Thursday, February 14, 2008


Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg) (2002) Directed by: Alexander Sokurov

The intersecting of two secrecies results in interesting, however unpleasant may it be, revelations. When the hidden-away in a museum and the clandestine byways of history overlap visibly, it results in a rather violent exposure of the collective insecurity. Russia has taken much from Europe, like most of the East has done, when it comes to (modern disciplines of) academic/fine arts. In this case, however, there is one qualification: that Russia in itself is considered to be European in essence. Let us return to this point later, but.

Archiving being a modern necessity – as ‘an art of the state’, say – in terms with the sense of nation and people-as-kin, museums hold a veritable mode to relate to what is stored (and distributed) as culture, in the post-industrialist society.

What qualifies some specimens to be inside a museum of culture and what goes into the historiography of the nation are both important nodes of enquiry when thinking about reading the peoples’ consciousness vis-à-vis a museum. Museums are important spots in the map of a city: not-too-infrequently, even the centre of it. Always listed in the places-to-be-visited, regarded as landmarks, and entry restricted with passes or security checks, they make a cult of authority in their sit(e)uation. These buildings pride in imposing architectural feats and the ‘rarity’ of the specimens preserved. A metropolis is incomplete without a museum (or an archive of equable gravity) and the people therein connect to it in much the same way as they connect to public libraries and court circles. Even if they never see the inside of it, for an urban population, the building connotes a space of modernity, a mark of progress, and a record of ‘culture’.

The museum is a reservoir of time. You swish past into the beginnings and flash down into the current, within its space. Inside a real time, vicarious times dangle in tempting threads. And simultaneously, within a real space, tangible records of spaces that existed are pre-served. They belong to the public by belonging to the state. It is always a display, an invitation to think in time, and never a sell-out. You don’t own anything in a museum as a person. Your right over it, as said, is reserved in your being a citizen who abides by the state. The exhibits therein hold its magic over you by being your past and not belonging to you, directly. You will have to link up with nation/kin/citizen/subject paradigms to ‘possess’ it.

Having said that let me come to Russian Ark. The Russia herein is a brilliant spacious block, and not the space of the scantily lit congested wooden-walls of the potato eaters. We, for one, are fetched far from the politics that is Russia (to the Indian leftists, at least) and the inscrutable tongue that is Russian. We are removed from anything unlike the European inheritance in Russia. We are shut out to the toil, revolt, and terror that paved the Karamazov homestead. And we see the pretentious bourgeoisie socials that drove Anna to death, ironically, gaining an elevated splendor here. With bated breath we peep into the intrigues of (bourgeoisie) history, savor high art, and attend studious classical western music.

It is a (Russian) ghost who is taking us through the grand (which is a minor word to describe it) museum of St Petersburg. And very unfortunately, he is accompanying a not-so-Russophile European (Marquis de Custin who authored La Russie en 1839, as we are told in the glosses) who thinks Russia in fact is a veneer of Europe spread over Asian rocks. For Custin, all composers are German and all masters of sculpture and painting, Italian. Being extremely religious, the splendid collection of paintings in the given museum, for him, is a blasphemy, mostly: he shows how the Circumcision of Christ is placed together with the licentious Portrait of Cleopatra, for an instance. And practically terrifies an adolescent who admits that he is not a Catholic. Not being a Catholic, Custin says, it is impossible to appreciate a portrait of Paul and Peter. Custin, sure, is pictured as a very insolent figure and is thrown out from the courtly gatherings almost always. He knows that he would be hurting the feelings of the narrator when he derides Pushkin and is cognizant of his appalling-prank in putting the back of a blind Russian woman against a painting asking her to accost it, but doesn’t stop from doing either.

Starkly in contrast with the rest of the flamboyant cast, Custin wears an arrogant black costume. And considers whoever else in the milieu as mere ‘costumes’ and ‘actors’. The whole of Russian history is a ‘theatre’ for him. And instead of disproving Custin, the drama of Russian Ark stays away from any jolts of reality that can upset his tirade (or the audience's dream-journey). Very significant to this point, at almost the middle of the cinema, the author begs the Marquis to not open a door, which concealed empty painting-frames and snow and a “desperate Leningrader” (cf. wiki) working hard on his own coffin. In yet another scene, situated in the Stalinist phase, we spy the museum officials thinking about renovating certain portions of the museum. The grand ball conducted by Valery Gergiev and the subsequent exit of the whole cast through the front door, winds up the sequence.
But the coda, I believe, is that exit which the ghost takes, where we see myriad specters of fog rising from a frigid sea that surrounds the museum. The ark that is the St Petersburg museum is floating in a frozen sea. In other words, all history outside the museum is dead history, issuing ghosts (like the narrator) that nostalgically live up to the Russian nationalist dream, inside the museum.

The technical achievement in shooting a 90 minute film all at one go, assembling a cast of 2000 and sorting innumerable costumes is the most talked-about aspect of Russian Ark, as I glanced through the reviews. I am not underplaying Alexander Sokurov’s feat by any means. The magical flow of the single shot (canned by Tilman Buettner) does have its place in film history, I understand. Just that, more important to my viewing was the thrill imparted by feeling the cult-space of the museum perpetually challenging the ‘timely-ness’ of any archive.

For a fuller discussion of the plot and the feat, the review is available at:


Zeinab said...

This is a brilliant blog. You have a natural flow, much like the film which you have written about. (I have seen five minutes of it, which is quite enough.)

I have some reservations regarding some of the ideas you have expressed:
1. I am an Indian, a Marxist, if you like. The Russia I know (USSR, if you like) is the brilliantly lit Moscow and the beautifully adorned Leningrad. It's not a country of potato-eaters and the oligarchs.

2. Anna (Karenin) was not driven to death by the bourgeoisie. She had to commit suicide because Vronsky deserted her. Her husband was compassionate and gave her a chance, she blew it. (Watch the movie starring Sophie Marceau.)

3. As usual, some nitpicking with your usage.

4. You talked about the immensity of assembling 2000 actors in their period costumes. How about assembling 160,000 actors in period costumes and enacting a Napoleonic War? (Voyna i mir, 1966, Dir Sergei Bondarchuk)

As usual, best wishes, do write on. I understand you might be busy these days, write on, write naturally.

ARUN said...

can't help getting a smile, as your heavy-hand at times lands to pat on the shoulder.
a lot of things are happening. can't get to sit and write, though i want to. and superseding is the fact that i have got to be checking my mistakes, now that they are listed in the most real terms possible.