A movie about the beauty of Western civilization

Philip M. writes from England:

I don’t know if you are much of a film buff, but have you ever seen a film (although not a film in the conventional sense) called
Russian Ark? If you haven’t, I would strongly recommend it to you and any reader of VFR. It is an absolute joy, a marvel, just watching the trailer is enough to bring tears to my eyes at the beauty and elegance of Russian and Western civilisation. I am trying to get my friends to watch this film because I believe it will do more good and tell them more about what it is we want to celebrate and preserve than any argument I could ever have made or directed them towards. If you have not seen it, you will love this film, and be uplifted by it. I would like to talk about this more, as it is so full of things to talk about, but I will hold back for now.

Having watched the film I almost instantly thought of you and your readers, and a word that I have come to associate with your writings: transcendence.

LA to Philip M.:
I haven’t seen it, so please feel free to expand on your thoughts.

Philip replies:

Because there is no real plot, I can talk about the film without spoiling anything. The film begins with the disembodied voice of a Russian, and a 19th century French diplomat (based on the real life Marquis de Custine who wrote about his experiences of travelling in Russia) who find themselves, to their confusion and bewilderment, transported to the Winter Palace of the Tsars, now the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg.

As they and the camera wander from room to room, Russians spectacularly dressed in various period costumes dance, chatter, or act out scenes from Russian history, as the French diplomat, at first dismissive of Russia’s European credentials, is won over by the beauty of the art and the culture.

At the opening of the film, the voice of the Russian speculates on the meaning of what he is seeing. “Is this theatre? Are these actors? Am I expected to play a role?” It is this last question that springs to mind time and again as you watch the film. There is a sense of Russia (and the West) being an exquisite production, and we are invited to marvel at the artistic talent, the creativity and the craftsmanship of those who created it, and the bravery of the soldiers who helped to preserve it all. All have played their part. All had their role.

At the end of the film the camera moves towards a door, and as it opens we see that outside is a wild, raging sea, and the narrator understands, movingly, that the museum—and I think Russia herself—is actually an ark, eternally tossed about in turbulent waters. This is a wonderful metaphor, as it captures the sense of Russia having a God-given destiny to preserve Christianity and Western culture against any storms which may rage against it.

Although the film goes out of its way to avoid politics, politics is in a sense unavoidable, as everything you see is an utter repudiation of cultural relativism. To try and pretend as you see such beauty that notions of aesthetics are relative, and that what we are shown is not intrinsically superior to anything produced by modern degenerate Western culture, simply seems absurd. Because leftism revels in ugliness, perversion, and distortion, the film works as a powerful rebuke without ever having to say so.

Sadly, I do not think Britain (or probably America) could have had the cultural confidence to produce such a film. There is not a minority to be seen (apart from a few Persian diplomats) and there is no cultural cringe or sense of awkwardness about the fact that they are unabashedly celebrating themselves. This fact, along with the beauty of the women in the costumes (as I said to my friend, they are beautiful but never “hot” or “sexy”) and the civilised nature of the dancing and music means that I have to fight back tears as I watch the film and think about that which we have lost and are told to despise.

LA replies:

Philip writes: “This is a wonderful metaphor, as it captures the sense of Russia having a God-given destiny to preserve Christianity and Western culture against any storms which may rage against it.”

Eric Voegelin describes civilization as an island in the midst of an ocean of barbarism. In other words, civilization is not something which, along with its freedoms, is simply to be enjoyed like a consumer item, but is an uncertain, besieged enterprise whose existence must always be defended. Yet it is as a consumer item or a collection of consumer items that American writers, particularly, “conservatives,” commonly talk about America now. This is especially the case when they defend mass non-Western immigration on the basis that the immigrants are not coming here to change America, but simply to “enjoy its freedoms.” I repeat: not to be a part of America and an upholder and defender of America, but to “enjoy its freedoms.” These are the only terms in which modern liberal people (and almost all conservatives today are liberals) can think of their nation and justify their nation.

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Douglas C. writes:

Philip M. writes:

“Having watched the film I almost instantly thought of you and your readers, and a word that I have come to associate with your writings: transcendence.”

Don’t VFR and its posters use the word “transcendence” in the same fetishistic way that libertarians utter “liberty” and liberals say “equality?” As if the word had some absolute, incantatory power. “I am the way, the life, the truth and the transcendence.” “Come unto me all you who labor heavily and I will give you transcendence.”

LA replies:

I understand the kind of problem you’re talking about, but I don’t think that it’s true of VFR’s use of “transcendence.” As I have written in the past, I recognize that transcendence is a problematic word, but I have not been able to think of any other, less portentous and more accessible, word that accurately conveys the idea I am trying to express. Therefore I speak of transcendence, and I define it as carefully as I can. See my essay, “What is transcendence, and why does it matter?”

Anita K. writes:

Ah, yes, Russian Ark! A great film. I for one for love to hear more from your Philip M. Do encourage him to write in! :-)

Dan T. writes:

There is an extremely interesting technical aspect to Russian Ark that one may not notice until well into it. I’ve asked my wife to watch the first 15 minutes or so to see if she notices anything unusual, but no dice, so I gave up and told her. The amazing fact is that the entire film—nearly an hour and a half—is shot in exactly one take. No edits! And it’s anything but static. We’re swept through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum at a breakneck pace, so just imagine the pressure on the actors, cameramen, et al not to be the one who “flubs up.”

As I recall (it’s been a few years) the commentary on the DVD described a couple false starts and for some technical reason I can’t remember the final product was actually do or die—no more restarts or the project is terminated. Watching it with this in mind adds quite a bit of edginess to the experience.

LA replies:

That is beyond amazing. There was a movie from the late forties or early fifties, by Hitchcock, a murder mystery starting James Stewart, which was filmed in one shot or maybe two or three long shots. But that entire movie took place in one room, with just a few characters. The idea that a multi-character, multi-period, and period-customed movie such as Russian Ark could be filmed in one shot passes belief. My guess is that the movie is made to seem that it filmed in one shot, but really isn’t.

Dan T. writes:

Yes, “Rope” is the movie that most readily comes to mind in that regard, but as you mention it does involve several cuts, although minimal.

Patrick H. writes:

I believe the Hermitage film is done in one long shot. I remember reading reviews of it that pointed out that amazing feat of direction. A check of Wikipedia was done forthwith, and it says the entire film was done in one 96-minute Steadicam shot. Wow.

Tim W. writes:

You really should see Russian Ark. It’s an amazing experience and it really was shot in one take. They rehearsed it for months.

Hitchcock’s Rope was shot in a few takes. You can tell when there’s a cut. It’s whenever the camera passes behind a column or some other tall object that fills the screen from top to bottom. Hitchcock made all the cuts at those points so no one would notice them.

January 15

Anita K. writes (January 13):

On the third—and last possible—attempt, Russian Ark was definitely shot in one long take. In fact, in one of the documentary features on the DVD, cameraman Tilman Buttner tells us that about 20 minutes from the end, he was about ready to collapse, but when he came to that fabulous ballroom scene, with Valery Gergiev and the orchestra, he felt revivified and carried on to complete his feat. Thus we are able to see that dramatic exit scene down the staircase, symbolizing, as someone put it, the end of that whole aristocratic civilization.

Interested readers might check also check out these production notes on the movie.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 13, 2012 08:15 AM | Send

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