I saw two Russian movies this weekend, Solaris
(1972) and Russian Ark
(new!). One takes place in the future, and one in the pastbut they both deal with the subject of art as a way of understanding the human condition. If you can get past the surface misogyny of Solaris (the only developed female character is an alien attempting to become human), there are some very interesting and relevant ideas about simulation and reality; technology and humanity. The film has some beautiful, long, meditative scenes that completely drew me into the story. (And the DVD is part of the criterion collection
so the image quality is great.) And speaking of long scenes, the Russian Ark is filmed in one continuous 96-minute shot. It has thousands of people in the film, and it's worth the price of admission just to see what they accomplished. The story takes place at the Hermitage
, and careens through different time periods observing the people who passed through its rooms. Some scenes reminded me of Barry Lyndon
because Russian Ark has the same attention to detail in set design and costumes to recreate a period. Like Solaris, Russian Ark has some long moments of inhabiting the space with the characters. The lack of cutting from scene to scene had a flowing, absorbing effect. (A nice change of pace from jarring, MTV-style visual bombardment.) The film assumes the audience has a certain knowledge of Russian history, and I'm definitely going to learn more before I see it again. Many of the references to specific events were lost on me, but its themes are universal. At one point in Solaris, the immortal neutrino-based alien becomes absorbed in a Bruegel painting
, Hunters in the Snow
as she learns more and more about being humanwhile Russian Ark tried to show that art is how humans achieve immortality. It's just chance that I saw these two back to back, but the combination added something to each of them.