Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Mirth at a Funeral

DVD Notes: “Bernie”


Jack Black as the jolly assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, pampering a widow before murdering her

Bernie is a cavalcade of small town accents, mannerisms and sensibilities. The director, Richard Linklater, along with his screenwriter, Skip Hollandsworth, not only colour in what was already a fine and detailed and, importantly, fascinating illustration with the amount of attention they give peripheral characters in this bizarrely true story, but they lay a glossy finish over it, and display it with the height of dignity and delight. Linklater is not the Coen brothers, who, in films like Fargo, paint ironic and deriding pictures of the middle-American people among whom they grew up, satirising their civility and sending up their idiosyncrasies. Linklater clearly has tender feelings for the people and places he films – important dramatic characters, and townspeople alike.

Bernie is based on a true story. I’ll try not to spoil much of it (but in my view, the pleasures of the film do not lie in the basic plot details). In it, we are told of an assistant funeral director in the town of Carthage in East Texas (“the Number One small town in Texas,” we are authoritatively informed) named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Linklater spends a significant portion of the film’s running time sketching in this oddly charming man for us, essentially as a brilliant performer. He arrives from out of town, and soon becomes a pillar of the community, knowing exactly how to behave for the bereaved, knowing how to sell an act (and make a sale) to the residents he comes into contact with, and a dedicated and fastidious aesthete, painstakingly preparing corpses for burial with cosmetics, and pursuing the greatest luxuries he can get his hands on.

The determining moment in the story (both the true one and the film’s plot) is when Bernie meets Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a bitter and cantankerous, wealthy old widow. Her utterly disagreeable ways have lead to her isolation in the mostly amiable (though also, as is always the case in such towns, mostly repressed) society of Carthage. Being the only person who takes a caring and seemingly sincere interest in her, Bernie becomes her close companion. Some suspect their relationship of verging into the indecent, but those particular points, far less interesting than the rest of what Linklater presents to us, are left un-revealed by the filmmakers. Ultimately, Bernie murders Mrs Nugent, and is tried and dealt with by the local court (though not in Carthage – in a hilarious turn of events, the district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) finds that Bernie is too well liked in his home town for a conviction to be a likely outcome, and moves the trial to a town 50 miles away).

The pleasures of this film, aside from the ridiculous veracity of the story and the moments of dark humour pulled out of it by Linklater, lie in the joviality yet grace with which he simultaneously presents us with the facts and piles on a celebration of the local ways of life. It makes sense that he has such affection for his subjects – Linklater is from Texas – and the people he interviews (and there’s a significant number of them) are treated with the same visual style and tone, and same degree of respect and care as the famous actors are. Had I not know better (and this is the reaction every critic has mentioned when writing about this film), I’d’ve thought that they were professionals, speaking scripted lines. In fact, the townspeople in the film are real townspeople of Carthage, and the commentary they provide is their own – these people knew Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent, they observed the machinations of the district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, and they all reacted as we the audience do, surprisingly yet entirely sincerely, when the outcomes of the story’s events roll around.

Bernie is to be enjoyed by people who yearn for those diversions from bustling city life, and from a life constantly tyrannised by changing protocols and rapidly advancing technology. They can sit back and steep in a brew of lively and insightful commentary, by people of a distinctive yet set way of life, and take pleasure in having the time to listen to people who have the time to talk. And because this is a Linklater film, with his characteristically subtle yet assertive aesthetic, viewers may indulge their nostalgia while avoiding flimsy sentimentality.

But through his tender warm-heartedness, Linklater both sees and shows that Carthage is one tough place, and the strong bonds between residents are held together (as in many repressed societies) with repressed violence. We’re shown the intense closeness which makes small-town life so appealing, but which also makes people move away to the city. It’s the most gratifying of entertainments: the investigation of a crime, fleshed out with philosophical reflections and social inferences, told through carefully constructed and compiled interviews and reënactments. But, again, Linklater sets his film still further apart from others – the interviews are conducted, as I wrote, with astounding care and respect, and amazing candour is offered by a number of subjects; and the reënactments go beyond the literal to convey a broader and deeper sense of the characters. All cast members give surprising and persuasive performances, but special mention must be made of Jack Black. As with many of the most famous actors (mostly because it’s requisite for one to be a movie star), there’s a limit to Black’s credibility and his naturalism. He can only be fitted into a character to a certain extent, and where his personality and technique overflow past that point, exuberant energy and electricity is released.

Apart from the sensual and emotional pleasures of the film which I have described, cerebral ones arise as well. From the combination of interviews, where townspeople dish out their fantastically engrossing remarks, and reënactments, where Linklater gives us a sense of what was and what happened, we’re probed to consider in our own lives the connections between the secret, dark regions of our souls, and our public personas; and the relation of privacy and society. And, I think, it sketches in a few subdued but nonetheless troubling answers as well.

Bernie is available on DVD.

Bernie is directed by Richard Linklater; written by Skip Hollandsworth and Linklater, based on “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Hollandsworth; music by Graham Reynolds; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Sandra Adair. Running time: 99 minutes. 2012.


Shirley MacLaine as the equally jolly Mrs Nugent

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