Weekly Video/DVD Picks

Russian Ark (2002)

Motion pictures are built by editing -by joining scenes, and often moments within scenes, that were shot sepa-rately. Sometimes the shoots were mounted weeks or months apart, or in separate locations.

Some directors have experimented with extended takes (unbroken shots that last for several minutes), but this approach has never been sustainable for much more than 10 minutes at a time, due to the running time of a canister of film.

Once the advent of digital video freed filmmakers from the constraints of physical film, it was only a matter of time before someone made the first feature film entirely in one take, without a single edit or cut. Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov's experimental art-house meditation on Russia's cultural heritage and current identity crisis, has the distinction of being that film.

Though casual viewers with no special interest in either film history or Russian history might be bored to tears, for serious film students Russian Ark is a must-see. Sokurov's achievement is notable not only for being the first film shot in one take but also for offering a striking antithesis to the Soviet montage cinema of early Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein's edit-driven approach was forward-looking and characterized by decisive, revolutionary action, reflecting Marxist optimism about the future. By contrast, Sokurov's film is awash in nostalgia and dream-like passiveness, reflecting the lack of a clear way forward for contemporary Russia.

For 96 trance-like minutes, Sokurov's camera drifts from room to room in the Hermitage, a St. Petersburg monastery turned art museum — a repository (or “ark”) of Russian culture. The film is also adrift in time, wandering back and forth among the centuries, with thousands of costumed extras representing 200 years of Russian history. Torn between wistful reveries of long-gone Russian glory and an uneasy awareness of the long shadow of European hegemony, Russian Ark is a dream-like meditation on the soul of Russian culture from which the viewer finally awakens, stirred but not transformed.

Content advisory: Nothing objectionable.

Father Goose (1964)

Cary Grant cheerfully plays against a lifetime of typecasting in this modestly entertaining romantic comedy with • comic echoes of The African Queen and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, directed by Ralph Nelson (The Lilies of the Field).

Grant plays Walter Eckland, a boorish, unkempt boozer corralled into doing plane-spotting duty on an uninhabited South Pacific island during World War II. Just when he thinks his situation can't get any worse, his world is invaded — not by the Japanese but by seven French schoolgirls and their prim schoolmistress, Catherine Freneau (Lesie Caron). Needless to say, their presence puts a decided cramp on Eckland's relaxed lifestyle and sparks of more than one fly between Freneau and Eckland as they clash over living arrangements and Eckland's drinking.

The opposites-attract formula works well, as Freneau with her strait-laced persona is humanized by unexpected foibles and insecurities, and Eckland's degenerate character is slowly redeemed by a rediscovered sense of decency and chivalry.

Content advisory: Comic use of alcohol and inebriation; some wartime danger. Probably okay for most kids.

Platinum Blonde (1931)

Frank Capra directs this early screwball comedy, a reverse Pygmalion story about a working-class reporter named Stew Smith (Robert Williams) who marries a society girl named Ann Schuyler (Jean Harlow) but afterward has second thoughts about her efforts to improve him.

This theme of romantically linking an upper-class society girl and a man beneath her station would become a popular device in screwball comedies, appealing to Depression audiences both as escapist entertainment and as satire of the idle rich and celebration of the hardworking poor.

Ironically, the rich come off a bit better in Platinum Blonde than in some later screwball comedies. Though the viewer is meant to identify with Stew's working-class values, Ann can be surprisingly sympathetic and decent, e.g., loyally siding with her husband against her parents.

Unfortunately, the class divide is finally too great. Unspoken expectations prove an impediment to the marriage, and Stew's supportive gal-pal reporter friend Gallagher (Loretta Young) waits patiently in the wings.

Content advisory: Romantic complications; comic inebriation and brief comic violence; remarriage after divorce.