On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

“Big Chief Wears a Golden Crown”

Masking IndianThis week Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts hosted a panel discussion with two leaders in the tradition of New Orleans Black Masking Indians. Darryl Montana, great-grandson of one of the tradition’s founders, and Demond Melancon, whom Montana calls the “world’s best beader” described masking’s origins and modern significance.

Masking—familiar to viewers of the television series Treme, (to my regret, only four seasons long!) in which Clarke Peters played Big Chief Albert Lambreaux—is a nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition that has various origin stories. In part it may have begun as resistance to early rules prohibiting negroes from wearing feathers, in part as a shout-out to the Native Americans who helped runaway slaves, and in part as a strong expression of individuality and pride in an era of repression.

The Chiefs of New Orleans’s nearly 40 black masking tribes make one suit a year. Each suit has multiple parts, can weigh up to 150 pounds, and takes about 5000 hours to construct. Because masking is a “competitive sport,” Montana said, the costumes are generally made in secret, their design and significance revealed only when the Indians come out on Carnival Day (Mardi Gras).

In recognition of Melancon’s artistic skills, in 2012, the elders of the Mardi Gras Indian community dubbed him Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters, with his very own tribe in the Lower Ninth Ward. Increasingly, the creation of suits is considered a significant contemporary art form, and its best practitioners keep pushing the envelope of creative possibility. Melancon’s suit on display at the Lewis Center tells the story of an enslaved Ghanian prince brought to New Orleans in the 1830’s. He lost an arm after a dispute with police, and was thereafter called Bras Coupé. Every beaded element of this stunning suit carries symbolic significance.

masking Indian suit

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Montana is the Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters Black Masking Indian Tribe and made the lavish lavender suit pictured. Completion often involves family members and select friends.

Montana explained that he does not want “to take what I learned from the Chief to the grave with me,” and now makes a concerted effort to engage the next generation in the masking tradition. “You have to keep (young people) busy,” he said, and he believes that through the intensity of the suit-making process, the time commitment, and the camaraderie of working on a culturally meaningful project, he’s found a way to do that.

Cocktail Party Conversation Stopper

In case this slipped by you too, the Big Chief mentioned the massive amount of Mardi Gras beads bead-deviling New Orleans’s storm drains. Last fall 93,000 pounds-worth were excavated from merely a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue! Of course, they were wet.

Intrigued? Here’s More + Pictures!

The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald Lewis
Mardi Gras Indians
by Michael Smith
From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians – Joroen Dewulf’s new theory about the origins of the black masking Indian tradition
Treme from David Simon and George Pelecanos for HBO. Watch the beginning for free.