Sunday, May 5, 2013

Final Film Project: Balabanov the Auteur

Balabanov’s breakout film Brother in 1997 established him as a leading (if controversial) force in post-Soviet Russian filmography. His films closely mimic Hollywood conventions through the use of rapid cuts and rather modest camerawork and a strong emphasis on the narrative plot. For Balabanov though the content of his films is more important than formal elements. He uses the popular Russian genre of “detective film” and bends it to his own needs, often casting atypical characters who defy the protagonist/antagonist scenarios of most Western crime dramas. In any Balabanov film there are combinations of themes such as corruption, racism, moral decay, and the hunt for national identity which serve as microcosms of Russian society.
Balabanov’s films often have crime as a central theme. In Brother, Brother 2 and Dead Man’s Bluff every major protagonist is a criminal. Police and authority figures are either nonexistent in Brother (with the exception of the police chief in Danila’s provincial hometown) but in Brother 2 and Dead Man’s Bluff they are intertwined.  Riot (OMON) police are seen accompanying Sergei Mikhailovich, the local crime boss in Nizhny Novgorod and criminals brazenly battle in the streets and in apartments without fear of repercussions.

 Simon at one point even suggests Sergei should buy an emergency light (reserved for police or VIPs) so they can drive faster. At the end of the film the duo are shown thriving in Moscow as members of the State Duma and have enriched themselves by working in finance.  In Brother 2, the Russian crime boss Belkin serves as a middleman for oligarchs and has access to government and business databases due to his connections, and uses traffic police to hunt for Danila.
In his films Balabanov also challenges the concept of  heroes and villains. Danila (Brother and Brother 2) is anything but a saint, but even in the act of committing crimes does so with an ethical code, making him a paragon of justice even as he partakes in other deviant behavior like adultery and drug use. His brother Viktor, a short man with almost imp-like appearance attempts to set him up for an ambush after only a few days in the city. Viktor is forgiven for the betrayal and collapses into hysterics upon being rescued, dashing his earlier appearance as a hardened criminal.

Danila sends him home to their mother, and their positions are reversed in the beginning of the sequel. Other characters, like Boris, Irina Saltykova’s bodyguard in Brother 2 defy the conventions of their roles. Boris’ laconic lines and unmoving posture would have left him as a wallflower extra had he not been engaged by Danila repeatedly in conversations, revealing his underlying humanity. Upon discovering a gang of hitmen outside Irina’s apartment, Boris steps up beyond his obligations as a bodyguard to help Danila and shows real human concern for Irina’s safety.
Another character who defies expectations is Dmitry Gromov, the wronged Russian hockey player in America whose plight and brother’s murder leads Danila to travel all the way from Moscow to Chicago. Dmitry seems almost ambivalent to his brother’s murder, and does not lift a finger to assist Danila who has come to help him. After Danila returns to Dmitry with his money he fails to thank him and only complains that he didn’t receive interest on the unpaid wages as well.
Some films simply lacked heroes, or for that matter, protagonists. In Dead Man’s Bluff there is not a single virtuous character present in the entire film. In Cargo 200 this lack of moral fiber is even more glaring due to its dramatic nature. The principle antagonist is a sadistic police captain who is surrounded by vicious thugs and officers. Artem, the professor of Scientific Atheism, fails to act to save an innocent man from prison and an innocent woman from an even worse fate. Having violated his humanist principles he proceeds to violate his professional and ideological ones by seeking baptism at a church in order to ease his burdened conscience.

Balabanov also relishes in the absurd, and uses it as a means of putting his stamp on a film. Danila, the hero of Brat and Brat 2 appears scrawny and dopey despite his likely background in special operations and ability to fight.
He also has a propensity for deadpanning ridiculous statements. After killing the Chechen, Danila returns to his brother Viktor who congratulates him, praising him for having made the market safe for ethnic Russians. Danila responds nonsensically “what about the Germans?” in reference to his friend. Krugly in Brat also distracts the audience with his bizarre tendency to speak in poor proverbs and rhymes. In Dead Man’s Bluff, Balabanov also juxtaposes Hollywood-style crime with completely absurd scenes and characters. Baklazhan, one of the three robbers, was often the target of racist jokes due to his African heritage. When angered he would vehemently retort that he was ethnically Russian.
Near the end of the film Simon is wounded and Sergei calls a medical student to tend to him. He arrives in full gothic garb, snorts some cocaine, and before sitting down to operate on Simon he tells Sergei to put on some Russian folk music and pulls out a medical school book. Another bizarre tendency for the duo was their need to organize bodies cluttering murder scenes and their averseness towards blood despite their profession.
Perhaps most important to Balabanov’s auteur status is the necessity for an underlying social problem to critique in his films. Brother was a film which depicted the collapse of Russian society and morality in the 1990s. American cultural icons like Coca-Cola, McDonalds and $100 bills were pervasive throughout the film, alluding to the influx of foreign culture in Russia. The total lack of police or authority in Brother and the seemingly free reign of criminal elements and Danila’s struggle against injustice everywhere he went central themes in the film. Through Danila’s actions Balabanov attempts to create a dialogue with his audience, calling for the individual to use their own moral code to attain justice when the system is fundamentally broken. Brother 2 continued this trend, but focused more on the aspect of cultural relativism and Russian norms versus American and Western ones. Danila’s trip to Chicago serves to debunk the myth that the West is faultless, and ends with his return to homeland because it was where he belonged. Cargo 200 was especially symbolic with its graphic scenes of violence and sexual assault. Within the film, the themes of the rape of the innocent (both at home and in Afghanistan), an impotent yet dangerous state and security apparatus, the hypocrisy of the official state dogma, and the moral and economic decay of the USSR were all evident.

In conclusion, Balabanov presents a clean break with past Soviet styles of film. By adapting to Hollywood conventions he places great emphasis on his characters and the film’s narrative without distracting the audience with formal elements. Balabanov is all about content in his films and uses them as a medium to engage the audience with social and moral dilemmas which plague modern society. His films therefore reject the aspirations of earlier Soviet directors like Tarkovsky who viewed art as a means of attaining a universal truth or enlightenment. Instead they are concretely rooted in Russian society and attempt to reflect the ugliness of reality.

This is a Content and Formal Analysis of a clip chosen from Brother 2. In this scene, Balabanov uses many techniques that are both signature to his style and completely against his usual style. This highlights a classic Balabanov scene: cramped room, still shots with quick cuts and very few camera pans in addition to dreary monochrome lighting.

Here is Clip 2. This clip is from Brother 2 and is a content analysis that attempts to underline how Balabanov portrayed Blacks stereotypically through out his film.

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