Saturday, 1 June 2013

Framing the Russian Ark

This blog, and the following two blogs, provide good examples of undergraduate cultural theory/film studies essays. I wrote them during my own Cultural Studies BA at the University of Leeds. All three essays received a first. Reading them retrospectively, while I can find fault in them from the position of someone who now marks undergraduate essays, I do still think they have merit. They stand as creative and well-researched essays on the films they are discussing and I have loaded them here as a teaching aid.

This essay provides a deconstruction of Alexander Sokurov's film Russian Ark using Jacques Derrida's Truth in Painting as a vehicle for exploring the use of framing within the film. Using Derrida's theory of the parergon I demonstrate how the director uses the viewing subject as a tool within the film itself and explain the effects of this on the spectator and what the result of this might be for Sokurov.

The camera follows the Marquis’ stroll around the gallery, which also involves a discussion with two visitors who are actors playing themselves: Sokurov’s real life friends Lev Yeliseyev and Oleg Khmelnisky. But, rather than keeping the camera still and centring the three characters in the middle of the frame, the camera very slowly moves up and down, to the left and right, rolling slightly and incorporating the paintings in the background (appendix 3, p.10). At one point the camera zooms slowly into the painting The Birth of St. John the Baptist (Jacopo Tintoretto c1550) which has the same three characters standing in the foreground. The shot incorporates the frame of the painting, with the characters closely examining the detail of the image just above the lower part of the frame, pointing closely at particular elements. Is this the exercising of the parergon in that this action by the characters is a bridge over the abyss described by Derrida in the closing of ‘Lemmata’ (1987, p.36) and on the cusp of his opening into ‘The Parergon’?

Click here for a full downloadable pdf of the essay: Framing the Russian Ark

Here are the other blogs in this series:
Lacanian analysis of Clockwork Orange: Once Upon a Time
A political critique of Apocalypse Now: The Vietnam War on Perception


  1. It is an important film, in many more ways than one. One also sees a direct line from Eisenstein through the much neglected and magnificent Soy Cuba to Ark. What is distinctive about Russian vision, including in film, may be, with some work, isolated from those three points. The social and historical context is also interesting, in a very ironic way, since Sokurov is in effect rejecting the whole "European" overlay. By far the most powerful characters in the film are the two who make no appearance, Peter and Stalin. Threading one's way from the one to the other would also make a challenging essay.

  2. Two other characterizations by absence--Napoleon and the woman whose "sight" is absent in one way, but present in another. Very subtle.