Saturday, March 20, 2004


I recently saw a pair of unusual films on DVD, both of which stretch our normal idea of what a movie is in different ways. Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov, is basically a single, 86-minute tracking shot with no cuts or editing, tracking through the rooms of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the former Winter Palace of the tsars, in the course of which we see scenes from the Palace's three-hundred year history. This is supposedly the first feature film to consist of a single shot, and Sokurov didn't make things easy on himself, employing approximately two thousand actors and extras, most in elaborate costumes. Listening to the commentary by one of the producers, I learned that the production was even more of a feat, and more precarious, than was apparent from watching the film. They only had one day to shoot, because the Museum wouldn't close for more than one day. There were three false starts before the take which became the movie, but because the batteries were running low, the fourth take would have to be the final take: had something gone wrong during that take, there would have been no movie. Whether there is much more to the movie than a brilliant stunt, combined with a travelogue of the Hermitage, I'm still not sure even after three viewings.

Talking Head is a live-action movie directed by Mamoru Oshii, who of course directed Ghost in the Shell; but it has nothing in common with that anime, or with his earlier live-action film Avalon. It begins fairly normally: a "migrant anime director" who specializes in rescuing troubled projects, and is known for being able to complete any film on time and in a style indistinguishable from the original director's, is hired to finish the anime project "Talking Head." In this case, the director has disappeared without leaving a script, a scenario, or any record of his intentions, except that the film was to be a radical break from his style up to that point. But very soon, we start seeing examples of flagrantly non-naturalistic acting, and even more flagrantly non-realistic sets. Most of the "offices" in which the film takes place are sets with only one wall constructed on a visible wooden stage, with doors that lead nowhere, though the characters behave as if they're in a real office; and an ostensibly speeding car is in fact an obviously stationary car placed on the same wooden stage. And when the members of the former director's staff, when interviewed in order to get a clue as to what his intentions were, begin delivering lectures on film theory, it's clear that Oshii is aiming for something closer to Godard's films of the past two decades than to any film that most of the potential audience for this film would have ever seen. After having watched it only once, I'm more inclined to classify it as an interesting experiment rather than a realized work of art; but I'd need to watch it again to reach a definite conclusion. And I do want to watch it again, unlike most films I see.

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