Monday, June 18, 2012

Story circle

Believe it or not, this scene is before Shirley MacLaine's character dies.
Richard Linklater's Bernie (2012), enjoyable as it is --and it is enjoyable-- straddles contradictory conventions of genre in a way that feels unfairly confusing, at least in the immediate aftermath of viewing the film.

Some reviewers have made comparisons to the Coen brothers, presumably because of the quirky characters, the wide streak of black comedy with shads of slapstick and the small town setting.  But the film takes more from the book of Erroll Morris, especially Vernon Florida and Gates of Heaven, which consist almost entirely of old people taking in wide-angle close-up.  As Bernie begins to unspool, one assumes that Linklater has found local Texas actors who fit his vision and style and deftly give the illusion of speaking spontaneously as part of the dramatic convention of "based on a true story."

But the film's actual words are "What you're fixin' to see is a true story."  Not based on-- true.  And not "going to see" but "fixin' to see."  So the tone is set -- playful country, in fact kidding the very idea of country.    So is it true or not?  Well, it is, in that "fixin' to see" kind of way.  True with a little topspin.

Because to me, at least, it was not clear exactly how close Bernie stuck to the known facts until the end of the film, when we see the real Bernie and his erstwhile lady companion.  That conclusion raises the suggestion that the interviewees were the real people who knew the real Bernie.  Did they even know they were in a Jack Black movie?  A Pirandellian effect begins to spin out of the last few minutes of the film that research makes difficult to resolve.  (Most of the on-camera interviewees are indeed actors with substantial regional resumes.)

Perhaps confusing the issue is that Jack Black does a real acting job for perhaps the first time, at least in my filmgoing experience.  This character is not even a variation of The Jack Black Character, but developed from the real materials, just like with a real actor.  Yet his beautiful clear singing voice places a level of reality under the artifice that blurs the question evn more.

And although interviews Linklater has given have revealed that the film was shot digitally, to my eyes, at least from the print showing in our somewhat run-down neighborhood house, the film looks quite grainy, almost as if the entire thing had been shot 20 years ago around the time of Linklater's Dazed and Confused, with an unstable and washed-out palette.  (I look forward to seeing it on disc to see just how rough Linklater wanted the image to look.)

I guess your mom would say we're not laughing at the people of Carthage, Texas, we're laughing with them.  But I have to say, enjoyable as the film is, the rules are not always clear.

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