Issue 62 (2018)

Roman Volobuev: Blockbuster (Blokbaster, 2017)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly McGee © 2018

BlokbasterRoman Volobuev’s Blockbuster opens as an agitated Liza (Svetlana Ustinova), a popular television personality, leaves the studio following an inappropriate incident that occurs at work. Frustrated by her day, she returns to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend to find another young woman—dressed in underwear—in her kitchen. Liza tosses the house keys at her beau, taking only wine and an expensive battery-powered bottle opener with her. She drinks and drives through the night before waking up with her head on the steering wheel, out of gas, and in front of a shawarma shop. While inhaling her comfort food, she witnesses a woman rob a twenty-four hour micro-credit office. After being interrogated and held by the police, Liza gets back into her car to discover that Natasha, the burglar, is hiding inside. Under threat of Natasha’s pistol, the thief demands that Liza drive her to Moscow, spawning a Thelma and Louise style series of events throughout the rest of the film.

Blockbuster is narrated in chapters, punctuated by flashbacks, and offers variations on scenario outcomes, a technique partially intended to mock genre film and one that is also the result of Volobuev’s long career in print journalism. Although an award-winning film critic, he once worked with Anna Politkovskaya, the most famous outspoken journalist and activist to cover the Chechen Wars, murdered in 2006 on Putin’s birthday. For several years, Volobuev worked for Afisha, the Russian contemporary lifestyle and culture magazine-turned-website. He was then hired at Russian GQ as Deputy Editor by Michael Idov, who described Volobuev during the hiring process as having “an affected yet amusing air of rakish disgust with everything around him, and a habit of burying his head in his hands and mouthing, ‘Oh God,’ in a stifled voice when he laughed. His resting pose was a face-palm.” Volobuev reacted by responding, that he would “be a terrible deputy editor, because I hate work and I hate people.” It is this general aloofness that has contributed to Volobuev’s own public image as a film critic-director-star in his own right. Perhaps most worth noting is Idov’s assessment of Volobuev’s political persuasions: as “neither a Putinist nor a zealot obsessed with the purity of the protest at the expense of common sense.” It is this observation of the director that, in fact, makes Blockbuster worth watching: Volobuev is less interested in the impact of the current political regime on cinema than he is in looking at what it has produced. The film embodies the point at which multiple cultural arguments collide in order to mock the system that makes and produces contemporary cinematic hits.

BlokbasterThis does not mean, however, that the film is lacking references to the current Russian political climate. When Liza witnesses the robbery, for example, Natasha is dressed in a bright-colored blue ski mask, undoubtedly a reference to the punk band, Pussy Riot, and the feminist cult following that the group generated. Also striking about Volobuev’s work is his ability to probe genre cinema through a sarcastic lens. In one sense, a sloppier interpretation may view the film as a kind of loose survey of post-Soviet cinema: the gangster film, the road film, the buddy film, the rom-com, etc. In another sense, those more attuned to Volobuev’s career as a film critic may see Blockbuster as an exhausted response to his own professional history. Whether self-reflexive or not, the film is more than just overarching commentary on Russian cinema or the types of films being produced in Russia today. It is, ultimately, a remark on Russian culture through the lens of Volobuev and his career.

BlokbasterThe real-life drama surrounding Volobuev’s work occurred at the Kinotavr film festival, during which the director announced that he would remove his name from the credits as a reaction to the fact that the film was heavily edited prior to screening and distribution. Volobuev did not retain final rights to film editing, and what resulted turned out very differently from the director’s cut. Volobuev’s remarks, perhaps, provide even broader commentary on the very type of film he mocks in Blockbuster. While parodying the blockbuster format, the very movie he made to poke fun at such films is, in itself, edited.

Aesthetically, the film plays with the dark tones of the criminal film juxtaposed against moments that use a more striking color palette. Much of the film takes place at night, while we often see pops of color, such as Liza’s yellow dress at the film’s onset. Well-attuned to stardom and celebrity culture, Volobuev does not skimp when it comes to casting. Liza is played by the famous Svetlana Ustinova and Anna Chipovskaia stars as Natasha, both of whom are staples in contemporary Russian filmmaking.

BlokbasterWhile some reviewers have discussed Blockbuster in terms of its questionable position as a feminist film, this is arguably not the query by which Volobuev intended the work to be surrounded. Rather, his intentions were to make a film with vignettes of self-irony. Perhaps this is, then, the key to making a feminist film. To make such a work by virtue of what it is not: a serious blockbuster with a storyline endorsed by state rhetoric, but rather a commentary on the state of the Russian cinematic landscape. The film is, in effect, a remark on the fact that the types of films he mocks are what this generation of Russian cinema has produced.

Ultimately, Volobuev challenges us with a bit of cinematic mental gymnastics. For this director, filmmaking is not necessarily about where the film fits in the cinematic landscape, but rather about the various stakes of figures within the filmmaking community. Volobuev’s work recognizes those investments, whether from a director, a script writer, or a film critic.

Theodora Kelly McGee (née Trimble)
Department of Defense Education Activity

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Works Cited

Idov, M. (2018). Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Blockbuster, Russia, 2017
Color, 100 min.
Director: Roman Volobuev
Script: Roman Volobuev
Cinematography: Mikhail Khasaia
Cast: Svetlana Ustinova, Anna Chipovskaia, Evgenii Tsyganov, Iuliia Snigir, Mikhail Efremov, Aleksandr Molochnikov, Dmitrii Endal'tsev
Producers: Il'ia Stiuart, Iurii Kozyrev, Murad Osmann, Elizaveta Chalenko
Film Company: Hype Film

Roman Volobuev: Blockbuster (Blokbaster, 2017)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly McGee © 2018

Updated: 2018