Sunday, February 6, 2011

The European Ark

"The animals painted on the walls of Lascaux are not there in the same way as are the fissures and limestone formations. Nor are they elsewhere. ...For I do not look at it as one looks at a thing, fixing it in its place. My gaze wanders within it as in the halos of Being. Rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it."
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
I finally got to see Russian Ark, Sokurov's masterpiece filmed in a single shot in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. I'll spare you the cliches about 'creative genius' etc etc - just take the phone off the hook and watch it sometime. Like The Leopard and - on a far more intimate scale - The Dead, the film is a bitter sweet reminder of what has gone before, never to return.

Nor is Russian Ark just about Russia. One of the mysterious characters in the film is 'The European', whom we learn is 'from' the 19th century. And the film is indeed as much about Europe as it is about Russia. The setting (the stunning architecture of the Winter Palace), the costumes and the music all combine to invoke a sense of what once was. We see according to the film, rather than merely observe its characters, to use Merleau-Ponty's insight.

Accordingly we see the height of European culture (the second half of the nineteenth century if the film is to be our guide), well before the horrors of the 20th century arrived. Of course we only see the heights: life for Russian peasants wasn't so great in Tsarist Russia (though it took something of a turn for the worse under Stalin). So don't watch the film for geo-political insight.

The film is about culture - that stuff we now keep in museums (hence the 'Ark' in the title). In one wry scene during the film we emerge briefly into a gallery filled with contemporary, modern day tourists - decked out in the mandatory uniform of 21st century 'individuality': i.e.: t-shirts, jeans and runners. As 'The European' exits the gallery he wonders aloud: 'why is everyone dressed so poorly?'

Indeed.

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