Movies

Friday A/V Club: When Satire, Slapstick, and Surrealism Collide

The long-suppressed Soviet satire My Grandmother, plus a tribute to Bob Hoskins.

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Eight years ago, I wrote a story about a satire that had been suppressed in the Soviet Union and rediscovered many decades later. Here's how the article opened:

I am bureaucracy, hear me roar.
My Grandmother

At some point in our lives, we've all waited in a line for so long that time seemed to stand still. In My Grandmother, a strange and wonderful silent comedy made in Soviet Georgia in 1929, this happens literally: As a "notorious idler and bureaucrat" cools his heels, everything around him slows to a crawl and finally freezes altogether.

But all is not lost. From atop a mountain, a member of "the Youth Communist League, our junior cavalry" hurls an enormous pen down the slope and, miraculously, into the office, where it pierces the bureaucrat's chest, removes him from his job, and restarts the clock. For the rest of the movie, our now-unemployed protagonist will search for an older apparatchik willing to be his patron and to find him a new post. Along the way, there will be no shortage of surreal sequences, including a statue that comes to life and a cartoon that crawls out of the newspaper; there's also slapstick aplenty—the central character is modeled on the American comedian Harold Lloyd—and sets inspired by expressionist and constructivist art.

But what's especially striking is that Youth Communist cavalry. At a time when Stalin was imposing harsh new constraints on Soviet cinema, the boy's intervention was clearly parody, not propaganda. If you doubt that, consider a scene later in the movie, when our antihero, applying for another job, is unable to speak to the bureaucrat behind the desk because the latter keeps disappearing and being replaced by someone new. "Directors are changed," the narration informs us. "The job remains."

Now that we're in an age when it feels like every scrap of footage can be found on the Internet somewhere, I thought I'd check to see if anyone had posted My Grandmother online. And sure enough, the movie is out there, though YouTube unfortunately won't let me embed it; to see it, you can follow this link.

In that old article, I mentioned that My Grandmother's mix of slapstick, surrealism, and anti-bureaucratic satire brings two other movies to mind: Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Death of a Bureaucrat and Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And since the great Bob Hoskins died this week, I thought I'd top off this post with a scene from Brazil—one where Hoskins plays a plumber employed by a totalitarian bureaucracy:

While I'm at it: I can't say Hoskins' final scene in The Long Good Friday has anything to do with My Grandmother, but damn he's good in it. If you haven't seen that movie, rent or stream it this weekend; it's one of the best gangster films I've ever watched. If you have seen it, take a moment to absorb this part again:

Requiescat in pace.