The Story of Aleksei Balabanov’s Unfinished Film The American and Its Potential Afterlife

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On Friday, October 5th, the Jordan Center hosted a talk by Professor of Russian and Integrated Studies at Utah Valley University Frederick H. White, titled “The Story of Aleksei Balabanov’s Unfinished Film The American and Its Potential Afterlife”. Most recently, White published a book of memoirs, interviews, scholarly essays and biographical documents about the late filmmaker Aleksei Balabanov. The event was part of the Occasional Series and was introduced by New York University Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies Eliot Borenstein.

The talk concerned Aleksei Balabanov’s incomplete film “The American”, which Professor White characterized as “a breaking point between two phases of the filmmaker’s life and film career”. The first phase begins with his two literary adaptation films, “Happy Days”, and “The Castle”, and continues with his most famous two-part series “Brother” and “Brother 2”. Referencing a widely-held belief that the filmmaker only made “Brother 2” to save his production studio from bankruptcy, Professor White characterized the film as Balabanov’s passage into commercial filmmaking. The final two films White placed in this phase were “War”, and “River”. During the filming of the latter, Balabanov experienced the first of a sequence of tragedies that would altogether shift his filmmaking into what White refers to as his second phase.

On the shoot of “River”, Balabanov, his family, and actress Tuiara Svinoboeva were involved in a catastrophic automobile accident that lead to the death of the actress. Just a year later actor, director and longtime partner of Balabanov Sergei Bodrov Jr. was killed in an avalanche during a film shoot. Balabanov, although not present for the shoot, had suggested the location to Bodrov, and felt an immense amount of guilt for the actor’s death. According to professor White, these two tragedies coupled with the failed attempt at completing the “The American” broke the “rhythms and networks of meanings” that had flowed through the filmmaker’s earlier films.

“The American” would have fallen under White’s “Phase 2” had it been completed. “Dead Man’s Bluff” and “It Doesn’t Hurt Me” were the first complete films to kick off the second phase, but as White said, neither of these films were characteristically “Balabnovesque”. According to White, Balabanov was experiencing such deep depression that the producer Sergei Selyanov asked the filmmaker to direct a black comedy film in an attempt to “pull him out”.

In the midst of the two tragedies, the failure to complete “The American” and the failure’s aftershock played a pivotal role in Balabanov’s transition. In his work, Professor White describes “The American” as a decisive break between the filmmaker’s two stages. The argument largely relies on the interpretation of Balabanov as an auteur, which White admits is a contested claim but one he defends by drawing attention to Balabanov’s consistent narrative line and recognizable style. The director, prior to reaching his second phase, maintained a personal and political message; he was likewise very much involved in all components of filmmaking, from the writing, to the production, and to the directing.

The intercultural conflict ubiquitous to Balabanov’s earlier works is also present in “The American”, but vanishes from his subsequent films. A script, court case records, and nine days of footage are the only remnants of the film that, according to White, can potentially lay the foundation for an afterlife. “The American” begins in Brighton Beach, where a Wall Street stockbroker, Nick, gets a tip to invest in a Siberian Aluminum Company. Just a day after Nick buys the company’s stocks, the company goes bankrupt, prompting Nick to embark on a trip to Siberia in a bid to recover his lost money. Meanwhile, a side story follows a prison escapee, Alexei, who is helped by an indigenous Yakut during his escape. The two central characters end up linking together, and after a series of adventures that include posing as roadies for the rock band Leningrad, the prison escapee winds up in the U.S., while the American stockbroker takes refuge in an indigenous community in Siberia. According to White, this intercultural swap is commonplace in Balabanov’s earlier films, and could have also served as jumping-off points for potential sequels.

Citing the Russian film critic Maria Kuvshinova, White claimed that “The American” would have generated an intense response from a Russian audience given the intercultural conflicts. A hitman in the film is presented as a Chinese character, while hints of anti-semitism permeate the film as well. “Everything that you’re used to from early Balabanov is present”, White commented. But the more compelling point of contention revolves around the central Russian and American characters. “The intercultural conflict between Russian and foreign characters manifested in real terms when Balabanov and American actor Michael Biehn were reasons for closure of the project,” White commented.

After reviewing the court documents and speaking to members of the production team, White concluded that the American actor Michael Biehn, who was cast to play the stockbroker, played a large role in the film’s failure. Biehn’s volatile attitude, coupled with episodes of binge drinking, prompted Balabanov to fire the actor. In response, Biehn took Balabanov’s production studio to court for allegedly violating a contract, causing Balabanov to lose a large sum of money.

After “The American”, Balabanov worked with almost an entirely new production team, changed his style and never again worked with foreign actors. In “The American”, Balabanov displays a certain Russian nationalism in his decision to make Nick, enchanted by “the Russian soul”, ultimately stay in the country – a narrative thread also encountered in his earlier film “War”. But in his later films, the “brand of nationalism that he was known for no longer took the American or the West as a point of comparison”, White commented. The “otherness”, represented through Nick, and other Western characters in Balabanov’s previous film, shifted to ethnicities within the post-soviet space. This shift “limited Balabanov’s exploration of Russia within a global context, and instead focused on tensions that had historically existed,” White added.

Towards the end of the talk, White cited a few theories on the concept of an unfinished projects and how these projects can act as an “inadvertent source for biography of filmmaker for a new reassessment”.