Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

RUSSKIY KOVCHEG (2002)

Russian Ark

So here’s what you need to know about Russkiy kovcheg (known in America places as Russian Ark) before you decide to see it. It’s a) a time travel story b) told from a first-person point of view c) in one long unedited shot. If your brain just clicked its heels at any point in that description, throw it in your Netflix queue and don’t let me say another thing about it.

THE STORY:
Still with us? Okay. Are you a Russian history buff? Yeah? Alright, then, seriously; rent it, buy it, see it.

Marvel at… stuff like this.

If nothing I’ve mentioned so far has even remotely piqued your interest, then I’m sorry, you will probably not enjoy Walking Around a Russian Museum for Ninety Minutes. Because, if we’re being cynical, that’s all it is.

Hmm.

I will try to overcome the cynicism, as the movie’s execution really is awe-inspiring to even the most casual film buff, but it is admittedly weak in the story department. An unnamed character (the director, Alexander Sukurov) finds himself in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg some 300 years ago. We have little else to go on other than the fact that he recognizes himself as being in the past; he simply makes mention of an “accident” and can’t tell if he’s invisible or if he’s simply being ignored. Is he phasing in and out of space-time? IMDb calls him a time traveler, Wikipedia calls him a ghost, and the back of the DVD case claims he’s a filmmaker who’s been temporally displaced.

If there was a mirror in here, we’d know if he’s transparent or wearing a lab coat.

As he moves through the palace (which is now a part of the Hermitage Museum), each room is a different moment in time, usually out of chronological order and portraying events that actually happened in that section of the building. To keep things lively, our hero is accompanied by a European guy known in the credits as “The Stranger,” who has also fallen through time and has little arguments with the camera about how Russians suck.

Time permitting, he traumatizes whoever’s standing near him.

It’s more of an experience than a three-act narrative, but again, that’s really okay. It’s fascinating just flitting from room to room, seeing modern day museum visitors one minute and significant events in Russian history the next. It’s seamless, it’s surreal… it’s neat.

THE ACTING:
I’ll cheat on this one; it’s kind of hard to discuss the acting of someone speaking a language I don’t understand and whose face is never seen on camera. So I won’t. Good job talking, director. Sergei Dreyden, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. He’s sneeringly cheeky as he judges the art and the people around him, and he’s a much better companion for us to enjoy than some smiling tour guide might have been.

He’s sort of like the weird uncle of Russian museum patrons.

The vast majority of actors in the film are extras, and they’re pretty good at extra-ing, except when they look directly into the camera.

RussiaBusted

“But Bill, if the camera is a character, doesn’t it make sense to look at it?” Only if every time you greet someone, you then suddenly feel bad about it, look down, and then scramble back to your mark. Also, he’s supposed to be invisible to everyone but the Stranger. Except when… he’s not, because the story demands it. It’s a dream, whatever.

Oh, and look for the guy waving at the camera. I know it’s possible he’s trying to get the attention of another character, but come on, you know he just wants his mom to spot him when he sends her a DVD.

And that night he was beaten with a director’s chair.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
I’d say the term doesn’t apply here, but considering the work that went into such a beautiful shoot, don’t you dare fault it for that. You do realize they did all this in one day, right?

No, choreography isn’t a special effect, but… look at it!

Time travel is accomplished primarily through offscreen changes in costume and set decoration. It flows surprisingly well.

“Stop talking to the modern day dudes! There’s corsets in this one!”

The only true special effect I could spot is a shot of an ocean, which drives home the theme of the film. I have no idea how they accomplished it. Could be CGI. Could be a projector. Considering the lengths they went to in making this, they could have converted the whole damn museum into a boat.

The Hermitage Museum is somewhat close to water, but it doesn’t rock back and forth.

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:

  • The Stranger has a weird obsession with smelling everything. The paintings, the sculptures, other people… Is this a ploy to get the audience to visit (and sniff) the museum in person rather than just looking at reproductions of the art in books or on the Internet? I’m seeing a line of “You Can’t Smell a JPEG” T-shirts.
  • Weird shit spoiler. If you’ve seen this movie, what the fuck is up with the guy blowing a raspberry? The rest of the movie is pretty normal, but then this David Lynch shit pops up out of nowhere.

I bet he was some punk trying to ruin the take and they just ran with it.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
If you came here for time travel rules, you’re not going to get them. How No-Name and the Stranger got there just doesn’t matter; it’s all about the message of how important Russian history is. At least, in this one palace, I guess. The closest we get to chrono-exasperation comes when the Stranger tells our main character that he should be delighted to find himself in his own country, prompting him to reply:

And of course the other guy changes the subject.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Could they have made this in the White House? I don’t care about Russian history, and even if I did, I’d rather see full historical reenactments with a cohesive story than wander through a museum. That being said… damn, this movie really is something to see. As a film nerd, the one long take approach made my brain scream, “Ohhh shit, they’re really doing it!” the first time I saw it. Watching it again, yes, it’s unbelievably dry, but the dreamlike quality of the experience is something I at least recommend giving a try. If the slow pace just doesn’t do it for you, keep a Japanese action flick on standby to cleanse the palate. Speaking of which…

LATER THIS WEEK:
Ritânâ (2002)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.