Friday, May 18, 2018

The Death Of Stalin And a Bit More

I just saw The Death of Stalin.  It was a very disturbing film.  Of course, the topic is disturbing, and so perhaps the film was successful.  The film seemed somehow out of sync.  It was in English - mostly British accents, but Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) had an American accent.  And only vaguely looked like Khrushchev.  It didn't seem right in English.

But even more jarring, it was slapstick.

I know too little (maybe that part was also disturbing) about Stalin's last days and the in-fighting that followed his death to judge whether, in fact, the film makers did a good job of their portrayal.  I certainly have never thought of the Soviet leadership in terms of slapstick.

Later:  I wrote that Wednesday night.  I've let it sit a couple of days until I could learn more about the death of Stalin.  This October 2017 Smithsonian article - which notes the (then) upcoming movie - runs through briefly what's known of the last few days of Stalin's life.  It confirms the 'guys' night' atmosphere portrayed in the movie and also the purge of physicians that made it difficult to find a good doctor to call.  The best doctors had all been sent to the Gulag or were on their way.  One of those surrounding Stalin said something like, "If Stalin lives, then the doctor is a good doctor.  If he dies, then Stalin won't know we picked a bad doctor, but we can have the doctor shot."

But I was also disturbed with myself that night.  The woman next to me kept looking at texts.  The light, right next to me, kept pulling me out of the movie.  It's not that big a deal, but people are told over and over again to shut off their phones, or if there is some possible critical call coming in, to sit where they can easily get out and take the call.  The theater was crowded and aisle seats were full, but generally the balcony has lots of room.  Should I say something to the woman?  Should I say something during the movie?  Should I wait for the movie to be over?  Should I just forget about it?  I try to not be accusatory but I also think people should confront, politely and leaving people an opening, about behavior that tends to disturb others for one's own benefit.

At the end I mentally debated if I should say something.  Finally, I said, quietly to the woman, as politely as I could, "Most people consider checking texts during a movie to be rude."  She looked at me upset and said gently, "Did I disturb you?  I'm very sorry.  I was checking my insulin pump monitor."

Boy did I feel like a jerk and I told her I didn't realize that and was terribly sorry for mentioning it. I tried to be polite about it.  I didn't say anything about her specifically and gave her an opening to explain, which she did.  I never would have known what she was really looking at if I hadn't said anything.  Ideally she could have sat on the aisle with her husband next to her and probably no one would have noticed, but aisle seats probably weren't available.

If she ever reads this, I apologize again and thank her for expanding my awareness and reminding me not to jump to conclusions.

But it's one more reminder how easily people judge others based on appearances plus ignorance.   I try to phrase things in ways that give people an out:  "Sir, it appears you turn indicator light isn't working."  "I bet you didn't realize you dropped this paper."  While such an approach calls attention to a violation of a norm, it also gives the guilty a way to ease out of a potentially sticky confrontation and the innocent a way to explain what really happened.  And the observer a way to avoid getting an angry response or looking really callous and stupid.

I think I should see the film again, but only after I read more about the four men who were vying for power around Stalin at the end.

And for those of you with Netflix, I'd strongly recommend the movie Faces, Places.    It's a French documentary about a young photographer who teams up with a much older photographer as they go around France taking pictures of people, the blowing the pictures up into wall size murals and posting them on structures meaningful to the people in the pictures.  A sweet and imaginative story.


  1. I have wondered if 'Death of Stalin' was hommage to
    Khrustalyov, My Car! (Russian: Хрусталёв, машину!) an obscure, but powerful b/w 1998 film. (Sorry, but here's a good link):

    It played at a very smart cinema in the East end of London a few months ago. As a graphic and intensely violent work, we decided not to go even though it's hailed as an essential post-Stalin criticism.

    Might take it on after a bit of historical reading.

  2. My Car looks much darker - maybe that's why they made The Death of Stalin more a comedy. Perhaps it will serve as a model for a Trump movie.

  3. I once chided someone in a planetarium for having a beeping pager. He told me it was his assistive audio device and he had to adjust its sound as speakers changed. Or something like that. All I remember clearly is my embarrassment.


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