Issue 34 (2011)
Sergei Osip'ian: Guys from Mars (Parni s Marsa, 2011)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2011
Petr Starikov is a marketing manager in the Kashira, Russia office of the MARZ corporation, a fictional U.S.-based chocolate and beverage conglomerate. He and his coworkers at MARZ are working on a campaign for the re-launch of “Red Rider”—a chocolate-nougat candy bar that American Marketing Director Phil describes as “a symbol of post-war of America … a symbol of freedom and happiness.” Though the company’s name is less than subtle about its orthographical sidestepping of the American confectionary giant Mars, Guys from Mars  is about brand identification. The film is a pastiche of name dropping and product placement, featuring repeated references to Coca Cola, Ford, Xerox, Chupa Chups, Hewlett Packard, Paul Frank, and Jim Beam, among others. This is not surprising, given Sergei Osip’ian’s prolific career in advertising: he has directed commercials for Coca Cola, IKEA (more than 70 ads), Procter and Gamble, Mars (Snickers, Bounty, and Mars bars, in particular), Samsung, and Russian banks Uralsib and Sberbank. Like Timur Bekmambetov before him, Osip’ian is now trying his hand at narrative cinema, having co-directed Act of Nature (Iavlenie prirody) with Aleksandr Lungin in 2010 and Guys from Mars in 2011. In accordance with the film’s two million dollar budget, Osip’ian skipped the flashy special effects that have come to be identified with advertising giants-turned-directors and filmed Guys from Mars with broadcast advertising aesthetics in mind. Labels and trademarked names are highlighted instead of avoided, the camera lingers on product packaging, and the distribution and consumption of goods is the axis on which the narrative turns. In a cinematic culture where the viewer has come to expect either dismal endings, provincial settings, and experimental soundtracks or high speed chases and hyperbolic violence, Osip’ian has created a “simple film,” in his own words (Osip’ian). “There are no dogs eating people,” he explains, “and nobody is shooting anyone with a machine gun” (Osip’ian).
Guys from Mars details several days in the life of Starikov, a living advertisement for the MARZ corporation. Like MARZ’s red logo and uniforms, so is Starikov’s life represented in shades of red: the red Ford he drives, the red walls and furnishings of his studio apartment, and the red packaged Marz products he consumes. His love interest, his redheaded coworker Liza (played by Osip’ian’s wife, theatre and film actress Kseniia Kutepova), is an extension of this permeation. In the opening segment she clip-clops past him in red heels and red accessories toward the glowing red soda machine, pausing before collecting her soda in an advertisement for Coca Cola.
Every day for the past three months, Starikov has been collecting Coca Cola bottle caps from coworkers and trash cans as part of a giveaway promotion. Upon receiving his prize—1,246 bottles of soda in exchange for the 1,246 caps he has amassed—he discovers that his nearly new Ford Focus has been stolen from the parking lot of the Coca Cola factory. Starikov enlists the services of a series of corrupt police officers and bandits in pursuit of his Ford, only to hail down his own car late one night while seeking a ride home from a club. Kolia, a car thief and former Marz employee, has modified Starikov’s Ford to be street race worthy and emblazoned it with a decal bearing the name “Red Rider”: the car’s street racing appellation.
Like Aleksandr Voitinskii and Dmitrii Kiselev’s Black Lightening (Chernaia molniia, 2010), the heroes of Guys from Mars are a young man and his car: in this case, a red Ford Focus that undergoes a series of high-speed adventures and modifications that parallel Starikov’s own personal and professional development. At the start of the film, Starikov appears to the viewer as his name implies—old. He is old in the way Akakii Akakievich grows old after losing his beloved overcoat, or Pushkin’s Evgenii after losing Parasha in the flood. Like Akakii Akakievich, Starikov is a “little man” (melkii chelovek) stuck in the routine of a thankless job and a solitary existence; like Evgenii, he is haunted by a horseman—not the Bronze Horseman (Mednyi vsadnik) but a Red Rider (Krasnyi vsadnik). The candy bar Starikov has been hired to promote follows him as the Tsar’s statue chases Evgenii through the streets of the imperial city. When Starikov goes to the local police station to report his car stolen, for instance, he finds a man in a red sweater chained to the radiator. The captive identifies himself as Baton, which, in its diminutive form, means candy bar.
Like Gogol ’’s Akakii, Osip’ian’s “little man” triumphs in pursuit of his lost possession. While the protagonist of “The Overcoat” becomes a street bully after death, snatching overcoats from late-night pedestrians, Starikov’s search for his Ford brings him confidence, women, and an appetite for speed. Above all, it brings him the courage to stand up to his boss, Phil, for whose sake Starikov has been pretending to be invested in the advertising of a barely palatable candy bar. While Starikov fails to produce a campaign for Red Rider, by the end of the film he and his Ford have become the Red Rider—the symbol of freedom and happiness the Marz advertising campaign had sought to capture.
What Guys from Mars lacks in narrative intrigue it makes up for in aesthetic gumption. The film does not make the expected connections between consumerism and despair, focusing instead on on-screen advertisement as a source of egalitarian amusement, whereby adults and children alike are swept away by “bright colors and loud music” (“U menia dazhe deti”). In many ways, Guys from Mars is about advertising for advertising’s sake. Although Starikov finds his voice by becoming the product he has been hired to promote, the extended advertisements that make up much of Osip’ian’s film were filmed without compensation. For instance, Coca Cola did not pay for the extended discussion of their soda in the opening scenes, providing only a bag full of signature red bottle caps for filming. Mars also refused to contribute and so the spelling of “Mars” was changed to “Marz” within the film, although it remains “Mars” in the title. Thus, although Guys from Mars is about brand identification, it suffers from confusion in this area, appearing as Guys from Mars on screen but Guy from Mars and Guy from Marz in promotional materials. This confusion aside, in Guys from Mars Osip’ian has embraced advertising for aesthetic and not financial ends, offering a glimpse into a possible future of cinema in which advertising not only funds production but become a driving narrative element in the films we watch.
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3] For an example of this confusion see Guys from Mars website.
Osip’ian, Sergei. “U menia dazhe deti smotriat reklamu.” Adme 13 March 2006.
“Paren’ s Marsa,” (Commentary), Kommersant 29 April 2011.
Guys from Mars, Russia, 2011
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Sergei Osip’ian
Screenplay: Sergei Osip’ian, Aleksandr Lungin
Cinematography: Marat Adel’shin
Art Direction: Sergei Agin
Cast: Sergei Abroskin, Kseniia Kutepova, Lina Mirimskaia, Artem Tkachenko, Igor’ Iatsko, Igor’ Chernevich, Nikita Emshanov, Artem Smola, Vladas Bagdonas
Producers: Evgenii Gindilis, Dina Kim
Production: TVindie and IuNIFORS
Website Parni s Marsa
Sergei Osip'ian: Guys from Mars (Paren’ s Marsa, 2011)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2011