Friday, August 17, 2012

Angel of Death

Richard Linklater seems to have good taste in movies. I think I read him say he wished he could have lived and worked in the classic Hollywood era, being assigned different projects, not having to worry about financing or distribution; but, I may be mistaken.

Once when I was 13, I was sick with a fever and could not get out of bed. My dad surprised me with a VHS of Dazed and Confused (1993, Richard Linklater) he'd rented and I watched it twice in a row. I've still never watched the same movie twice in a row. But nearly 20 years later, I still have not discerned a Linklater style or developed an appreciation for any of his work since I was a teenager and crazy over Dazed and Confused.

Bernie (2011, Linklater) is one of those films that you watch and think to yourself hey, this is actually damn good; it's like the kind of movies Hollywood made in the 30s; the characters and setting are modern yet authentic, and we haven't seen them before like this; cool, Linklater's doing his homage to 30s rural Ford comedies, like he did with The Newton Boys (1998, Linklater) and Bogdanovich did with The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich) and Paper Moon (1973, Bogdanovich).

But you might also realize, yeah, wait a minute, is competent handling of a quirky black comedy worth 10 wing wangs? Is it worth 100 minutes?

Tough to say.

Bernie's like one of those jokes someone tells and you aren't compelled to laugh, but perhaps produce a sympathy grin or chuckle for the effort.

It almost could have been funny. For me, the funniest moments are when Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) begins abusing Bernie (Jack Black), but they're too fleeting. I'd also laugh harder at five minutes of Andy Dick's old sketch from The Andy Dick Show on MTV, where he played a character based on himself who assaults his Hollywood intern assistants relentlessly though too. Shirley MacLaine's face is maybe also one of the last to have survived classic Hollywood, coincidentally. She looks great in Bernie and we can recall her youthful features from appearing in something like The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock) at a time when Hitchcock'd still be waiting to enter his pinnacle.

The extras all look, dress and talk like gaudy real Texans. Sonny Carl Davis and McConaughey's mom are both excellent and are the only other part of the movie I think came off as genuine comedy.

The detailed exposition of Texas and funeral directors, and the detailed production design and art direction, prove Linklater took special care to research and prepare Bernie. It looks great, seriously. I guess it was just too alright for me. Jack Black as the weird-in-a-real-life-way effeminate, pants up to his waist-wearer is continuously interesting, but isn't he supposed to be funnier? Or is this supposed to be dry? Depends on your taste.

Matthew McConaughey as D.A. Danny Buck Davidson has the meat of the film's theme summed up in his final prosecution when he drills Bernie about whether or not he is accustomed to the "fancy" life. That's what sells the drama authentically and hit the story home. It defines the conflict of Carthage and doubles up the ambiguity over which of the townsfolk are for or against Bernie and Marjorie and a big part of what their speculations on the couple focus on.

To close, somthing silly: when Bernie describes the preparation of a cadaver before its final rest, he mentions things like, left hand lightly placed above the right crossed, head slightly turned to the right... And during his tranquil oration about its significance I eerily realized that's exaclty how I was sitting in the theatre. The black box, as Godard said.


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