Famous here for his stupefying one-shot Hermitage-tour extravaganza Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov is one of the modern age's most restless and uncompromised cinematic powerhouses, traveling effortlessly in his 30-plus-year career from ironic literary adaptations and post-Antonioni plan-sequence heroism to free-associative documentaries, found-footage satire, surreally visualized melodrama, brooding Kafka-ness, twisted historical biopics, experimental video, and so on. (He's also extraordinarily prolific, having generated almost 30 hours of cinema since 1995 alone.) Still, there's no mistaking a hunk of Sokurov footage for the output of another dreamworker—his scrupulous antinarrative manner and demiurgical authority over visual mood transforms every sort of material into a unique mirage, crepuscular, fog shrouded, and cunningly accented by layered dissolves and reflected distortions.
We see his features semi-often (the last to see an albeit lackluster release was 2003's Father and Son; no distributor would gamble on 2005's The Sun, a trilogy-capping portrait of Hirohito), but here on DVD from Facets is a sampling of his hard-to-see video "elegies," slices from an impressionistic lifelong project that stretches back to the '70s. Each is released individually, with a CD-ROM dossier of memoirs, essays, and making-of interviews. Elegy of a Voyage (2001) is the most symptomatic of Sokurov's recent career jones—a ravishingly shadowy, narrated dream journey through snowy woods and seemingly empty cities from Russia west through northern Europe, experienced (like Russian Ark) less as a movement through geography than through consciousness.
Elegy of the Land is the moniker stuck on two shorts: The Last Day of a Rainy Summer (1978), an out-and-out Soviet propaganda piece about a farming collective (one of the few of Sokurov's early films that met with Politburo approval, and one Sokurov does not include in his own filmography), and Maria (1978–88), a rendingly sorrowful diptych about a robust flax farmer and mother during her mature years—when her skills and way of life are on the verge of vanishing—and after her premature death. (Bristling with a half-hidden agenda, Sokurov complements the blazing, flax-illuminated color of the older footage with the rueful and more contemporary material shot in a serotonin-depleting black and white.)
Moscow Elegy (1988) is Sokurov's salute to his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky one year after the master's death. Moody as ever, Sokurov gets personal without getting personal—spare on biography, the film is a pure elegy, a melancholy portrait of the man at work (on Nostalghia and The Sacrifice) and at repose. Typically, Sokurov finds reason to eulogize Russia as well in the mix of footage (some rough and small gauge, some old and found); being quintessentially Russian, he rarely abandons an opportunity to examine the mournfulness of the landscape that surrounds his subject, whether they be peasants, dictators, artists, or anonymous somnambulists. All movies are dreams, but watching Sokurov's films can be like slowly waking from a dawn sleepwalk, moist with sweat and one step away from a cliff edge.