This Alexander Sokurov feature (2002) is one of the most staggering technical achievements in the history of cinema–a single shot lasting 95 minutes while moving through 33 rooms in the world’s largest museum, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (which also encompasses the Winter Palace). Part pageant and museum tour, part theme-park ride and historical meditation, it traverses two centuries of czarist Russia as smoothly as it crosses the Hermitage, with the offscreen Sokurov engaged in an ongoing dialogue with an on-screen 19th-century French diplomat (apparently suggested by Adolphe, marquis de Custine). Sokurov used close to 2,000 actors and extras and three live orchestras in making what may be the world’s only unedited single-take feature as well as the longest Steadicam sequence ever shot. This is also the first uncompressed high-definition film recorded on a portable hard-disk system rather than film or tape before being transferred to 35-millimeter. The problem with these feats is that they threaten to overwhelm the film’s content, both as complex historical commentary and as aesthetic and theoretical gesture. As critic J. Hoberman has suggested, this is an anti-October, challenging Eisenstein’s reliance on montage while using the Winter Palace as a gigantic set. All of which is to say that we’re only just starting to grasp the dimensions of this formidable achievement. In Russian with subtitles. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 31 through February 6.
This Japanese video documentary (2002, 74 min.) about the most acute American critic of U.S. foreign policy is conventionally made but valuable for its currency and its capacity (which matches that of Chomsky) to remain upbeat about a seemingly hopeless topic. Director John Junkerman, an American based in Tokyo, records Chomsky’s comments about the war on terror at speaking engagements in Berkeley and the Bronx and interviews him at some length in his office at MIT, yielding some of the professor’s best long-range insights. (JR)
After reportedly making half a million dollars on his first indie comedy, Escanaba in da Moonlight, which played almost exclusively in the midwest, Michigan resident Jeff Daniels wrote and directed this feature about a grudge match between two small-town door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen (Daniels and Harve Presnell) and their respective teams to win a contest run by their company. The main plot twist involves one team’s idea to sell an archaic accessory to the Super Sucker as an aid to masturbation. Stridently overacted and very broadly directed, the movie is uninhibited and energetic, to say the least, but the giddiness tends to be too scattershot to work as either satire or farce. With Matt Letscher and Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island, playing herself. (JR)
A first-rate 1979 documentary by Bruce Riker about Kansas City jazz and its most famous musicians, with particular attention devoted to Count Basie and the players who worked for him. Much of it was shot over a five-year period at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and other Kansas City locations, though vintage film clips abound. 91 min. (JR)
Despite its misleading title, this is not a film by Michael Snow but a Canadian documentary by Teri Wehn-Damisch (2001, 56 min.) about some of Snow’s work. A sort of Michael Snow 101, it’s a catalog focusing on his camera-related works and his piano playing, touching only briefly on Wavelength and ignoring his painting and sculpture, his jazz group, and other important aspects of his career. It’s also fairly sketchy even on its chosen terrain, overlooking at least one major film (So Is This) and other major works involving photography (e.g., Two Sides to Every Story, A Casing Shelved, and Flight Stop). The best parts are Snow’s own lucid explication of his oeuvre, much of which emphasizes his critiques of photographic illusionism, but the clips from his films are far too skimpy to give novices a clear sense of what they’re like. (JR)