Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bernie (the movie)

BERNIE is a very funny movie. Not in the way of a movie like JACKASS where those with little in the way of worthwhile genetic material do things like trying to skateboard along a metal rail, falling on said metal rail in such a way that they are unlikely to ever be able to transmit that genetic material, although I do admit to having laughed at those movies, or in the way of a teen summer movie, where most of the jokes are about farts and masturbation and you get to see some guy make love to a cherry pie ( a pretty nice looking cherry pie, to be fair), or even a movie where the plot is merely a vehicle for a pretty funny guy or gal to deliver a bunch of funny one-off one-liners.

No, it is more thoughtful than that. The very idea of “Bernie” is funny, and while it is first and foremost a funny movie, it manages to, or even does so against its own comedic will, to raise very interesting questions about justice, guilt, innocence, identity, whether or not a whole town or society can be crazy, whether there is such a thing as collective guilt, and finally, whether Easterners like us are really that much smarter, more sophisticated and moral than Texans. Or at least East Texans.

East Texas is where Carthage is, and where the real life Bernie Tiede killed an aging widow named Margie Nugent. Young gigolos scheming on old lady-money is nothing new, God knows, and even young gigolos killing old ladies for money isn’t, but when the whole town gets behind the killer, either denying he did it, or excusing him for it, you’ve got something new.

The reason they excuse him is because, as one of the townspeople interviewed for the movie says, Margie is the type of person who would just as soon “rip you a double wide, three bedroom, two bathroom asshole” as look at you. And because they just love Bernie. Bernie manages to be loved by everyone in spite of being a twinkle-toed, limp-wristed double order of fruit salad. He is so over the top in his seeming gayness, going to the opera, doing interior decorating, and acting in the town plays, that everyone wonders what desires might be lurking beneath his ultra-Christian surface. But since he never expresses those desires, he is not held to account for them. Only the District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) accuses him of being anything other than someone East Texas could be proud of. He tells us that Bernie would hold a man’s hand too long when they shook, that he subscribed to Men’s Fitness even though he didn’t work out, and he was known to wear sandals.

These kind of straight lines are what make the movie so funny. But the movie does not merely indict East Texas, I don’t think. Bernie is every grandmother’s wet dream of a good Christian man, and as such he really has no balls. Or ovaries either. In being a good Christian man, he seems to have conquered his id with his superego, with his sexual desires dying in the process. Not only does he feel no passion, he seems to have no covetousness of any kind. He doesn’t want anything but to be liked, as one of the more astute townspeople points out.

At first, as I sat here taking notes while watching the movie, I wrote things like Jimmy Swaggart, Tony Roberts, Tammy Baker, but as the movie went on I realized that this guy was supposed to be for real. He really was a Christian, really put his fellow man before himself, was self-sacrificing and humble, and really saw the best in everyone. He wants everyone to like him, and Margie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine) is the toughest sell in town, so he goes after her. And at first it seems like he has won her over. They become a weird kind of sexless couple. Bernie is in charge of her finances. And she is in charge of Bernie. For a time she acts out of character and opens up to him. But then she goes back to her default setting—bitch. And after putting up with that for longer than even a stout-hearted Christian man could stand, Bernie shoots her in the back in what is as close to a fit of rage as he can muster.

It is a tribute to Black that he is convincing as a character not in it for the main chance. He doesn’t dispose of the body, which he could have easily done. And he spends all Nugent’s money on the people in town. When I say the whole town is culpable, I mean in the way it is complicit in this idea of male Christianity. And how much is Tiede responsible? How much are we to be held accountable for our own self-delusions? For it is that self-delusion that drives him to murder, I think. He eats a lot of shit in his lifetime, but remedies that by insisting everyone love him. And he wins everyone over but one very mean old lady. She signs over all her money to him, but in return he becomes her perpetual emotional concubine and punching bag. Would he have killed her if just once during his life he had been able to say shit when his mouth was full?

The movie doesn’t delve into the childhood or parentage of Bernie at all, and I think that was a wise choice on the part of director Richard Linklater. To have to decide what wrought such a man, nature or nurture, would be too difficult a task. Let us just assume that a man who wanted to be liked in that part of Texas had an impossible ideal to live up to, and he lived up to it until the moment he pulled the trigger.

And don’t think that only East Texas is being indicted. There are right wing conservative evangelicals all over the land who think that their town, and their country, and their God, is the best. And don’t think that jingoism and chauvinism are only the province of Red States. Of course, the kind of moral even-handedness I am invoking now is an old standby of the sneakily intolerant liberal, and serves as absolution for laughing at all those “you know you’re a hillbilly when” jokes. And finally, I must indict myself, for believing immediately that Margie Nugent’s meanness was never a cover for anything more human or humane, while it took me most of the movie to start to believe that Bernie was not a con man. If she had any goodness, and he had any evil, it was buried so deep within each it was lost forever.

The final irony, for me at least, and the most delicious one, is that the DA Davidson, who has to get the trial moved not because Bernie will get railroaded in Carthage but because even with a confession he will get off, is much more morally objectionable than Bernie. He gives lip service to justice while sticking it up anyone’s ass he can. I wrote in my notes about him “phony prick.” And then I had an unsettling thought—he might be so self-deluded that he thinks he is serving justice and not his own sadistic impulses. Bernie wants everyone to like him and so becomes a super Christian, and good old Danny Buck Davidson wants everyone to suffer, so he becomes a law man. The stated intentions of both are muddied by un-self-acknowledged self- interest. It’s an unsettling thought, to think that these two men, who exhibit such disparate symptoms, suffer from the same disease—being bat shit crazy. Still, as crazy goes, I would much rather hang out with Bernie.

At the end, we get a townsman singing an East Texas Bernie-ballad:

Oh Bernie, Oh Bernie, what have you done,
You killed poor Miss Nugent, and never even run.

No, he didn’t run. He does go off to prison, though, where he becomes the leader of the choir. And I bet most of those prisoners love him. And if they don’t, they better watch out.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Blue Rose—Excellent Show

You may or may not have heard me raving about Acorn TV. This is where you can find all those great British shows you remember from years ago on PBS—Poldark, for example, I, Claudius, or Jeeves and Wooster—and also some new crime stories that you may have missed. Things that were produced in, say, New Zealand, such as the show I've been binge-watching for the last couple of days.

The Blue Rose is a rip-snorter. It takes place in Auckland, NZ. Unlike with some of the offerings from the UK, the dialog is perfectly easy to understand, only slightly accented; New Zealanders say "dith" for "death" and "suspict" for "suspect." I'm not going to fill you in on most of the plot because much of the pleasure comes from the dizzying twists and turns. But the basic premise is as follows: Young Jane reports to the sinister law office on Monday to work as a temp, or "timp," as they say, only to find that Rose, the woman she's replacing, was found drowned over the weekend.

Rose's associates turn up at the office, fight with each other, and express interest in the contents of her desk: her ex-husband, her biker-chick bist frind, the Indian IT guy from his grubby office in the cellar. Everyone seems guilty of something. Jane herself has an ulterior motive for taking the job. Rose, of course, was murdered. Who dunnit? Villains appear only to morph into good guys. Good guys turn bad. It's hard to know who to trust, but eventually a cadre of trustworthy friends shakes out and forms a society: The Blue Rose. Everybody gets matching tattoos. They pledge themselves to right wrongs as well as finding Rose's killer, and goodness knows there are plenty of wrongs to be righted.

It's not your average legal thriller. $4.99 a month gets you membership in Acorn TV. All their offerings are worth watching. I mean, compare that to cable. If you're into chucking the cable and relying on the computer this can be part of your strategy.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Monday, January 19, 2015

Louise Penny and The Beautiful Mystery

Some writers of genre fiction claim to be limited by the constraints of the genre in which they write. These writers do little that is impressive or new, and blame it on the genre. For writers of detective fiction, the excuse is you can’t help but write two-dimensional characters because the genre emphasizes plot and calls for stock characters, detectives and criminals that possess recognizable traits and act in expected ways. Louise Penny did not give herself such an easy out when she wrote The Beautiful Mystery, and managed to create not one but two full and rich and distinctive characters in Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his partner Inspector Jean Beauvoir.

When I went to graduate school to get a Masters in English Literature (there, it’s out, and I know that having done so may very well keep me from writing an accessible and entertaining book review that makes any kind of sense, but I’ll try), we talked a lot about what we called “binaries,” which is what a normal person would simply call a pairing of opposites. We spoke of which partner in the binary was “privileged” and which was “marginalized.” Some of the more popular binaries were man/woman, white/black, rich/poor and heterosexual/homosexual. Texts, or cultural artifacts (only civilians called them books) unconsciously reflected the way society privileged and marginalized the members of these pairings.

It was all about politics, about who had been shut out and was now going to be let back in by interrogating the text and deconstructing it, and it was tedious. Not that I didn’t, or don’t, believe that we favor one member over the other in a lot of these binaries, but it seemed like it didn’t have a lot to do with writing, with the use of metaphor or narrative technique, which was the reason I had decided to go to grad school in the first place, to talk about the great books and the great writers, to learn about them and maybe about how to write like them, even just a little, and not to natter on endlessly about how unfair society is (doesn’t everyone over the age of six know that already?)

But Penny got me thinking of these binaries in a new way. In a number of new ways. Gamache and Beauvoir function in the book as surrogate father and son, as mentor and pupil, and as two parts of an investigative whole that can only function each with the other. Early on we are told of Beauvoir: “He dealt in facts. Collected them. It was the Chief who collected feelings.” And they are complementary in other ways too: Beauvoir likely to verbally assault a suspect until he confesses out of shame or rage, while Gamache practices patience, using his calm ingratiating way to make people want to tell him things.

There is another binary at the center of this book, a book about a murdered monk in a monastery in the Quebec wilderness that is lost to the world until it releases CD of the 24 resident monks singing Gregorian chants: that of the abbot, or father, Dom Philippe, and his prior, Frere Mathieu—the murdered man. Philippe is the traditionalist, wanting to not lift the vow of silence on the monastery, to make another recording and open up the place to the outside world, even if doing so might earn the money needed to save the foundation of the crumbling 500-year-old structure. Mathieu takes the success as a sign from God they go out into the world, save souls and save themselves. He is a charismatic, finding God in the music, while the abbot, who is also his great friend, prefers to find God in prayer.

Many of these opposites require us to try and find a balance between them. Other binaries require we strive towards one and reject the other, in an endless struggle to affirm right and turn away from wrong. And sometimes it is hard to know which is right.

When Sylvain Francoeur, Gamache’s superior, shows up at the monastery, it is to settle an old score with Gamache, which he tries to do by destroying Beauvoir’s faith in his mentor. Gamache feels a murderous rage, and comes perilously close to acting on it. He knows that such passion is not an excuse for such an act, that every killer feels permitted by their rage to commit their crimes, which is nevertheless what they are—crimes. Gamache knows life is a struggle to turn towards the good, the light, the just, and maybe to God, and away from the wrong, the evil, the unjust. The monks, called Gilbertines, had fled from the Inquisition to the New World, and called their place in the woods Saint-Gilbert-entre-les-loups. Gamache thinks that this means Saint Gilbert among the wolves, but comes to think it means between them, as in the old tale of a boy who tells his grandfather he dreamed there were two wolves inside of him. One wants him to be patient, courageous and kind, while the other calls for fearfulness and cruelty. The boy wants to know which of the wolves fighting inside him will win, and the old man tells him whichever one he chooses to feed.

This is why Gamache says, when he conquers his rage, that “the natural and the manufactured come together here in this far flung monastery. Peace and rage. Silence and singing. The Gilbertines and the Inquisition. The good men and the not so good.”

I won’t get into the plot itself here. It’s cleverly constructed, and a lot of fun. Still, I was more impressed and interested in the interaction between Beauvoir and Gamache. Beauvoir has only recently come out of rehab for an addiction to painkillers resulting from a shootout in a controversial case wherein a lot of the officers of the Surete (Police Force) were killed. Franceour blames Gamache and does a number of devious things to make it seem to Beauvoir that Gamache is an opportunist who botched the case and who has no loyalty to anyone but himself. In the way of sons and pupils who have the capacity to doubt their fathers/teachers, Beauvoir finds it within him to blame Gamache for the disastrous shootout and his subsequent addiction instead of facing up to his own doubts and fears. Franceour even manages to manufacture a fake prescription for painkillers and gets Beauvoir to take them again.

It’s the classic struggle to turn away from the darkness and toward the light, and to know in which direction both things lie. Beauvoir fails, and even assaults Gamache in an attempt to get his drugs back. But the loving father doesn’t reject his son. Anymore than the monk who takes the confession of the killer does: “ __________ cried and begged him to understand. And the abbot found that he did.

Mathieu was human, and so was this young man.

And so was he.”

© 2015 Mike Welch

Sunday, January 18, 2015

My Early Genius Dismissed

So my dad was in the military and after he left the navy he had trouble settling down to a civilian job. As a result I went to 10 schools in 12 years. Books always saw me through difficult times and I relied on the kindness of English teachers. I wrote quite a few stories while I was in school and frequently enjoyed having my writing read aloud by the teacher. There were a couple of pieces that were not well received. I was accused of plagiarism by my second grade teacher. Her evidence? My story had held my classmates spellbound (It was quite a feeling.)

I burst into tears when I told my mother. She dismissed it. “I know you wrote it yourself. So do you. That’s what matters.” I suppose a 21st century parent would have stormed over to the school and threatened to sue because of the injury to my emerging self-esteem. Since my parents both worked full time, they expected me to handle school on my own.

When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher assigned the writing of a short story. I remember very little about my story except that it featured a girl on a merry-go-round and I wanted to create a sense of how images blurred as the merry-go-round went faster and faster. SoIwrotethenextfewsentenceswiththewordsallruntogetherlikethis. I thought it was inspired. I was sure the teacher would read it aloud.

A few days later the teacher announced that she had graded our stories. She read a story aloud (not mine) and passed the rest of the stories back. Mine had a big “F” on it and a demand that I rewrite it with appropriate punctuation.

“Stephanie, I want to talk about your story,” she said.

She then went on to talk about an Irish writer who wrote long novels that ignored the rules of punctuation, just as my story had. “Nobody understands him because he doesn’t use commas and periods.”

My parents tended to buy Book of the Month Club selections rather than more literary works so it was several years before I realized that one for brief moment my writing had been compared to that of James Joyce.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, January 16, 2015

Today I'm Posting a Non-Post

Woke up this morning with nothing in my head that could possibly interest anybody else. This was sort of startling. Usually I can run on for twenty minutes about this and that, especially after reading the Trenton Times over breakfast.

But I'd rather stick my hand in acid than write about the latest antics of our governor, who has found a lawyer and maybe a judge to claim that the state of New Jersey is not bound by its own laws in time of self-created budgetary distress. This means that the retired state employees (like us) are fools to actually expect the state to pay them their pensions. Thank goodness the mortgage is paid off. At least we'll have a roof over our heads while we starve. Say, how would you like Christie for president? But I don't want to write about that. and you don't want to read about it.

Another thing I don't want to talk about is my health. Which is perfectly good. Years ago you didn't go to the doctor unless there was something wrong with you. Nowadays, however, people over a certain age who have good insurance (like retired state workers) are expected to go for checkups at regular intervals, sick or well. At these times the doctor will tell you all the things you are probably on the verge of getting, no matter how good you feel right now, and order a battery of uncomfortable and degrading tests. I'm in the middle of that sort of thing right now; I have to go get a Dexascan in half an hour. After the last bloodwork my doctor sent me a report that said, okay, we can't find anything wrong, but unless you change your ways you're going to be in serious trouble soon. This looming shadow of menace. But I don't want to write about it.

Maybe I shouldn't even be trying to write anything. Maybe it's time to do something else. Harold gave me a set of drawing pencils for Christmas; maybe I should go out and sketch things. Or take up the concertina again. I haven't played the concertina since before I was carrying John, and had  no lap to rest the instrument. I could play it again, with a bit of practice. There's a whole warm community of Irish musicians waiting to welcome me into their sessions as soon as I get good enough.

© 2015 Kate Gallison