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Fantastic Journey
By Ann Morrow

Russian Ark
Directed by Alexander Sokurov

Russian documentary direc- !tor Alexander Sokurov has been in an accident, but he doesn’t remember what happened to him. He falls in with a group of excited, gaily dressed people—he surmises from their clothes that they are from the 19th century—and follows them into the Hermitage, the iconic museum in St. Petersburg. A ghost of his former self, he narrates his disorientation to the audience, and then his bewilderment at being spoken to by “a stranger” from the same era. The stranger, a French diplomat (Sergei Dreiden), is similarly flummoxed by being suddenly able to speak Russian. The ghost and the diplomat travel the narrow stairs and hallways of the museum’s theater, passing by Peter the Great as he pistol-whips a general, and the ghost wonders if he is in some sort of staged drama put on just for him.

He is, and he isn’t. Sokurov’s astonishing Russian Ark is a 96-minute, single-take swoop through the opulent interiors of the six-building Hermitage, a rigorously and beautifully choreographed grand tour shot by digital Steadicam in real time. The film is also a surreal travelogue through 300 years of the Hermitage’s tumultuous history, wherein the ghost is swept up in a dream seemingly not of his own making. The two time travelers try to distinguish between Catherine I (creator of the magnificent Winter Palace that is the heart of the Hermitage) and Catherine the Great (who finished the palace and started its art collection). They eavesdrop on the museum’s last three directors, who bemoan the effects of Communism on culture. They peek in on the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra sitting down to dinner. And as they make their way through the museum’s masterpieces of Western art, architecture and music, a realization slowly dawns that it is the Hermitage itself that is dreaming. In the film’s most imaginative moment, Anastasia Romanov skitters down a corridor with a flock of nymphs come to life out of a Victorian painting.

The more a viewer knows about Russian history, the more moving these dreamscapes may be. Approaching a closed door, the ghost warns the diplomat: “Don’t go in there.” Ignorant of 20th-century events, the diplomat opens the door, and meets with a madman hammering coffins among stacks of empty picture frames. This fragment of memory comes from World War II, when the treasures of the Hermitage were shipped to the Urals for safety and the palace was used for a bomb shelter. Many of the museum’s staff died of starvation, but not a single artwork was lost (Russian Ark takes on added poignancy in the wake of the looting of the Iraq National Museum).

The film also works as a drolly amusing commentary on the Western tradition. The diplomat, who represents European snobbery, pooh-poohs nativist Russian art and goes into rapture over French sculpture and Dutch portraiture. “Not bad,” is all he’ll concede when entering Vasily Stasov’s staggeringly beautiful Armorial Hall, which is being set for a royal banquet. The diplomat is shooed away by the waiters, and throughout, the two travelers must keep a swift pace as they wander from one palatial room to the next, out of place and out of time. Remarkably, the camera keeps them close company with nary a misstep for the entire labyrinthine journey.

Sokurov’s technical achievement comes to full fruition with the long climactic sequence, the grand ball given by Nicholas II that is remembered as the last of its kind. The glittering fete not only marks the official end of the Age of Enlightenment and the reign of the Romanovs, it also embodies the dream-come-true of Peter the Great, the first to envision Russia as an equal to the greatest nations of Europe. And as the ghost floats away from the ball into the future, Russian Ark completes this 300-year memory with the mysterious immediacy of a real dream.

For better and for worse: (l-r) Levy and O’Hara in A Mighty Wind.

In Perfect Harmony

A Mighty Wind
Directed by Christopher Guest

In the early ’60s, fresh-faced white people with nifty striped shirts and acoustic guitars moved a lot of product with pitch-perfect, shiny happy folk music. No matter if they were singing (or, more accurately, singin’) about civil rights or labor strife, the harmonies were too precise and the spirit too earnest for the music to be anything but jarringly sweet and wholesome. When shaggy-haired, leather-jacketed, rough-voiced Bob Dylan became a star, these middle-class folkies seemed—not to be unkind—square to the point of goofiness.

This is the strange, prehistoric world Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy re-create in their latest faux documentary, A Mighty Wind. The details are presented with frightening—and hilarious—verisimilitude, from the hair and clothes to the album covers and “vintage” TV clips. The context and characters are equally convincing.

Legendary folk music producer Irving Steinbloom dies, and his children decide to stage a memorial concert. Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) may know nothing about show business, but his doggedness and annoying anal-retentive nature prove effective in persuading the Folksmen (Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Guest), the New Main Street Singers (including Parker Posey, Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins) and Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O’Hara) to reunite—after a 40-year-gap—for the show. Of course, time has worked its evil magic. The New Main Street Singers (with only one original member) are now theme-park headliners with a cultish bent. The Folksmen, who regard the Main Streeters with contempt, pride themselves on an integrity that is nothing if not ridiculous. Mitch is now a Brian Wilson-esque wreck, and Mickey is remarried to a catheter salesman. This rich comic material is beautifully developed.

As with their previous collaborations, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Guest and Levy did not write a script per se. Instead, they wrote an outline of the story and scenes, and created detailed biographies of each character. The cast—a mix of improv comedians and method actors—made up their own dialogue. The result is a wonderful mix of grand comic figures like Balaban’s clueless would-be impresario and O’Hara and Levy as the former sweethearts of folk; and perfect miniatures such as Posey’s damaged-but-cheerful young woman and Ed Begley Jr.’s Yiddish-babbling Swedish TV exec. Fred Willard—whose boorish TV announcer stole the last half-hour of Best in Show—is terrific as another oafish lout.

What really sets A Mighty Wind apart are the songs written for the film. Sometimes silly, sometimes cruel in their dead-on parody of the genre’s pretension and obsession with authenticity, almost every tune is laugh-out-loud funny. The exceptions are the songs for Mitch & Mickey, which have an unexpected sweetness (and seriousness) to match the poignancy of the characters. O’Hara and Levy carefully balance comedy and pathos; their final moments onscreen, first touching and then absurd, are representative of the entire film. A Mighty Wind is a warmhearted laugh at an era as dead as the dinosaurs.

—Shawn Stone

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