Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Wellspring Collection: Russian Ark (2002, Russia/Germany, 96 minutes)

The fact that Russian Ark is comprised of a single, 90-plus minute take might give one the wrong impression: that the picture is primarily a technical tour-de-force. Of course, the details of its production only add to this misconception. To begin with, Russian Ark was filmed entirely within the Hermitage of St. Petersburg, which because of its international cultural status required that director Aleksandr Sokurov and his crew complete the shoot in a single day (on the 23rd of December, 2001). After four years of development, filming commenced with over 1,000 actors, three orchestras and countless technicians. Sokurov entrusted the operation of a lone high-definition video camera to steadycam operator Tilman Büttner (Run Lola Run, 1998), whose task was to realize the director’s vision of three hundred years of Russian history in a single mobile take. Following three false starts, each of which were aborted around the ten minute mark, Russian Ark wrapped after a successful fourth attempt, thereby making history as the world’s first one-take feature, and achieving the director’s purpose of making a film “in one breath.”

Aleksandr Sokurov was born during the summer of 1951 in the former Soviet village of Podorvikha (located within the Irkutsk district).[i] As a young adult, Sokurov enrolled in Gorky University where he later earned a degree in history. In 1975, Sokurov switched courses, entering the Producer's Department at the All-Union Cinematography Institute (VGIK, Moscow). There, he soon came into conflict with the school’s administration, forcing the future director to finish a year early after his student works in cinematography were condemned for their formalism and their “anti-Soviet views.” (In hindsight, both accusations were undoubtedly accurate.) Nevertheless, the director’s first feature, The Lonely Voice of Man (1978-87), which was not accepted for graduation, received numerous prizes and the support of legendary Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who helped Sokurov find work at the Lenfilm studio in 1980. To be sure, Tarkovsky has remained Sokurov’s primary influence ever since, providing the latter with a template for poetic and one might say spiritual filmmaking. These qualities are apparent in a series of masterworks that include Days of Eclipse (1988), The Second Circle (1990) and Sokurov’s signature Mother and Son (1997), all of which have won numerous international prizes for the Russian auteur.

In fact, Tarkovsky’s impact extends even to Russian Ark, where Sokurov’s aesthetic echoes the older director’s increasing use of longer takes late in his career (many of which run to six minutes or longer, including The Sacrifice’s [1986] extraordinary penultimate sequence-shot). However, it is outside of a Russian context that one sees the clearest precursors for Sokurov’s one-take strategy. Both Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White (1967, Hungary) and Theo Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975, Greece), for example, mobilize long takes and crowd movements to effect temporal passage within the boundaries of a single shot. Similarly in Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu inaugurated the technique of introducing subjective variation within the space and time of a camera movement, via the director’s presentation of an encounter between the film’s male protagonist and his late wife. Nevertheless, while each of these antecedents attained an unprecedented level complexity in terms of their staging, the limits imposed by Sokurov’s subject created a number of unique impediments, any of which could have ended the production of Russian Ark permanently: a light burning out at an inopportune time, an actor flubbing his or her lines, or the camera lens steaming up as action moved from the courtyard back into the museum. Anticipating the last of these, Sokurov conducted experiments in a freezer and lacking the conclusive evidence he needed, lit a candle in a church, where he prayed for the success of his shoot.[ii]

Viewing Russian Ark in light of the challenges posed by the production, a certain tension – or even drama – is created by the film’s unspooling. Then again, to scrutinize Russian Ark in these terms would be to miss the point of Sokurov’s adoption of a one-take format (and to deviate from the way in which most spectators attend to the film). Indeed, one of the more remarkable qualities of Russian Ark is the ease with which the viewer forgets that they are watching a single-take picture. By the time the film concludes, it is less the technical bravura that is in evidence, than the melancholic mood that permeates the nobility’s final exit from the Winter Palace. An overwhelming emotional heft accompanies the film’s denouement, confirming Russian Ark’s elegiac status, which in its case pertains to the passing of high Russian and European civilization. As the ever-present off-screen narrator (voiced by Sokurov himself) says to his on-screen companion, Sergei Dreiden as the historical Marquis de Custine, “Farewell, Europe.” Thus, Russian Ark eulogizes not only the pre-Revolution Russian history that is instantiated by Sokurov’s cast of thousands which fill the grand hallways and ballrooms of the Hermitage, but also the beauty and majesty of this waning civilization: it is for the Canova at which the Stranger shouts “Mama” and for Rembrandt’s late masterwork "The Prodigal Son" upon which Sokurov and Büttner’s camera lingers and for Catherine the Great’s priceless china that is used during the dinner service; and it is for the costuming produced by the crew’s sixty-five designers, the music performed by Russian Ark’s three orchestras, and for the ephemeral qualities of the ball sequence depicted at the picture’s end – that is, for the dances, the gesturing, etc.

Therefore, it becomes clear that Russian Ark’s title is descriptive of its purpose: namely, to preserve a culture that continues to disappear. Sokurov’s use of the term ‘ark’ to describe this process is far from accidental: as the shot’s digitally-enhanced conclusion makes clear, the museum itself (or perhaps more accurately, the film) is this ark and is “destined to sail forever.” (Sokurov even adds rolling waves to the landlocked wintry exterior.) In this way, Russian Ark demonstrates both its currency among contemporary European cinema and also its integral position to the director’s oeuvre. With respect to the former, Russian Ark’s focus on a crumbling civilization situates the film in a fin-de-siècle tradition that also includes Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989), Manoel de Oliveira’s Abraham’s Valley (1993), Raoul Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999; Ruiz likewise utilizes the technique of combining tracking shots with zooms to reshape spatial dimensions in his own narrative of time travel). As far as the director’s own corpus is concerned, contrary to the opinion of many critics, Russian Ark is very much of a piece with many of the director’s previous works: Russian Ark seems to complete a cycle of films – most of which feature the word ‘elegy’ in their titles – that similarly eulogize. Indeed, as with the director’s previous Elegy of a Voyage (2001), Russian Ark tours a museum’s galleries, though unlike that former film or indeed any of the other works that likewise comprise said cycle, Russian Ark greatly exceeds Sokurov’s previous efforts in terms of the scope of its production. As such, Russian Ark might just be the endpoint of the director’s aesthetic, and perhaps even its culmination.[iii]

At the same time, Russian Ark’s form remains a function of its content, not simply the latest manifestation of a personal style. Again, Russian Ark depicts three hundred years of the nation’s history – that is, of the transformation in the Hermitage’s use – beginning with Peter the Great (the city’s founder) and ending in the present among the gallery goers, though the narrative follows no similar trajectory. Throughout, the Marquis and the off-camera narrator snake through various historical moments, at times interacting with the palace’s population, and in other instances remaining invisible to the instruments of history. Through their tour a unitary fractal of time and space – a single shot – is maintained, even as the mise-en-scène cedes from one historical moment to the next. In fact, it is Sokurov’s careful delineation of on- and off-camera space that allows so many disparate times to coexist within the museum walls. Not only are new moments in the museum’s history broached when our guides cross through the palace’s thresholds from one room to the next, but indeed the space outside the frame is constantly remaking itself according to its next historical stage, just as Sokurov transforms the disclosed museum that exists before our eyes. Sokurov and Büttner transform on-camera space by pairing their forward tracking camera with zooms that effectively flatten or stretch the space in view, thereby producing a visual analogy for the historical transformations that shape the narrative. At the same time, Sokurov’s insistent use of a single take reaffirms the spatial unity of the museum. That is, if the contents of the space are being transformed over the course of Sokurov’s narrative, its basic scaffolding remains secure. Sokurov’s ‘ark’ therefore is a vessel of time – or multiple times – preserving again far more than the material objects on view in the Hermitage. Russian Ark enshrines the past, utilizing the specificity of an unbroken sequence of moving images to unite the broad scope of the palace’s history. Thus, Russian Ark creates a new form of montage that depends not on the juxtaposition of discrete spatial-temporal fragments in sequence, but on the moment-to-moment transformation of the mise-en-scène and on the arrangement of multiple time values in a single space. We may say, consequently, that the shot no longer denotes a united space and time but the potential for multiple times – the history of a space.

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov Director of Photography, Steadycam Operator Tilman Büttner Produced by Andrey Deryabin, Jens Meurer, Karsten Stöter Screenplay by Anatoly Nikiforov, Aleksandr Sokurov Design Visual Concept and Principal Image Aleksandr Sokurov Music Performed by Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra Conducted by Valery Gergiev Original Score Sergey Yevtushnko Presentation of Hermitage Bridge Studio, Egoli Tossell Film AG

Cast Sergei Dreiden…. The Stranger - The Marquis de Custine, Maria Kuznetsova…. Catherine the Great, Leonid Mozgovoy…. The Spy, Mikhail Piotrovsky…. Himself (The Hermitage Director), David Giorgobiani…. Orbeli, Aleksandr Chaban…. Boris Piotrovsky, Tamara Kurenkova…. Herself (The Blind Woman)…. Maksim Sergeyev…. Peter the Great, Vladimir Baranov…. Nicholas II, Anna Aleksakhina…. Alexandra Fyodorovna, Wife of Nicholas II, Aleksandr Razbash…. Military Official

[i] The biographical details included in this paragraph were taken from Aleksandr Sokurov’s official site, Island of Sokurov, which is overall an extraordinary resource on the director’s life and his body of work.
[ii] This last anecdote is included in Knut Elstermann’s fine documentary on the film’s making, In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2003), which Wellspring featured on its DVD release of the film from that same year.
[iii] In terms of the critical response to Russian Ark, few if any of the director’s films have been as widely praised in the U.S.: it is, for instance, the only of the director’s films to have been reviewed by Roger Ebert, who gave the picture four stars (out of four) for his Chicago Sun-Times column. Likewise, art house-minded critics Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) and J. Hoberman (The Village Voice) both named the film as one of the year’s “ten best” in 2002. In addition, Russian Art is also the director’s only box office success, grossing a respectable $2,326,979 during its U.S. theatrical run, including an impressive $29,022 opening tally on two screens in December of 2002 (courtesy of Box Office Mojo). To date, Russian Ark has earned more than $6.5 million worldwide, of which forty-five percent has been earned in the United States, making it the seventy-ninth highest grossing foreign language film in this country’s history. These numbers are all the more impressive when one considers that Father and Son (2004), Sokurov’s most recent film to earn an American theatrical release – also courtesy of Wellspring – has yet to earn $40,000. On the contrary, the director’s highly-acclaimed biography of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, The Sun (2005) – Cahiers du Cinema’s number one film of the year – remains undistributed. Surely, The Sun’s inability to secure U.S. distribution emphasizes the void left by Wellspring’s disappearance from the American theatrical landscape.

Friday, March 23, 2007

New Film: Offside

Warning: the following post contains spoilers beginning in the second paragraph.

Jafar Panahi's Offside, the Iranian director's fifth feature, and the fifth to be banned in his home country, arrives in New York approximately twelve hours in advance of his President Ahmadinejad's scheduled arrival. This accident makes Offside perhaps the most timely New York premiere this spring, as the film extends Panahi's on-going account of social injustices -- particularly those against women -- in modern-day Iran. (That is, as we await the UN-sanctioned demagoguery of a world leader who has repeated voiced his desire to eliminate Israel and to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.)

In Panahi's latest, we glimpse the everyday injustices of Ahmadinejad's theocracy, where women are prevented from attending live sporting events, including Iran's final 2005 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain. Following a title that informs the spectator of this detail, as well as a second caption which claims that much of the film was shot at the stadium during said event, Panahi introduces us to an angry, albeit concerned father who is heading to the event to locate his daughter (before his sons can find her, whom he says would kill her). Subsequently, we are introduced to a female in disguise on a nearby bus, who we assume is the very girl noted above. As it will later turn out, she is not, though Panahi's film commences with following her attempts to enter the stadium. Therefore, it might be said that there is a certain interchangeability between the girls owing to their shared condition.

This young woman is immediately discovered, however, and is subsequently penned in with a group of her fellow male impersonators, just outside the stadium walls. As such, Panahi invents a formal analogue in the small visible cell positioned against the polyphonic off-screen stadium: that is, these young women, prevented from experiencing the public sphere on an equal basis with men, occupy a marginal space in relation to the larger, connoted off-camera space. Moreover, Panahi's utilization of tightly-framed mobile long takes further reinforces this dialectical relationship between theoretically separate on and off-camera spaces.

Of course, Panahi's use of long takes also succeeds in producing a facsimile of real time that has been the director's clearest stylistic device from his debut feature The White Balloon (1995). Here, the time of Offside is basically consubstantial with that of the game, concluding soon after the result is announced with the soldiers and the women celebrating in the nocturnal streets. (The game begins in late afternoon with Panahi charting the evening's transition to dusk.) In fact, within this coda, Pahani offers a glimpse of hope that is not unwarranted otherwise, provided his characterizations of the soldiers who guard the girls. While unwilling to break the law themselves, the soldiers seem to possess at least a flicker of sympathy. Hence, it might be said -- particularly when one considers the rebellion of the young women additionally -- that there is a reformative impulse in the people, even if the state remains irredeemably arcane.

In short, Offside continues Panahi's interrogation of Iranian social realities, culminating in another major work to stand beside his earlier highlights The White Balloon, The Circle (2000) and Crimson Gold (2003). However, unlike the first and third features listed above, Panahi's mentor Abbas Kiarostami did not pen the screenplay, which may account for an uncharacteristically underlined moment of psychological causality late in the film. Apart from this revelation, however, Offside remains a strong inheritor to the master's tradition, and once again confirms Panahi's status as Iran's greatest active filmmaker not named Kiarostami.

Monday, March 19, 2007

New Exhibitions: Tacita Dean / Spanish Painting / Gordon Matta-Clark

"All arts are founded on man's presence; only in photography do we enjoy his absence."
-Andre Bazin

Tacita Dean's Kodak (2006) joins James Benning's Ten Skies (2004) and Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub's These Encounters of Theirs (2006) as one of the finest new films to screen in New York thus far this year. Add to these works of the experimental (primarily non-narrative) cinema Film Comments Selects highlight Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006) and the structuralist-influenced April opening Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006), and one begins to wonder whether narrative cinema isn't beginning to fall further behind its avant-garde and poetic counterparts qualitatively. After such a lackluster year for Hollywood, such a claim does not seem as far-stretched as it might otherwise. Even the mid-majors have shown this turn with Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (2006). Of course, none of those films listed at the outset, in addition to Costa's, have or ever will receive anything approaching commercial distribution.

Fortunately, the Guggenheim New York is currently screening two of Tacita Dean's 16mm works, including the 40-plus minute Kodak, as part of its supplementary exhibition, The Hugo Boss Prize 2006: Tacita Dean. Kodak features footage of one of the eponymous film company's factories shot after Dean learned that this manufacturer of her 16mm medium was slated to close. Utilizing that same format, Kodak makes an argument for her medium's specificity and superiority over digital technologies in its registration of sensuous tones (particularly yellows, royal blues, turquoise/sea-greens and pink-tinted purples) in exceedingly low light. Dean's spare lighting often adorns empty corridors, which draw attention to film's post-human character -- that is as an indexical medium. This quality is similarly evident in Kodak's emphasis on the translucent material, which likewise underscores the medium's fragility. Indeed, this is the ultimate meaning that inheres within Kodak: namely, of a medium that is ceasing to exist, both in its lack of production and in the instability of the format itself. This eulogistic sense is suggested further in the concluding images of factory waste on the wet mill floor.

While the Tacita Dean exhibit occupies only a single room within the museum, the remaining non-permanent galleries are devoted to the epic Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History. As I may still write on the exhibition elsewhere, my comments will remain of necessity cursory. Suffice it to say of the enormous showcase, then, that while Spanish Painting does not break new ground, it does have the virtue of clarifying the unity of the Spanish visual tradition, and particularly the titular Picasso's self-conscious revisionism vis-a-vis his national context. In the end, if Picasso's art demonstrates the greatest dexterity, Goya's emerges as perhaps the most influential, Velázquez's the ultimate achievement in his nation's plastic tradition and El Greco's and Miro's the most respectively singular. It is worth noting that the exhibition is arranged by theme with many of the newer works (especially Picasso's) hanging beside those pieces that served as inspiration, either directly or indirectly.

For someone who is better versed in El Greco, Goya and Picasso, the opportunity to see such a large number of Velázquez's again -- many of which are on loan from the Prado -- serves to reinforce his preeminent stature, at least in this author's opinion: that is, as one of the oil medium's greatest practitioners, perhaps even the equal of Rembrandt himself. To be terse, Velázquez appears in Spanish Painting to be his art's greatest humanist: in the superlative "Don Sebastián de Morra" (ca. 1643-4) for example, the painter's representation of the little person secures the full weight of his subject's sadness, deriving as it does from his physical limitations -- both his height and his meaty hands. (A second similarly socially-themed highlight is Goya's "The Young Woman (The Letter)," after 1812, which limns the aristocratic subject concretely, while her servant and the workers behind her are all represented without this same clarity.) That is, Velázquez -- and Goya -- emphasize the social, whereas Rembandt's focus is the spiritual. To put it differently, Velázquez's subjects lack the souls that are the focus of his Dutch counterpart's art. Again, for Velázquez, it is their position within a social system and the impact that this has on their psychology -- to say nothing of his preoccupation with their garment's textures (Velázquez's painting, at its most assured, approaches a second sense, that of the creation of touch) and the medium itself, which all combine to forge the essence of his art.

Fifteen blocks to the south, The Whitney Museum of American Art is currently exhibiting the "anarchitecture" of Gordon Matta-Clark. Again, to be brief, Matta-Clark, son of Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, is perhaps best known for his incisions cut into abandoned or condemned structures, such as a pair of late 17th century homes (in "Conical Intersect") situated beside Paris's Centre Pompidou, or his 1974 "Splitting" where he does exactly that to a one-family home. In summary, Matta-Clark's art aids his spectator in securing a new perspective in viewing familiar locations, while offering substantive social and psychological ramifications: to the former, they assist us in understanding how people live together in cities, while the latter indicates both a formalization of Matta-Clark's broken home, and even more compellingly, his twin brother's suicide.

In terms of his media, since his art is by its definition ephemeral -- buildings immediately prior to their demolishing -- Matta-Clark portrayed his sites in both photographs and films. In so doing, Matta-Clark offers an analogy between his activity ("to clarify our personal awareness of place") and the process of representing the three-dimensional in two dimensions (namely, of finding a method to explode the spatial barriers inherent on said format). Thus, there is a rigor to match the artist's ambition, marking Matta-Clark as an exceedingly significant post-war American artist.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Film: Zodiac & The Lives of Others

David Fincher's Zodiac shoulders what might have been an insurmountable obstacle to its success as a thriller -- the fact that the true crime case upon which the film is based remains unsolved. Nevertheless, the director's latest serial killer picture secures a tension, though it is less connected to the police's investigation -- as of course its outcome is common knowledge -- than it is to amateur Robert Graysmith's (Jake Gyllenhaal as the author of the film's original non-fiction source) subsequent intervention. As Graysmith states when his wife (Chloë Sevigny) questions his motivation, he wants know to look into the eyes of the killer and to know that he is guilty. By this point, this is all that we as spectators want as well (or at least to know the murder's identity, obviously). And much to the credit of Fincher and his screenwriter James Vanderbilt, we become as convinced of a particular suspect's guilt as does Graysmith. Indeed, Fincher and Vanderbilt's control of circumstantial evidence ultimately points to the aforesaid suspect, even as we are compelled to at least wonder about the various other leads that Graysmith pursues.

To defer suspense until the film's second part -- that is, to transfer it onto the question of the killer's identity -- we are led to share in our degree of knowledge with the San Francisco P.D. (and especially its lead investigators Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and the city's newspaper staff (where Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.'s Paul Avery work; the latter is another contribution to Downey Jr.'s drug-fueled persona -- cf. A Scanner Darkly, 2006) to which the Zodiac killer sends his encrypted missives. It is only after the investigation effectively concludes that Fincher and Vanderbilt begin to reveal the missteps of inter-departmental communication that assured the investigation's failure. As such, Zodiac offers a cogent account of this unsolved case and its likely perpetrator, and also a viable reason for its remaining unresolved.

Ultimately, Zodiac is less a sordid true crime case than it is a portrait of how these notorious murders remained unsolved. In other words, Zodiac is not Se7en (1995) -- not to imply that the earlier film has any basis in reality -- though it does share some of its tropes: perhaps the clearest example is the sparely lit, squirrel-infested trailer of one of the picture's suspects. Otherwise, many of Fincher's voluminous spaces feature visible overhead florescent lighting. Together, it again becomes clear, as it was in Se7en that the particularity of Fincher's style can be located in his modulations of (moody) lighting. Spatially, Fincher composes many of his shots horizontally across his wide screen.

Less obvious for any specific visual tropes, with the possible exception of occasionally distracting instances of rack focus, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) offers another example of dubious recent history, albeit in fictionalized form. The recently Oscar-feted The Lives of Others -- the German picture was an upset winner in the 'best foreign language picture' category -- gives an account of one Stasi officer's (Michael Haneke axiom Ulrich Mühe) increasing disaffection with the GDR's practice of surveillance, though not on principle but rather by virtue of its abuses.

After one of East Germany's only loyal artists is placed under full surveillance as per a leading official's romantic interest in his actress lover, Stasi officer Wiesler begins his sabotage of the process, allowing the disenchanted writer and his compatriots to produce an anti-GDR tract that emphasizes the high incidence of suicide in the former state. Thus, Henckel von Donnersmarck limns a portrait of the GDR that both articulates the ubiquity of the state's crimes and also suggests the goodness and the courage of some of its citizenry. While of course both are undeniable, the filmmakers' emphasis upon the good Stasi provides a certain cover to those who may have been complicit; like De Gaulle's France in the postwar period, The Lives of Others indicates a move toward a revisionist, heroic history.

If it could be argued therefore that The Lives of Others presents a somewhat suspect glimpse at Germany's recent past, Henckel von Donnersmarck's direction of suspense leaves little to be desired. For example, the German director's staging of the climactic scene with all emphasis transferred onto a single feature of the architecture is worthy of and influenced by the 'Master of Suspense.' Then again, Henckel von Donnersmarck's assured direction of such sequences is accompanied by inclusions of passages that reiterate what the action has already made clear -- as with the overly distended conclusion. (The Lives of Others is nothing if not middle-brow.) Even so, the film's heart-warming final revelation, however overblown, achieves an undeniable emotional resonance.