Russian Ark & Buena Vista Social Club: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The first film was part of the ongoing series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema. The second one closed the long-running series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.

But they had an interesting thing in common. Both were shot digitally at a time when that was unusual, and when the arguments for sticking to 35mm were far more compelling than they are today.

Both films were projected digitally off of 2K DCPs. Considering the low resolutions of the cameras they were shot with, 4K would have been pointless.

Russian Ark

Sokurov’s 2002 dive into European art and Russian history is easy to admire but difficult to love. Technically speaking, it’s an astounding achievement. And while it’s often beautiful and exciting, it sometimes feels aimless and pointless.

I saw Russian Ark once before, on DVD, soon after it’s theatrical release. This was my first time seeing this big-screen movie on the big screen.

The film provides a tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. The Winter Palace–the home of the Czars’–is just one of the Hermitage’s six main buildings. Sokurov creates a fantasy fiction around the complex. An unseen narrator (perhaps a ghost; certainly the camera’s eye) and an early 19th Italian diplomat walk not only through the museum’s space but through its time. As they move from one room to another, they find themselves in different centuries. They meet people in modern clothes (some playing themselves) and others in powdered wigs. The diplomat joyfully joins a 19th century waltz. The last Czar’s children play in their home, not knowing their horrible fate.

Sokurov shot the entire 96-minute film, minus the credits, in one unbroken take. The logistics must have been insane. The camera wanders through a gallery that looks like a modern museum, with students and tourists examining the art. Then it glides into a magnificent ballroom, with hundreds of costumed extras laughing and dancing. And then it glides on to something else. All those people had to be ready on cue. The lights had to be set up correctly. One mistake and the whole thing would have had to be shot again. The final film is actually the fourth take.

It’s hard to pace a single-shot film properly. Without editing, you can’t remove the slow parts. Russian Ark occasionally has its slow parts.

When things slow down, you can study the paintings, the sculptures, and the bright and uniquely costumed extras. But the best digital camera available in 2001 (when the film was shot) lacked the resolution and color depth needed for enjoying such spectacular eye candy. I suspect it would have been a better film if shot today. Shooting a single, 96-minute take on film is quite simply impossible.

Much as I admire Russian Ark, its flaws keep me from giving it a better grade than B. But that’s an upgrade. The last time I graded it, based only on a DVD, I gave it a B-.

The PFA will screen Russian Ark again today (Sunday), at 5:30.

Buena Vista Social Club

Too many recent music documentaries make the same mistake: They focus on the musicians and ignore the music. You’re lucky if you get one song played from beginning to end.

Wim Wenders didn’t make that mistake in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club. He puts the songs front and center. You fall in love with the music, and thus become eager to meet the brilliant musicians who created it.

I saw the film theatrically soon after its release. So Saturday night was a revisit.

In 1998, Ry Cooder went to Cuba to find a group of musicians that had played brilliantly together in the 1940s. He brought them together, recorded an album, and eventually took them to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, he brought Wenders with him to record all of these events.

Music takes up most of the film’s 105 minutes. We see the Club performing live. We see the musicians recording in a studio. When the music isn’t playing, the musicians tell us about themselves–the poverty they grew up in, how music saved them, and life in general. Their stories are moving and funny.

We see a fair amount of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nearly 40 years after the revolution. But that’s only background. Wenders sticks to the music and the musicians.

The digital cameras Wenders used for this film were far inferior to the one that shot Russian Ark. In fact, it was standard definition–a pre-HD video signal blown up to a big theater screen. But for Buena Vista Social Club, that wasn’t really a serious problem.

This was my first screening in the new PFA theater that really showed off the new Meyer Sound audio system’s capabilities. It was excellent.

I give Buena Vista Social Club an A-.

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