Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Death of Stalin

I was born in 1941, just three weeks before Pearl Harbor, 12 years after the Depression started, and 24 years after the October Revolution. My parents were first generation Jewish-Americans in Philadelphia, my father a doctor with, apparently, a history in his family of radicalism on his father's side, at least that's what I came to believe when we decided that I would not be Bar-Mitzvahed, a distinction that had also eluded my father. They were avowed Jews, yes, decidedly, but also not observant, unless eating together on Jewish holidays counts as being observant. Someone in his family, my father said, thought that religions led to war. Maybe they were European radicals, I really don't know. But I also suspected that paying lots of money for a party for induction into something he didn't believe in didn't make sense to them. “Them,” because my mother concurred, although her family was more conventional, and indeed when it was revealed to my mother's father that I would go un-Bar-Mitzvahed, he called me to him at the dining table, in the presence of my father and mother, and told me of his disappointment, which made my mother tell him to stop, which made him say that he just wanted me to know how he felt. My mother didn't get on so well with her parents, although we went to their house regularly for Sunday dinner.

My father (born 1915) and my mother (born 1918) became radicals in the 1930's, in the midst of the Great Depression. I don't know the details, but I do know that pretty much all their old friends, with whom they got together regularly and with whom I became acquainted, had been radicals, too. “Radicals” in those days meant communists. Whether or not they were official party members I don't know, but maybe they were. In those days being a commie was different from what it became later, but the horrors of Communism took some time to be evident, and people adjusted at different rates. My parents adjusted at an OK rate, and I think that by the early 50's they had become just liberal Democrats, but they were frightened by the Commie witch hunt – there really was a witch hunt then, as you know – and my sisters tell me that the FBI nosed around questioning other doctors about my father at the hospital and there must have been others that we don't know about.

So when I was 10 or 11 or I guess older, I was used to people having a political consciousness, although I can't recall details. My folks were not like how Bobby Fischer's family was portrayed in the Bobby Fischer movie, not at all; Bobby's family were redder and true believers, not so thoughtful as my parents and their friends, and a lot more recalcitrant. But I was aware of politics, and I was aware of the Russians, and it was serious stuff. Somehow, I remember getting a lot of information from perhaps Time Magazine, even though we didn't take Time. I knew the names and characteristics of all the Russian leaders, all of them. And I knew pretty much about ICBM's, so I guess that was actually later in the 50's. But it was serious stuff. Much later, in 1994, I spent two weeks with a Children's Hospital mission in St. Petersberg – no longer Leningrad – and on a day off happened into a museum display of all the pictures of leaders of the party congresses, all up in very large scale on the walls, no pictures allowed. I recognized pretty much all of them.

One night in 1953 we were watching television in our house at 47th and Osage in West Philadelphia, it could have been You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx on the tube, and there was a cut into the show by the network to announce that Joseph Stalin had died, repeat, Joseph Stalin has died, and now back to your show. My father turned to my mother – my father would have been all of 38 years old, my mother 35, and I was 12, and my siblings 9, and 6 and 4 – and they knew that it was a momentous event, certainly for them, but they thought also for the world, and I'm sure they were right. And my father said to my mother something about how big an event it was, and how they had experienced it in their lives. Then he said, as he was wont to do, “Do you think the children will remember?” Then they answered the question, “Buddy probably will.” And of course that is what cemented it in my mind.

What a time, and what an event. Everyone was very serious, the world was serious, the two world wars and the Depression and the Cold War and the atomic bomb and revolution and what else would there have had to have been for things to be serious? Nothing more, obviously, nothing at all.

And now here we are in 2018 and things are still serious, the Russians have new players who are serious and Trump is a seriously destructive ignoramus and authoritarianism is on the rise around the world and there is no reason in the world not to take everything very seriously indeed. Quite. Except for this: this 2017 British movie I just saw on the plane going home from Stockholm, The Death of Stalin, is a recreation of the time of Stalin's death, and the events depicted are basically true, except that the movie is an uproarious comedy. I couldn't believe it. I can't believe it. It's very funny! I think it's a great movie! I'd like to give it an Oscar, except that who cares about Oscars now, they're so arbitrary, and I guess i was last year, anyway. Despite my own ignorance of the film I see from IMDB that it got a bunch of awards, which is great. So let me cheer now! (Also, see the interesting user reviews there on IMDB.)

I guess it's the same genre as Dr. Strangelove, except the musical background is so prominent, giving it a sprightly feel throughout, and lighter with English actors including Michael Palin, and a Monty Python feel. How can you have a comedian playing Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale – hilarious!), you ask? So do I. How can lists of those to be collected that night to be given to sadistic police, and how can we see people on that list be taken away to be jailed and shot, and how can the music still be sprightly and the mood comedic? I don't know how, but there it is, and it's not tragic, and in fact it's in service of the hilarious.

How can the Presidium members be portrayed by the likes of Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy and Nicky with an air of Monty Python Keystone Cops, but with Buscemi and Tambor doing their recognizable schticks? There must have been a fair amount of actor input allowed by the director Armando Iannucci. How can torture administered personally by Beria and his subsequent murder by the Presidium be light? Good directing. How can the Presidium meetings be portrayed as one IMDB user review puts it: “The committee room scenes in particular are a riot of jockeying for position, snide remarks and politicking of the highest, or should that be lowest, order?” The director's TV background helps.

It's all absurd. Montaigne has a whole essay on how the experience of death and sickness doesn't depend on the events themselves, but the way we frame them. Maybe that's the ticket. I wish my father could see it now, and my mother. My mother was fond of saying, “What was I thinking?” Maybe I would hear that again. Or maybe they would think their lives were being diminished. No, now that the world had moved on and they were safe and they saw their youthful enthusiasms and idealism for what it was, they would laugh and wonder, just as their loyal son did.

My advice: see the movie, it's really terrific. Then imagine how someone could make a similar movie about Trump in real time. Would that be hilarious! Except for the world burning up and the nukes, I guess. But that's what we need, that's what you have to do with someone stupid and terrible, I think. High and low comedy, just laugh at the stupid ass. Laughing all the way to the ballot box.

Budd Shenkin

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