‘Bernie’ explores masculine identity formation

Slacker,” director Richard Linklater’s 1991 debut feature,unfolded a daisy-chain of Austin bohemian mavericks, and otherwise gonzo 20-somethings, weaving in and out of one another’s lives in a surreal roundelay. Their means of support were uncertain and minimal. Many were former University of Texas students and expressed vague anarchistic or new-age metaphysical beliefs. But they were totally devoid of political or spiritual action, indeed meaningful action of any sort. They seemed flash frozen in a state of not-unpleasant late-adolescent identity drift.

After “Slacker” garnered major critical praise on the festival/art house circuit, Hollywood was quick to recognize Linklater’s talents. Over 20 years, he has directed and written an impressive body of work. His films are hallmarked by a wide diversity of genres. He’s scored mainstream box office successes – for example, “Bad News Bears,” (2005) and made highly regarded independent productions – for example, “Before Sunrise” (1995).

“Slacker” ’s theme of an outsider embedded in a state of forestalled or permanently derailed individuation is threaded throughout Linklater’s Hollywood and Indie productions. Pictures like “SuBurbia” (1996), “Dazed and Confused” (1995), and “Tape” (2001) draw acutely upon his own experiences as a reasonably estranged Houston teenager and young adult.

Linklater’s protagonists are often spectacularly immature older male outsiders and misfits. Jack Black’s down-and-out stoner guitarist in “The School of Rock” (2003) poses as a substitute 4th-grade music teacher at an uptight prep school. He redeems his finances and selfhood by turning his students into a prize-winning band of Aerosmith acolytes.

Linklater’s new film, “Bernie,” reunites him with Black in his most complex, poignant exploration of compromised masculine identity formation to date. His unlikely medium is the true-crime “mockumentary”: a subgenre that has become a lurid TV cottage industry in the past decade.

Linklater’s script was cowritten by Skip Hollandsworth, from his piquant 1998 Texas Monthly story, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” (available on the Texas Monthly’s website (http://www.texasmonthly.com). Hollandsworth’s tall but absolutely real tale describes how the meanest woman in town was murdered by the nicest guy in town.

That town is Carthage, Tex.: pop. 6,500. Via a whimsical cartoon, Linklater instructs us that Texas is not monolithic, neither in its geography nor sensibilities. There’s Austin-land, replete with tree-hugging socialists; Dallas territory, with its money-mad oilocrats; the panhandle, next best thing to the Gobi wastes. And East Texas, a region of pinewood-enclosed hamlets with deep Southern conservative political and religious values.

Carthage is East Texan to the bone: a tightly knit community where everybody knows everybody, where you go along to get along and help your neighbor even if you don’t like him much. Hollandsworth told me that West Texas discourse tends toward dour monosyllables. East Texans, on the other hand, love to gab and gossip, and are wryly funny at both.

Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II arrived in Carthage in 1985 to take up a post as assistant director at the Hawthorn Funeral Home. Funeral director Don Lipsey hired him by phone. Bernie owned credible mortuary credentials, but it was his striking warmth and sincerity that convinced Lipsey that he had lucked into the exemplary man for a tough job. Actually, Lipsey knew little about Bernie’s past, nor would anyone else in Carthage ever learn much more. It almost seemed that he had materialized in their midst ex nihilo.

Bernie proved a wizard at embalming, “cosmetizing, and casketing.” In Linklater’s delicious establishing sequence, he demonstrates his macabre art to admiring students: the dearly departed’s face should be turned slightly toward the mourners in gentle farewell and the lips shaped to a slight smile, Bernie tells us, with his own saccharine little smile.

Bernie’s people skills in the trade were even more formidable. He always knew just the right thing to say, or sing in his pure, light tenor. With Bernie cosmetizing, casketing, then serenading your corpus with “Amazing Grace,” you just knew that you were going to heaven. He was especially beloved by his DLOLs – Dear Little Old Ladies. His solicitude to widows extended past mere entombment. He visited them at home for weeks afterward, bearing flowers and comforting words.

When he wasn’t working, Bernie was as loving and serviceable to the Carthage community at large. He donated prodigious time and effort to a plethora of community organizations, especially the Methodist church. He sang in the choir, even gave sermons that were frequently – if not openly – declared better than the minister’s. He was always available to help with your taxes or hang your curtains. Yes, he was a bit of a spender, but never on himself, aside from the brood of plastic penguins on his lawn.

In 1990, Bernie casketized R.L. “Rod” Nugent, a former oilman who brought his wife, Marjorie, back to her hometown for their golden years. Rod built Marjorie a gated McMansion just outside of Carthage and became a respected banker. He was a good old boy, tough but fair minded. Unfortunately, Marjorie was a miserly misanthrope, totally estranged from her son and other relatives, given to bouts of depression, and increasingly reclusive. When she did visit the bank, it was to savor turning down loans.

Rod’s death left Marjorie devastated, for she was utterly dependent upon him. When Bernie first came to her doorstep bearing his usual flowers, she sourly turned him away. Soon, however, she was drawn to his kindness. He drew her out of her shell. She even started attending church. Over time the two became semi-inseparable. Although never actually living together, Bernie increasingly waited attendance upon her, cooked her meals, kept up the house and grounds, did her nails, pumiced her feet, and jaunted with her to Russia, Las Vegas, and New York.

Bernie eventually resigned from the funeral parlor to become Marjorie’s full-time majordomo. His finances clearly improved. Along the way, she gave him power of attorney, then made him her sole heir. Aside from buying a small house and several small planes – he had always wanted to fly – Bernie mostly used Marjorie’s money to help needy individuals and Carthage’s entire community. (The town’s fortunes boomed in the 1950s from large natural gas deposits, but its circumstances had declined by the 1990s.) Bernie bailed out old businesses, financed several new ones, ensured mortgages, promised a lavish church endowment. He was particularly preoccupied with raising Carthage’s cultural tone by financing and performing in college musicals.

Over 7 years, the odd couple provoked desultory gossip, notably as to whether they were lovers. Not so, ran the prevailing opinion – some of the men in town “would insinuate that Bernie was a little light in his loafers,” Don Lipsey said in the Texas Monthly piece. In the main, the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie was tolerated with congenial bemusement.

Then, in August 1997, mounting suspicions about Marjorie’s whereabouts over the preceding year led police to search her home. Her body was discovered in a freezer, wrapped in a Land’s End blanket, shot four times in the back. Bernie was arrested and immediately confessed to impulsively killing Marjorie 9 months earlier with the .22 rifle she gave him to dispatch the armadillos despoiling her flower beds (he got nary a one). He said Marjorie had grown so tyrannous that he has passed from being her protector to her traumatized slave. He shot her in a moment of impulsive fury and was intensely remorseful; indeed, he still loved her.

But Carthage district attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson believed Bernie was a consummate con artist from the get-go and theorized that he cold-bloodedly executed Marjorie because she had discovered his embezzling and was about to turn him in. The DA made a move common in the defense bar, but rare for a prosecutor. He successfully requested a change of venue, convinced that Bernie would be acquitted in a Carthage courtroom. Bernie was subsequently convicted and received a life sentence from a backwater jury 50 miles down the road. According to a Carthage supporter, its members “had more tattoos than teeth.”

During the 9 months in which Bernie had fastidiously covered up Marjorie’s murder, he had dipped into her fortune even more extravagantly to help the town – but not himself. One speculates that Marjorie’s presence, however cancerous, reinforced a shaky superego. With her out of the way, this mouse was well and truly out to play.

Marjorie’s estranged relatives swooped down after the trial to reclaim their inheritance, with the IRS not far behind. Carthage’s citizens and institutions suffered mightily when Bernie’s munificence was undone. But many, if not a majority of Carthaginians still believe Bernie was justified in or even innocent of sending Marjorie to whatever constituted her just rewards. Bernie is now just as helpful to fellow inmates as he was to his Carthage friends – giving cooking lessons, leading chapel services, so forth.

Jack Black’s impersonation of Bernie is stunning. One realizes just how finely honed it is when Linklater shows us the real imprisoned Bernie chatting up the actor, 14 years after the event. Black either put on weight or pillowed himself into Bernie’s cherubic porkiness. He owns the slight waddle; the chirpy perkiness; the unparodied tinge of effeminate gesture. (Although we don’t hear Bernie’s voice, Black certainly has, and meticulously mimes its suave sweetness, spoken and sung.) Crucially, Black uncannily captures Bernie’s formidable character armor – of which more presently.

Curiously, Shirley MacLaine’s Marjorie has gone unappreciated or even been critiqued as a mere caricature. MacLaine does have far fewer scenes and lines than does Black, but the very shortfall throws her nonverbal skills into higher relief. Hollywood actresses classically perceive aging as an unnatural narcissistic injury and either take on inappropriate younger roles or retire altogether. MacLaine unhesitatingly displays sagging, liverish arms and facial wrinkles, the better to equate Marjorie’s physical erosion with her withered, mean-spirited disposition.

Bernie and Marjorie’s story is chiefly told by Carthage’s townspeople directly to Linklater’s camera. Many play themselves. Taken together, they comprise a pinewoods Greek chorus, meditating upon this ultimately tragic tall tale. Far from being central casting tobacco-road hicks, they’re a spirited, intelligent lot, with that inimitable East Texas blend of irony and drollery.

Their compassion for Bernie remains steadfast (a ray of charity for Marjorie also peeps through). While often admitting bewilderment about who Bernie really was, few – at least in the movie – doubt his good intentions, or think he meant to gull them. Notable exceptions are Marjorie’s starchy stockbroker, and DA Davidson: He continues to rate Bernie a smarmy Madoff, who made off with Marjorie’s lucre, offed her, and nearly ruined Carthage in the process. (In Matthew McConaghey’s flamboyant portrayal, the DA’s oleaginous aw-shucks charm conceals a canny self-promoter.)

Linklater has been tasked by some critics for being too sympathetic to Bernie, especially for insufficiently pondering his character and motives. The film does not cite significant events in Bernie’s past. According to Hollandsworth, his mother died when he was 3 years old, and his father passed away while Bernie was 15, leaving him to raise his younger sister and himself with little assistance. He had planned a career in the arts. But soon after his father’s death, in the setting of a job cleaning a mortuary yard, he knew he had found his life’s calling.

Were Bernie in one’s office, such details would precipitate a psychoanalyst’s speculative delirium. One would wonder, for instance, whether the shock of parental abandonments predisposed him to preternatural goodness, including rejecting a “bad” gay identity lest he be abandoned again; (homoerotic porn was found on his premises by the police, but its exact nature has never been revealed). Bernie seemed to have always been intensely pious. Was his hyperbolic benevolence based on identification with the all-giving Christ? Was his intense psychic pain somehow rationalized as mirroring Jesus’ suffering for the world’s collective sins? Bernie begins and ends over a lovely string transcription of the hymn “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“Oh Sacred Head, Filled With Blood and Wounds”). It figures poignantly in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Was Linklater aware of its possible resonance with Bernie’s personal passion?

Did parental death during those tenderest of ages – early childhood and adolescence – dictate Bernie’s choice of a career centered on returning the dead to a semblance of life? Gripped by potent repetition compulsion, was he compelled to master and remaster his own grief through assuaging the grief of others?

Could the mother’s primal loss ground his increasingly symbiotic, ambivalent relationship with Marjorie Nugent, a woman double his age? Why keep her frozen for 9 months, when he could easily have disposed of her body? He told authorities he hoped to eventually give her a proper burial. In Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Norman Bates, after killing his mother to escape her stultifying domination, mummifies her corpse so as to keep her eternally by his side. From this morbid perspective, Bernie emerges not as a psychopathic con man, but a mortally damaged, guilty soul, striving desperately to preserve a maternal keystone of his identity, which had become an horrific burden instead of a blessing.

Whether such questions are relevant, groundless, or even absurd is peculiarly beside the point. We certainly can ask them, and others about Bernie’s motives, but it’s likely they will never be definitively answered. That’s the point. Far from being problematic, Linklater’s deliberately excluding facts about Bernie’s life before Carthage is testimony to his genius. And his sympathy for Bernie’s plight is evident, but artfully impersonal. Buddha fashion, it extends to every other character, Marjorie included, indeed hovers over Linklater’s entire project.

One of my teachers said that a therapist should always be aware of “the human animal’s awful otherness.” Whether or not we’ve done awful things (most of us haven’t; Bernie did) we are awfully insistent, consciously or otherwise, about keeping some crucial essence of ourselves out of the light. On this score, Hitchcock scholars have noted his perennial concern with the ultimate unknowability of every heart to another’s.

Linklater powerfully intimates that Bernie’s most profound unknowability extended to himself. In “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) undercover drug agents wear shape-shifting suits that display a different persona from one instant to the next. The film’s hero is another of Linklater’s unmoored, unindividuated man-boys. He’s become an addict trapped within his external and internal shape-shifting. Ecce Bernie! Linklater’s triumph in this masterful film lies in showing a man who has kept himself hidden so long and so deeply behind a mask, as to become that mask itself.

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