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Sokurov: Russian Ark

Two days before Christmas, 2001, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg closed for the day. This was a big deal for one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions, but it was for Aleksandr Sokurov to film his homage to Russian history told within a building that is touched by so much of that history. Because they had just one day on location, Russian Ark was filmed in one continuous shot, in just one take.

Well, the third take was what did the trick. The first three tries on December 23 were quickly deemed false starts, but, fortunately, fourth time was the charm. And, 90 minutes later, Russian Ark was in he can.

But that’s perhaps half the story. As one of the characters in this time trove of cinema asks of another, “Are you interested in beauty or just its representation?” The work of Russian Ark was in months of preparation, and then reworked in post-production. The beauty of Russian Ark is a representation of lifetimes of work. Or, as the narrator says at the end, slipping out a side door of the Hermitage and staring at the waterfront, “The sea is all around. We are destined to sail forever. To live forever.”

We have 90-minute triumphs at times, our versions of films that stick with us for a lifetime, that unfold with the grandiosity of a museum modeled on the Vatican. But life is one continuous shot, full of false starts, but devoid of an editing room. Rather than seeing the cinematic moments, can we see the continuous shot? Rather than seeing the continuous shot, can we see the process, the larger unfilmed continuous shot that it’s a part of? Can we see the point where we sail forever?


Today’s Contemplation: Consider a memory you’ve been holding onto. Perhaps it’s a storyline that you’ve been spinning over and over in your head, for better or for worse. Can you step back from this cinematic moment and see its place within the one continuous shot of your life? How does this change your relationship to this memory? Does it seem bigger or smaller in context?