The Death of Stalin

You thought “Succession” was hilarious?  The story of minor-league talents battling it out to take over the family business from a toxic patriarch?

“The Death of Stalin” is a terrific movie about the end of the life of quite possibly the worst dictator the world has ever known.  It is reported to be one of Barack Obama’s favorite films.  It was banned in Russia, which, of course, is hilarious.  It was also criticized by some for historical inaccuracies, which, of course, is also rather absurd: it is a comedy.  The comedy lies in the kind of chaos created when an authoritarian, melomaniac, paranoid leader dies without leaving a clear line of succession.

It drives me insane to read, in IMDB, an explanation of why they made the “strange” decision to have the actors speak in plain English, instead with an amusing Russian accent!  The assumption is that they should have had them speak with Russian accents, which is actually a really, really strange idea.  But these are Russians talking to each other in Russia.   Do viewers think that Russians or Germans or French people speak to each other with funny accents?

If you say, that’s what people expect, it is only because they have been trained to expect that moronic approach, the way they have been trained to believe that bullets arrive at their target simultaneously with the sound of the gun being fired: they have been trained by early Westerns which chose not to allow audiences to learn the truth.

The best solution is for them to speak in their real, native tongue, with subtitles, but having them speak fluent English is a good option, and far, far, better than the stupid accent idea.

Stalin

Estimates vary, as they will, but Stalin was probably singularly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Key players:

Lavrently Beria

  • Became head of the NKVD in November 1938.
  • Proposed and master-minded the Katyn Massacre in March 1940.
  • just before Stalin’s funeral, he had the army units in Moscow replaced with his own NKVD units and cancelled all the trains coming to Moscow.

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor)

  • Closely associated with Vladimir Lenin.
  • Ran Soviet Missile Program during World War II.
  • Discredited Georgy Zhukov to curry favor with Stalin who was jealous.
  • Briefly succeeded Stalin as Premiere and “first among equals” (March 5, 1953)
  • Eventually sidelined by Nikita Khrushchev.  Attempted a palace coup against Khrushchev in 1957 and expelled from the Presidium and exiled to Kazakhstan.

Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin)

  • Negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany in 1941.
  • Part of the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death to plot things out.
  • his wife, Polina, had been arrested by Beria, with Molotov’s passive consent.  Three days after Stalin’s death, Beria did indeed release Polina to Molotov, presumably to cultivate support in the ongoing power struggle at the Politburo.

Nicolai Bulganin

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Lazar Kaganovich

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Anastas Mikoyan

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Nikita Khrushchev

  • Brought back from Ukraine to Moscow in 1949
  • Regarded by British Diplomats as mouthy and misinformed and inarticulate.  They were far more impressed b y Malenkov, though the movie portrays him as a bit of a dunce.

Vasily Stalin

  • Stalin’s son
  • Called to his father’s side after his cerebral hemorrhage, he was drunk and angry, shouting at the doctors

Svetlana Stalin

  • Stalin’s daughter.  Reported that her father’s death was “difficult and terrible”.
  • Beria had been very friendly with her as a little girl, like an Uncle

Maria Yudina.

  • famous pianist who played piano at reception at Stalin’s lying in state
  • 9 years before his death (unlike in the movie which places the event the very night of) she had played the concert shown in the movie, and had been roused out of bed to repeat the concert for a recording
  • Wrote a note to Stalin which she placed in the record sleeve saying:  “I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.”  She was not arrested.  She died in 1970.

Georgy Zhukov (died June 1974)

  • got along well with Eisenhower; tried to supply food to Berlin after war
  • however, did nothing to stop the brutal rapes and pillaging by Russian soldiers
  • unlike everyone else around Stalin, he refused to kowtow; openly dismissive of Stalin, and openly contradicted him at times
  • did loot Berlin; was caught and made an abject apology
  • Brilliant Soviet military general who guided the stand-off in Stalingrad.
  • his arrest of Beria did occur, but 3 months after the funeral (June 1953), and Beria did get a trial and was executed in December 1953.
  • supported Khrushchev’s bid for power, but, by 1957 lost favor and was forced to retire
  • never returned to a position of influence after that
  • some historians believe he exaggerated his role in WW II.

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Kansas vs Manhattan

One of the most fascinating aspects of the whole story of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is the culture clash between the sophisticated, gay, cultured New Yorker and the “just plain folk” in Holcomb, Kansas, particularly when, as we discover, Capote invited some of his friends from Holcomb and its’ neighbor, Garden City, to New York, to one of his parties.   Reportedly, they were not impressed by the sophisticated culture, but were more than happy to be able to return home with stories about meeting famous actors and princesses.

When Capote arrived in 1959 to write about the Clutter family murders, most people in Holcomb had no idea of who he was, though he was, by then, a very well-known writer.  They didn’t much care for him at first, either, but he quickly began to ingratiate himself with the local police, including Alvin Dewey,  an investigator with the Kansas Bureau of Investigations.  His wife, whom Capote met in a supermarket, was the key: she did value literature and was dazzled by Capote’s connections.

Holcomb, Kansas might as well have been a different planet.  Everyone went to church, everyone knew each other, everyone pitched in in a crisis, and everyone was white and heterosexual.    Don’t sneer at Holcomb: for all the close-minded parochialism, small towns like Holcomb do have their upside.  People took care of each other.  They were actually reasonably tolerant of weirdness and non-conformity as long as it didn’t threaten the status quo too much (“It’s okay to be different; but not too different” as Woody Allen put it in “Bananas”).  And who knows?  Some day, a thousand years from now, people may look back at life in small towns in America and say to themselves, “you know, that was as good as it got for the human race.  Comfort.  Predictability.  Prosperity.”  And then someone may point out that that is only a superficial view of what life was really like in those small towns.  There was bullying, and abuse, and alcoholism, and a steaming, suppressed, virulent hatred of outsiders.  [See Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” for a fascinating encapsulation of small town American life, in all of it’s facets.]

Some relatives of the Clutter family continue to resent the book, the movie, and Truman Capote.  They have a familiar complaint: the book doesn’t accurately represent the wonderful Clutter family.  The Clutter family was, by all accounts, wonderful indeed, but what they really mean is that the book doesn’t make them feel wonderful about the Clutters and awful about the killers.  They resent the depiction of the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, as humans.  They resent the sophisticated attitude towards crime, that the perpetrators have a story, that there might be things that happen in a person’s life that affect his character and behaviour, when we all know it is Satan alone who causes evil.  The resent the implication that the Clutters had flaws and foibles.

They detailed what they called 45 mistakes in the book.  If you analyze their list, like I did, you actually may come away with an even higher regard for the over-all accuracy of Capote’s book.  (For example, he didn’t give enough credit to Mrs. Clutter’s love of cooking.  And he noted that she was often “unwell”, based on comments from some people who knew her well, which the Clutter family contradict but don’t really undermine.  And he mis-stated the exact size of the Clutter’s acerage.)  Given what we know about Capote’s work habits at this time, I tend to believe Capote.  He didn’t really care what you thought about the Clutters and had no reason to ignore what he heard.  Nelle Harper Lee was with him and verified most of his information.

The story is fresh and relevant because that divide is probably bigger than ever.  Many of the citizens of Holcomb did eventually at least come to respect the fact that Capote was a well-regarded writer.

Today, they would just call him “fake news”.

 

I Am a Tiffany Camera

The story is about a young writer struggling to have his first breakthrough moving into a rooming house in a big, sophisticated, complicated city and meeting his kooky neighbor, a beautiful free spirited young woman with multiple boyfriends and shady relationships with rich men whom she openly seeks to attach herself to, if she is unable to realize her delusional dream of becoming a famous actress or singer.   The crazy landlord provides comic relief.  It’s written by a gay man who occasionally seduces some of his friend’s handsome courtiers.

Yes, we are talking about the Sally Bowles stories in “I Am a Camera” by Christopher Isherwood.  Or wait– are we talking about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, the slim novella that made Truman Capote’s reputation?

The difference is this: Christopher Isherwood could not, of course, have had a copy of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in his suitcase when he arrived in Berlin; Truman Capote did have a copy of “I am a Camera” in his when he arrived in New York.

 

For What it’s Worth

Though a large majority of Americans thought it was right and good and natural for the government to pay off the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks, it was not. This was a completely original application of government resources that had never been done before, and it was at the behest of the airline industry which convinced the government– and the makers of this movie– that the nation would suffer immense economic harm if existing law was permitted to prevail and the airlines were sued, like they should have been in a capitalist free enterprise economy.

Have the airlines ever sued somebody?  Have any of the executives or large shareholders of the airlines ever sued somebody?  Did they think, before 9/11, that unlimited jury awards in tort cases might be a bad idea (actually, Republicans generally do)?  Why were gun manufacturers specifically exempted from tort law in 2005?   (As the link clarifies, gun makers could still be liable for “defects” in their product, if a product designed to kill and maim people can ever be said to have defects– does it not kill and maim?  Take it back to the store!)

Remember all that blather you heard about government hand-outs leading to toxic dependency? Yeah, that’s only for immigrants and black people.  In a capitalist system, as we claim to have, and as we say justifies letting poor people fend for themselves instead of helping them, the courts provide a system by which a good citizen can address compensation for deficiencies in a product or service that causes personal loss and suffering.

So the U.S. government broke all of it’s own rules and principles and decided that it would pay off the families of victims so the airlines could continue to pay off its shareholders and executives.

Next problem: how to decide who gets what?

We are the government: we have trillions. Line up and put your hands out everyone. And remember, repeat after me, “it’s not about the money”. Let’s work on the euphemisms for it: to bring closure; to ensure dignity; to make sure this never happens again; to bless the children and the kittens and the apple pie.

Meet Ken Feinberg, who, you should know, has been repeatedly hired (subsequent to 9/11) by large, powerful corporations like BP and Boeing to handle massive claims distributions after great big disasters. (Most recently, he has managed the 737 Max victim fund). Feinberg is asked by John Ashcroft to be the master of the compensation fund for victims of 9/11 and to the credit of “Worth” he is shown to be, at first, pretty clueless about managing the delicate feelings of the victim’s families.  (Except that he does refuse a salary– but then, we know how that works: somewhere down the road he will receive another appointment, maybe to a board or government post, that does pay, very, very well).  But the film does want it both ways: the families cannot be seen to be a mob of greedy materialists salivating at huge financial rewards. It’s not about the money, right? But it is always about the money and even the supposedly “pure” Donato family that sneers at the idea of taking compensation eventually joins the suit. Possibly the gravest hypocrisy in the U.S. right now is this absolute bullshit that people get away with when suing someone for a grievous loss. It is always about the money. “Worth” is far more honest than I expected about that, and presents some interesting dialogue about how the “worth” of a human life is determined. Should a janitor’s family get the same payout as a rich executive? (The initial plan, which rightly offended so many of the litigants, said: the CEO should get more since more potential earnings were lost.) And what about the children of a fireman by a woman with whom he was having a secret affair? Even more delicate: the gay partner of one man who lived in Virginia which did not allow for gay spouses. “Worth” is above average in it’s handling of these subjects, and relatively self-effacing– for a time– about Feinberg himself. Perhaps that is because it was critical to present him credibly while soft-pedalling the fact that this was all, all, really about sparing the airlines’ shareholders from shouldering the cost of their liability for 9/11, and for allowing juries to award scads and scads of millions of dollars for “pain and suffering” to family members who can cry on cue on the stand during a trial. We are also shielded from detailed discussion about the percentage of a settlement sucked up by the lawyers in cases like this.  The most depressing thing about this entire episode is how the government continues to resist any serious discussion about compensating the families of victims of slavery, or racial violence, in any form whatsoever. I’m not saying there is no argument against it– there is. I’m just noting how obvious the difference is between these two constituencies, and how quickly we can disregard and make exceptions to policy whenever we feel like it.

Astonishingly, Feinberg’s entry in Wikipedia contains no personal information about the man.  That is wondrous, for someone who was pivotal to some of the biggest and most controversial disasters in recent memory.

Coda

What I really liked about the film “Coda”:

  1. The “deaf” characters are played by deaf actors.
  2. The story isn’t highly original but it has some charms and some heart.
  3. I was astonished by the fact that they don’t appear to have autotuned the singing. Really astonished– and I loved it. Yes, the singing is slightly off occasionally– and wonderfully real.
  4. Emilia Jones trained on a fishing boat for six months and does her own singing. (That doesn’t mean they didn’t record her in a studio first and then film it synched — just that it is the actor’s real voice,) She’s also very good in the role.
  5. The song they chose for the finale, “Clouds” by Joni Mitchell, was perfect for that moment in the film. If anything, it’s a song that almost over-shadows the rest of the story in it’s eloquent expression of disillusionment and transition. The ending is just clever enough to overcome its own predictability.

We actually watched the entire movie without subtitles. Then laughed when we discovered that it had subtitles, because about 1/3 of the movie is sign-language. It was accidentally charming: we worked hard to interpret what they were saying from their facial expression, body-language, and whatever we could figure out from the hand gestures.

Norm MacDonald

Did I miss something?  After Norm MacDonald’s death this week, I kept reading about what a great comedian he was.  I had never liked him much but I wanted to be fair:  I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him.  Maybe I missed something.

Here’s one of his jokes.  He tells us that during a medical examination of Arnold Schwarzenegger because of a faulty heart valve some of the doctors were concerned because they became turned on during a routine examination.

That’s it.  That’s the punch line.  The audience, on SNL (which is live) didn’t laugh much either.

He also joked about a custody battle between a mother and her ex-husband who was transgender.  It was witless, crude, and dismissive.  It was the kind of joke back-slapping conservative males made and enjoyed at the time.  [Well, well: I now read that Macdonald was a Christian.  It’s possible to be politically progressive and Christian, but clearly Macdonald was your standard, off-the-shelf conservative hypocrite, mocking feminists, poor people, and gays, perhaps with slightly more subtlety than Dennis Miller, while nursing a gambling addiction.]

Again, in front of a picture of Bill and Hilary Clinton: “here’s a picture of the first bitch”.  No joke– just calling Hilary Clinton a bitch.  In another segment, he calls her a liar.  Again, no joke– just calling her a liar.   On an episode of “The View” he accused Bill Clinton of being a murderer.

A lot of Beatles paraphernalia was up for sale, including a “rare” photo of George Harrison not looking haggard.  Huh.

Two homeless people got married at a homeless shelter.  If you want to buy them a gift, they are “registered” at a recycling center.   Huh again.

I’m told his “off the cuff” comments on carrot-top were hilarious.  I’ve watched the clip.  I’m open-minded: maybe there is some reference there that is hilarious, and I missed it.

Same with a cooking demonstration on Conan O’Brien’s show with Gordon Ramsay.  We’re supposed to find his inept inability to follow instructions– like a drunk, really– hilarious.  The biggest laugh was his use of an obscenity, which the audience laughs at because they know it will be beep out.  It was all lame, tedious, witless, and boring.  Conan must have loved him– that lame segment should never have seen the editing suite.

Paul McCartney is going to host an online chat.  Already, 2.5 million calls have come in from people hoping to chat.  But 2 million of them are from Ringo.  That one is not even a little funny.

How about this: Donald Trump decided to divorce Marla Maples because she violated the pre-nuptial agreement by turning 30.  Sophomoric.

Washington D.C. mayor is not interested in polls, or anything that isn’t crack.  Again, very sophomoric.

A joke, in bad taste, about Reagan being allowed to still think he owns the ranch he sold to the U.S. government after the purchase.  Maybe Norm didn’t know Reagan had Alzheimer’s.

He mocks women for their looks.   He mocks Ellen DeGeneres for wanting to have a baby, because she and her partner are both women.  Yeah, they are.  Did someone miss something here?  This might have been funny had it not already occurred to every single person in the audience.

More women would vote if you could bake your vote.  I’m not making that one up– yes, he thought that was funny.  Yes, he read it on Weekend Update.  No, the audience didn’t find it funny either.

When a joke failed– which was often– he would ramble on aimlessly about how that one didn’t work, which is not even funny once, or make a banal comment like “what a world we live in” as if he discovered something that was not already obvious to everyone.  Or, fatally, he would try to explain why the joke was actually funny even though the audience didn’t laugh.  That’s not a secret: Macdonald’s approach to comedy was to do jokes he thought was funny even if the audience didn’t.  Like Red Skeleton.  He and some others thought it was a virtue.  I think it’s an attempt to explain why someone who checks him out because you said he was great might be disappointed: because you don’t get it, see?  He doesn’t care if you don’t think he’s funny.  Really?

After joking about Rikki Lake having to get rid of a dog because it was aggressive with her young child– by eating it– he compounds the lukewarm audience reception with “she ate a whole dog”, which torpedoes the wit factor of any joke.

Those are neither the least nor most funny of a bunch.  A joke about Richard Gere and a gerbil is worse than tasteless.

A lot of his humor is based on the “everyday man” school of comedy, which holds that anything sophisticated or complex should be mocked because if I don’t understand it, it can’t be true or valid.  Gay marriage.  Transgender surgery.  George Harrison frowning in a picture.  And why can’t I make fun of obese talk show hosts?  Well, you can– but making jokes about their obesity really isn’t all that funny anyway.  Calling Bill Clinton a murderer with a tone of  “everybody knows it, right?” isn’t even witty.  If there’s a joke about someone involved in the Clinton scandals– and there are lots– tell it.  But Macdonald didn’t have that kind of Carlinesque skill.

Macdonald did not graduate high school and he has the tone of someone who loves to get digs in on those people who think they are smarter than you simply because they are smarter than you and got educated and understanding something about finance and trade and economics and medicine and music and history– those snobs.

He defended Louis C.K. after he was blacklisted for some relatively mild allegations of inappropriate behavior– a position I agree with.  But he also defended Roseanne Barr  after she made several tasteless, racist tweets.

Well, gosh, so did Donald Trump.

Jokes about Oprah Winfrey’s husband writing a book on how to be a success (Macdonald quips, “marry Oprah Winfrey”), are okay.   A genuine joke: congratulations, Norm Macdonald.  Use this one as a model for humour.  And ironic insight.  A smart perception.  A revelatory twist.  Go for it.

That’s it for Norm Macdonald.  Some okay jokes.  Someone who must have been quite likeable in person– he has lots of defenders, including Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien.  That doesn’t make him funny.

 

 

Digestible Disney

In the original legend of “Robin Hood” the bad guys were greedy aristocrats; in Disney’s version, they are tax-collectors. In the book “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, Frollo is an arch-deacon, not Disney’s magistrate. And in real life, Rasputin was a monk; in Disney’s Anastasia, he weirdly becomes a warlock instead.

Disney loves making stories easier to digest.

Hollywood Aristocracy

How do you get to be a Hollywood actor?

  • Dakota Johnson is the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.
  • Melanie Griffith is the daughter of Tippi Hedren.
  • Laura Dern is the daughter of Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern.
  • Maggie & Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother was a screenwriter/director.
  • Sean Young’s father was a television producer and her mother, Lee Guthrie was a screenwriter and pr executive.
  • Sigourney Weaver was the daughter of NBC executive Sylvester  Weaver.
  • Ione Skye is the daughter of folk singer Donovan.
  • Jennifer Grey is the daughter of Joel Grey.  Her daughter, Stella, is also pursuing an acting career.
  • Natasha Richardson is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, and granddaughter of Michael Redgrave.

There are many, many more.

The jobs in Hollywood movies are too good to be available to any sort of riff-raff or some talented nobody without any relatives in the industry.  No, it is only right that the children of established stars should inherit the privilege of glamour and wealth and fame.

And how do you get to be a pop star?

For a while Rufus was running around as part of a “sons of” club, a group that included Sean Lennon, Chris Stills and Harper Simon. “They were all getting signed and written about and had publicists and photo shoots and beautiful girlfriends,” Ms. Wainwright says in the memoir. “Were their songs better than mine?” The chip on her shoulder led her to write a grand statement song, its title a vulgar epithet. Contrary to what she has told journalists in the past, the song isn’t about her father — or, rather, it isn’t exclusively about him.   Martha Wainwright

That’s Rufus Wainwright III, son of Loudon Wainwright Jr., John Lennon’s son, Stephen Stills’ son, and Paul Simon’s son.

Now what would the children of celebrity Hollywood stars be doing with their lives if they were not the crown princes and princesses of entertainment royalty?  Some job that has measurable performance parameters with a demanding skill set?  I’m sure they have all seriously considered it.  Or would they seek a job that you get because your father or mother knows somebody in the industry and the talents in this industry are judged according to manifestly subjective standards that anyone can, as a favor, manipulate into your favor?

In other words, I am not saying they are without talent.  I am saying that many young people have talents, but very, very few of them get the opportunity meet with a powerful agent or director or producer and get privileged access to the machinery that gets you into the movies, or tv, or the recording studio.

Take Dakota Johnson.  As she grows up, she sees her parents leading the wonderful lives of movie stars, celebrities, privileged by fame and exposure.  She wants to be an actress too, of course.  Does she have special gifts?  Is she exceptionally talented?  Does she work incredibly hard to refine her craft?  Maybe.  Like hundreds of other young, ambitious women.  But does she also get opportunities that others do not get, and a few acting classes, and some cosmetic surgery, and then the privileged access to casting directors and producers?

Here’s a trashy site that gives you a glimpse of just how privileged actors have become.  It is my view that most of these films will be artistically diminished by serving the vanities of the actors rather than the imperatives of the artistic vision, of the writer and director.  But the die is cast when they seek funding: if Leonardo Di Caprio agrees to be in your film, you have guaranteed yourself millions of dollars for the production.

Without him, or someone like him, you will be forced to actually make a good film and hope for critical recognition and a small profit.

Children are inheriting their parent’s Hollywood Privilege

The extended musical family in New York, 2012, from left to right: Martha Wainwright, the singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright III and the singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche.

Martha Wainwright, Suzzy Roche, Rufus Wainwright III, Lucy Wainwright Roche.

Handheld Jerky Phony Video

“It’s about popular music. It’s about being in a rock band, over the course of time. And it’s also a direct conversation between me and my fans, at a level that I think they’ve come to expect over the years.”

It has reached the point where every time a video I am watching goes into funky, raw, “authentic” hand-held video mode, I nearly puke.

The latest, unfortunately, are the videos for Bruce Springsteen’s newest album.  As if the video is not a bad enough sign, here’s one that’s even worse: the subject is music.  Yes, Bruce Springsteen is putting out an album about how music is important.  How his fans expect this “conversation”.

I loved Springsteen back in the 1870’s when he released his first albums.  All right– 1980’s, actually.  “Born to Run” remains a classic.  I was also always a Dylan fan so, naturally, I was drawn to Springsteen because he had great lyrics and his band really rocked.  Nobody ever argued that Dylan was a great singer, and neither was Springsteen, but at least he could screech with more enthusiasm.

Years go by.  I find myself admiring  Dylan’s singing more and more, at least until the 1990’s, and Springsteen’s–even on his first albums– less and less.

And now, “Letter to You”, and the limitations of Springsteen’s voice are laid bare.  And, perhaps, the limitations of his music.  Without the cars, the working class angst, the oppressive union jobs, the girls named Sandy or Terry– what’s left for Springsteen?  Is his mind expansive enough to move into deeper territory, more intriguing perspectives, more subtle inflections?

The videos are awful.  First cheap trick: black and white.  Second cheap trick: hand-held jerky camera movements, as if some documentary crew just managed to sneak into the studio.  Third cheap trick: shots of the wife.  It may sound harsh, but I always picture the wife needling the husband into putting her into the video.  I should be there.  I’m your wife.  I sang backup in the band back in the 80’s.  Fourth bad sign:  drone footage of an unidentifiable man walking through snow-covered fields, without a single close-up or establishing shot to let us in on whether that’s actually Springsteen thinking profound thoughts or a stand-in.