken through history by walking through a cultural heaven-on-Earth. This provides a new perspective on an idea of an afterlife as a physical place for humans. I certainly think that the idea of spectacle and beauty, a heaven-on-earth, could have been better handled in the script, however. After all, no commentary on human-centric endeavours and death really struck me in the film - it has to be said that I found it hard to pay attention though. If this was apart of the film, I'd gladly be talking about this idea of dreams and editing supportively. But, because this film's primary purpose is the exploration of a museum with the idea of death and a dream latched onto it, I'm left wondering where these existential and conscious-questioning themes comes into play.

Looking beyond Russian Ark and toward the broader idea of dreams and cinema as a representation of human perspective, I think this question of dreams and editing is so important as it pokes and prods at the intentions and purpose of cinema itself. In such, by exploring the dream and perspective, you can ask what films are supposed to achieve, why they captivate, how they are to do this and what this says about humans. So, this is why I'll leave on some open questions to you. Is there more to be found in Russian Ark and its presentation of perspective through POV, surrealism and the long take? Do your dreams have editing in them? Does cinema reflect this form of your consciousness? And finally, should cinema reflect human perspective; how could it better do this?





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