Single-Shot Theory 

Russian Ark's Pleasant Pretension

Russian Ark

dir. Sokurov

Opens Fri Feb 28

Cinema 21

Legendary schlockmeister William (13 Ghosts) Castle knew it best: when it comes to putting butts in seats, you just can't beat a good gimmick. The PIFF conversation dominatrix Russian Ark is far too respectable to ever stoop to the likes of dumping a rubber skeleton in the audience's lap, but there's no denying that its considerable buzz quotient depends solely on one dilly of a stunt; namely, a single 96-minute Steadicam shot. Whether this amounts to anything more than an empty high-wire act is open to personal interpretation; however, its technical bravura is impossible to deny.

Requiring a cast of thousands and seven months of rehearsal time, the film chronicles a lucid dreamer's ghostly waltz through St. Petersburg's opulent Hermitage Museum, previously a palace to the Czars. The faceless, perplexed narrator soon meets up with an overbearing 19th Century French nobleman in the same helplessly voyeuristic boat. The unlikely duo then proceeds to trade national philosophies and personal musings for the remainder of the running time, as history becomes increasingly unstuck around them. Rulers wither between glimpses, and petticoats and Reeboks soon share the same air. As may be apparent from even a brief synopsis, this film doesn't flirt with pretension as much as slow-dance with it. However, even those whose knowledge of Russian history stems mainly from Sympathy For The Devil lyrics will find much to savor here, from the wildly inventive premise to the sheer organizational virtuosity required to pull it off.

Director/Narrator Aleksandr Sokurov is no stranger to the perpetration of high-minded Art. His most notable prior film, the equally reviled/revered Mother And Son, slowed time to such an infinitesimal, bloated-with-meaning crawl that the final effect was that of peering through a depressive's Viewmaster. Fortunately, the technical demands here seem to have unleashed an unexpectedly playful mood on Sokurov. As his two displaced wanderers endlessly needle and kvetch with each other through their personal eternity, heady grad-student topics such as nationalism and mortality are presented with a deceptively lazy grace and flashes of genuine humor. It's a transporting experience unlike anything you've ever seen, and probably won't ever want to see again.

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