Issue 24 (2009)
Filipp Iankovskii: Rock Head (Kamennaia bashka, 2008)
reviewed by Dawn Seckler© 2009
As Filipp Iankovskii’s award-winning film Rock Head opens, a gong is struck to signal the onset of a boxing fight. Two pugilists in the ring dressed in the sport’s requisite shorts and gloves begin to spar. But the camera hardly pays attention to them. Instead, it tracks forward, across the ring, past the boxers, and focuses on a behemoth of a man standing in the crowd. This opening scene visually states the film’s disinterest in boxing; the camera gives short shrift to the physical pastime that has often been the subject matter of painting and film. Rather, the film’s visual center of attention is the solitary man outside of the ring cloaked in a hooded black sweatshirt that makes him look like something between a medieval monk and a regular thug.
This mysterious figure is Egor Golovin, played by heavyweight-boxing champion Nikolai Valuev, who stands nearly seven feet (213 cm) tall and weighs in at 330 pounds (150kg). Thanks to his mammoth physique and an impressive career in the ring, it is no surprise that Valuev has acquired such nicknames as the “Russian Giant” and the “Beast from the East”. In Iankovskii’s latest film, Valuev in the role of Golovin receives yet another moniker: he is the titular Rock Head. In this instance, however, the sobriquet refers less to physical attributes and more to mental deficiencies.
Upon returning home that same evening, Golovin stands towering over a frightened prostitute and demands to know her name. However, instead of using the correct Russian syntax “Kak tebia zovut?” (“What do they call you?”), he moronically repeats an ungrammatical construction: “Kak tvoe imia?” (“What your name?”). When he doesn’t get a satisfactory answer, he beats his head against the wall over and over again until he knocks himself unconscious. The idiocy of both the question and the brutal masochistic act is meant to elicit sympathy: Egor suffers from post-traumatic amnesia incurred after a car accident, during which his love, Katia, was killed. Without her, Egor exists in a zombie-like state and continues to search, if not for her per se, then for recollections of her. But, his “rock head” keeps them from surfacing. While lacking in mental memories, the brawny Golovin has no dearth of so-called muscle memory, which allows him to accomplish his two daily tasks: travel from his apartment to the training gym and feed himself. The film’s representation of meal time depicts Golovin as an automaton capable of performing a series of mundane movements: remove dirty bowl from the sink, open cabinet, rip open and smash up several packs of dry ramen noodles, pour in milk, sit, eat. It is a process the film repeats several times, and again, the goal is to present this gentle giant as pitiful.
Iankovskii’s decision to cast Valuev in this role of a lamentable hero provides the film with an atypical figure to associate with male depression. Russo-Soviet cinema has many examples of melancholy men. Typically, though, the visual representations of their despondency tend to overlap with unimpressive physiques that signal the fatigue of middle age, the ailing alcoholic body, or the castrating effects of a woman’s rejection. Rarely is so much muscle used to convey misery.
If Valuev as Golovin provides a rather unique image of morose masculinity, then the film’s lead female character—Natasha-turn-Katia (Oksana Fandera)—sadly, is cast into the annoyingly typical role of venerable whore. Egor’s promoter, Nail' (Vitalii Kishchenko), believes that if he can somehow resurrect Katia, Egor will be healed, able to return to the ring, and capable of earning him money. With this goal in mind, he parades back and forth in front of a line-up of prostitutes from which he chooses Natasha, a Katia look-a-like, and sends her to Egor with instructions to play the role of his betrothed.
When Natasha attempts to assert herself as a woman deserving of respect, Nail' proceeds to beat her violently enough to draw blood. This type of physical abuse is repeated later in the film when Natasha expresses her disapproval of Nail'’s desire to return Egor to the boxing ring. Again Nail' hits her hard across the face, but this time he adds insult to injury and locks her in a prison cell. This type of treatment of women has become deplorably common on the post-Soviet screen. Disturbingly, in a movie ostensibly about a boxer, the viewer sees more instances of violence against women than images of willing opponents sparring in the ring.
Natasha, played admirably well by Fandera, does not simply become the film’s punching bag. Nail'’s cruel treatment of her is juxtaposed with Golovin’s childlike affection for her. With someone to wash the sink of dirty dishes, make him hot soup, chastely share his bed, and calm him from haunting nightmares—in other words, act as his mother—Egor is revived. The film underscores the maternal nature of Natasha’s sympathy by creating a parallel between Golovin’s mental incapacities and her son’s autism. Moreover, she is the best, most venerable type of prostitute: the type who never has to have sex with her client, and the type who chooses the profession in order to pay for her son’s medical bills.
The tiresome and stereotypical presentation of women on the Russian screen can be blamed on Aleksei Mizgirev, who wrote the screenplay for Rock Head. Mizgirev debuted as both director and scriptwriter with his film Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007), about a demobilized soldier’s fierce battles against corrupt Moscow. With Rock Head, Mizgirev seems to take a cue from Aleksei Sidorov’s film Shadow Boxing (Boi s ten'iu, 2005). Both films share the same cast of characters. The protagonist: a boxing champion marred by an ailment that makes him incapable of fighting. The antagonist: a corrupt promoter/agent with mercenary goals. The love interest: a sympathetic female character, who helps the injured athletes negotiate the world outside the ring. While studying Sidorov’s film, Mizgirev would have been wise to pay attention to where that film goes wrong, because the same mistakes are repeated here. As Gerry McCausland correctly notes in his review, Shadow Boxing cannot seem to decide if it is a boxing movie à la Rocky or whether it is an action film tinged with melodrama. Despite the fact that both Iankovskii and Sergei Sel’ianov, the film’s producer, have stated that Rock Head does not adhere to the genre of sport film and, moreover, as noted above, the film visually dispenses with boxing early on, the narrative premise feels lopsided without a dramatic match.
First of all, fans of Valuev will be disappointed if they were hoping to see him spar. The champion only adorns boxing gloves twice during the entire film, and even then it is just for training sessions, which not only lack any modicum of dramatic tension, but also fail to show off Valuev’s athletic prowess. One has to wonder why Iankovskii and Sel'ianov went to the trouble of casting Russia’s greatest boxing champion. Secondly, despite the film’s resistance to follow the rules that dictate the composition of sport films, the film’s climax, as one would expect of a boxing movie, is a fight. However, it is not a boxing match, but something closer to ultimate fighting, boxing’s bloodier, more violent cousin. Golovin’s opponent, though referred to in conversation, enters the screen for the first time in this penultimate scene. Although he is immediately recognizable as a deplorable reprobate, the viewer barely has time enough to learn to hate him in order to fully celebrate Golovin’s victory. The victory fails to embolden the wounded Golovin, whose recovery the film sets up as the narrative goal, but never fulfills. In other words, the melodramatic tension that makes keeps the viewer rooting for Golovin and Natasha/Katia never climaxes, but only diffuses in an unsatisfying conclusion.
University of Pittsburgh
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1] Consider, for example, Andrei Smirnov’s Belorussian Station (Belorusskii vokzal 1970); Pavel Lungin’s Taxi Blues (Taksi bliuz 1990); Vadim Abdrashitov’s Time of the Dancer (Vremia tantsora 1998); Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Cuckoo (Kukushka 2002); and Valerii Todorovskii’s The Lover (Liubovnik 2002).
2] The Spot (Tochka 2007), Iurii Moroz’s film about three prostitutes who come to Moscow with hopes of financial security, similarly displays women as commodities in identical “shopping” scene. Moreover, as in Stone Head, this freedom to objectify often transitions a sense of male entitlement that leads to violent physical abuse (e.g., The Spot; Cargo 200 (Gruz 200 Dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 2007), and the television series Accursed Paradise (Prokliatyi rai Dirs. Igor' Korobeinikov and Petr Krotenko, 2007).
3] Mizgirev wrote and directed his first feature film—Hard-Hearted (Kremen')—in 2007.
4] In an interview with GQ magazine, Iankovskii explains: “I am not shooting a sport film. Remember the film with my dad [Oleg Iankovskii]—In Love By My Own Fault (Vliublen po sobstvennomy zhelaniiu)? The hero there is a bicyclist, but the film says nothing about biking. The same is true of my film—there’s basically no boxing.”
Iankovskii, Filipp. “Vne ringa” (Interview with Alena Skaldina) GQ September 2008
McCausland, Gerry, “Review of Shadow Boxing”, Kinokultura 11 (January 2006).
Rock Head Russia, 2008
Color, 94 minutes
Director: Filipp Iankovskii
Script: Aleksei Mizgirev and Konstantin Syngaevskii
Cinematography: Eduard Moshkovich
Set Design: Elena Zhukova
Editing: Natal’ia Kucherenko
Cast: Nikolai Valuev, Oksana Fandera, Vitalii Kishchenko, Egor Pazenko, Boris Chunaev.
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Production company: CTB
Grand Prix at the “Window to Europe” film festival, Vyborg 2008
Filipp Iankovskii: Rock Head (Kamennaia bashka, 2008)
reviewed by Dawn Seckler© 2009