Film

CinemaDope: Death and Texas

Murder down south

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Thursday, May 24, 2012
Photo Courtesy of Millenium Entertainment
Jack Black in Bernie

Everyone loves Fargo, right? I'm speaking here not of the wintry North Dakota town, of course, but of the wintry Coen Brothers film of the same name, in which a semi-phony kidnapping goes hilariously, and sometimes gruesomely, wrong. I defy anyone to see that film and not find themselves, for years afterward, slipping into that addictive Minnesotan accent now and again. (In case you wondered, it's the kidnappers who are from Fargo; just about everyone else is from Minnesota.) It's one of those films that seems to nail regional quirks without doing it solely to mock them. It's a tough balance to get right, but this week we might have a Texas-style Fargo in the making.

Directed by indie icon Richard Linklater (Slacker; A Scanner Darkly), Bernie is a dark comedy based on a too-crazy-to-invent true story that rocked a Texas town in the mid-1990s. It was then that local mortician Bernie Tiede—a mild-mannered church booster who was always around to lend a hand—was convicted of murdering the rich elderly woman who had become his constant companion. Her body was found in her own freezer, resting "on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender's chicken potpies," her nephew recalled in an article for the New York Times.

It sounds awful, and no doubt it was. But the tiny town of Carthage wasn't so sure—Marjorie Nugent was never particularly loved by her fellow townsfolk (even her nephew described the freezer as "a fitting end"), and Bernie, played here by an open-faced and mustachioed Jack Black, had always been so generous, even if it had turned out to be with the widow Nugent's money. In that small community, where both victim and killer were well known to all, people took sides. And many took Bernie's.

On the other side, District Attorney Danny "Buck" Davidson (Linklater regular Matthew McConaughey) wasn't having it. After getting the trial moved to a less partisan locale, the Stetson-and-boots DA went full-bore after Tiede, eventually getting the real-life Bernie sentenced to life behind bars. Today, opinion is still divided in Carthage; but now, a lot of the discussion is about Linklater's take on the whole affair, and whether it's a disrespectful lark at a dead woman's expense, or an odd but oddly accurate account of the whole crazy story. See it for yourself this week at Amherst Cinema to see if truth really is stranger than fiction.

*

Also this week: Acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman (La Danse; Titicut Follies) turns his lens on the sights of Paris in his latest work, Crazy Horse. It takes its name from the erotic dance club that is its subject, a place so unlike its American counterparts that one wonders why the owners chose to give it an American name. Far from a mere strip club, the Parisian cabaret is a place designed first and foremost as a place of art—if the canvas happens to be a gaggle of shapely dancers, so be it. But there is no mistaking how seriously the club's directors take their work, even suggesting at one point that the place close down while they work up new dances.

It's not a scene you'd see at many clubs doing similar business. And Wiseman, who has always had a great knack for depicting the hard work of work, does well by presenting even the fleshiest parts of the job as just another piece of the day's labor; his lens is matter-of-fact, recording without judgement, peering but not voyeuristic. The result is an intimate look at a sort of intimacy not often seen on these shores. To catch a glimpse yourself, drop by Amherst Cinema on Tuesday, May 29, when it will show in a 7:30 p.m. screening.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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