Issue 49 (2015)
Roman Karimov: All at Once (Vse i srazu, 2014)
reviewed by Rad Borislavov© 2015
All at Once: Funny, Sincere, and Very Profitable?
Born in Ufa in 1984, Roman Karimov graduated from the Financial Academy in Astana, Kazakhstan. After a two-year stint in the UK, he returned to Russia and began working on advertisement clips and short films, which eventually led to his cinematic debut, Inadequate People (Neadekvatnye liudi, 2010), at the age of 26 (Kornatskii 2014). The film was widely praised and discussed in the Russian media and garnered a number of awards. With a budget of $100,000 and starring the impressive duo Ingrid Olerinskaia and Il’ia Liubimov, it won six prizes at the Window on Europe festival in Vyborg, including the Grand Prix, in the company of Stanislav Govorukhin’s Jazz Style and Aleksei Balabanov’s The Stoker (Bezruk 2010). The film was also shown on First Channel and featured in Aleksandr Gordon’s talk show Zakrytyi pokaz in 2011, giving the young Karimov much needed exposure.
Given this rather successful debut, expectations were high when Karimov’s next film, the experimental Into Smithereens (Vdrebezgi, 2011), premiered at the Kinotavr Film Festival. If Inadequate People courted popular and critical success with its ostensibly realistic portrayal of city life, engaging dialogue, and superb acting, Into Smithereens represented a sharp break; it was made up of three loosely connected stories, and its pastiche aesthetics exhibited a healthy contempt for narrative continuities and motivations. Openly and unapologetically stylized as a Tarantino-inspired film, although perhaps a bit self-referential, it incurred the ire of critics who were quick to dismiss it as a sign of immaturity and wrong-headed desire to imitate foreign models. In recent interviews Karimov has done everything possible to cultivate the impression that he is something of a misfit and an outsider in the Russian cinema industry by virtue of, among other things, youth and geography. That may well be true but, as a result, he has been far more likely to complain about being cut out of state funding for cinema, the inordinate amount of attention bestowed upon a few celebrated and well-connected directors or intrusive film producers who think in terms of focus groups and target audiences rather than discuss the intricacies of his craft. With his latest films, All at Once (Vse i srazu, 2014) and Startup (Startap, 2014), which appeared after a gap of about three years, Karimov has demonstrated that he is trying again to lure the mainstream youthful audiences that had supported Inadequate People.
It is from this perspective that one should approach discussing the strengths and weaknesses of All at Once, a film that adheres to the genre constraints of a crime drama with elements of black comedy without overt pretensions at psychological or existential depth. The film is set in a non-descript, unnamed, provincial town where organized crime is big part of life, unemployment prevalent, and illegal get-rich-quick schemes the only way out of this vicious circle. Two friends, Tima and Dan, are forced to enter an underground criminal world for which they are ill prepared when Dan’s sister gets in trouble in Moscow and returns to her hometown. Neither of them has much to lose—Tima makes a living by stealing cars in Moscow and selling them to local gangsters, while Dan is resigned to being unemployed after failing to get a job in his area of specialization, economics. Stylistically, the film evokes the atmosphere of violence and lawlessness of the 1990s, albeit with a comical twist and through the eyes of twenty somethings.
Much of the comedy in the film derives from the diminished ambitions and abilities of the main characters, as well as the numerous opportunities for bathetic juxtapositions. Thus, the local gangsters are painfully inept, petty, and oblivious to the larger context in which their criminal activity takes place. However, they are not completely lacking in self-reflection: for example, one of them wistfully recalls happier times when he could kill at will without consulting his boss. When the criminal outfit decides to make some money, they abduct a struggling businessman, aptly named “Loaf” [Baton] who is forced to pay for the “protection” of his tiny bakery store selling pastries and coffee.
Just as one expects violence to erupt in a scene reminiscent of the beginning of Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, dir. A. Balabanov, 2005), Loaf finds a way out by mollifying his abductors with information about a drug deal. Tima and Dan, on the other hand, have good intentions but vastly overestimate their abilities to function in the grotesque but deadly criminal world. Their liminal status—they are inexorably sliding into a life of petty crime without having yet lost their moral compass—is skillfully highlighted at the beginning of the film in the ominous scenes when the two hapless friends cruise around the dilapidated city in a stolen Chrysler 300 as they come upon a debtor; eventually, they turn out to be the “good” guys.
To recognize that the film makes explicit references to the crime waves of 1990s is not to say that Tima and Dan’s struggles to leave their seemingly hopeless life behind are not without suspense. Another guilty pleasure is tracing stylistic allusions to films by Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Aleksei Balabanov, or, say, Greg Marcks. Without a doubt, the cannibalization of these individual styles has the potential of deflecting attention from more serious sociopolitical problems, but this is not the case with Karimov’s film—there are still plenty of historical continuities for many Russian youngsters living in the provinces between the 1990s and today, including the harsh realities of organized crime, widespread drug use, and racketeering for these to experiences to be displaced by representations and become historical simulacra. A more dialectical or symptomatic reading would argue that the film in fact captures quite successfully the lived experience for many in the Russian countryside, as a conversation in the kitchen between the two friends makes abundantly clear. Karimov has consciously avoided filling the screen with chernukha without glossing over the real problems—for example, only Dan, eventually, leaves the city for Moscow but the future for most of the remaining characters looks rather bleak.
As usual with Karimov’s films, the casting choices are excellent (Karimov himself has said that he does not attend casting calls and relies on his assistants) with convincing performances by professional and nonprofessional actors, particularly Aleksandr Pal’ as Dan and Anton Shurtsov as Tima in the leading roles. Karimov, however, is not above striking a patriotic tone and using celebrities—as the film starts, we are introduced to the demobilized soldier Vanya (the Vladivostok rapper Nikita Ost) in full military uniform returning to his hometown only to find out that his girlfriend has left him. Here and in subsequent scenes, we are asked to empathize with him but not with his all-powerful gangster father, who is trying to become a Duma representative and is away on business in Moscow unaware that he faces an imminent revolt from his underlings, which Vanya accidentally foils. The missing, all-powerful father is a powerful symbol for how power is wielded and Vanya’s naivete here looks unconvincing.
Karimov’s verve and promise as a director are predicated on his desire to make artistically and financially viable films for a mass audience while avoiding the lure of easy money and the visual language of Russian cinema. The desire to cash in on the success of a film and to insulate oneself from same market forces that militate against one’s vision as a director is nothing new. Yet, it is somewhat ironic that given Karimov’s principled opposition to the demands of (potential) producers, his films have not been bold enough. I am convinced that much more than being a symptom of the globalizing tendencies in cinema, Karimov has the unique potential to speak to a generation of Russian millennials who barely, if at all, remember the Soviet Union, but clearly recall the violent 1990s. For the time being, however, he is satisfied with carving a niche in Russian cinema alongside the established maîtres.
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Kornatskii, Nikolai. 2014. “Vse i srazu, zdes’ i seichas.” Izvestiia, 5 June.
Bezruk, Mariia. 2010. “‘Neadekvatnye Liudi’ pobedili ‘Kochegara’.” RBK Daily, 16 August.
“Zakrytyi pokaz: Neadekvatnye liudi.” Pervyi Kanal 14 October 2011.
All at Once, Russia, 2014
Color, 93 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Roman Karimov
DoP: Aleksandr Tananov
Composer: Stanislav Aleksandrov
Editing: Roman Karimov
Cast: Nikita Ost, Anton Shurtsov, Aleksandr Pal’, Iuliia Khlynina, Artem Kostiunev, Andrei Murav’ev, Aleksandr Shaliapin, Andrei Galaktionov
Roman Karimov: All at Once (Vse i srazu, 2014)
reviewed by Rad Borislavov© 2015