The Death of Stalin and the Life of Comedy

A tiresome old joke/camp prank; Put someone’s hand in a bowl of warm water and they will pee themselves. Told through the mouth of Khrushchev about Stalingrad and it is off kilter. A follow up by Lavrentiy Beria “What, put a chocolate bar in their pocket and they s*** themselves?” and the joke takes on a new dimension. Put a tomato in that pocket symbolizing blood, and you have the comedy of The Death of Stalin.

Steve Buscemi as a clownish Khrushchev. Simon Russel Beale the vicious Beria. Micheal Palin a calculating Molotov. Jeffery Tambor. Paddy Considine. Jason Isaacs. The list of names goes on. Or, rather, they just go, when Beria has his way. And that is half the humor. The black absurdity of life in Soviet Russia under Stalin means that when in doubt politically, shoot the person next to you so as to leave no discrepancies in your tale.

Directed by Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep, and based on a French comic book, the surface gags come at the first level of the film; limousines scrambling to be first in line, Stalin’s love of westerns,  while the second creeps up behind you. Death, groupthink, paranoia, indifference. For, much like in Iannucci’s Veep, only the venal care to climb to the top. And while a reformer might become the Top Man, another brute is waiting in the wings.

**A note; none of the actors speak with a fake accent. So you have the northern English of Jason Issacs, the Brooklynese of Buscemi, a posh Beal. At first, this may seem a little odd, but it really helps delineate the characters. No one is searching for a not-quite-right phrasing, and you understand the regional facets much more clearly. I, at least wouldn’t know a Moscow accent from a Ukranian from Latvian. But, I know English accents.

So, what are you reading and or watching?

 

 


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A fourth generation Californian, befuddled.

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17 thoughts on “The Death of Stalin and the Life of Comedy

  1. Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, had one heck of a story. She defected back in 1967. She lived in New Jersey, Cambridge, and spent the last two years of her life in Wisconsin.

    Her youngest daughter, Stalin’s granddaughter, apparently runs a fashion boutique in Portland.

    The real world is strange.

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  2. There is a BBC series on Netflix that I discovered called Fake or Fortune. The rest of it is on Youtube. The conceit of the show is that an art dealer named Philip Mould and a journalist named Fiona Bruce try to authenticate paintings with questionable provenance. Sometimes they are successful, sometimes they are not, sometimes the not reveals the work of an infamous forger.

    The show tries to authenticate the paintings with a combination of forensic evidence (analyzing the paint and canvas to see if it is period correct or if a work is a suspected forgery to see if there is anything added to make the painting seem older than it is. One infamous forger used Bakelite to get his forgeries to look like Old Dutch Masters.*) They even had some convicted forgers on the show discuss how they did it until they got caught. The other part is investigative journalism to track the painting as far back as they can via owner to owner. This refreshingly involves a lot of research in the archives.

    The show officially fits under the genre of “reality TV” and this leads to some of the sillier staged bits. The art dealer handles must of the forensic stuff, one episode had him discovering something that needed paper research. This was staged as the Investigative journalist listening to a voice mail while coincidentally at the archives and with the research librarian. It was eye-roll worthy risible. Overall it is still
    a very interesting show, at least if you are an art snob like me.

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    • I forgot my asterisk again.

      Van Meegren was an infamous art forger from the 1940s who made what would now be tens of millions of dollars by forging old masters and selling them all over the world. Oil paint can take a long time to dry (decades, sometimes centuries) and the way Van Meegren got around this is that he would dab his paintbrush in the oils (he was sure to only use period oils like lead white and not titanium white) and then Bakelite, paint, and then dry the painting in an oven for about two hours on a lowish heat. This fooled the tests available at the time,.

      The way they got him to confess is that they accused him of selling a Vermeer to Goering and this came with a charge of treason and the death penalty. He had to fess up. Still, there are probably Van Meegren’s out in museums today.

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      • I seem to recall reading somewhere (don’t have time to look today) that computer analysis of extremely high-resolution scans for technique markers in Old Masters paintings in museums was showing up a surprising number of forgeries, or at least works that were largely done by apprentices.

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        • Which only brings to the open an unsettling fact that was mostly known only within art circles, that our romantic view of the solo genius auteur, was largely an after the fact myth.
          Most worked in a collaborative studio environment, and weren’t shy about branding their name to works they didn’t personally create.

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