Elimination nation

Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, and Adrian McLoughlin (not quite dead) in The Death of Stalin.

Allow me to raise a tumbler of vodka to Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin, recently released here in the US about six months following its UK release. It completed filming in August 2016 (shooting locations included Kyiv, Ukraine; London; and Oxford), several months before the US elections, so it can’t be said to be a comment on the contemporary American political scene. Where it is relevant, however, is that the film satirizes what happens when a charismatic, nationalistic leader dies or falls, leading to a power vacuum in which various toadies, sycophants, and hangers-on jostle for position and power. We have no shortage these days of such leaders, both in Europe and at home, and the film fires a warning shot across the bow: there’s always the possibility that the disappearance of such leaders will lead to further suffering and oppression.

Among the most significant toadies in The Death of Stalin is the Soviet Union’s Central Committee. Its members include Nikolai (Nicky) Khrushchev, played with a shaved head, ill-fitting suits, and unreconstructed Brooklyn accent by Steve Buscemi. It’s been no secret among the Committee members that Stalin’s bloody, vicious reign has turned the entire country into a prison camp, torture chambers and all (many of them run by Laventri Beria, chief of Stalin’s secret police — a paunchy, phlegmatic Simon Russell Beale); the question is what comes next. Khrushchev and Beria emerge as the chief competitors for the leadership of the country. In a violent dictatorship, there’s no question that whoever wins, the loser will have no future.

Despite the lip service paid to ideology, the power struggle takes place in the arena of Realpolitik. The only true believer on the Central Committee, Vyacheslav Molotov (depicted as a genial idiot by Michael Palin), believes whatever Stalin and Das Kapital tell him regardless of the evidence of his own eyes, even to the details of his personal and private life, and as a result he’s easily manipulated by both Khrushchev and Beria. (The historical Molotov would continue to believe in the rightness of Stalin’s cause until his death in 1986; he is one of the few characters of the film to have died of old age.) As each character becomes consumed by his own lust for power and fear of death (a lust and fear intimately related), common sense and skepticism fall to the only women characters in the film, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), Khrushchev’s wife Nina (Sylvestra Le Touzel), and the concert pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), whose family was eliminated by Stalin and who may or may not have sparked the cerebral hemorrhage that kills the supreme leader; she opens and closes the film with performances of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, a touch of civilization in a barbaric world.

The film is not, strictly speaking, historically accurate all the way down the line. It’s not a documentary; it’s a fantasia and political meditation based on history, not unlike Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon. But any comparison with Stone’s work must end there; this is politics as bloody farce, not conspiratorial tragedy. Indeed, its true precursor is the 1980s BBC comedy series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister; these also dealt with schemers in the corridors of power whose actions belied their rhetoric, and The Death of Stalin‘s director, Armando Iannucci, has paid due respect to these brilliant series. But the Yes Minister series was set in a Western liberal democracy, not a nationalist authoritarian state; the stakes, for its characters, were not life-and-death but ego-and-livelihood. Back in those days, Western liberal democracy seemed secure, not on the road to the grave. Let’s hope that The Death of Stalin remains a farce about an ugly past, and not a prediction about an ugly future.

The trailer for the film is below. The Death of Stalin is now playing, as they say, at a theater near you (though not, significantly, in Russia).

Shhh …

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in “Fatty and Mabel Adrift.”

Silent comedy aficionados, take note: This Saturday afternoon, February 10, the Silent Clowns Film Series at Lincoln Center celebrates Valentine’s Day with “Love is in the Air … Comically Speaking” at 2.30pm. On the program are Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in A Jitney Elopement (1915), Fatty Arbuckle and the inimitable Mabel Normand in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels in Ask Father (1919), and Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox in Neighbors (1920).

The Silent Clowns Film Series, named for the seminal 1975 book The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr, is now into its 21st year of offering regular screenings of classic silent comedies, featuring live piano accompaniment from Ben Model, who also produces the series; and you’ll be watching these on film, not in digital reproductions. Best of all, it’s free; for all these reasons, they deserve your support. More information can be found here.

Way Down East

Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” (1920).

If you’re willing to step back a century or so this weekend (and who isn’t?), drop by Metrograph at 7 Ludlow Street for a screening of the 1920 D.W. Griffith film Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. And let’s not call it a silent film — they never were silent, really; Nicholas Sosin will be providing a live piano accompaniment at both the Saturday and Sunday shows.

Yes, this is the famous ice floe film, with Gish making her way gingerly across a frozen river at, probably, Orient Point, Long Island. Her character, Anna Moore, has just been turned out of a house as a woman of sin in the film’s rip-roaringly melodramatic plot, and although the film is based on an 1897 pot-boiler by Lottie Blair Parker some recent critics have considered it a proto-feminist statement, sort of. But in a short review for the Washington Post in 1994, Mark Adamo wrote, “Even the film’s seeming pioneering of feminism is hoary: the Leviticus-style titles would have us believe that Lillian Gish’s tremulous ingenue fallen prey to a heavily mascaraed roue is ‘the story of Woman.'” Well, plenty of heavily masacaed roues about these days. More positively, Adamo also noted, “What’s amazing is that so much of Gish’s tough, funny, intuitive performance, particularly in the film’s middle section as she bears her illegitimate child, transcends time, place and technology. Equally amazing is Griffith’s mighty striving, with his arty location shots, quirky close-ups and riskily staged set pieces, to forge a new and expressly cinematic style.”

Richard Brody was equally enthusiastic about the film in the New Yorker in this undated essay:

Griffith’s Homeric artistry and his painterly insight — his view of the conflict between nature’s horrors (those of a blizzard and those found in the hearts of predators) and its glories (the peaceful landscape and the heart of true virtue) — come to full flower in Way Down East.

And don’t miss Brody’s short, two-minute illustrated discussion of the film at the end of the article.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, Metrograph has a bar upstairs, where you can argue proto-feminism to your heart’s content after the show. Way Down East will be screened this Saturday, January 20, at 1.00pm and Sunday, January 21, at 7.30pm. The 35mm print comes from a preservation made by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation. It runs for 145 minutes. Tickets and information here. If you miss it, you can purchase it from Kino Lorber here.

Now you can see it

Following my republication of an earlier essay about Richard Foreman today, I came across — tucked into a corner of the PennSound web site — his new 70-minute film Now You See It Now You Don’t. A production of Bridge Films, Sophie Haviland, and Richard Foreman and the Ontological Hysteric Theater, it is, as usual for a Foreman production, packed with mystery. The film is released and exclusively distributed by PennSound Cinema.

I haven’t had the chance to watch the entire film yet, but don’t let me stop you. You can find it here.