I love what Zachary Braiterman writes here about Death of Stalin, which I screened with him a week or so ago.
The category of “grim parody” comes to my mind. Anthony Lane situates it in the long tradition of British “grotesque”. When he writes, “every gag is girded with fear. The humor is so black that it might have been pumped out of the ground,” I resonate strongly with his affect. This is the humor of rotting corpses; it’s like slipping on a decaying eyeball instead of a banana peel.
It is not a genre that works for me. I could not keep up the pretext that this was comedy–similar, I think, to my inability to pretend that rollercoasters are anything but sheer terror (I do not take pleasure in sheer terror). I felt “Death of Stalin” exacted a high cost for my occasional chuckles, as if in some Zizekian point about the horror of pleasure.
Film form played a huge part in sustaining this affect. Iannucci borrowed heavily from the dramatic logic of Shoah films–keeping the camera *just* off the mass murder but keeping focus on partial shots of eyes and hands, and medium shots with sotte voce asides that make it very clear what is happening, and to whom. I thought it was brilliant of Iannucci to start the film in the sound-proof but full-glass recording booth at the back of the orchestral hall. The tight shot/reverse-shot exchange between the terrified head producer and his calculating flunky after a terse phone call from Comrade Stalin beautifully and compactly shows the film audience what it feels like to endure amid a social precarity of silence, secret, sheer unpredictability, and the disempowered’s absolute transparency to power (the recording booth might as well be a cell of the Panopticon).
Wow! What in the hell was that? And what was it supposed to be? The Death of Stalin was billed as a comedy, but that’s not what it was. Sure there was slapstick, jokes, and one-liners, and bumbling idiocy. But that is not what propels the film, which is not funny, not really. Nor, frankly, was it really about “the death of Stalin,” with whom the film is done relatively early going in. Post-genre, The Death of Stalin mixes comedy into horror, into satirical farce, into the cinema of cruelty that was socialist realism. Slapstick is the least of the film. Not about the death of Stalin, the telos of the film lies in the execution of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the secret police and chief executioner, the burning of his corpse, and the disposal of the ash. The mirth is mirthless.
How one gauges the comic in all this will…
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