Sokurov’s Russian Ark And The End Of Postmodernism
One of the most fascinating things about The Russian Ark, it seems to me, is that it is situated on the cusp between postmodernism and a new epoch in which such things as the experience of transcendence, the focus on simple subjects and things, theism, and the spatialization of time play a paramount role.
In other words, The Russian Ark can be viewed or read according to two distinctly different aesthetic paradigms. Since Dragan Kujundzic has already provided a thoroughly poststructuralist (i.e., postmodern) interpretation of the movie, I would like to reciprocate with a view from the other side of the epochal divide-from the perspective of what I feel is a new era that can no longer be assimilated to postmodern norms or expectations.
Before turning to the movie, I would like to outline the basic features of this new epoch, which I call performatism. Since I’ve given more thorough descriptions elsewhere,(Most notably in “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism,” in Anthropoetics 6, no. 2 (2001/2002) (www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0602/perform.htm) and in “Performatism in the Movies (1997-2003), in Anthropoetics 8, no. 2 (2002/2003) (www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0802/movies.htm).) I’ll be very brief.
Basically, performatism reacts against the infinite regress, decentrification and subjectlessness peculiar to postmodern discourse by creating narrative, spatial or ethical frames which center and simultaneously constrict simple or “dense” subjects, who are induced to overcome the inhibiting frames around them.
As readers or viewers, we in turn are practically forced to identify with these characters, since a lack of identification forecloses access to the work as a whole. In this sense, the performatist work is a kind of a setup or trap: It forces us, within an aesthetically mediated framework, to experience how characters transcend boundaries in a manner whose premises are patently unbelievable but which move us nonetheless.
In other words, it forces us to believe in spite of our better knowledge. Summing all this up quickly, you could say that performatism’s basic mode is theist and monist: It functions in a way similar to that in which a monotheistic God creates a world (a work-frame), places people (characters) in it and leaves them essentially on their own to transcend the confines of that world (the narrative).
These acts of transcendence can be represented literally within the fictional or narrative world (for example, by showing the dead come to life), but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. In “realistic” performatism, constricting frames can be overcome relatively or incompletely.
In general, such performances defuse attempts at deconstructing them because of their patent unbelievably: You are led to identify with such acts of aesthetic transcendence in spite of yourself-and being aware that they are epistemologically specious doesn’t alter your feeling of having bonded with the performative totality of the work.
Postmodernism, by analogy, tends toward a mode that is deist and gnostic. Rather than thinking of the world (and of art) in terms of a personal creator and the imitation of that creator, it treats it as a dynamically, constantly developing and shifting energetic Whole (the non-personal deist God) made up of equally inconstant parts allowing a transient and incomplete perception of how the Whole works.
The goal of its participants in postmodernism is to know rather than to believe; or, alternately, to tap into the energy flow surging through the world. For the limited purposes of this discussion it will suffice to note that the major film theoretician of postmodernism, Gilles Deleuze, explicitly derives his concepts from the deist philosophies of Leibniz and Bergson.
We should also note that the most influential postmodern philosopher of language, Jacques Derrida, adheres to something quite similar to a gnostic notion of truth-seeking: He pursues scattered, immanent traces of knowledge rather than trying to represent incompletely the essence of one single, transcendental Truth.
From the postmodern point of view, The Russian Ark presents many features which seem inexplicable, presumptuous or even trite, and which call out to be drawn back as much as possible into a post-historical matrix of doublings, ruptures and evacuations.
To some extent, this appropriation is still possible, as Kujundzic has shown in his expertly managed deconstruction of the film. I would argue, however, that in many respects it is easier and aesthetically more rewarding to explain The Russian Ark using the basic tenets of performatism.
For what it’s worth, my interpretation will give viewers a choice between two contrary readings. Whereas Kujundzic’s interpretation stresses the movie’s alterity, metaphysical pessimism and post-historical fixation on repeating the past, mine stresses its performative totality, metaphysical optimism and innovative achievement.
The most striking cinematographic feature of The Russian Ark is, of course, its use of a single, 87-minute-long shot made possible by the use of a body-mounted video camera. Kujundzic does much to make this shot sound as eccentric, inhuman and technologically intimidating as possible.
He speaks of the “unblinking eye” of the video camera, as well as of a spectral “visor effect” associated with an invisible narrator. The camera is said to move in a way that is “not so linear and sequential, and often wavers in an undecided and aporetic temporal and spatial opening.”
Viewed through a glass darkly, this may all be true. However, it doesn’t seem to me to grasp the main, dominating effect of the unified long shot, which is quite simply to make the camera vision and its movements dreamily anthropomorphic. Büttner’s floating, gently panning camera doesn’t have the net effect of frightening or chilling us; instead, it acts, relative to cut film, like the totality of a constructed human gaze.
The tone for this is set in the opening scene, where the camera’s unnaturally wide, indifferently focused vision is for several minutes rendered almost identical to a human one by having it pass through a crowded, dark corridor (as Natascha Drubek-Meyer aptly observes, the scene “emanates warmth and privateness”).
Unless you really expect the camera to blink and reproduce saccadic eye movements, this is about as close as you can get in mechanical terms to the human experience of seeing-the catch being that this all depends on a severely inhibiting frame or mise en scène. Once you have been drawn into the space of the museum, of course, this particular effect recedes.
However, as Drubek-Meyer points out, the anthropomorphic effect continues in other ways: The lack of montage causes the viewer to pay more attention to the tactile and auditive elements of the mise en scène, which we experience in the continuously unfolding, uncut presence of real time.
This also explains the occasionally “aporetic” movements of the camera within the film: The cameraman is pretty much on his own within his own real time, and the director has no way of belatedly “cutting back” to a previous position or “cutting forward” to a future one. In this movie, we are all made to feel the cutting edge of presence-even as we realize later that it is an epistemological illusion.
It is easier to understand the logic of the long take in The Russian Ark if you compare it with Dogma cinematography, which may possibly have influenced it directly. The original Dogma directors-most notably Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg-used grainy film and wobbly, hand-held cameras to convey a specifically personal (human) feeling, even as their movies-Idiots, The Celebration-turn out to be highly constructed and tighly plotted authorial (theist) constructs centering on emancipatory acts of self-humiliation.
The “amateurish,” seemingly spontaneous cinematography works in conjunction with a higher, very constructed artificial plot; both converge in an aesthetic totality not reducible to either of its two parts (poststructuralists who do so regularly assume that the shaky Dogma cinematography is aimed at conveying authenticity, which is demonstrably not the case when the movies are considered as a whole).
Sokurov’s protest regarding the prize awarded to his German cameraman, though disconcerting in terms of its nationalist conceit, is at least understandable from an aesthetic point of view: The long camera shot and the director’s mise en scène are not meant to be cut apart anywhere, at any time.
Also helpful for a better understanding of The Russian Ark are the Dogma group’s “Vows of Chastity”-using only a hand-held camera, shooting only on location, not using optical work or filters etc. These are meant to impose a certain sense of humility upon the nearly omnipotent director-the intent being to create an equilibrium between his or her constructive will and the endlessly passive malleability of the script and mise en scène (the Vows are in fact regularly broken by the directors, who then “confess” their breaches publicly on the internet(See www.dogme95.dk.)).
Measured against the admittedly rather arbitrary rigor of the Vows, The Russian Ark can be said to over-fulfill at least one: Namely number three (to use only a hand-held camera). By welding shot and mise en scène into an uncut, pristine unity it achieves something even the radical dogmatist Lars von Trier never dared.
This, however, is where the similarities end. The act of extreme visual self-limitation (and, for the cameraman, probably also of self-mortification) is used to record the contents of an unbelievably lush “arkive” encompassing not just major works of representational art but also selected, resuscitated personages drawn from 300 years of Russian history.
The Russian Ark presents the transcendent from a visually very limited, “human” point of view, while simultaneously ennobling the limited point of view by having it record the transcendent. The result is a performative work-frame whose total achievement is irreducible to either of its parts (take away the unified shot, for example, and you would have a montage of unconnected historical scenes; take away the transcendent historical scenes and you would have a boring visual tour of a very large museum).
This leads into the question as to just what kind of a technical or aesthetic innovation is really implied by Sokurov’s film. In spite of the film’s great commercial and critical success, the one-shot movie is almost certainly going to remain a one-shot affair.
The reason lies not in the technological prerequisites or artistic skill required, but in the closed performative totality which I’ve noted above. The Russian Ark only works aesthetically because the immanent long shot has been made to pass through an even longer, transcendent span of time.
Sokurov’s movie is more like a stunt or a gag that you can only pull off once-rather like Columbus and his famous egg. What is new and what is meant to endure is not the individual device, but rather the fact of its performativity per se, whose success or failure is independent of any epistemological critique.
The Russian Ark, in other words, doesn’t need an epistemological justification for its performance to work. The performance embodies its own goal: which is to jump-start history again, to create a singular event in the open sea of an otherwise eventless post-historical expanse.
In epistemological terms, the stunt involved in The Russian Ark is just as derivative and iterable as is everything else-but that’s not the point. What counts is the monist, encapsulated performance, which, strictly speaking, cannot be repeated with any real effect. It can only be superseded by another, differently constructed performance which in turn forces us to accept or reject it as it stands.
If enough of these successful performances accumulate, a new epoch will form-a process that I believe is taking place right now. Deconstructionists may gnash their teeth and wail at this reversion to what from their point of view is a mindless monism. However, this is the only way to overcome a post-historical discourse which reduces all innovation to epistemological questions of filiation, iteration and citation.
There is yet another un-postmodern side to the long shot. The aspect of a camera being tied to a specifically human perspective for almost ninety minutes leads to a cinematographic treatment of time that is no longer entirely compatible with the Deleuzian (and Bergsonian) concept of time informing poststructuralist film theory.
For if you think carefully about what the hand-held camera does in The Russian Ark, you can only conclude that it is the exact opposite of what Deleuze and Bergson tell us is “good” time or duration. The reader will recall that Bergson differentiates between psychological time and duration-psychological time being that tendency to chop up time into chronological, spatialized segments of presence easily digestible to the mind.
Duration, by contrast, is experienced negatively as the divergence from sequential or chronological time and positively as participation in the totality of Time (a time “out of joint” with space and linear movement(See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time Image, Minnesota 1989, 40-41.)). In film, Deleuze tells us, montage creates the image of time, either synthetically (through the net effect of montage) or analytically (by allowing us to extract an apprehension of time from the movement-image in anticipation of the cut). Both operations, however, depend entirely on the work of montage.
What happens when you take montage away entirely, as in The Russian Ark? The answer, I think, is that we get two times: The camera’s (or cameraman’s) time and the time conveyed by the mise en scène. Both come together in a singular way that does not jive well with Deleuzian, deist notions about how time works.(Deleuze, Cinema 2, 34-35.)
The first kind of time, the uncut 87-minute time of the shot, is Everyman’s time. It’s the same time you would get if you would be able to film your sister’s wedding reception with a camcorder in one continuous sequence. The time of the shot is real time, essentially parallel to the viewer’s time; it is completely chronological and linear (the line, it is true, meanders, but it is still essentially a line(Within the inescapable, treacly real time of the shot Sokurov and Büttner use numerous tricks to speed up or modulate our apprehension of time, most notably through camera movement and/or the use of music. Also, as Oliver Baumgarten has noted in an article in the internet version of the film magazine Schnitt (www.schnitt.de/filme/artikel/russian_ark.shtml), Büttner uses ersatz-cuts to compensate for the lack of the real thing. When things start to slow down, for example, he does a closeup (of gloved hands, for example) and then swings the camera around to a long shot with full depth of field, thus simulating the mechanics of the cut within real time.)).
In Bergsonian-Deleuzian terms, this is banal, artless time; it’s the time you want to get out of by tapping into duration. The second kind of time, the time of the mise en scène, would at first seem to meet that urgently felt need: Through characteristic costumes, personages and language we are confronted with a jumble of historically very different times in one place, much as one might expect in a properly postmodern, posthistorical movie.(Although even this argument seems forced sometimes. The classic artistic (and clinical) figure of the melancholic doesn’t move (just think of Dürer’s classic picture as analyzed by Benjamin in his Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels). If the camera stroll through the Hermitage is supposed to exemplify melancholy, then it’s a pretty lively variant of it.)
This spatially conveyed experience of different times (i.e., duration) however suffers in Bergsonian terms from several major flaws. First, it is highly conceptualized and hierarchical (the fact that uniforms, a symbol of rank, help convey this historical information is symptomatic). Secondly, it is highly spatialized and compartmentalized, much in the way that the Hermitage offers us rooms with “17th century Flemish masters” and the like.
The Bergsonian-Deleuzian aesthetic, which places a premium on gradation, has to cope with what it must feel is a double banality: The banality of chronological time per se and the banality of conceptually segmented space conveying duration.
The real reason that the Bergsonian concepts don’t quite hit the mark is that in The Russian Ark we are dealing with an entirely different, theist or spatially demarcated concept of time: It’s the time you need to transcend the space confining you (the time of the shot, the time you’re in the space of the museum, of the world).
This goes for the narrative situation, as well: The movie recapitulates the basic theist plot, which plunks people into an inhospitable environment to see if they can overcome it while remaining spiritually whole (the basic deist plot, by contrast, is that of the infinite regress and alienation experienced when you search for Sophia, the durée, epistemological truths or what have you).
The use of theist time in The Russian Ark also creates problems for Kujundzic, who is intent on assimilating it to Deleuze’s notion of the time-image. According to Kujundzic, “what the film represents is the very moment of keeping of a tradition (sic) by means of the ?live’ gaze of the camera.
The live gaze sees an entire epoch obliterated and in ruins. It is precisely this tension between the utmost visibility and the ruination of representation that creates the most interesting effects…” Unlike many of Kujundzic’s deconstructive moves, which are clever and instructive, I don’t find this especially convincing or even very precise.
The “live” gaze of the unbroken long shot is quantitatively and qualitatively much more limited than in a normally cut film with its richness of quickly shifting times and perspectives. Filmic visibility isn’t here at its utmost; it’s about as restricted as you can get.
Also, I fail to see how the representations involved are “ruined”-if anything, they’ve been made to come alive in the most banal sense of the word: The movie, after all, magically revives Pushkin, Catherine the Great, Anastasia and a whole bevy of Russian aristocrats and places them in front of the camera for us to see.
If that isn’t enough, the museum is also filled with some of the world’s most highly valued representational paintings, which by all appearances are in pretty good shape. In some trivial sense, I suppose, you could speak of a “rupture between the camera and the object of representation,” as Kujundzic does, but it’s hard to imagine how it would get under anyone’s skin-after all, the movie can hardly be mistaken for an authentic attempt to film the contents of the Hermitage or provide a comprehensive overview of post-Petrine Russian history.
What does happen, is that a specifically human, limited apprehension of time is combined with a specifically theist, transcendent apprehension of time in such a way that history is not only recorded, but also made: The film’s own aesthetic demonstrates the possibility of the new not just discursively, as an epistemological postulate, but also performatively, as an aesthetic fact.
This raises a larger question as to the movie’s basic metaphysical mindset regarding historical time. Kujundzic (in keeping with the metaphysical pessimism of postmodernism) argues that, ultimately, the film is metaphysically pessimistic, as well: At the end, after all, the ark empties and the Russian aristocracy marches off to its doom.
Kujundzic is no doubt justified in equating this scene (and also a few others) with post-historical melancholy and nostalgia for the Petrine period. However, this relates to only one function of the “arkive,” which is a historical location through which people have always passed anyway.
In my mind, its other, more fundamental function is to transport aesthetically valued sacral representations that allow us to renew culture after a devastating political deluge. The appeal of these representations extends not just to people able to “read” them, as the worldly Custine can, but also to those captivated by their aesthetic, visual force, which would appear to be coextensive with their spiritual one (most of the paintings discussed or focused on in the movie treat sacral themes).
Hence the dialogue between Custine and the timid museum visitor admiring Van Dyk’s Virgin with Partridges, in which Custine-unjustly-complains that the young man can’t understand the painting without knowing the Gospels. The power of these representations is in fact so fundamental that people don’t even have to see them-hence the sightless curator who has internalized the Hermitage’s representations to the point where she can explain them “blind.”
As she herself says: “God protects them [the figures in the painting]. There is no doubt about His unseen presence.” Whereupon Sokurov’s voice sighs: “Sir, leave her, she’s an angel.” The explicit appeal to transcendence in this scene seems to embarass Kujundzic, who quickly authorizes himself to change the subject and cite Walter Benjamin’s secular allegory of the angel in Angelus Novus.
And indeed, Sokurov seems to be laying it on pretty thick here. As secular observers, however, we aren’t obliged to adopt these professions of faith ourselves-or drag in Walter Benjamin, either. What is more to the point, it seems to me, is to realize that the sacral-the possibility of transcendence-can be experienced best within a secular, constructed aesthetic frame such as Van Dyk’s painting, the institution of the Hermitage or the unified long shot of Sokurov’s Russian Ark.
Indeed, you could say that the real point of such frames is their specific ability to transcend life-threatening unbelief (the Soviet period) by preserving higher or sacral value in representational aesthetic signs. The positive set towards these signs as bearers of future salvation is ultimately more important than their literal religious content, which is open only to “blind” dogmatic believers.
The framework enabling belief to be represented in the future, in other words, is more crucial to culture’s survival than belief itself-or to knowledge about the conditions of that belief gained ex post facto. That is why I think that the basic set of the movie is aimed towards the future and not towards the past. The Russian ark is not the Titanic: It swims on instead of sinking.
While I disagree with Kujundzic’s pessimistic and occasionally downright morbid assessment of the movie, I would like to emphasize that the movie itself is not a completely consistent example of what I have identified as the performatist paradigm.
One major difference between The Russian Ark and “classic” performatist movies like The Celebration, Amélie, Ghost Dog or Kukushka is that while The Russian Ark contains a striking, no longer postmodern cinematographic performance, it lacks an event, a crucial moment of individual redemption and identification focused on a whole, usually opaque or simple person.
The central figure of identification in The Russian Ark is in fact almost from the beginning a double one (Custine and the voice-over). Kujundzic is entirely justified in stressing the tensions between the two; theirs is a dynamic, unstable relationship that gnaws at the heart of the movie (as well as of Russian culture as a whole).
Also, as Kujundzic aptly puts it, The Russian Ark “leaks”: It stuffs so many historical allusions into the mise en scène that you can’t but help wanting to pursue them further outside the confines of the movie. All this notwithstanding, though, I would argue that The Russian Ark remains a film which is not just immersed in the past, but which also, through a specific, one-time conflation of shot and mise en scène, has catapulted itself into a no longer posthistorical future.
And perhaps most important of all: The Russian Ark is not alone. In the coming years there will be many more movies that will perform like it without actually repeating its basic device. Watch out for them.
See also the article Roundtable on Alexander Sokurov’s film “Russian Ark”.