“Black as the Pit From Pole to Pole!”

by wjw on March 27, 2019

I have lately been enjoying some examples of black humor, which may confirm my moral depravity the eyes of some of you, but if so I think you’re wrong.  According to Wylie Sypher, black comedy strengthens the oppressed and damages the morale of the oppressors.  “To be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.”

So I’ve been surmounting evil as I clutch at my sides and howl at the degrading spectacle of human misery.  Good for me! I  am your moral superior!

Death at a Funeral (2007) is one of those ensemble pieces, full of fine character actors, that the British do so well.  Directed by Frank Oz (that muppet!), it reminded me of the sort of comedy that Blake Edwards used to do so well, usually starring Peter Sellers.

This is also an example of what I describe at Taos Toolbox as “piling on,” where first one small thing goes wrong, and then another, and then a somewhat bigger problem appears, and then before long the entire cast is packed into a single handcart and on a shrieking expressway to hell.

The film begins with a coffin containing the mortal remains of the family patriarch being carried into his home.  Son Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) and daughter-in-law Jane (Kylie Hawes) are horrified to discover that the coffins contains the wrong patriarch, and so the body is returned to the mortuary until the real patriarch can be located.  (He is, and the coffin comes back with its new occupant.)

In the meantime various guests arrive, including Simon (Alan Tudyk), who is nervous about meeting his prospective father-in-law, and who is persuaded to take a Valium, which turns out to be a designer psychedelic cooked up by his girlfriend’s brother.  Simon sets off on a journey from which he may not return intact, and of course drags the rest of the funeral party along with him.

Meantime, there are lots of jokes about physical handicaps, aging, death, illness, and shit.  Some are funny.

Amid all the family and friends is a stranger, an American dwarf named Peter played by Peter Dinklage, an American dwarf.  (Whereas the Texan Alan Tudyk [Wash on Serenity] adopts a perfectly acceptable British accent for this film, Dinklage retains his American accent and does not adopt the British-esque accent he uses for Game of Thrones.)  At a crucial point in the funeral, while Simon is naked and raving on the ridgepole of the house, Peter reveals himself to Daniel as his father’s secret lover, and wants 15,000 pounds to prevent him from showing the guests a series of explicit photographs of himself and dad at play.  Daniel and various of his kinfolk subdue Peter, bind him hand and foot, and force feed him five tabs of “Valium” to calm him down.  Peter makes a break for it, but falls and hits his head, and is declared dead.

Where to put the corpse?  Since the other guests are outside watching Simon caper naked on the roof, Peter’s corpse is dropped into the coffin along with dad.

Naturally— and being Plotboy I saw this coming—  Peter turns out not to be actually dead, and pops out of the coffin at the most solemn moment of the funeral, angry, violent, and on a 25,000-mike acid trip.  Gay dwarf porn explodes into the assembled company.

Helpless laughter on the part of the viewer ensues.

Death at a Funeral is not a brilliant film—not all the comedy is genius, and the parts of the film intending to be serious or heartwarming tend to fall flat— but if you liked The Hangover or Blake Edwards’ The Party, I guarantee that you will quake with laughter at a Richter scale of 8.4.

The film was remade in America in 2010, with an all-black cast except for Peter Dinklage, who plays the same role, I do not know with what accent.  I haven’t seen it, but reviewers were less kind than they were to the original.

It was also remade in India in 2009, as Daddy Cool, with Sunil Shetty and Aartie Chabria, but alas without Peter Dinklage.  I’ve really got to track this down.

The Death of Stalin (2017)  

Okay, talk about bleak.  Yet Death of Stalin, directed by the clever Scot Armando Iannucci,  is yet another great ensemble piece, with British and American actors, all enacting the blackest of black comedies.  I’ve got to check out the French graphic novel on which the film was based.

Wylie Sypher would point out that this film is a perfect example of black comedy damaging the moral of oppressors.  It was banned in Russia as a “western plot to destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society.”  How can any review be better than this?

Yet try I must.  Stalin topples from a cerebral hemorrhage and lies all night long in a puddle of his own urine, not 100% dead.  First to arrive is secret police head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who ignores the great man while opening a safe and burning the documents therein.  Other members of the Central Committee turn up, including Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Stalin’s presumed heir Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and foreign minister Molotov (Michael Palin).

Each, on seeing Stalin sprawled on his study floor, is required to go into an over-the-top expression of grief, wringing his hands and staggering around while saying things like, “What will happen to us now?”

Or, as Michael Palin’s Molotov puts it: “I’ve always been loyal to Stalin, always. This arrests were authorized by Stalin but Stalin was also loyal to the collective leadership and that is true loyalty. However, he also had an iron will, undeviating, strong, could we not do the same and stick to what we believed in? No. It is stronger still to forge our own beliefs within the beliefs of the collective leadership, which I have now… done.”

They’re so busy emoting that it takes them quite a while to decide that they might, for example, pick up the great man, who is still breathing, and transport him to bed.  The collective leadership takes a longer while to decide which of them is going to have to kneel in the piss, and then the presumed heir Malenkov complains that he has to carry the head, which is the heaviest part.

The collective leadership then decides to send for a doctor, but the problem is that all the good doctors are in the Gulag, accused of being part of the Doctors’ Plot.   Beria’s secret police find a aged doctor who retired before he could be accused of anything.

Beria shortly thereafter decides that the safest course is to liquidate everyone present in the dacha when Stalin had his stroke.

Despite the attentions of the decrepit doctor, Stalin croaks, and then the issue becomes who is going to run the presumed heir Malenkov, who is too weak-willed to run himself.  The issue is complicated when Stalin’s unstable, drunken son Vasily turns up, along with his more perceptive sister Svetlana.

Vasily: I want to make a speech at my father’s funeral.

Khrushchev: And I want to fuck Grace Kelly!

Beria: Comrade Malenkov, your view…?

Malenkov: Well I think, um… it can be… no problem.

Khruhschev: Technically yes, but practically…

Beria: There are programmatic complications…

Malenkov: I think I misspoke when I said “No problem” what I meant was, “No.” “Problem.”

[Everyone in the room look confused]

Malenkov: Ignore me.

There follow massive amounts of filthy conversation, the demented excess of Stalin’s funeral, and several hundred buckets of blood.

Beria has the inside track at running Russia through Malenkov.  His NKVD troops have sealed off Moscow.  He’s releasing political prisoners and gaining popularity by promoting the liberal agenda that Nikita Khrushchev had planned to put forward himself.  “You’re just making this shit up as you go along!” screams Khrushchev.

Molotov, meanwhile, has a conversation with a dog.  “Yes he is! Nikita’s going to be dead! Yes he is!”

(Beria, by the way, was quite the model of the modern major criminal.  He would cruise the streets of Moscow at night in his car, abduct attractive young girls, bring them home and rape them.  If they objected he’d shoot them and bury them in his back yard.  His house is now the Hungarian embassy, and every time they remodel they turn up more corpses.)

Malenkov decides that the solution to the problem of his popularity is to get a new haircut.  “Jesus Christ,” Khrushchev says, “did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?”

Khrushchev, fortunately for him, can walk, talk, and plot at the same time.  He brings in the vainglorious general Georgy Zhukov, played by Jason Isaacs with a Yorkshire accent.  “I fucked Germany,” he says, “I think I can take a flesh lump in a fucking waistcoat.”

The audience spends its time gasping at the horror depicted on screen, and then gasping again at Iannucci’s daring to turn it into comedy.  It’s a brilliant balancing act.  One wrong step and the whole thing would have collapsed into a stinking vast heap of smegma.  But as it is, it damages the morale of oppressors while surmounting evil.

Honestly, what more do you want?

Phil Koop March 28, 2019 at 6:42 pm

The Death of Stalin was the best film I saw in 2018 (yes, it was technically released in 2017, but …)

All of the performances were excellent, but honestly, I have a soft spot for Isaacs’ Yorkshire Zhukov.

pixlaw March 28, 2019 at 6:45 pm

What more do I want? Popcorn. Plus some form of alcohol. Plus a magic potion to take 10 years or so off my current age. In fact, I can think of a whole hell of a lot of things that I can want. Walter, do you really want to ask that question?

wjw March 29, 2019 at 1:04 am

I’ll provide the moral superiority, you provide the rest of the stuff, and we’ll party!

pixlaw March 30, 2019 at 12:56 pm

As long as you bring the really top shelf moral superiority. None of that cheap-ass stuff that seems so popular these days.

mearsk April 1, 2019 at 10:43 am

I watched Death at a Funeral this weekend based on your recommendation. Tudyk did a great job and the coffin scene at the end was hilarious.

Etaoin Shrdlu April 1, 2019 at 6:16 pm

Nothing will ever beat Dr. Strangelove. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say, no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh . . . depending on the breaks.”

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