Friday, March 4, 2016

Lost Ark

When I went to see the Coens' Hail, Caesar! last week, I had the odd experience of seeing only a single trailer before the film.

It was odd both for the number of trailers -- the usual total is about three for this theater -- as well as for the film being advertised, which was first released 14 years ago in its native country and a dozen years ago in Australia.

I discovered that night that Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark was returning to Australian cinemas, for reasons I have yet to figure out despite several internet searches devoted to the subject.

And it reminded me that watching this film is a conquest I started but never completed.

If you haven't heard of Russian Ark, you obviously aren't as big a fan of the long take as I am. Since I was so wowed by the work of Emmanuel Lubezki in Children of Men -- though I suppose it goes back 15 years earlier to my first exposure to an audacious single take in Robert Altman's The Player -- I have considered myself something of a devotee of long, unbroken shots in film. Russian Ark should have been right up my alley, then, as it is constituted of nothing but one unbroken 96-minute take. The shot goes through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and involves 2,000 cast members enacting scenes from Russian history in gorgeous costumes.

Unfortunately, I chose to watch that 96-minute shot starting at something like 10 o'clock at night, something like two years ago. I got through about 15 minutes and never resumed. It wasn't that I was bored, but ... okay, yeah, I was a little bored. Sleep was the dominant obstacle, but boredom definitely factored in.

But I can count the number of films I've started and not finished on two hands, so seeing this trailer for this movie piqued my interests, especially since I couldn't otherwise fathom why it was being re-released on April 7th. (And the internet is still unwilling to tell me.)

One thing I find especially odd about the timing is that the movie boasts itself as the longest unbroken take in cinema history, or at least it was at the time it was made in 2002. As it so happens, an even longer single take is being released to Australian theaters next Thursday -- and this one I have already seen.

It's the 2015 film Victoria, which I meant to devote its own entire post when I saw it late last year, specifically because of the kind of technical feat that usually turns me to jelly.

Victoria, a German film directed by Sebastian Schipper, runs a full 42 minutes longer than Russian Ark on that one single shot. Yes, that means you are watching the same shot, without any edits, for 138 minutes. And it's possibly even more ambitious than (what I saw of) Russian Ark, in that it is not confined to a locked down building in which everything is under the director's control. This shot goes in and out of cars, apartment buildings and bars, up and down streets, up and down stairwells, and who knows where else.

And it was one of the most prominent examples I can think of where a technique that I love and admire this much left me this cold.

It's not coming out in Australia until next week, but I rented it on iTunes back in December based on the much earlier U.S. release date. Not 15 minutes into this story of the titular woman who stumbles out of a bar and gets caught up with a gang of friendly but unstable men who go on a crime spree, I start to squirm, conscious of how long I would be stuck in this movie with this device. Don't get me wrong -- on a purely technical level, it is absolute genius, a feat to be celebrated as one of the greats of the last 15 years in terms of pure degree of difficulty. But as an actual story with actual characters I care about and things I care about happening to them ... it didn't work. And just as I said I felt trapped inside the awful movie Open Windows in this post because of its gimmick of all taking place on a computer screen, I felt trapped inside Victoria, a decidedly better film that just doesn't quite work despite the heroic efforts of its actors, its cinematographer, its other logical support staff and especially its actors.

Fresh off that experience (relatively speaking), I don't know that I'm eager to give Russian Ark another go right away -- though going to see it in the theater would be one way to ensure I didn't yield to a flight impulse. It would also be a way to ensure I spent too much money on it, since I doubt my critics card would be accepted for this special engagement. Plus I think it's still streaming on Netflix, though I may be wrong about that.

I'll locate that lost Ark one day, though.

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