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Tuesday, 11 June 2013

GUEST POST BY FLORIAN WEINHOLD: Aleksei Balabanov, 'Brother', Film Genre and 'Path of Blood'

I am delighted to give space to Florian Weinhold and a piece of his which helps to explain the approach of his forthcoming book on Alexei Balabanov. Florian introduces himself below and has a few words to say about his forthcoming book. The main piece article that follows is an exploration of the importance of a film genre approach when studying Balabanov and by extension Russian film in general (here he concentrates on exploring this with regard to Balabanov's most well-known film Брат (Brother). Florian's book promises to be a breakthrough in setting Balabanov in this context and the first major English-language study of this recently departed film-maker whose place in post-Soviet film can not be under-estimated. Anyway here is the guest post. Enjoy!
On Florian Weinhold:
Florian Weinhold, human, father, agnostic, anti-authoritarian freethinker with a blue collar heart, animal and tree lover, Aleksei Balabanov fan, yet unpublished board game developer and writer of fiction.

He was born in the East German town of Frankfurt/Oder. When the Berlin wall came down, Florian did not join the herds of the banana and, ultimately, unemployment or other benefits-grabbing gravediggers of their former homeland. But he also did and does not join the pointlessly ostalgic/eastalgic. The takeover, or reunification, happened and the grass is not greener, he knows. Living in two democracies - East and West - has been bad for Florian's ideological blinkers: they were nipped in the bud during his late teens and failed the acid test of the new Germany and Europe, shrivelled and conked out.

In 2001, Florian completed his B.A. (Hons.) Linguistics and Russian at The University of Manchester with a first degree (distinction in spoken Russian). After vegetating on the job market for a bit, he got his hands on one out of two postgraduate scholarships from The University of Manchester and somehow received a distinction for his M.A. thesis. Then, he killed some more time on the job market, until he received an AHRC scholarship in 2007, which enabled him to write a first-class PhD thesis on the wonderful films by the brilliant, enigmatic director-auteur Alexei Balabanov.

Blessed with a natural curiosity, Florian is now tiptoeing to see what comes next.

On Path of Blood:
We think watching movies is fun and easy: suspend your disbelief, enter the dream world of cinema and escape. But when we try to talk about films we often falter: 'It's kind of a gangster film... no, more like an action thriller... a Western... an art film, but it's different, because...' - and then we are stuck.
Whether you are at school or university, a lecturer, secretary or globetrotting film buff, Path of Blood gives you a solid understanding of genre film through the popular crime movies of the enigmatic Russian director Aleksei Balabanov.
Being the first book-length study dedicated to Aleksei Balabanov's work, Path of Blood uses the prism of genre to focus on representations of Russia, America, the Caucasus, Ukraine and Western Europe. As a result, the book demonstrates that the genre method can successfully be applied to Russian narrative film. It, moreover, lays bare Balabanov's rejection of a clear-cut post-Soviet identity and his problematisation of dominant Russian ideologies and thus brings a corrective to previous writings on his films.

     Aleksei Balabanov, Brother, Film Genre and Path of Blood 
 Pamphlet, Analysis, Method, Retrospection and Giveaways

Balabanov is dead. But has his death silenced the voices of his detractors? (I am not merely speaking of taste; please, understand!) Or are there still some in desperate need of making their name by saying that 'Balabanov is dead to me!'?

Although another master of Soviet/Russian cinema has passed away - also Tarkovsky is dead and only Muratova remains of the 'Holy Trinity' - he is not dead to me. His voice speaks loud and I shall do my part in clarifying his films' positions, perspectives and approaches.

Over the next few pages, I shall give an overview of my approach to Aleksei Balabanov's Zeitgeist genre films, as I like to call them. I explain what I mean by film genre and genre film, always taking recourse to Balabanov's work for examples. Here and there, I pick a bone with previous misuses of the concepts of genre and also of specific genres. But I strain to explain, i.e. do the opposite and clarify in bearable detail how I approached Balabanov's genre films and why I did so.

My particular approach in Path of Blood encompasses not only Aleksei Balabanov's Zeitgeist genre films but it applies also to all other films with a narrative dimension, with different degrees of efficacy, of course. My approach regards genre as cinema’s principal organiser and it can be applied to both genre movies and art house films as well as the whole spectrum of cinema that connects these two poles. A strictly bipartite concept of cinema - if and when uncritically applied - remains nonsensical and therefore untenable. To be sure, so-called genre movies can sometimes be art and so-called art house films can happen to be unwatchable trash. Both form only two distant poles of the film spectrum.

To jump in headlong, allowing for the primarily visual character of the medium, a film’s genre is recognisable from its iconography, its genre-typical themes, its characterisations, its plots, and its use of certain (meta-) cinematic devices and techniques indicative of its ideological/cultural leanings. Genre film theory is inherently linked to the concept of intertextuality (the corpora constituting a genre) and allusion (direct references to particular members of those corpora). Genre theory is particularly suited to investigations of cinema’s self/other representations because of its attention to reassuring rules and expectations (and thus to identifications and prejudices). It recognises that narrative films ‘through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations’ and that they reflect the contemporary Zeitgeist. In Path of Blood I note that Zeitgeist means ‘spirit of the time’ and refers to the ideas and concepts prevalent in a cultural space during a particular period. Zeitgeist films, moreover, I argue, actively engage with, rather than passively reflect, these ideas, which are linked to ideology via their expression in myths, cultural tropes and self/other representations.

But I do not pretend to have advanced genre theory per se by any degree. In Path of Blood I simply use the theories already developed by eminent scholars in film studies and establish a framework. The paradigm that I set up from all those different writings (please, see bibliography of Path of Blood), however, is original in its construction. I designed it with view of introducing film genre studies to the field of Russian cinema and for the specific purpose of analysing filmic representations, in general; be they representations of, for example, gender, ethnicity, different age groups or those of different socio-economic strata. My other yet related main concern is to provide a tool for the analysis of myths, stereotypes and ideology, which are obviously linked with cinematic representations. Last but not least, each chapter in Path of Blood provides necessary detailed discussion of the particular film genres used by me in these films investigated. So, after reading the chapter on Brother, for example, my readers will not only be able to put the gangster label to it - which, alas!, is and was too easily done - but they shall also come away from the reading as experts on the gangster genre, the neo-noir mode and their allegorical/parabolic potential.

Once, I was accused of arbitrarily selecting whatever tool suited my own preconceived interpretations - a charge which I rejected vehemently - but, in the end, I was able to convince my admonisher during my viva voce (the final exam of a PhD). Who laughs last...

Since, as I claim in concert with some experts on film genre, genre films reflect or refract the contemporary Zeitgeist and, moreover, are about situations, characters and stories familiar to us, I initially place them in a broad socio-historical and cultural context, which (the circle closes!) they represent one way or another. I spend a few words on the filmmaker, Aleksei Balabanov, who developed from highly praised young auteur in the early nineties to a somewhat feared and hated black sheep of the aesthetic regime, only half a decade on. Honestly, I find it unsurprising that he embraced the gangster so wholeheartedly but I refrain from writing about his fantasies, as I fear I would give away too many of my own. Deconstructing Aleksei is the title I recommend to another ambitious PhD student.

As a PhD student I felt I would have done myself serious harm had I then stated the following: in my opinion, those critics and academics who vilified Balabanov, Brother, etc. are guilty. They are guilty of handing the meaning of these films over to certain right wing nationalist fans of the young killer, Danila, an impressive screen character played by a wonderful charismatic actor (RIP Sergei Bodrov Jr.). Both sides, one euphorically and the other one often dismally-spitefully agreed that Balabanov was a nationalist filmmaker. Ok, I let it rest. Almost. Only two more things, I do not regard all those thousands of disillusioned Russian youths who became fans of the Brother films and Balabanov in the late 1990s nationalists. And, furthermore, as much as I like the character, I am unable, despite some so-called Soviet/Russian tradition, to regard the paid murderer - even if half-orphaned and abused - Danila 'The Bloody-Handed' a hero. Discuss!

So, in my 'film investigations and interpretations', which takes up the largest part of Path of Blood, I apply a sustained analysis of these five films - Brother, Brother-2, War, Dead Man's Bluff and It Doesn't Hurt - through the prism of genre. How, my question was, did the writer-director really respond to developments in the post-Soviet historical context and how did he deploy genres, cinematic modes and intertextuality/allusions. The three pertinent questions, of course, were the what, how and why (or what for), as it befits an analysis proper (and not only analysis of film, as linguists, scientists and mechanics will tell you).

Put it as the Germans do: 'the tone makes the music'. How one says a thing is at least as important as what one says. 'I love you (yawn).' - 'Yeah, right!' And usually there is a reason behind the what and the how, i.e. the why. 'Why can't you look at me when you say you love me?' Form and content. Got it?

Hence, my questions are, what genres were used how and for what purpose? Balabanov, it transpires in Path of Blood, blended certain popular film genres that possess allegorical potential, subversively, to constantly deconstruct dominant ideas of Russian identity and alterity as well as mainstream myths, changing his position/perspective under the influence of a changing historical context.

Now, within Path of Blood's analytical chapters, my application of film genre theory is accompanied by a step-by-step approach to the filmic texts. Before making judgements regarding the genre, close film-textual readings and detailed analysis of the iconographies, themes, character constellations and plots are required, after all. There is no use labelling a certain film a gangster or action flick, without being aware of the implications of such genre assignment and the significance of the genre/s itself/themselves. One must be willing to do the work of explaining, otherwise one just judges a book by its cover. And some even got the cover wrong: Brother, I say, is no action film, as I explain in Path of Blood.

So, sometimes during my studies, I felt like an archaeologist using a variety of tools for my excavations. These excavations or analyses included the identification of intertextual works impacting on the films under investigation. These works belonged to the same generic corpora as the films and were either directly alluded to, or shared their plots, themes, iconography and cultural concerns to such a significant extent that they could be identified as direct intertextual influences. By following this approach and comparing my own detailed findings with the conclusions of established genre studies, I was able to identify and make sense of the genre fields in which Balabanov’s films operated.

I treated - and still treat - the filmic text, rather than the appropriations of the films by wider audiences and critics as the primary object of investigation. After all, let us face it! - What I or somebody else says or writes about a film belongs to a secondary, different discourse than the one initiated on screen by filmmakers for their audiences. It is the filmic text itself rather than a plurality of more or less informed opinions on, and studies of, the film, which is the nexus of the relationships that genre entails. Genre hybridity and variations, along with the iconography and syntactic/semantic composition of genres thus have been my main focus and were of paramount importance for understanding self/other representations in Balabanov’s films. From here, of course, it is now possible and plausible to investigate those secondary discourses - writings and websites mainly. But on its own this is not film analysis proper. It rather touches on the sociological side of things; film reception and appropriation, the arguable hyperconsciousness of post-/hypermodern movie goers; of course, they all have to do with genre, just not with the immediate filmic text directly.

In Path of Blood, then, I am careful to distinguish ‘film genre’, which is a concept applicable to all cinema, from ‘genre film’ - a particular kind of popular cinema oriented towards formulaic repetition and narrative predictability. In the case of the latter, I show that their ideological/cultural leanings can be ascertained by analysing their narrative structure. The reactionary nature of (most?) genre movies means that they subscribe to an ideology of representations – the achievement of the illusion of an ideal, natural reality – and in so doing unproblematically broadcast dominant cultural ideas and representational practices in fixed ritualised forms such as closed/reassuring order-chaos-order structures with happy endings, stereotypical representations and uncritical disseminations of mainstream myths.

Progressive filmmaking, like Balabanov’s, deconstructs these standard formulaic-reactionary texts. It tends to be self-reflexive, engages with historical complexities, casts characters representing the self and others as socio-historically specific, rather than eternal, types, and even criticises aspects of the self.

Finally, my application of genre theory has enabled me to unite Balabanov’s ‘genre movies’ and his ‘art-house’ output within a single, coherent oeuvre possessing an overarching narrative and shared concerns, themes and techniques. For Balabanov’s self/other representations are the result of the director’s subtle self-positioning within various narratives and of his films’ active, multi-layered dialogue with Hollywood genre film, with the contemporary post-Soviet Zeitgeist, and with his own audiences.

To give you just the one (abridged) example; Brother’s deployment of the gangster genre is discussed in its subversive neo-noir mode, blended with Dostoevskian psychological crime drama and presenting a late case of Russian chernukha . Brother, Path of Blood shall demonstrate to all but the doubting Thomases, presented Balabanov’s first ingenious deconstruction of the art-house/genre – film/movie hierarchy. Here, I demonstrate how the allegorical genre hybrid’s self-critical representations of post-Soviet Russian identity deploys a drifting, neo-noir gangster figure whose oedipal proclivities and psychotic behaviour aligns him with Dostoevskii’s Raskolnikov. Brother's deployment of the socially critical neo-noir/chernukha idiom helps it depict destructive family relationships between anti-heroic (Soviet-) Russian brothers of two generations as well as the younger brother's, Danila, dysfunctional relationships with two Russian women. I show that Brother’s ethical voice belongs to a German, Goffmann. But, ironically - irony is the discrepancy between reality and appearance - Goffmann's ethical authority is also undermined through his inability to provide viable guidance to Danila. The fact that the gangster genre focuses on the community sheds new light on Brother’s purportedly stereotypical, marginalising representations of Russia’s Caucasian Other who, according to the conventions of the gangster genre, still belonged to the peripheries of the Russian community (that of the self) in the early-to-mid 90s. The film, I contend in Path of Blood, deconstructs fixed stereotypes in favour of nuanced and fluid social types. Finally, I link the use of Hollywood-style neo-noir and gangster motifs with the implicit imaging of an overarching American Otherness. To put it bluntly, 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery', and it is hard for me to believe in the purported anti-Americanism of a director who so evidently adopted and adapted forms of his dominant Other's discourse, blending it on an equal basis with his own Russian one.

With respect to the interaction between self/other representations, myth and cultural tropes, and their mediation through these films’ ideological alignments, all of which can be traced through their reflections of the contemporary Zeitgeist, I thus demonstrate the challenges that Brother poses to the image of a heroic Russian self, to the trope of the functional family, to mainstream representations of Russia’s other and, consequently, to a host of related Russian cultural myths. For example, the myth of a Russian army and fatherland that care for their (half-)orphaned sons is placed in question by depictions of an abusive fraternal relationship which also has an oedipal, father-son dimension to it. The gallery of legendary heroes, moreover, is sullied by representations of the Russian soldier as an assassin.

But back to all five Zeitgeist film. Balabanov’s ingenious modification of two dominant Hollywood genres- the gangster and the western- with the help of various cinematic modes, and his profound explorations of the ways in which genre hybridity can contribute to the articulation of self-critically ambiguous self/other relations, demonstrates his mastership of cinema’s subversive potential. His critical modifications of the figures of the gangster and the Wild Westerner and his depiction of their fall from grace and transformation into the vigilante-turned-mercenary-turned-businessman points to the interaction between self/other representations, myth and cultural tropes, and their mediation through these films’ ideological alignments, all of which can be traced through their reflections of the contemporary Zeitgeist.

I use the term ‘ideology’ in the sense of the means by which dominant groups construct the limits of ‘primary lived reality’ for subaltern groups by ensuring that their own ideas, concepts, representational concerns and practices prevail. In a binary manner of speaking, reactionary genre movies deploy and propagate reactionary mainstream myths, cultural tropes and stereotypes, while progressive, ‘rebel’ films deconstruct them and challenge the dominant ideologies. Genres, like myths, favour the formulaic and the rule-bound. If conventional, reductive phenomena such as the formulae utilised by popular genre are deconstructed, I demonstrate, there is a reasonable chance that narrative myths and artistic tropes are likewise challenged, together with the mainstream culture that ‘hosts’ them, its dominant ideology and its stereotypical self/other representations.

Path of Blood's analysis joins the line of interrelated concerns, techniques, themes and countercultural forms of self/other representations running throughout all of Balabanov’s Zeitgeist movies. I also show that Balabanov’s critique of Russian nationalist ideologies goes hand-in-hand with his problematising of stereotypes and his creation of historically complex, ambiguous social types. All these fixed formulae are expressions of Russia’s dominant nationalist ideologies and they share their inflexible form with reactionary genre movies. The challenges to such movies posed by progressive, ‘rebel’ filmmaking entailed corresponding challenges to nationalist ideology. Balabanov’s oeuvre is testimony to the fact that such countercultural genre films not only passively reflect but also actively refract the contemporary Zeitgeist, together with its ideologies, myths and self/other representations. The five films that I investigate in Path of Blood bear witness to problematic ethnic and cultural issues, which are generally masked, naturalised and disambiguated by the dominant ideology that governs public discourse.

These five genre movies have been almost universally contrasted with Balabanov’s art-house creations. This has had obvious ramifications for readings of their ideological and representational significance and has tended to preclude recognition of both their countercultural orientation and their thematic affinity with the art-house films. First, these films simply do not conform to the conventional separation of art-house and ‘genre’ cinema, nor to the resultant hierarchy placing the latter beneath the former. Second, it needs to be recognised that Balabanov’s prolific oeuvre has generally been read in fragments by critics who, in order to ‘complete’ their view of their object of study, have tended to reproduce the assumptions of others, in a self-perpetuating cycle of misreadings. The third unsatisfactory reason for the largely dismissive treatment of the films in question relates to what was Balabanov’s own reluctance to explain his art – an unfortunate inconvenience, perhaps, but not one which should influence our understanding of the importance of his work.

Because of the omissions and oversights, Balabanov’s work has been subjected to stereotyping, which has resulted in the establishment of a bi-partite view of his work, influenced by an equally bi-partite understanding of film genres. The most common (mis)conceptions, and replications thereof, of Balabanov’s overall work have often been shaped by the belief that, with Brother, the director mysteriously turned to making reactionary genre movies. The standard view of Balabanov’s work presents it as a haphazard mix of art-house films and genre movies. The latter, it is argued, collude with dominant Great Russian ideologies, myths and representations. As such, the term oeuvre has, like the genre labels, so far been applied to Balabanov’s work without justification.

Moreover, the broad generalisation inherent in the phrase 'nationalistic audiences', which is a form of discrimination, distracts our attention from those largely helpless young audiences and individuals, whose patriotic sentiments ran high or may have run high under the treble impact of being cheated by capitalist market 'reforms' in the 1990s, of having their friends and family members been drawn into a gangsters' conflict in Chechnia and, ultimately, their fully understandable wish fulfilment in the theatre of dreams. Had the film experts taken a closer, analytical and more responsible look at the apparent hero called Danila Bogrov maybe the debates on Balabanov and his genre movies would have taken a different turn already one and a half decades ago.

But maybe it is not too late to give a new perspective on that part of Balabanov’s oeuvre which has been hijacked by nationalist Russian discourses and misunderstood by most critics and also academics. So, to sum up, I would like to briefly synthesise for you how Path of Blood transgresses the received and often reactionary views of Balabanov.

First, although Balabanov’s genre films do not conform to the image of art-house filmmaking prevalent in Russian film studies, I interpret them as intrinsically artistic, conceptually sophisticated and counterculturally subversive in their alignment against the dominant Great Russian ideology. Balabanov’s healthy disrespect for genre hierarchies and related rethinking of the relationship between identity and alterity in Russian culture enabled him to reject clear-cut notions of Great Russian-ness. The five films I analyse in Path of Blood are eloquent testimony to the past and present complexities of Russia’s ethnic, cultural and religious heritage, and to Balabanov’s understanding of the fact that, defined by hybridity, modern identities exist in more than one form, that the ever-ambivalent self resides in several places and is split from within. Balabanov’s criticism of homogenising representations of Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus, Western Europe and America prevalent in the media, East and West, rests on a transposition of the principle of hybridity to the level of the nation. But Balabanov’s commitment to hybridity and ambivalence never entailed an absence of moral values. After all, a vigorous antagonism to materialism, opportunism, drug culture, aggression and violence runs throughout his Zeitgeist films. The director’s countercultural approach to genre was intrinsically linked with his deeply ethical hostility to the distortions wreaked upon human relationships by mainstream ideologies.

Second, these films’ refusal to accept uncritically a dominant view of post-Soviet Great Russian national identity cannot be disentangled from their opposition to the idea of cultural homogeneity and historical linearity as the means of national survival. This places Balabanov at odds with large groups within the Russian political elites, with the institution of the Orthodox church, which is not the same as the Orhodox faith, and with right-wing and other nationalist forms of the dominant ethnic Russian ideology. In contrast to them, our master of cinema and free-thinking Russophile embraced ethnic, cultural and religious multiplicity, welcoming ambiguity and self-contradiction. The explorations of a fluid, internally fractured Russian identity that his films undertake have serious ramifications for at least two generations of Russians, and for both genders. Using the tools of genre and intertextuality they expose the lie behind mainstream society’s efforts to disambiguate historical complexity and to naturalise reductive, binaristic thinking. In short, they confirm that Balabanov’s understanding of cultural identity and alterity was as progressive as his approach to genre.

My approach to Balabanov's Zeitgeist genre films rests on the principle that the structure of a building (to use the central metaphor in It Doesn’t Hurt) needs to be understood before one can safely deconstruct it. There is no reason to assume that the same is not true of directors other than Balabanov. All interpretations need to be based on analysis. The focus on genre acknowledges the filmic text as the nexus of genre relations and gives critics and scholars a means by which they can avoid the trap of simplification arising from the failure to distinguish fully between the position of the film director and that of the characters who speak within the films themselves. Importantly, with its attention to the relationship between film convention and audience expectation, this method forces us to acknowledge how our own personal concept of self and ideology relates to the work under investigation. This double perception of the text and the self plays a critical role in our interpretation of meaning, which is based on the examination of the text. Furthermore, it immunises the sincere critic against secondary discourses, such as those of general public opinion, which are eminently worthy of study, but separately from the kind of close textual analysis practised in Path of Blood.

Armed with such principles, critics and scholars of Russian cinema can set aside their own ‘Othering’ and detached objectivities and undertake a functional-semiotic analysis of the entire corpus of post-Soviet Russian cinema, safe in the knowledge that the genre method requires a sustained and systematic focus on cinema’s prime mover. This is not to say, naturally, that it cannot be supplemented by recourse to other systematic accounts like, for example, narrative theory. Indeed, with its ability to account for, and synthesise, multiple aspects of the cinematic text, the genre method has the merit of not just providing a sound basis for filmic self/other interpretations but also of serving as the ultimate point of reference, or meta-theory, for all other interpretations, be they historical, psychoanalytical, sociological or feminist.

I suggest that the application of genre theory to Russian cinema could contribute to a reassessment of individual films, oeuvres and corpora, up to and including Russian ‘genre film’ in its entirety, as well as initial critical reactions to it. Such an approach would help us locate the specificity of Russian genres or sub-genres, such as the boevik, and to determine how Russian genre variations differ, or not, from their Western and Hollywood counterparts. Furthermore, it would assist critics and scholars in focusing on the filmic text and establishing a solid grounding for their engagements with audience receptions. Finally, since genre films are the gateway to dominant myths and ideologies, a theoretical approach based on genre is ideally equipped to situating a national cinema in its broader cultural context. Nowhere is this more urgently needed than in Russia, still in the throes of momentous change, and still riven by deep ideological fissures and ruptures. In the end it is clear to me that there can be no better guide to the contradictions, the complexity and the significance of that process than the enigmatic films of Aleksei Balabanov.

Florian Weinhold, June 2013

Florian Weinhold (2013), Path of Blood The Post-Soviet Gangster, His Mistress and Their Others in Aleksei Balabanov's Genre Films, out soon.
twitter: @WeinholdFlorian
Works not cited here but compulsory to be mentioned:

Grant, Barry, ed. (1986[2003]), Film Genre Reader III, 3rd, Austin: University of Texas Press.
__________ (2007), Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology, London: Wallflower.
__________, ed. (2008), Auteurs and Authorship: a film reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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